After the wonderful presentation this week, I began to think more deeply about Afro-Pessimism, especially in the context of Baldwin. Afro-Pessimism argues that black people are ontologically dead because of the ongoing effects of racism, slavery, and colonialism. In other words, there is a different and permanent existence for Black Americans. While reading Baldwin, though, I noticed a different attitude that pushes back against this idea.
In “Notes of a Native Son” Baldwin describes going to a restaurant in New Jersey and being turned away by a waitress, who nervously told him they did not serve negroes. Baldwin, out of anger, threw a watermug at her. It missed and shattered. After the incident, he realized clearly that he could have been murdered by the white restaurant goers. He also realized how easily he was ready to murder. His reflection turned introspective: “My life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart” (CE 72). Baldwin makes a distinction between his bodily life and his real life. He is worried that his internal humanity is at risk because of the hatred he harbors. This does not seem to fit in with a traditional Afro-Pessimist view. Baldwin believes that an internal choice to free yourself from hatred gives you a sort of liberty in your real life. This idea of self-constitution, at least in one sense, denies a fact of Afro-Pessimism, which situates the black experience in a permanent ontological category.
The recognition that relieving yourself of hatred leads to a more real life also seems to imply that one has more control over their existence. Baldwin writes later that, “In order really to hate white people one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and destructive pose” (CE 82-83). By describing this hatred as a pose, Baldwin implies that it is something malleable. There is a sense of hope that Black Americans can free themselves of the hatred in their own hearts as a step towards realizing themselves fully. Baldwin makes sure to say that this erasure of hatred is not an excuse for white Americans to continue their mistreatment. Rather, it is a reclamation of dignity and a step towards a world with greater humanity. It is, unlike Afro-Pessimism, more hopeful.
2 thoughts on “Afro-Pessimism and Baldwin”
I remember having similar thoughts while reading “Notes of a Native Son”. It seems to me that Baldwin is contradicting himself. On page 70 Baldwin writes, “There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood”. Reading this statement annoyed me. I felt that Baldwin was being very stereotypical and generalizing the African American race. However, Baldwin’s description of his last night in New Jersey seemed to be saying something different. He says that white people “[…] really thought he was mad. And it began to work on his mind, of course…” (Baldwin 70). He is saying that he began to feel angry and crazy because of his surroundings. This anger was not ingrained in him from birth but was learned.
I am intrigued by how your analysis elucidates one of the flaws of Afro-Pessimism. In one of the texts that Elizabeth included in her presentation, Jesse McCarthy (“On Afro-pessimism”) critiques the theory for obscuring differences of experience within and between Black individuals. He writes ” Is being talked down to in the faculty lounge really the same as being whipped at the post, or slinging rock on the corner, or being placed in solitary on Rikers Island as a juvenile? Is working at Merrill Lynch in New York as a Black woman really the same as working shifts as a Black gay man in a McDonald’s in Alabama? Is it ethical or desirable to confound all of these into a tortuous equivalency…?” I think Baldwin’s own life draws out this fact –– that the theory of Afro-pessimism fails to adequately make room for intersectional lived experiences and the autonomy and humanity of individuals.
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