By Theresa Azemar (‘21)
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written for a class from the Department of English. You will notice the author only references two sources, as her primary aim here is to put them in direct conversation with one another.
Is the concept of Blackness, as it has been defined throughout history, inextricably rooted in colonization? Is there a chance for this racialized classification to be decolonized? Can it ever be permanently removed from its historical association with degeneracy, subordinacy, and sub-humanity? Frank B. Wilderson, in his essay “Afropessimism and the End of Redemption,” proposes ‘no,’ that those associated with Blackness, often those of predominantly African ancestry, are ultimately barred from racial redemption (1). Redemption here, signifying detachment from both the history and the lived reality of slavery and racial injustice, is an ultimate return to perceived equal personhood. Wilderson suggests that the concept of Blackness is synonymous with “Slaveness,” (1), and he synthesizes that this direct association with enslavement is what has served as the foundational premise for all other forms of social domination. Wilderson writes that Black people have always been categorized as perpetual subordinates solely by their perception and reception. The inner workings of this theory of Afropessimism can be seen through African American author Richard Wright’s 1944 column in The Atlantic, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” a first-person account of Wright’s initiation and engagement with a predominantly non-Black sect of the Communist Party. Wright’s column, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” through its engagement with issues of perceived Blackness in a political-social space geared toward redemption, supports but also complicates Wilderson’s theory of Afropessimism as noted in his article, “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption.”
Expanding upon his initial premise for Afropessimism, Wilderson asserts that the obstruction of Blackness’s redemption is necessary for the redemption of all other people groups, even extending beyond race. According to him, non-Black members of other communities seeking redemption (like Native American, Palestinians, and members of the LGBT+ community, Wilderson offers as examples) rely on the presence of an unconditionally irredeemable people group in order to have an understanding of what absolute condemnation and absolute redemption look like. Richard Wright in his “I Tried to Be a Communist” notes how he experienced this dynamic first-hand upon his invitation and initial involvement in Communist Party meetings. He is acutely aware that he is the only Black person in his Party faction and senses that there must be an ulterior motive behind his invitation. Later, when he finds that he is still in the running to become the group’s executive secretary despite refusing his nomination, he learns that the writers of the faction made it their mission to face the Party with a Black nominee “knowing that it would be difficult for Communists to refuse to vote for a man representing the largest single racial minority in the nation, inasmuch as Negro equality was one of the main tenets of Communism.” (2)
Wright serves as the sole Black member of his club, and while he is openly welcomed into the group, his identity is clearly exploited as a political tool for the group’s perception. His racial identity is linked with Wilderson’s notion of Slaveness (1); Wright’s Blackness is associated with suffering and impossible redemption, and the non-Black club members use this associated as pathos for their larger agenda. Wilderson writes on this dynamic, “…without the psychic and/or physical presence of a sentient being that is…barred from redemption [Blackness], the arc of redemption would lack any touchstones of cohesion. One would not be able to know what a world devoid of redemption looks like” (1). He defines Blackness as having a “meta-aporia” (1), meaning that its racial conflict is not a part of the grand narrative, but rather the grand narrative is dependent on the conflict to exist. Through this lens, Wright’s Blackness serves as a cornerstone to the Party’s awareness of the kind of redemption they want for themselves and the kind of suffering that they want to move away from. Thus, the conclusions that the non-Black faction members draw from Wright’s Blackness fully support Wilderson’s claims on Afropessimism.
“I Tried to Be a Communist” also supports Wilderson’s case for humanity’s ultimate dependency on Black death and suffering. As tensions rise in his time with the Communist Party, Wright is pressured, with increasing intensity and sincerity, to prove his “revolutionary loyalty” (2) to the Communist Party. His loyalty to the Party, now in question because of his presence as an intellectual and his collaboration with blacklisted Black Communist Ross, could not be proven to the Party through his writing or through any kind of formal announcement. Rather, it is heavily implied that Wright should engage in a physical altercation with the police to prove he is not a traitor, or else the Party would need to go so far as to take him out themselves (2). This ultimatum leaves no avenue that protects Wright’s physical safety; it is necessary for him to risk his life in order for the Party to remain standing as it is. This moment in the text serves as allegory for Wilderson’s views on Black death. Wilderson writes that “…Human Life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence,” (1). He explains that as Blackness is perpetually tied to Slaveness, it is also perpetually tied to suffering and degradation. When Wright is confronted and implored to put himself in harm’s way in order to prove his loyalty to the Communist Party, it is made clear to him that his individual body and wellbeing mean little to the Party leaders in comparison to the group as a collective—of course this ideal of individual sacrifice for the prioritization of the collective is a basis for Communist thought, but in Wright’s case, the Party demands from him a sacrifice of greater proportion than it does from his non-Black comrades.Wright inquires, “Suppose a cop whacks me over the head and I suffer a brain concussion. Suppose I’m nuts after that. Can I write then? What shall I have proved?” (Wright 66), and Wilderson would answer that Wright would have proved to be an excellent rhetorical device for the Party to use as inspiration for the next new Black member to put their life on the line.
And so, the cycle will continue. Just as the group briefly praised Black Communist Evan for the police having wounded his head during a demonstration, Wright will be praised for using his Blackness, Black suffering, and possibly even Black death to validate the Communist agenda.
The theoretical connections between Wilderson’s “Afropessimism and the End of Redemption” and Wright’s “I Tried to Be a Communist” prove to be more complicated when one considers the role that Wright plays in maintaining the Blackness as “social death” (1) association. In his column, Wright describes instances during which he himself depends on Blackness’ connotation of Slaveness in order to further his personal agenda as a new Communist Party member. When Wright first meets with the predominantly Black Party unit that he is assigned to reach out to, he makes an ultimately baseless assumption that his fellowship with them should be stress-free because they are Black, just like he is. Instead, he is met with ridicule and hostility and writes, “…I grew angry. I thought I knew these people, but evidently I did not. I wanted to take issue with their attitude, but caution urged me to talk it over with others first” (2). Wright assumes comradeship and expects solidarity with these Black Party members solely based on their racial identities. He sees their Blackness, associates it with the “meta-aporia” of slavery and suffering, and uses his assumption as a basis for why his presence ought to be well received. Thus, Wright, though a Black individual, plays a small part in confirming that the construct of Blackness is used to forward other non-Black agendas.
If Wright were not Black, this instance might serve as a direct support for Wilderson’s argument for Afropessimism. However, Wilderson’s essay fails to closely touch on how a Black person’s internalization of this “meta-aporia” narrative might also do the work of solidifying his proposed impossibility of redemption. He takes on the vantage point of a non-Black individual and argues that Black people are not political subjects but rather political objects (1), but he does not engage with ideas of self-perception and internalization within the Black Community that Wright grapples with in his work.
Moreover, Richard Wright’s column depicts a social dynamic that poses as a glass wall between Blackness and non-Blackness, not unlike Wilderson’s criticism of social analogy. Throughout his work, Wright recalls misunderstandings and disagreements within the Communist Party that left him feeling pressured to reject his own opinions and beliefs for the sake of uniformity and trust in the Party. At the core of this issue lies Wright’s hesitancy to cut ties with certain formative elements of his education, experience, and Blackness. Wright becomes involved with the Party with hopes of building bridges and finding solidarity between different types of suffering people. He recognizes that the Communist Party values the voices of marginalized people seeking redemption, and he feels like it is a place he might also belong. But as he starts to become disillusioned with the Party, he wrestles with the problem of analogy as it relates to Blackness and non-Blackness. Other Party members notice that he is caught up in issues of race, and all they can say to him is, “Comrade, you don’t understand” (2), implying that there is a level of shared comprehension that Wright will never reach so long as he is living out his Blackness. Wright, dejected, reflects:
… Why was I a suspected man because I wanted to reveal the vast physical and spiritual ravages of Negro life, the profundity latent in these rejected people, the dramas as old as man and the sun and the mountains and the seas that were taking place in the poverty of black America? What was the danger in showing the kinship between the sufferings of the Negro and the sufferings of other people? (2)
Here, Wright finds that his Blackness and his identity as a Communist cannot be analogous, just as Wilderson would suggest. Wilderson makes the case for a fundamentally intrinsic incompatibility between the lived experiences of Black people and the lived experiences of non-Black people. He asserts that subjugation against non-Black individuals or people groups cannot be presented as analogous to the racial violence and subjugation by which Black individuals are impacted (1). Wilderson does not do so with the intent to diminish the histories and lived experiences of other people groups, but rather to underscore what he considers to be exclusive to Black history and experience. Wright is left to struggle with this intrinsic incompatibility of the Communist struggle and the Black struggle because, as Wilderson argues, “analogy mystifies, rather than clarifies, Black suffering” (1).
Richard Wright’s column “I Tried to Be a Communist” serves as a parable for Frank B. Wilderson’s “Afropessimism and the End of Redemption.” It supports the arguments of Afropessimism, underscoring Blackness’s perpetual battle for redemption and the foundational dependency non-Blackness has on said battle. Together, these works make the case for an aporia rooted in the notion that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness, and that there is no Redemption without it.
Theresa Azemar is an American Studies and English major at the University of Notre Dame. Her article was originally written for Professor Sara Marcus’ English course, ‘Decades of Disappointment: Politics and 20th-Century US Culture.’ Her favorite American Studies course is Professor Peter Cajka’s ‘Witnessing the Sixties.’
- Wilderson III, Frank B. “Afro-pessimism and the end of redemption.” Humanities Futures (2016).
- Wright, Richard. “I tried to be a communist.” Atlantic Monthly 174, no. 2 (1944): 61-70.
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