Afro-pessimism is a framework and critical idiom used to describe the ongoing effects of colonialism and Trans-Atlantic slave trade, including their impact on structural conditions and on personal, subjective, and embodied reality. The term was first coined by writer and intellectual Frank B. Wilderson III as used in his most famous work about his time spent teaching and participating in the African National Congress in South Africa during apartheid, Incognegro: a memoir of exile and apartheid(2008). The concept also has a history of use in pan-Africanist thought and in the Négritude movement.
Afro-pessimism has been constructed in many ways and with different aims. But Afro-pessimism has chiefly approached a transcendent position, not as a negative or disaffected political attitude in the sense that pessimism might seemingly connote. The Black radical tradition has drawn upon the term as a way to acknowledge the power, depth, and vitality of the resilience and radical imagination of people of African descent. Within this same critique, some have used Afro-pessimism to articulate the subject-position of renunciation, refusal, dread, doubt and abjection in response to the multitude and ongoing effects and historical traumas of colonialism. This includes the view that dismantling white supremacy would mean dismantling much of the social and political institutions of the modern world.
Discussions of Afro-pessimism have manifest in an online context.
Pan-Africanism and Afro-pessimism
Afro-pessimist ideas have been part of ongoing conversations about pan-African identity, in part because the “Afro-” part of the word refers to an inclusionary, universalizing concept of blackness. Pan-African thought has drawn attention to the shared racial identity and also the particulars of the expression of African identity among the African Diaspora and peoples on the African continent. Pan-African thought has analyzed the ongoing struggles of African peoples, and the power of Afrocentricity as more away from the colonialism and violence of Eurocentricity.
Négritude and Afro-pessimism
Like Afro-pessimism, the Black intellectual movement négritudewhich took up pan-Africanism, has also been associated with “pessimism” as a way of understanding the historical traumas of colonialism, from an existentialist position, but also in terms of transcendence and a recognition of the breadth of the cultural imagination and perseverance of people of African descent.
Some have described Afro-pessimism as a Western construct regarding the ongoing portrayal of Africa and African people in Western media, overwhelmingly in terms of tragedy, doom, victimization, and victim-hood. Scholar Toussaint Nothias has characterized these discussions by the components, “essentialism, racialization, selectivity, ranking framework, and prediction.” From this Afro-pessimistic perspective, news media that portray Africa and African people by the trope of victimhood, mirror the Eurocentric and ethnocentric of the Western media, language, images, and rhetoric. In this ways, the media tends to victimize and exoticize Africa for its going struggles with poverty, health-crisis, famine, and lack of modern development. The victimization is then visible in the humanitarian and development projects, which sometimes use the language of “saving” African people from such “humanitarian disasters.”