"With a Melancholy Tone:" Radicalism in the Blues and Afro-Pessimism [1]

Still I can’t help lovin’ you,

Even though you do me wrong.

Says I can’t help lovin’ you

Though you do me wrong—

But my love might turn into a knife

Instead of to a song. 

- “In a Troubled Key,” by Langston Hughes[2]

 

One of the most obvious convergences between blues poetry and Afro-pessimist scholarship is their primary authorship. Largely coming from the work of black authors, whether they be poets, traditional theorists, or both, these two bodies of work are generally understood through their associative tie to black creative work and the questions of critical race theory; however, because of their difference in form, blues poetry and Afro-pessimist scholarship are often not marked as having similar political investments. If we take seriously the ability of blues poetry to engage in theoretical production and political discussion— not accidentally but intentionally— then looking at blues poetry and Afro-pessimism in conversation with one another is generative in thinking through a plurality of black political positions rather than through a translation methodology which swallows poetry into the terms of traditional academic theory. I am invested in thinking through the ways in which the blues and Afro-pessimism draw on affective rhetoric to radically counter narratives, especially those that attempt to perpetuate the myth of post-racialism in the United States, that foreground hope and progress. Can we understand the blues as an antecedent to Afro-pessimism?  How do they, respectively, imagine or politically construct the affective experience of the “blues” as radical? Ultimately, both blues poetry and Afro-pessimist scholarship radically counter narratives that foreground hope and progress in ways which speak back to normative outlooks that highlight positivity, tranquil futurity, the post-racial fantasy, and national progress.

While both the blues and afro-pessimism may gather themselves around an affective outlook through their titles most explicitly, the blues often makes use of comedic irony in a way that appears to open out onto potential catharsis. If there is a hopeful note to be gained from exploring these intersections between blues poetry and Afro-pessimist scholarship, it may be the radical potentials in comedic irony and pessimistic playfulness. In “Note on Blues” from Fine Clothes to the Jew, for instance, Hughes writes, “The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung, people laugh.” On its surface, the use of comedic irony in the blues would appear to be at odds with Afro-pessimism’s strict pessimism on the circumstances of black life in the United States; however, despite its skepticism towards most activist movements that march towards overly simplistic solutions, Afro-pessimism is for the relief of suffering. In the editor’s note to Afro-pessimism: An Introduction, Wilderson writes, “...Afro-pessimism [is] to understand Black liberation as a negative dialectic, a politics of refusal, and a refusal to affirm; as an embrace of disorder and incoherence...This is not to categorically reject every project of reform— for decreased suffering will surely make life momentarily easier— but rather to take to task any movement invested in the preservation of society” (13).  Wilderson’s reference to disorder and incoherence maps on to Harney and Moten’s references to indecision and unwillingness in “The University and the Undercommons” when they write, “We surround democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it.  Every time it tries to enclose us in a decision, we’re undecided. Every time it tries to represent our will, we’re unwilling” (19). Incoherency as a method with which to resist systemic political logic is performed in the blues itself through its refusal to be neatly coopted into activist narratives that seek to address large scale oppression. As elucidated in Wilderson’s passage, Afro-pessimism does not promote turning a blind eye to material suffering.  It is, therefore, possible to consider the comedic catharsis prompted by blues poetry as not directly in opposition to the concerns of Afro-pessimism particularly because the blues does not seek to uphold problematic systems.

 

In thinking through the potentialities of comedic, cathartic pessimism, Neil Diamond’s documentary on the history of Hollywood and other filmic portrayals of Native Americans, Reel Injun (2009), offers us one avenue through which to ask these questions. In the film, John Trudell, a Lakota poet and activist, says, “One of the things that I think is a very vital part in our community, what has kept us alive, is humor…It gets ugly sometimes and [its] our ability to laugh at the ugly. Humor is the thread that we weave our lives around as native people because the humor has saved us. Great spirit and humor.  That’s what saved us” (1:08:01).  Alongside the blues’ thematic of death then is the desire to survive and not just to survive oneself but to aid in the survival of others. In Hughes’ “Too Blue,” for instance, the speaker’s suicidal ideation exists simultaneously to his comedic inability to carry out his desire: “I wonder if/One bullet would do?/As hard as my head is,/It would probably take two./But I ain’t got/Neither bullet nor gun— /And I’m too blue/To look for one” (25).  In these lines, humor is born from the bleakness of the speaker’s situation.  It is through this coexistence of despair and comedy that blues poetry can offer generative possibilities for survival without being invested in the preservation of the social systems and sets of relations that Afro-pessimism criticizes. Comedic catharsis thus becomes a survival mechanism for the affective collectives that blues poetry addresses.                

 In looking at the respective affective outlooks and their convergences that blues poetry and Afro-pessimism foreground, the question of how these two bodies of work imagine collectives is relevant in that these affective stances do or do not allow for particular modes of celebratory identification. In other words, how is Afro-pessimism pessimistic and what does it mean to “have” the blues? Are these affective modes similar or do they entail a similar political position?  Ultimately, asking these questions enables a critical exploration of how these modes radically position themselves against normative outlooks that highlight mythic positivity and national progress. 

Afro-pessimism is skeptical of collectives that organize themselves around celebratory identification with a subject position that is foundationally linked to historical and current violence. The blues, however, presents a challenge when considered in relation due to its seeming defiance of collective performance or imagining. The blues is often located in the intimate, the daily personal affliction of having the blues even while it moves across larger-scale themes. One of the questions then is whether the blues’ investment in the personal is responsive to imaginings of collective experience or whether its investments exist entirely separately from a concept of the collective. Through its engagement with the personal or intimate rather than the explicitly systemic, the blues may defy simple incorporation into conversations around sociopolitical structures and collective organization.

The kind of pessimism that Afro-pessimism subscribes to is one which argues against movements that seek reformist solutions or that fail to acknowledge the violence that particular modes of identification are based on. For instance, Afro-pessimist thought is critical of what it understands to be the reformist politics of the civil rights movement in the United States and its bureaucratic cooptation. It is similarly critical of all movements which performatively celebrate or affirm black identity which, as Afro-pessimism argues, can only ever ideologically sustain anti-blackness through its loyalty to a racial construction which originated in violence. While this argument is compelling in its radical positioning against the language born from the violent enactment of the slavery system in the United States, other scholars offer ways to think beyond these two opposing positions. For instance, Lynn Clarke’s “Contesting Definitional Authority in the Collective” thinks beyond the rhetorical categories of identification that Afro-pessimism sets up by explicitly imagining collectives as a space for contestations of authority’s power in defining the terms of meanings of particular identification labels. In “Fantasy in the Hold,” Harney and Moten also locate potentials for positive collective identification that does not succumb to the terms of violent origination. In the space of the slave ship’s hold, they poetically recuperate a generative relation through hapticality. Similarly, blues poetry alternatively locates the potential for positive collectives across a negative affective affliction. In this way, the blues does not fall into the trap of having to refuse collective organization on all levels or having to subscribe to dominant political conceptualizations of collective possibility. However, the way in which the blues poetry and Afro-pessimism respectively build or interrogate imagined and existing collectives allows us to question the costs of sociopolitical fantasies that imagine collective organization without accounting for the rhetoric that the founding of these collectives relies on.                           

In arguing that slavery subjugation exists as a temporal continuum rather than as distinct historical site, Afro-pessimism writes back against Western capitalist temporal conceptualizations that seek to erase violences by relegating them to the past and claiming a progressive futurity. The Afro-pessimist concept of social death is largely responsible for drawing a connection between slavery’s “past” and present. The concept of social death re-articulates the master-slave relation by understanding it as a relation of property rather than forced labor. Upholding this relation of property necessitates the slave’s social death, a position which Afro-pessimists, such as Wilderson, argue persists today as the defining relation with black people existing on a “continuum of slavery-subjugation”[3]. 

Although it is a complex and definitional concept for Afro-pessimist thought, social death consists of three central aspects. The first is gratuitous violence which refers to the way in which the body of the slave and black people today— which are one and the same for traditional Afro-pessimists— are always open to the violence enacted by others. Whether the person in question actually receives violence is less necessary to the definition than the fact that they always exist in a state of vulnerability to this structurally-approved violence. Importantly, this vulnerability is not contingent upon a legal transgression which is how Wilderson distinguishes the slave’s body from that of the worker (20). Secondly, the slave is natally alienated in that their filial relations are not afforded the legitimacy of others. In her essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers emphasizes the way in which the slavery system in the United States necessitated a denial of familial rights or legitimization for black people.  Finally, Wilderson cites general dishonor as the last crucial aspect of social death by arguing that as a slave-black person— Afro-pessimism undoes any temporal or systemic distinction between the two— “you are dishonored in your very being” (20) due to the fact that you are dishonored prior to any performance of dishonorable action or actions. Blues poetry tends to literalize this social death by ending with the speaker’s often comedic embrace of death; however, as discussed earlier in relation to the cathartic potential of comedic irony in blues poetry, this death operates in a different mode than the concept of social death in Afro-pessimism in that it addresses more generatively the necessity of survival. 

Bliss Cua Lim’s exploration of homogeneous time and immiscible time in Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique sets up a valuable mode through which to consider Afro-pessimism’s emphasis on the concept of a continuum.  Lim writes, “Modern time consciousness is a means of exercising social, political, and economic control over periods of work and leisure…and it underwrites a linear, developmental notion of progress that gives rise to ethical problems with regard to cultural and racial difference” (11). Afro-pessimism explicitly engages in a critique of the kind of modern time consciousness that Lim refers to by writing back against national myths of progress. Lim also explores how “colonialism and its aftermath underpin modern historical time and how, in turn, a view of time as homogenous, epitomized by the ideology of progress, served as a temporal justification for imperialist expansion” (12). By arguing against narratives that rely on historical time to relegate the nation’s wrongs to the past rather than understanding them as foundational to the existence of the nation itself and its continued operation, Afro-pessimism conceptualizes time in ways which align more closely with Lim’s. However, the question of futurity becomes complex when faced with a theoretical position which, knowing that any future is unable to erase the past, does not see the potential for a hopeful version of black life in the United States. 

Another way to articulate this question would be through Afro-pessimism’s anti-reformist stance.  While Afro-pessimism argues that Western structures are always already built against black survival and existence, blues poetry is more difficult to critically locate as reformist or anti-reformist due to its refusal to explicitly engage in the terms of the conversation. In contrast to criticism or creative work that envisions solution, both Afro-pessimism and blues poetry resists the drive to imagine particular social relationships or systems as recuperable. Afro-pessimism, for instance, interrogates justice rhetoric for its treatment of justice as an abstract ideal divorced from race rather than as a value that is aligned with anti-blackness through the legal system and given weight through a national ethos as depicted in Spielberg’s Amistad. Similarly, blues poetry dwells in its affective space of the problem or problems rather than reaching out towards solution. This refusal of a recuperative or reformist politics is radical in its criticism of hopeful narratives that deny accountability by attempting to reimagine existing national structures in positive terms. However, if we think of blues poetry and Afro-pessimism as sharing similar investments that are significant for radical narrative interventions into how we imagine national futurity, the blues’ unquestioned investment in what may appear to be the “mere” desire to survive radically writes back against all, Afro-pessimism included, narratives that politically abstract intimate life. In “Politics Surrounded,” Harney and Moten point to the way in which Politics and its logic aims for a “regulatory end of the common” (18).  They write,

Critique lets us know that politics is radioactive, but politics is the radiation of critique. So it matters how long we have to do it, how long we have to be exposed to the lethal effects of its anti-social energy…The false image and its critique threaten the common with democracy, which is only ever to come, so that one day, which is only never to come, we will be more than what we are.  But we already are. We’re already here, moving.  We’ve been around.  We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic (19).   

Harney and Moten’s insistence on presence, an immediate black existence, is aligned with the blues’ focus on survival but, crucially, a survival that is not looking ahead to futurity. Instead, it is a survival that is invested in the urgent relief through comedic catharsis and affective collective identification of its readers that suffer from the blues. In looking at the question of futurity, therefore, blues poetry, like Harney and Moten’s passage above, appears to be more radical than even Afro-pessimism in that it performs its immediacy by giving us a depiction of life taking place. Rather than claiming that there is hope for future progress or stating that due to the continuation of violent systems, the future can only represent a further site of the slavery-subjugation continuum, the blues dwells in its presence and all that that entails, heartache, death, exhaustion, ironic turns of fate, and desperation included. And it is, ultimately, in this “common embrace”[4] that the blues survives and asks that its readers in affective kinship do the same if only to “stand up and talk,” to “write,” to “sing,” and to “put on plays” about themselves.[5]

Yasmine Anderson is a graduate student in the University of Pittsburgh’s English Ph.D. program. Before joining Pittsburgh’s program, she earned her M.A. at the University of Chicago and her B.A. at the University of Virginia. Emerging from Critical Race Theory, her interest in rhetorics of racial authenticity and il/legibility inform her work on the possibilities of formal hybridity within Black literature, film, and music. 

Citations:

[1] Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1 Feb. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/weary-blues.

[2] Hughes, Langston. “In a Troubled Key.” Shakespeare in Harlem.  Knopf, 1942.

[3] [1] Wilderson, Frank B. “Black and the Master/Slave Relation.”  Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction.  Racked and Dispatched, 2017, pp.15-31.

[4] Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten.  “Politics Surrounded.” The Undercommons.  Minor Compositions, 2013, pp. 17-20.

[5] Hughes, Langston. “Note on Commercial Theatre.”  Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 26. 

Bibliography:

Clarke, Lynn. “Contesting Definitional Authority in the Collective.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 91, no. 1, February 2005, pp. 1-36.    

Cullen, Countee. “Colored Blues Singer.” Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 30.

Fenton, Johnson. “Tired.” Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 27.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. “Fantasy in the Hold.” The Undercommons. Minor Compositions, 2013, pp. 84-100.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. “Politics Surrounded.” The Undercommons. Minor Compositions, 2013, pp. 17-20.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. “The University and the Undercommons.” The Undercommons. Minor Compositions, 2013, pp. 22-44.

Hartman, Saidiya. “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors.” Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction. Racked and Dispatched, 2017, pp. 80-91.

Hughes, Langston. “In a Troubled Key.” Shakespeare in Harlem. Knopf, 1942.

Hughes, Langston. “Note on Commercial Theatre.” Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 26.

Hughes, Langston. “Notes on Blues.” Fine Clothes to the Jews. Knopf, 1927. 

Hughes, Langston. “Son For a Dark Girl.” Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 23.

Hughes, Langston. “The Blues.” Famous Poets and Poems. www.famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/langston_hughes/poems/16966.

Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1 Feb. 2018, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/weary-blues.

Hughes, Langston. “Too Blue.”  Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 25.

Kristeva, Julia. “From Filth to Defilement.” Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.  Columbia University Press, 1982, pp. 56-90.

Lim, Bliss Cua. Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique. Duke University Press, 2009.  

Miller, Carolyn. “Expertise and Agency: Transformations of Ethos in Human-Computer Interaction.” The Ethos of Rhetoric, edited by Michael Hyde, University of South Carolina Press, 2004, pp. 197-218.  

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard University Press, 1982. 

Reel Injun. Directed by Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge. Performances by Adam Beach, Chris Eyre, and Russell Means. National Film Board of Canada, 2009. 

Sexton, Jared.  “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign.” Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction. Racked and Dispatched, 2017, pp. 148-170.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 203-230.  

Wilderson, Frank B. “Black and the Master/Slave Relation.” Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction. Racked and Dispatched, 2017, pp.15-31.

Wilderson, Frank B. “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.” Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction.  Racked and Dispatched, 2017, pp. 67-80. 

Wilderson, Frank B. “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents.” Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction.  Racked and Dispatched, 2017, pp. 123-148.

Young, Kevin. “Foreword.” Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young, Knopf, 2003, pp. 13-19. 

Barzakh Mag