Biko and the Problematic of Presence

Biko and the Problematic of Presence


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Perhaps the bullets which were promised us did not manifest within our psyches as lethal deterrents

because they manifested as gifts; rare gifts of recognition; gifts unbequeathed to Blackness;

 acknowledgement that we did form an ensemble of Human capacity instead of a collection of

kaffirs, or a bunch of niggers. We experienced a transcendent impossibility



 Books by and about Steve Biko

I Write What I Like: Selected Writings (2002)  /  The Testimony of Steve Biko (1984) 


 Biko (1991) / Black Consciousness in South Africa (1979) / Biko Lives!: Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko

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Books by Frank B. Wilderson, III


Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid  / Red, White & Black  / Warfare in the American Homeland


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Biko and the Problematic of Presence i

By Frank B. Wilderson, III



Let us assume that black people receive the value of Absence. This mode of being becomes existence manqué—existence gone wrong. Their mode of being becomes the being of the NO.—Lewis Gordonii

The biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally.—Steven Bikoiii

I. Black Recognition?

When I first arrived in South Africa in 1989, I was a Marxist. Toward the end of 1996, two and one half years after Nelson Mandela came to power, I left not knowing what I was. This is not to say that I, like so many repentant Marxists had come around to what policy wonks and highly placed notables within the ANC National Executive Committee called for then, a so-called “mixed economy;” a phrase that explained less than nothing but was catchy and saturated with common sense, thus making it unassailable.

No, I had not been converted to the “ethics” of the “free” market, but I was convinced the rubric of exploitation and alienation (or a grammar of suffering predicated on the intensification of work and the extraction of surplus value) was not up to the task of (a) describing the structure of the antagonism, (b) delineating a proper revolutionary subject, or (c) elaborating a trajectory of institutional iconoclasm comprehensive enough to start, “the only thing in the world that’s worth the effort of starting: the end of the world, by God!”iv

In June 1992, not long after the massacre at Boipatong, Ronnie Kasrils co-chaired a Tripartite Alliance Rolling Mass Action meeting with a [Congress of South African Trade Unions] COSATU central committee member and an ANC NEC member. They sat together at a long table on the stage in the basement auditorium of the Allied Bank Building in Jo’burg. One hundred delegates of the Tripartite Alliance had been sent there to plan a series of civil actions designed to paralyze the urban nerve centers of South African cities (“the Leipzig Option” as some called it). I was one of the delegates. Out of 100 people it seemed as though no more than 5 to 10 were White or Indian. There were a few Coloureds. One Black American—me; and eighty to ninety Black South Africans. 

We began with songs that lasted so long and were so loud and so pointed in their message (Chris Hani is our shield! Socialism is our shield! Kill the Farmer Kill the Boer!), that by the time the meeting finally got underway one sensed a quiet tension in the faces of Kasrils and his co-chairs. An expression I’d seen time and again since 1991 on the faces of Charterist notables; faces contorted by smiling teeth and knitted brow, solidarity and anxiety; faces pulled by opposing needs—the need to bring the state to heel and the need to manage the Blacks, and it was this need which was looking unmanageable.

Planning for a mass excursion was on the table: an armada of busses filled with demonstrators was to ride to the border of the “homeland” of the Ciskei, which was ruled by the notorious General Joshua Oupa Gqozo. We would disembark, hold a rally, then a march, then, at one moment in the march, we would crash through the fence, thus liberating the people of the “homeland” by the sheer volume of our presence. Kasrils and his co-chairs looked one to the other. Yes, things were indeed getting out of hand. As a round of singing and chanting ensued, they leaned their heads together and whispered.

Comrade Kasrils rises. He exits, stage right. He returns with a small piece of paper. An important intelligence report, comrades, news that should give us pause. Reading from the slip of paper, he says he has just received word that, were we to actually pass the motion on the floor to cross the Ciskei border en masse, to flood the “homeland” with out belligerent mass, General Joshua Oupa Gqozo would open fire on us with live ammunition. To Comrade Kasrils’ horror the room erupts in cheers and applause. This, I am thinking, as I join the cheering and the singing, is not the response his “intelligence” was meant to elicit. 

Had Comrade Kasrils been hoisted by his own petard or was there dissonance between the assumptive logic through which he and the Tripartite Alliance posed the question, What does it mean to suffer? and the way that question was posed by—or imposed upon—the mass of Black delegates? The divergence of our joy and what appeared to be his anxiety was expressed as divergent structures of feeling which I believe to be symptomatic of a contrast in conceptions of suffering and to be symptomatic of irreconcilable differences in how and where Blacks are positioned, ontologically, in relation to non-Blacks. In the last days of apartheid, we failed to imagine the fundamental difference between the worker and the Black. How we understand suffering and whether we locate its essence in economic exploitation or in anti-Blackness has a direct impact on how we imagine freedom; and on how we foment revolution.

Perhaps the bullets which were promised us did not manifest within our psyches as lethal deterrents because they manifested as gifts; rare gifts of recognition; gifts unbequeathed to Blackness; acknowledgement that we did form an ensemble of Human capacity instead of a collection of kaffirs, or a bunch of niggers. We experienced a transcendent impossibility: a moment of Blackness-as-Presence in a world overdetermined by Blackness-as-Absence.

I am not saying that we welcomed the prophesy of our collective death. I am arguing that the threat of our collective death, a threat in response to the gesture of our collective—our “living”—will, made us feel as though we were alive, as though we possessed what in fact we could not possess, Human life, as opposed to Black life (which is always already “substitutively dead,” “a fatal way of being alive”vi)—we could die because we lived . . . 

The preceding is an excerpt from Chapter 4: “Biko and the Problematic of Presence” by  Frank B. Wilderson, III. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. This extract is taken from the author’s original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive version of this piece may be found in Biko Lives! Edited by Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander and Nigel Gibson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) which can be purchased from


i Special thanks to Janet Neary and Anita Wilkins for their research assistance.

ii Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995), 98.

iii I Write What I Like (London: The Bowerdean Press, 1978), 63.

iv Aime Cesaire quoted in Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1952, 1967), 96.

v To my knowledge the term anti-Blackness was first named, as a structural imperative, by Lewis Gordon in Bad Faith.

vi David Marriott, On Black Men (New York: Columbia UP, 2000), 15, 19.

Source: Incognegro

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A Tale Told From Inside South Africa’s ANC

To hear NPR Interview below Download


January 6, 2009—Farai Chideya, Host:

I’m Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, an increasing number of Americans watched and sometimes supported the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Very few Americans got to see the struggle early and up-close. One of them was Frank B. Wilderson, III,who became one of just two Americans to be elected to the African National Congress. He’s written Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid. Welcome to News & Notes and congratulations on the American Book Award that you got. Dr. Frank B. Wilderson, III (Author, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid): Thanks, Farai. It’s great to be here.

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Chideya: Yeah. So, you know, this book starts out and you know, you’re someone who has a literary side as well as all of your life experiences of practical politics. I’ll put it that way. And this book is very literary. So, how did you decide to, first of all, approach your story at all and then to put it in this kind of this writing that’s very vivid?

Dr. Wilderson: Well, it’s often said that the book wrote me in that I went to South Africa in 1989 on a Jerome Foundation grant. I won a lot of money in creative writing awards. And one of them stipulated that I finish a novel that I was working on about two black guys from Dartmouth, people I’d gone to school with, and one had gone to Morocco to be in the Peace Corps in some way, and one who’d gone to South Africa as a journalist, and so this was going to help me complete that novel.

When I got to South Africa, however, I found that the reality on the ground was so surreal and so different, even though I’d studied Southern African politics at Dartmouth College that I couldn’t fit into a novel. So I had to—I just kept a journal and I ultimately knew that there was something important going on here and that I was witnessing it. I did not know at that time that I’d become a member of an armed insurgent group, I’d be an elected official of the ANC [African National Congress], that I’d be there for five years. I just knew that this context that I was encountering could not be forged into the novel that I had thought. So I just kept a journal for five years and ultimately, in 2002 or 2004, it became a book. 

Chideya: Let’s go into your book. You start out with a journalist calling and tracking you down and saying, “Oh, Nelson Mandela, by the way, thinks that you’re a threat to national security in South Africa.” What was that about and how you know . . . explain to us the context for that.

Dr. Wilderson: I can only hit the high points, because it’s very long (laughing) and complicated story.  (Soundbite of laughter) But, in point of fact, there—close South Africa watchers will know this and others may not know this. When Mandela came out of prison in 1990, a rift that was already brewing began to actually manifest itself in the ANC. From—simplistically put, those who want to push forth with the Socialist revolution, in other words, wanted to take over the commanding heights of political economy, not just have the vote, personified in my book by Chris Hani, that’s kind of a . . . not a very complex way to do it but it allows me to get into some of the more complex issues. And those more behind Mandela who felt that political economy in terms of capitalism should remain as it is basically, except there should be more access to the facts from it. And when you’re having a political debate between people at a roundtable, that’s one thing, but when you’re having a political debate inside an armed wing [laughing] of a liberation struggle, things get pretty dicey.  

Chideya: And you didn’t want that armed wing to sort of fade into the background of history.

Dr. Wilderson: I did not.

Chideya: Why?

Dr. Wilderson: Because we were insurgents for an ethical reorganization of civil society and political economy. And in this day and age it’s too easy to mark that kind of activity as a pure terrorist activity. And I needed to tell the story from the inside in a different way. A lot of people in Umkhonto we Sizwe, which is the armed wing or the spirit of the nation, sided with Mandela and [Thabo] Mbeki and they’re—those people, because they didn’t feel like they could get a job outside of the army or the intelligence agency. They didn’t have skills. And so, someone—for practical reasons, and some stayed out, for political reasons like myself.  

Chideya: You also, you know, not—you didn’t just love South Africa as someone who politically was there, but you also built a life there. What was it like for you as an American to be, you know, in a place that was not your place of birth or your place of upbringing but for which you clearly have so much love?  

Dr. Wilderson: Complicated. People who were white treated me with the same type of derision and racism that they treated black South Africans. And then they would hear my accent, and especially if they are British, and not if they were Afrikaans, if they were British, they’d changed overnight and they want me to then tell them, you know, how wonderful it was and if there’s anything I’d like. So, I became like the master of the one liner: “Is there anything you like about this country?” “Yes, an airport with daily departures.” (laughing) something like that. And so, it was very gratifying to be welcomed into a struggle that for the first few years I was there, it was truly about total liberation, not simply about a Western-style of democracy and to be judged on my capacity to contribute to that by black South Africans and righteous, white South Africans and Indians. That was gratifying but living in apartheid South Africa, and I used to say every day was worst than the day before.

Chideya: So how did you become a member of the ANC, an elected member of the ANC, as an American?

Dr. Wilderson: So, I worked in two capacities and they often came together and they  were not supposed to come together. One was as—so we, but sure we’ve been recruited into underground activity and there was supposed to be a firewall between the other in which I eventually became—it would be like being on the executive committee for the Democratic party of Harlem or West Hollywood or something like that with place called “Hillbrow.” And eventually, I rose to become on the executive committee for the ANC, not just of Hillbrow, but of the entire Johannesburg sub-region. I was teaching at the University of Witwatersrand I’m a critical theorist in my other hat at the University of California, Irvine. And I was teaching comparative literature, a critical theory course on Foucault, [Peter W.?] Graham, Edward Said, people like that.

And I was only working one day a week and I was waiting tables. My ex-wife was a member and she was a law student. And someone came to the door to collect dues in 1991, and I said, you know, I’ve got a lot of time and I’ve been a political activist in the States, do you accept people who were not born in the country? And he said: “sure, come to the next meeting.” And I came to the next meeting—as I said, a space the size or maybe West Hollywood, got into a lot of debates and finally, Albie Sachs son nominated me in a general election for the executive of the branch and I rose up on terms on committees and elected officials, positions on that side and I was involved in another world, as well.

Chideya: Do you feel that people really trusted you? People who were within—the more critical side of the movement, to end apartheid, and to build a new South Africa? People who didn’t buy into as you said . . .

Dr. Wilderson: Mm hmm.

Chideya: . . . South Africa—they just perhaps let a few people into higher economic strata.

Dr. Wilderson: Yes and no. And this is the part of the book that really moves back and forth between my sense of not having spent time with the four or five comrades who I am actually working very close with someone on my—some of whom are my students in the day time, not having gone to the frontline states to train in insurgent camps with them, being brought in at a later point, and them having a history, me not having a history. And so, there’s always—I was always being deployed and never fully brought into the entire picture.  

Chideya: When you look at South Africa now and we were just talking about it earlier today on our Africa update, there’s such a question about the fork in the road that faces the nation even at this point. And those questions you’ve raised about whether or not a post-apartheid  era should bring people in—many people into greater economic empowerment or whether it’s enough to just sort of change the faces in the game at the top. How do you think South Africa is doing?  

Dr. Wilderson: Very poorly and this isn’t just my thinking, you know, a great scholar and activist I think they’re [. . . ] from South Africa who’s written a lot. Possibly if there’s—unfortunately, one doesn’t want to say I want apartheid South Africa back. I want a partition state. Yet, one has to also see that the sellout of the Mandela and Mbeki regime has brought about a worse economic condition than what people had before. And with rampant AIDS, there’s been a complete kind of compromise formation to International Monetary Fund, GATT and the World Bank. And what is most problematic is not just the policies but the fact that mass mobilization has been demobilized, that’s what I see is the biggest problem.

Chideya: All right, well, we couldn’t let you go without getting some full-on controversy on the air. And so, this is just a little teaser for a big book. Frank, thank you.

Dr. Wilderson: Thank you.  

Chideya: That was Frank B. Wilderson III, he’s a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of IIncognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid and he was here with me at NPR West. ..COST: $00.00

Source: NPR

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Biko Lives!: Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko

By Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander. and Nigel Gibson

This welcome collection of essays about Biko’s existentialism, self-consciousness, place of phenomenology in his philosophy, and contribution to the dialectics of liberation, as well as the meaning of race and class problematic in Biko’s work, African culture and humanism in his thinking, attitude toward the rights and roles of women, and much more examines his legacy and the meaning that his preachings, writings, and life’s example gave to the development of black consciousness in South Africa.

But, by far, the most important chapters in the book are Gail Gerhart’s hitherto unpublished 1972 interview with Biko and Neville Alexander’s recollection of Biko and the Azanian Manifesto.—R. I. Rotberg, Choice

Nigel C. Gibson is director of the Honors Program at Emerson College.

Amanda Alexander is a PhD student in African history at Columbia University and a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Andile Mngxitama is a PhD student at the University of Witwatersrand.


Table of Contents

Part I: Philosophic Dialogues

Biko: African Existentialist Philosophy—Mabogo More

Self-Consciousness as Force and Reason of Revolution

 in the Thought of Steve Biko—Lou Turner

A Phenomenology of Biko’s Black Consciousness—Lewis Gordon

 Biko and the Problematic of Presence—Frank Wilderson

May the Black God Stand Please!: Biko’s Challenge to Religion—Sam Maluleke 

Part II: Contested Histories and Intellectual Trajectories  

Black Consciousness after Biko: The Dialectics of Liberation in South Africa, 1977-1987—Nigel Gibson

An Illuminating Moment: Background to the Azanian Manifesto—Neville Alexander

Critical Intellectualism: The Role of Black Consciousness in Reconfiguring the Race-Class Problematic in South Africa—Nurina Ally and Shireen Ally

Part III: Cultural Critiques and the Politics of Gender

The Influences and Representations of Biko and Black Consciousness in Poetry in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa/Azania—Mphutlane wa Bofelo

A Human Face: Biko’s Conceptions of African Culture and Humanism—Andries Oliphant

Re-membering Biko for The Here And Now—Prishani Naidoo and Ahmed Veriava  The

Black Consciousness Philosophy and the Woman’s Question in South Africa: 1970-1980—M. J. Oshadi Mangena

Part IV: Memory and critical Remembrance (Interviews)

Interview with Strini Moodley—Naomi Klein, Ashwin Desai, and Avi Lewis

Interview with Deborah Matshoba—Amanda Alexander and Andile Mngxitama

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Steve Biko’s paradise lost—an extract from “Biko Lives!”

This is one country where it would be possible to create a capitalist black society, if whites were intelligent, if the nationalists were intelligent. And that capitalist black society, black middle class, would be very effective . . . South Africa could succeed in putting across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs.”—Steve Biko (1972)

Andile Mngxitama

The 30th anniversary of Steve Biko’s murder in police custody (on September 12 1977) comes almost 15 years after the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa. This fact alone raises several fundamental questions: how do we remember Biko? What contributions did the black consciousness movement make to the course of black liberation in South Africa and the world? How does the conception of black liberation, as enunciated by Biko and his colleagues, square up against the realities of post-apartheid South Africa?

Indeed, Biko lives today in South Africa, but so do the material outcomes of colonialism, segregation, apartheid and—most recently—neo-liberal economic policies. South Africa continues to be characterised by sharply contrasting realities.

Under the terms of the negotiated settlement of the early 1990s, the ANC won political—but not economic—power. Less than 5 percent of the country’s land has changed hands from white to black since 1994 and four white-owned conglomerates continue to control 80 percent of the Johannesburg stock exchange.

Black economic empowerment (BEE) schemes have created black millionaires in the thousands, making South Africa the fourth-fastest growing location for millionaires after South Korea, India and Russia.

But the vast majority of South Africans remain at the other extreme—these are the 45 percent of South Africans who are unemployed; the one in four who live in shacks located in shantytowns without running water or electricity. This is the country Biko continues to haunt, and to inspire . . .

Rather than a stage of psychological liberation, Biko considered “real needs”—the experience of “our common plight and struggle”—the challenge for black consciousness philosophy. At the same time, he insisted that radical intellectuals not only reject the racist regime and its invention of “Bantustan” politics but play an important role by using what they have learnt in the apartheid schools and colleges against the regime itself.

Biko’s concept of black liberation anticipates the post-apartheid reality of black poverty and exclusion alongside white wealth, legitimised by a black presence in government.

It has often proven difficult to describe this phenomenon, especially since the 1994 “miracle” destabilised discourses and ways of seeing which were rooted in the black experience such as black consciousness. How do we name a social political formation that is managed by former liberation fighters, but remains in the service of the apartheid status quo?

When black consciousness appeared on the scene [in the mid-1960s] it loudly proclaimed its own name in its own language and created a new black whose raison d’être was the audacity to be, particularly, in the face of white supremacist power. When young activists of the black consciousness movement entered prison on Robben Island, they confronted the old political leaders who had been sitting in jail for decades with little hope and little fire for rebellion.

The new blacks appeared like a whirlwind, confounding the old leaders. Listen to Nelson Mandela recall the shock of this defiant quest to claim one’s right to be:

These fellows refused to conform to even basic prison regulations. One day I was at head office conferring with the commanding officer. As I was walking out with the major, we came upon a young prisoner being interviewed by a prison official. The young man, who was no more than 18, was wearing his prison cap in the presence of senior officers, a violation of regulations. Nor did he stand up when the major entered the room, another violation. The major looked at him and said, “Please take off your cap.” The prisoner ignored him. Then in an irritated tone, the major said, “Take off your cap”  The prisoner turned and looked at the major and said, “What for?” I could hardly believe what I had just heard. It was a revolutionary question: What for?”

There are at least three main memories of Biko contending in South Africa today. The first finds expression in the black business class, through its claim to be entitled to the white wealth created from the exploitation of colonialism and apartheid. The BEE programme mobilises the common historical experience of oppression and exclusion by black South Africans to carve for itself a slice in the white world. The 1994 political settlement made it possible for those blacks most prepared to occupy the position of the whites in society to do so in the name of transformation without transforming the very structures of accumulation, production and redistribution created by colonialism and apartheid.

Biko advocated the rejection of such a scheme: “We believe that we have to reject their economic system, their political system and values that govern human relationships … We are not really fighting against the government; we are fighting the entire system.”

Biko had foreseen that an economic model which integrates blacks into the very structures of colonialism and apartheid would create an unhealthy and self-defeating competition among blacks: “It is an integration in which black will compete with black, using each other as rungs up a stepladder leading them to white values. It is an integration in which the black man will have to prove himself in terms of these values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation, and in which the poor will grow poorer and rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black.”

The second contestation of Biko’s memory comes from the state-linked political and bureaucratic classes. Their ascendance into the higher echelons of the post-apartheid bureaucracy has in practice also mobilised a version of black consciousness which, on the face of it, privileges blackness. The discourse of “transformation”, “representivity” “and reflecting the demographics” of society are the concepts employed in the process …

As a bureaucracy, this confronts the majority of blacks as a cold, arrogant, often violent and indifferent system. The Biko who these two main post-apartheid black classes have appropriated is a Biko who is mute in the face of continued black suffering, exclusion and humiliation.

The business and political classes have nothing to say to the multitudes who live in the shacks and the RDP [reconstruction and development programme] houses that have been described as dog kennels; who continue to suffer unacceptable infant mortality rates; whose hospitals are less than places of abandonment and death; who continue to die from Aids. In a sense, Biko’s thought has been reduced to slogans on T-shirts weaned of all its radical content as a philosophy of black liberation, and images of Biko have come to adorn glossy magazines.

The third contestation of Biko is the shout of the black majority for whom the formal ending of apartheid has not yet altered circumstances in any meaningful way.

This living Biko finds expression in the everyday struggles of the black masses for dignity and freedom. As Imraan Buccus writes, “Since 2004 an unprecedented wave of popular protest has ebbed and flowed across the country . . . This makes South Africa ‘the most protest-rich country in the world’.”

It is the explicit contention of the editors that Biko lives in these spaces of resistance which now appear and disappear and are revived in different forms and different parts of the post-apartheid society. The legacy carriers of the black consciousness philosophy are the excluded majority who continue to make life under extreme conditions and who, as Frantz Fanon once put it, cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a battle against exploitation, misery and hunger.

An array of movements and organisations are demanding a dignity and a recognition that fundamentally challenges neoliberal post-apartheid South Africa. Every election cycle since the 2004 national election has seen movements across the country lift cries of “No Land! No Vote!” or “No Housing! No Jobs! No Vote!” signalling their refusal to participate in an unsatisfying “ballot box democracy”.

Instead, they demand a genuine reciprocity, a different notion of politics, “a true humanity”, as Biko puts it “where power politics will have no place”.

If a politics that transcends the current reality is to emerge, it would in all likelihood emerge as these new movements and forms of self-activity continue to develop their own voice.

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The above essay was extracted from Biko Lives!: Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko, edited by Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander and Nigel C Gibson and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Source: HistoryMatters

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Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid

By  Frank B. Wilderson, III

Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson’s stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who’ve accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela’s rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela’s regime deems Wilderson’s public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America. Wilderson has a distinct, powerful voice and a strong story that shuffles between the indignities of Johannesburg life and his early years in Minneapolis, the precocious child of academics who barely tolerate his emerging political consciousness. Wilderson’s observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid’s last days.—Publishers Weekly

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Afro- Pessimism

By Frank B. Wilderson, III

“Afro-Pessimists are framed as such . . . because they theorize an antagonism, rather than a conflict—i.e., they perform a kind of ‘work of understanding’ rather than that of liberation, refusing to posit seemingly untenable solutions to the problems they raise.”

“[The Afro-Pessimists argue] that violence toward the black person happens gratuitously, hence without former transgression, and the even if the means of repression change (plantation was replaced by prison, etc.), that doesn’t change the structure of the repression itself. Finally (and this is important in terms of the self-definition of the white person), a lot of repression happens on the level of representation, which then infiltrates the unconscious of both the black and the white person . . . Since these structures are ontological, they cannot be resolved (there is no way of changing this unless the world as we know it comes an end. . . .); this is why the [Afro-Pessimist relational-schema] would be seen as the only true antagonism (while other repressive relations like class and gender would take place on the level of conflict—they can be resolved, hence they are not ontological).”

“[The Afro-Pessimists] work toward delineating a relation rather than focus on a cultural object.”

“Something that all the Afro-Pessimists seem to agree upon regarding social death are notions of kinship (or lack there of), the absence of time and space to describe blackness. . . . There is no grammar of suffering to describe their loss because the loss cannot be named.”

“[The Afro-Pessimists] theorize the workings of civil society as contiguous with slavery, and discuss the following as bearing witness to this contiguity: the inability of the slave (or the being-for-the-captor) to translate space into place and time into event; the fact that the slave remains subject to gratuitous violence (rather than violence contingent on transgression); the natal alienation and social death of the slave.”

“[T]he Afro-Pessimists all seek to . . . stage a metacritique of the current discourse identified as “critical theory” by excavating an antagonism that exceeds it; to recognize this antagonism forces a mode of death that expels subjecthood and forces objecthood [upon Blacks].”

“For Fanon, the solution to the black presence in the white world is not to retrieve and celebrate our African heritage, as was one of the goals of the Negritude project. For Fanon, a revolution that would destroy civil society, as we know it would be a more adequate response. I think the Afro-Pessimist such as Hartman, Spillers, and Marriott would argue there is no place for the black, only prosthetics, techniques which give the  illusion of a relationality in the world.”

Like the work of Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, David Marriott, Hortense Spillers, Frantz Fanon, Lewis Gordon, Joy James, and others, Wilderson’s poetry, creative prose, scholarly work, and film production are predicated on the notion that slavery did not end in 1865; the United States simply made adjustments to the force of Black resistance without diminishing the centrality of Black captivity to the stability and coherence of civil society.—Incognegro

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Hunger for a Black President  / Introduction I Write What I Like

Biko Biosketch   Biko Speaks on Africans  / The Fact of Blackness (1952)  Black World and Fanon

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#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 18 December 2010




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Related files:  Biko Biosketch   Biko Speaks on Africans  Introduction I Write What I Like  Why Steve Biko Wouldn’t Vote   Biko and the Problematic of Presence

Hunger for a Black President  Black Education and Afro-Pessimism  Gramsci’s Black Marx

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