Black Education and Afro-Pessimism

Black Education and Afro-Pessimism


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




Self-criticism always is good, but it cannot be the only manner of criticism.  Yet,

this is a good bit of what is taking place today.  Many African leaders,

particularly military leaders, have seized state power and are wielding it abusively.



Books by Floyd W. Hayes, III

A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies / Forty Acres and a Mule: The Rape of Colored Americans

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Black Education and Afro-Pessimism

By Dr. Floyd Hayes, III



I recall some years ago before he died, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) saying that until the continent of Africa was free, Black people nowhere would be free.  Africa, like many Blacks in the African Diaspora, remains the captive of external forces.  Yet, like the figures of Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas, or Condoleeza Rice, a certain amount of collusion takes place.  Although national flags fly over the capitals of every African nation, suggesting independence and popular freedom, there is much unfreedom, chaos, and despair among the people.  How do we explain or understand the contradictions of African independence today? There is a good amount of rethinking going on within global African and African-descended communities.  Just yesterday, I was reading Elias Kifon Bongmba. 2006. The Dialectic of Transformation in Africa. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.  He is from Cameroon.  He, like many other African intellectuals, is trying to make sense of a growing sense of “Afro-pessimism” that plagues the African continent.  For him, the African crisis is the result of a number of internal factors: the privatization of power by African elites, the pauperization of the state, the prodigalization of the state, and the proliferation of violence.  As solution to these internal contradictions, Bongmba call for a shift from pessimism to optimism, love and a new humanism.  

We live in tragic times.  Recall, Cornel West’s essay on nihilism in Black American communities in his book, Race Matters.  Isn’t it similar to the African sorrow songs of Afro-pessimism? But I am critical of the solely internal gaze that merely blames the victim.  Being hopeless, helpless, and unloved become the major characteristics of this nihilist threat, according to West. Is there another way of looking at the ascent of nihilism in the present historical moment?  Much like Bongmba, West calls for the love ethic as a solution.  Why didn’t he call for whites to end anti-Black racism?  The exclusive internal gaze doesn’t challenge European neocolonialism in Africa any more than it challenges white supremacy in the USA.  Please see my critique of West in “Afro-Nihilism: A Reconsideration,” in Cornel West: A Critical Reader, edited by George Yancy. In the process, Bongmba mentions the important scholar, Mahmood Mamdani‘s important book, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996).  I also would suggest Mamdani’s later book, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (2001).  And then there is Manthia Diawara‘s cultural criticism of contemporary Africa, entitled In Search of Africa (1998).  All of these studies focus on Afro-pessimism in one way or another.  

Self-criticism always is good, but it cannot be the only manner of criticism.  Yet, this is a good bit of what is taking place today.  Many African leaders, particularly military leaders, have seized state power and are wielding it abusively.  But then, power knows no ethics. Power is about power!  How have African elites gained such power, how do they continue to rule, and in whose interest do they really rule?  In my humble judgment, the analysis of internal contradictions alone won’t help to answer these questions sufficiently. Long before he died, Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah talked and wrote about neocolonialism. He hoped for something like a united states of Africa—independents states that worked for the collective development of the continent’s people.  Perhaps his downfall occurred, as Bongmba suggests, because he attempted to accomplish his aims through the use of a single political party.  OK, so the one-party state has been problematic in Africa.  But then, there also are multi-party configurations.  Conflict, severe conflict, remains. Way back in the late 1960s, as a graduate student at UCLA (working on an M.A. degree in African Studies), I was interested in the African struggle for independence and its aftermath and the acceptance of European-carved state boundaries.  The argument among my professors and other white/western scholars was that independent African nations should yield to those state boundaries.  But those state boundaries often went counter to the configurations of African nationalities.  It was said that Africans should yield to those boundaries so as not to give rise to small states that supposedly would not be able to sustain themselves for whatever reason.  But look at Luxembourg in Europe!  I recall thinking that those European-carved boundaries would cause unforeseen contradictions in the years to come.  Why? Well, prior to 1914, there was no Nigeria!  The Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa-Fulani were all separate nations.  Now, that didn’t necessarily mean that there was always peace within or among these nations, but to force them into one state set in motion, after independence, long lasting contradictions and dilemmas.  The Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa-Fulani, and other nationalities in contemporary Nigeria historically were different people with different cultures, political arrangements, etc., before Europeans arrived.  But sure enough, on the eve of Nigerian independence—actually, Nigeria should have become independent before Ghana—a power struggle began between Yorubas and Igbos over who would rule the Nigerian state.  Yoruba leader, Awolowo, and Igbo leader, Azikiwe, fought it out in the 1950s.  Although independence came, these internal contradictions were not settled.  Then the Nigerian-Biafra war emerged in the late 1960s.  Nigeria withstood the Igbo nation challenge, but those contractions only mirrored the dilemmas that would plague Nigeria and other African nations well into the 21st century.

My argument, then, is that the acceptance of European-carved boundaries set in motion a great amount of the present conflict in Africa.  The struggle for power among leaders of opposing nationalities has resulted in the privatization of power within certain nationalist (read “tribal”) leaders in opposition to other nationalities (read tribes).  So, there is genocide.  I often wonder what would have happened if the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa-Fulani, and other nationalities in Nigeria had decided to return the pre-colonial national or independent or separate status. Suppose the Kikuyu, Luo, Masai and others remained independent or separate after independence?  The question could be pertinent for nations throughout the continent of Africa.  My point is that although present internal contradictions are real, they may have their origins in external forces, which continue to gnaw at the very existence of Africans on the continent and their descendants in the Diaspora. Just quickly.  Suppose in year 2010 China colonizes the USA and Canada and forces them into one state.  By 2030, the USA and Canada fight for and win back their independence.    Would they remain one state or would they go back to their pre-colonial separate nation-state existence?  What do you think would happen? Why are we trying so hard to forget the long history of Africa?  We don’t have to be adherents of Afrocentricity to reject misconceptions of Africa and to value the significance of African antiquity.  Memory establishes identity.  And like the blues, memory helps us remember those who did us wrong!

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Privatizing Education: The Neoliberal Project

The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling  / The Myth of Charter Schools

Hunger for a Black President  / Biko Speaks on Africans  /  Introduction I Write What I Like

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Afro- Pessimism

By Frank B. Wilderson

“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

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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Whatever It Takes

Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America

By Paul Tough

What would it take? That was the question that Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children—not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children’s Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. His conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives—their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents. Whatever It Takes is a tour de force of reporting, an inspired portrait not only of Geoffrey Canada but also of the parents and children in Harlem who are struggling to better their lives, often against great odds. Carefully researched and deeply affecting, this is a dispatch from inside the most daring and potentially transformative social experiment of our time.

Paul Tough is an editor at the New York Times Magazine and one of America’s foremost writers on poverty, education, and the achievement gap. His reporting on Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone originally appeared as a Times Magazine cover story. He lives with his wife in New York City.

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Existentia Africana

Understanding Africana Existential Thought

By Lewis Ricardo Gordon

The intellectual history of the last quarter of this century has been marked by the growing influence of Africana thought—an area of philosophy that focuses on issues raised by the struggle over ideas in African cultures and their hybrid forms in Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Existentia Africana is an engaging and highly readable introduction to the field of Africana philosophy and will help to define this rapidly growing field. Lewis R. Gordon clearly explains Africana existential thought to a general audience, covering a wide range of both classic and contemporary thinkers—from Douglass and Du Bois to Fanon.

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Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism

By Lewis R. Gordon

Lewis Gordon presents the first detailed existential phenomenological investigation of anti-black racism as a form of Sartrean bad faith. Bad faith, the attitude in which human beings attempt to evade freedom and responsibility, is treated as a constant possibility of human existence. Anti-black racism, the attitude and practice that involve the construction of black people as fundamentally inferior and subhuman, is examined as an effort to evade the responsibilities of a human and humane world. Gordon argues that the concept of bad faith militates against any human science that is built upon a theory of human nature and as such offers an analysis of anti-black racism that stands as a challenge to our ordinary assumptions of what it means to be human.

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The State of African Education (April 200)

Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7

Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.

Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.

Part 2 of 7  /  Part 3 of 7  / Part 4 of 7  / Part 5 of 7 / Part 6 of 7  /  Part 7 of 7

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The White Architects of Black Education

Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954

By William Watkins

William H. Watkins is subtle in his story of the “white architects” who developed Black education beginning in 1865, just at the end of the Civil War. Watkins shocks you with his “scientific racism” platform that he explains “presented human difference as the rational for inequality” and that it “can be understood as an ideological and political issue” (pg. 39). The reader senses a calm attitude about the author as he speaks of the philanthropists, beginning with John D. Rockefeller, Sr, who was most concerned about “shaping the new industrial social order” (pg. 133) than he was for providing a useful education. “The Rockefeller group demonstrated how gift giving could shape education and public policy” (pg. 134).

 In their support of Black education, by 1964, the General Education Board (GEB) spent more than $3.2 million dollars in gifts to support Black education. This captivating book begins with a foreword written by Robin D.G. Kelley who reflects that he learned one lesson from Watkins, “If we are to create new models of pedagogy and intellectual work and become architects of our own education, then we cannot simply repair the structures that have been passed down to us. We need to dismantle the old architecture so that we might begin anew” (pg. xiii). Why don’t the school reformers who mandate educational laws experience such an awakening?—Review by AC Snow

Source: Cre3Design

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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

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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

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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 11 March 2008




Home Floyd W Hayes III Table   Black Librarians Table  Education & History  Conversations    Marcus Bruce Christian  Sterling A. Brown

Related files:   Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era     The Importance of an African Centered Education  Classicism within Black Consciousness  

Celebrating Alexander Crummell  Celebrating Alexander Crummell   Biko Biosketch    Biko Speaks on Africans   Introduction I Write What I Like

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