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Afropessimism and White masters

Updated: May 24, 2022

We all know that people read books from their own perspective, but with Frank B. Wilderson III’s book, Afropessimism, I am fully aware of being a white reader. “Afropessimism” is doubly pessimistic: pessimistic about Afro-Americans finding space to live as human beings, and pessimistic about whites being more than masters.

What’s even more dreadful is that these two pessimisms are deeply intertwined. Just as you cannot have slaves without masters, you cannot have masters without slaves. Or to put it another way, changing from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice is impossible.

People may disagree with Wilderson’s argument that “Blackness cannot be separated from slavery” (p. 317), but what catches my attention is the idea that whiteness cannot be separated from masters, if I may put it that way. White and black, in other words, are interconnected in the same way as master and slave. You cannot have one without the other. And it gets worse: Whites expanded their master self-image beyond blacks to others and even to the planet. Masters of the universe. No need for masters to wear a mask.

The master/slave relationship, as Wilderson describes it, is also a relationship of violence. The capacity for violence is what makes masters masters. There is amble evidence to support such a claim. If Wilderson’s story is the only story to tell, one should be pessimistic. There is another story, however, that could allow us to continue the work toward justice: the story of civilians.

On the one hand, from the Indian wars of the 19th century to today, the killing of civilians has been part and parcel of the United States strategy for winning wars. That’s something that masters do. We used atomic bombs on civilians to end the war with Japan. We killed over 2million civilians in Vietnam, and civilians continue to suffer today from military aggression.

On the other hand, civilians have been recognized as people who deserve protection. In 1949, the International Committee of the Red Cross wrote the Geneva protocol for the protection of civilians, which has become a recognized part of international Humanitarian Law. Civilians, in other words, are no longer dependent on the good will of masters, but rather on the obedience to the rule of law.

In the United States, masters have used laws to legitimize slavery, genocide, and the destruction of the planet. True, but we also must recognize that Laws have also been used to advance the rights of children, workers, women, and disenfranchised communities. Although we still live in a climate of injustice—the legacy of master/slave relationships—we can now appeal to the rule of law to protect civilians, and not just in the battlefield.

Groups that are vulnerable and cannot protect themselves have the right to demand the enforcement of the rule of law, and if those of us who have resources to combat the flouting of the rule of law take a stand, then the continuance of injustice is not inevitable. We may even create a climate of justice that expects the establishment of reciprocal relationships.

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