For Black History Month, Professor Foster Discusses Afro-Pessimism

Associate Professor of English Guy Mark Foster

Associate Professor of English Guy Mark Foster recently spoke at Ladd house about a theory called Afro-Pessimism, which looks at blackness as a “social death” rather than celebrates it as a cultural identity.

Foster’s talk was part of a slate of events happening at Bowdoin throughout February in honor of Black History Month.

The African-American Society and the Student Center for Multicultural Life invited Foster to speak to students about the implications of Afro-Pessimism.

According to scholars of Afro-Pessimism, slavery did not end in 1865. Modern vessels of incarceration, such as prisons and societal structures, ensure that rules remain “different for whites and blacks,” Foster said. Some key thinkers of Afro-Pessimism are Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson III, both of University of California, Irvine, and Fred Moten of University of California, Berkeley.

The study of the Afro-Pessimism is on the rise, though it is highly theoretical. “There is no one feature nor systematic coherence linking these writers,” said Foster. “They do not all agree.” There is also, according to Foster, a component of black optimism in Afro-Pessimism.

Foster began with a discussion of police brutality and the black body, sharing his own feelings of vulnerability following the 2015 death of Sandra Bland, a woman found hanged in her jail cell. If Bland were to have killed herself, said Foster, “it wasn’t her hand alone.”

Afro-Pessimism explores the self-consciousness of being “collapsed by an identity” even when one is attempting to dodge stereotypes.

Afro-Pessimists see blackness as a “structural position,” and, at times, a falsity. Foster spoke about the movement of African-Americans to “reclaim Africa” throughout the 20th century, as well as the inherent “loss of national identification” for African Americans as a result of slavery. Foster also touched on the Afro-Pessimist notion of “anti-black solidarity,” a consensus that the world aligns under the assumption of “black inferiority.”

Afro-Pessimism finds echoes of the past in the present. It explores the history of antagonism toward black people and the enduring structures of repression. Foster referred to President Barack Obama’s 2008 election as a movement of “transcendence,” yet one shadowed by recent societal circumstances that have reminded him and other scholars that historical oppression continues.

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