In perhaps the most widely known quote from his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the author finds a confounding principle embedded in what it means to be Black in America: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” This line, which comes well before Douglass’s escape to freedom, is often read as the moment in which the formerly enslaved writer comes into his humanity, an aspect of himself that has previously been denied to him. This reading has always seemed to me structurally illogical. Enslaved people were always human; Douglass says as much. The chiasmus, a rhetorical device in which a set of clauses is repeated in reverse order, begins with man and morphs into “slave,” a category resembling the animal but that by definition designates the human. Douglass’s narrative explores the inner and social lives of enslaved people not simply to prove that Black people are human but to highlight how they occupy this space in which they are treated as human and nonhuman at the same time.
As the genre of the slave narrative makes clear, Black people and the field of Black studies have for a long time called for a reconceptualization of what constitutes the category of the human. Slave narratives forced white readers to consider enslaved people as human beings with bodies, thoughts, and feelings. The civil rights movement leveraged a straightforward phrase like I AM A MAN to couple the condition of humanness with access to full citizenship. The Black Arts Movement, a radical aesthetic movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, called for novel forms of expression rooted in a sense of a shared global Blackness, rather than Western aesthetics, to produce new conceptions of what it means to be human simply by attending to Black being on its own terms. At a foundational level, these projects insist that Black people are human subjects rather than sentient objects.
But what would it mean to locate oneself outside of the position of the human? The study of slavery has often reckoned with this duality of Black being—enslaved people were at once biologically human and nonsocial objects whose humanity was systematically denied. In the 1980s, the sociologist Orlando Patterson famously developed the concept of “social death,” which describes a state of existence in which enslaved people, through processes of gratuitous violence, dishonor, and voided kinship, are alienated from any legitimate social order. Subsequent scholars have traced this condition into the present day where it informs how Black people relate to the state and wider society. The “afterlife of slavery,” Saidiya Hartman argues, is ongoing; emancipation never truly arrived. From the gratuitous anti-Black violence carried out by or in the service of the state to the casual anti-Black biases that structure daily American life, the qualities of social death persist today under different names.
The argument that Black people continue to be socially dead is today most closely associated with a school of thought called Afropessimism. In recent years, Afropessimist thinkers have developed and elaborated upon what many would consider a striking premise: Black people’s nonhumanity is the foil against which humanity itself is constructed as a category. In essence, if humans run the world, anti-Blackness emerges as the fuel they need to get things done. First developed by Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton, Afropessimism takes up the work of Patterson and Hartman along with that of Frantz Fanon, David Marriott, and Hortense Spillers to more fully describe how the social, legal, and economic logics of slavery continue to determine the place (or nonplace) of Black people in civil society, especially in the United States. Wilderson, perhaps the most public of the Afropessimist thinkers, has argued since his earliest publications—his academic monograph, Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, came out in 2010—that Blackness continues to be synonymous with slaveness. Studies of Blackness that insist upon either recuperating the humanity of Black people or chronicling a Black progress narrative from enslavement to freedom fundamentally come to the wrong conclusions. The institution of slavery does not merely haunt the current moment; it set up a structural relationship between Black people and the world that continues to work today. Afropessimism, which posits that in the white imaginary Black people elicit feelings of abject fear rather than fellowship, connects to the unyielding hopelessness many of us feel as we witness the ongoing barbarism carried out against us.