On Non-Black Afropessimism

Editor’s Note – This article is an accumulation of our thoughts on the issue of non-Black people reading afro pessimism in debate. The ideas and thoughts expressed in this article are raw, dynamic and changing daily based on conversations and discourse in the debate space. More than anything, however, the sentiments expressed in the article below comes from a place of feeling, and while writing from a place of feeling can be messy and challenging at times, we feel strongly about sharing our work of feeling with those in the community so that we can grow together. Just as feelings change over time, so do thoughts, views, and opinions change as well. We offer this work as a representation of where our views lie at the time of this publication, and we are excited to have diverse discourse on the matter. The views expressed in the following paragraphs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the entire Black debate community, nor the institutions that the authors represent. This article contains an extended discussion of anti-black violence – reader discretion is advised. 

By – Zion Dixon, Joshua Porter and Quinn Hughes

The relation between pleasure and possession of slave property, in both figurative and literal senses can be explained in part by the fungibility of the slave—that the joy made possible by virtue of replaceability and interchangeability endemic to the commodity—and by the extensive capacities of property—that is, the augmentation of the master subject through his embodiment in external objects and persons. 

– Saidiya Hartman

What would have happened if Rachel Dolezal had nappied up her hair, tan her skin, put on that effect, and went south of the Mason Dixon line in the year 1800? The ability to engage in slave roleplaying is available to non-Black debaters because of the academic protection provided by the debate space, but the scholarship implies that history is a flat line, and slaveness is an atemporal term. Therefore, if Rachel Dolezal wanted to play slave now, a counterfactual reading of her conduct still applies. Imagine Rachel “spreading the scholarship” arm in arm with Harriet Tubman. Rachel whispers the escape route to a fellow slave, but she is overheard by the slave master. Instead of promptly lacing Rachel up, the master allows Rachel to wash the perm out of her hair, remove her spray tan, and live the rest of her life as a white woman who does not have to deal with the burden of anti-black violence.

Our thesis: Non-Black debaters are allowed to have a comfortable relationship to the scholarship of afro pessimism due to the academic protection provided by the debate space, but the objective of this article is to rupture. Non-Black debaters get ballots when they read the theory and are able to shy away from discussion about how they are entangled with anti-blackness, whereas the implications of this scholarship deeply affect Black children in the debate space. 

* * *

One of the constructive principles of the flesh is the inevitability of invasion, as theorized in the seminal work Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe by Hortense Spillers. For the flesh and the subjects who ontological premise is to be encapsulated by fleshiness, invasion is a constitutive and reliable fact of Black life. To be invaded physically with the “magnetization of bullets” to the captive body, as theorized by Frank Wilderson, with the invasion of the master’s touch, as articulated further by Spillers and later by Saidya Hartman, and with the invasion of the mind and the psyche as stated by Frantz Fanon. Invasion and its accompanying principles of negro-philia/phobia, resentment, angst, disgust, define the relationship that Black people may have with one another and with the world. The process of being invaded, touched, and felt, mark the experience of Blackness. The object always already in the position of being held, kept, owned by the world. The world taking, carrying, appropriating using, consuming Blackness, is predetermined by the world’s ability to invade Blackness.

These scenes of invasion construct Black spaciality. Blackness is constructed as the presence of the absence of space. Always already in the position of being occupied by the impossibility of occupation. The insistence of Black space creation is the testament to the resistance of the object. The possibility of Black space making, Black imaging, Black praxis made out of space is the refusal to be occupied by the world’s invasive principals. The maroon communities who were forced to build space out of trees, swamp, bog were forced to create spaces out of and inside plain sight. The space making of Harriet Jacobs forced her to make space out of her mother’s floorboards. The creation, augmentation, and recreation of space is a principal of the Black experience. In these scenes, we are not only forced to bear witness to when the object resists, but also when space endures the object. 

When space becomes unavailable when the existence of is a technology of anti-Black violence, the ability to create and imagine and fabulated space is not only an impressive luxury but a necessary praxis of survival. The ability to imagine the end of the world as well as the ability to imagine the creation of another serves as the praxis of thinking through and surviving the violent intrusion foundational to Blackness. Saidya Hartman gives a name to this praxis in her work “Venus in Two Acts,” describing the imagining of these new worlds, this counter articulation to the narrative of anti-Blackness, as “Critical Fabulation”. Fabulation as the refusal of the narrative that can not be given in favor of the story that can not be imagined. 

By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the

sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted

to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to

imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done. By

throwing into crisis “what happened when” and by exploiting the “transparency of sources” as

fictions of history, I wanted to make visible the production of disposable lives (in the Atlantic

slave trade and, as well, in the discipline of history), to describe “the resistance of the object,”

if only by first imagining it, and to listen for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity. 

In this praxis of calling for this new narrative, the one in which the damned, moans, laughters and cries of Blackness can be understood and respected by the agents of the world, one is necessary calling for an end of the world and its technologies, as it is the world that constructs itself, and sustains itself on top of the perpetuation of Black nonbeing. The ability to make, imagine and call for the end of this world, in favor of the worlds that can not (not) be given, is the method and praxis that sustains Blackness is all of its a-spacialities. 

What happens when the imagined space of the end of the world becomes vulnerable to the invasion that fills and envelops Blackness? What happens when the farthest and most intimate praxises of Black world making/world breaking became the newest city of imperial conquest. In high school, Lincoln Douglas debate, the calls for the ending of the world seem to be spoken more and more frequently by those who are not able to conceptualize, desire, or work through the ending of the world. Not only this, but they are unable to obtain a subject position that allows them to desire the end of the world. Not only this, but the engagement of this scholarship has become overdetermined by the competitive success that is possible through its circulation in the debate space. The competitive success that is possible through the consumption of Black flesh.

Black theory comes from Black life. The love, care, and the impossibility of community is the material by which our theorizations of the world are able to be formed. The ability to share these theories in the debate space empires Black debaters to control and celebrate our narratives, and it gives us the tools to navigate our world predicated on out (non)being. Not only this but being able to celebrate Black life in debate grants Black debaters with the tools to be able to build communities bonding over our own shared and lived experience. We write, we theorize, and we build, as a method of making sense out of the violence that we must bear witness to both in and outside of debate. The act of imagining and theorizing through the end of the world gives Black debaters the tools to love ourselves and build community by forging our own tools, that will never be given to us without our demand for the end of time.

Hartman gives us the tools to be able to articulate the unique violence of non-Black folks reading arguments predicated on Black lived experience. First, there is a phenolic component. The ability and desire to touch, feel, and consume the multiple positions of Blackness. Much more personally, there is the implicit violence of others sharing the most intimate, unique, and disturbing elements of your personal narrative. Bearing witness to non-Black people being celebrated in the debate community based on reading afropress gives way to a unique and sickly feeling that is almost impossible to put to language. The invasion. The occupation. The theft.

* * *

“Debate is a game!” “Debate is a game!” “Debate is a game!” How many times are you non-Black people going to use this excuse for your actions? How many times does a Black debater or judge need to tell you this is triggering before you stop? How many times will we have to call you out before you are held accountable? Even better. Why are judges more compelled to hear non-Black people make the same arguments we do? Is it that hard to resist reducing Black flesh to nothingness? You know what? I am just going to say it. You will not like it. You may not even listen. I cannot be silent about this any longer. WE cannot be quiet about this anymore. NON-BLACK PEOPLE SHOULD NOT BE READING AFRO PESSIMISM. Even better, stop using Black suffering and the reality of anti-Blackness to win high school debate rounds. There I said it. If only it were that simple. If only I could be assured you would listen. 

Non-Black afro pessimism is problematic because our authors take an ontological stance on Blackness. Reading positions centered around Black suffering, oppression, and violence for ballots is disgusting. We have a different relation to the literature and arguments; when I do it, I am confronting the reality of my life. When you do it, your relationship to the positions is entirely different. How do you even relate to it? Stop saying, “oh, debate is a game”. That will not cut it anymore. We are talking about real lives and feelings, and non-Black debaters will never understand the weight of that. We are coping with the reality of an anti-Black world. You guys just think it must suck to be Black. Our authors make claims that Blackness is nonhuman, an object, nonbeing, nothing, outside of this world, a nigger. You people read these cards without taking the time to let it sink in that you might as well call us niggers. The logic of reducing Blackness to an object is all the same.. Do you ever think debate might be more than a game to some people? Of course, you don’t. You guys don’t care about us. In the words of Rashad Evans “As a non-Black debater, your relationship to afro pessimism will always be theoretical, redundant, and objectifying.” non-Black debaters can read arguments about the topics relationship to Black people, but you cannot reduce Blackness to ontological nothingness. Black people in the debate community talk about this quite often. non-Black debaters will never know how we feel about them reading these positions. We know that. Just respect that.

As Black debaters begin to call people out more and more on this controversial issue, you guys must have a clear understanding of what all this means. First, it needs to be established that this is not an act of restricting anti-racism or, in any way, saying you cannot join the fight against anti-Blackness. This is saying that it is unethical to actively seem comfortable in calling Black people socially dead, slaves, nothing, etc. There is a difference and saying racism is terrible, and reading ontological claims about Blackness. You go from wanting to end anti-Blackness to just accepting that “progress is impossible” for US. Once again, you put yourself in an awkward position as a non-Black person because of the lack of understanding and relationship you will always have with this literature. You do not get to call us slaves to get the ballot. This would also mean that you can answer pessimistic positions because that would not be affirming the nothingness of Blackness. Apologizing is nice don’t get me wrong, but is it meaningful? Does that really fix our pain? Does it teach you anything? Even then, the act of apologizing after we call you out just proves that you did something problematic. Why else would you feel the need to apologize? Some say if afro pessimism is real, then reading it in debate rounds is the only ethical choice. However, you do not have to seem all happy about the theory being true. You do not have to repeat the same shit in debate rounds to win rounds acting as if you care, or as if you would do anything about it. If the ontological claims are correct, that is more of a reason for us Black debaters to get triggered by you reading it. Do I really need these white people to reaffirm my social death? You guys are the same people out of rounds trying to argue that our literature is bullshit… Next issue is the concept of “ I only read it once” or “ I will never read it again.” The act of calling debaters out for reading afro pessimistic positions is not to attack you personally but to criticize the quite popular norm you have upheld in debate and the toxic atmosphere you have participated in creating for Black kids. The ability for some people to go back and forth between this literature and policy affs proves the privilege non-Black people have to separate themselves from the frame of anti-Blackness whenever they please. The purpose of this is not to define what Blackness is because Blackness means something different for different people. The point is that non-Black persons should not do it. Similar to saying the word nigga or nigger, an evaluation of what Blackness is completely distracting from the point that the action is unethical. When Black debaters are get triggered or suffer psychological violence from the act of non-Black people reading certain literature, the question is no longer “what can I do to win despite being called out?”. An understanding is necessary to realize that not everyone will know what it is like to be in that position. We will defend this claim in all instances because it is about the way individuals are negatively impacted by this space. Safety and inclusion in the debate community should be the primary focus. 

When Black debaters start calling people out for reading afro pessimism (because we will), be on the right side. As we began using this argument it was immediately clear that judges of color specifically Black judges tended to vote for this argument while non-Black judges who read some sort of afro pessimism in highschool and white judges are quick to shut us down. This just feeds into the slave master’s fantasy by being rewarded for dehumanizing Black bodies. In response to this current trend, it is important to realize that signing the ballot the other way in these situations just says our personal experiences are not violent and attempts to assert that our feelings are inaccurate or not of your concern. Until this is no longer occurring, judges should allow us to call debaters out on reading afro pessimism. The role of the ballot should be to surrender the ballot to Black debaters when they are calling out non-Black people for being anti-Black. The role of the judge is to allow Black debaters to do this. Allow us to make the space safer for ourselves, allow us to callout anti-Blackness. Force people to be held accountable for their actions. Intervening against this argument because it was “out of round” or whatever the case may be is unacceptable. To assume we have not been affected even after the fact is to underestimate the power of anti-Blackness. For non-Black people to stop actively participating in this continual issue, the Black community needs to see judges willing to step out of their comfort zone to hold others accountable. In response to claims on rejecting out of round arguments, this is not a claim about you or your actions in your everyday life, this is a claim about your orientation towards anti-Blackness in the debate space. Participating in a continual process that makes debate anti-Black directly impacts the Black debater in every round. People vote on out of round dispute all the time in instances like a disclosure theory debate so the act of calling somebody out should not be treated differently. We don’t care if you read it last week or last year. For too long there has been a lack of accountability. Stop being scared to use the ballot as a symbolic representation of what it looks like to hold people accountable. The Black community knows judges enjoy voting up non-Black people on afro pessimism more than voting up Black debaters. And let’s be honest, you have the jurisdiction to vote a Black debater up when they call somebody out for participating in anti-Blackness. The act of surrendering the ballot to Black debaters is vital to allow us to create a safer space and also to overcompensate for the way debate is structurally harder for Black debaters to succeed. When we bring this up in rounds, it is no longer about tricks, spikes, or “important arguments,” because the debate space should be a safe space first and foremost. It is about whether you think it is ethical to uphold anti-Blackness in the debate space. Fuck their fairness claims, because it is definitely not fair to participate in an activity where you are reduced to nothing for people to win. It is not fair to have to prove why anti-Blackness is bad. 

Debate should be a safe space for everybody, and allow Black debaters to call out anti-Blackness. 

Works Cited

Brady, Nicholas and Murillo lll, John. Black Imperative: “A Forum on Solidarity in the Age of Coalition.” Out of Nowhere. Published January 2014. Accessed 26 December 2019. 

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book.” diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.

Saidiya, Hartman. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1-14.

Wilderson III, Frank B. Red, white & black: Cinema and the structure of US antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.

Evans, Rashad On Flipping Aff and Being Black” 2015

3 thoughts on “On Non-Black Afropessimism

  1. Loved the article, it made a ton of great analysis and I hope it spurs conversations within this activity. However, reading the article I was put off by a lack of citation on a blatantly plagiarized line:

    In “On Flipping Aff and Being Black”, Rashad Evans writes:

    “Your engagement with the argument will always be theoretical (you have no relevant experience), redundant (you can never be additive to this conversation) and objectifying (reducing black people to objects of study).”

    In this article, y’all wrote:

    “As a non-Black debater, your relationship to afro pessimism will always be theoretical, redundant, and objectifying.”

    Please cite Rashad at the end of the article and put that line in quotations.

    Like

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