The interview that follows is the first of a two-part discussion with Frank B. Wilderson, the author of Incognegro, and his latest work Red, White and Black, Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Part A is comprised of Frank’s thoughtful, provocative answers to some prepared questions offered via an e-mail exchange. Part B will consist of an actual conversation Frank and I had 6 weeks ago at the University of California Davis following a discussion that he gave concerning both books. Frank is a Professor of Drama and African American Studies at UC Irvine, and visiting Professor at UC Davis, and The University of California Berkeley.
Incognegro is Frank’s memoirs of an extremely fertile, lucid, and transformative period of his life, in which he was one of only two American members of the ANC (African National Congress) in South Africa in the years leading up to the abolition of Apartheid. Not just a tale of revolutionary experience( which it is), it is also a coming of age story, and much of the book sets the stage for his South African experience by detailing his understanding of the social, familial, academic and interactional forces that shaped his psyche, self-awareness, and self-understanding. Not unlike Richard Wright, Frank’s view of the experience and reality of Blackness in the context of this world is that the experiences of Black people have been comprehensively impacted by the imposition of the mechanisms of commodity. Black flesh has long been fungible, co-modified, externally controlled and subject to value or non-value as decided from without. To explain this dynamic, Wright came posited the formulation of Black man as being viewed as non-man.
Given this construction, it is by logical extension that Frank’s view of “race-relations” is formulated on the power principal of antagonism, rather than on that of a conflict between supposed equals. The systemic underpinnings and mechanisms/machinations of power which kicked the antagonism into motion are still running strong today, and the only solution in Frank’s view, would be something tantamount to bringing about the end of time and reality as we know it. Such is the mis-alignment of our separate realities.
This being said, Frank is no curmudgeon, no dour, bloodless theorist, but a warm personable man prone to laughter and gentle self-deprecation. He is aware of the limits of theory, and the gulf that can separate theory and revolutionary impetus, having lived and done both. The bulk of our discussion concerned the newest book, which is an examination of the concept of black fungibility and negation using the context and construct of cinema.
PH Your view of the experience of those possessing Black Flesh seems to be a decidedly material one, in that there is no analysis of the possibility of experience transcendent to the physical one, i.e. no salvation or retribution in an afterlife. That being said, you also do not express any empathy with humanist assumptions regarding the impetus or motivation for potential right action towards blacks, or anyone else for that matter. What are your a priori assumptions regarding Justice, conceptually?
FW Hmmm…that’s a good question. I might have feelings about justice, for example I feel that the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer was unjust; and that the verdict in the case (involuntary manslaughter) is also unjust. But justice is not a register that I trade in as a theorist. And perhaps not even as a politico. I am interested in ethics, which is to say that I am interested in explaining relations of power. You might say that both of my books are arguing that the existence of the world, meaning the existence of the modern era, is unjust. It would be hard to find a corner of justice within an unjust paradigm, unless you made a provisional move away from explaining the paradigm. As regards the first part of your question: I believe in the spirit world; that is to say I believe that the African ancestors are still with us and can be consulted from time to time. But I would not try to calibrate the gap between what I believe and what I can explain. I don’t think that would be useful.
PH I am deeply challenged by your hypothesis that the struggle between black and white is essentially an antagonism, grown out of a slave-master paradigm, and not essentially a conflict between combatant equals, ontologically speaking. It brings the entire question of reparations into stark relief for me. Reparations, based on your analysis, seem almost a necessary step in any possibility of creating a new power paradigm. Can you tell me why you think reparations to Blacks have never been given consideration in the U.S. while they seem to be a foregone conclusion with Native Americans?
FW Reparations suggests a conceptually coherent loss. The loss of land, the loss of labor power, etc. In other words, there has to be some form of articulation between the party that has lost and the party that has gained for reparations to make sense. No such articulation exists between Blacks and the world. This is, ironically, precisely why I support the Reparations Movement; but my emphasis, my energies, my points of attention are on the word “Movement” and not on the word “Reparation.” I support the movement because I know it is a movement toward the end of the world; a movement toward a catastrophe in epistemological coherence and institutional integrity—I support the movement aspect of it because I know that repair is impossible; and any struggle that can act as a stick up artist to the world, demanding all that it cannot give( which is everything ), is a movement toward something so blindingly new that it cannot be imagined. This is the only thing that will save us.
PH As a Psychotherapist, I was very interested to see your contrasting Frantz Fanon and Lacan concerning their conceptualizations of potential paths to “emancipation in the libidinal economy”, as you put it. I am ashamed to admit that I have never read Fanon, but have read Lacan. Please illuminate your idea that the stark difference in their conceptualizations of conflict/antagonism differ are based on the fact that Lacan would still see Blacks as fundamentally situated in personhood, but that Fannon (and yourself) see Blacks as “situated a priori in absolute dereliction”.
FW This is a big question, too big for a concise answer—I think I take about thirty to forty pages to try and get my head around this in the book. But the key to the answer lies in the concept of “contemporaries.” Fanon rather painfully and meticulously shows us how the human race is a community of “contemporaries.” In addition, this community vouchsafes its coherence (it knows its borders) through the presence of Blacks. If Blacks became part of the human community then the concept of “contemporaries” would have no outside; and if it had no outside it could have no inside. Lacan assumes the category and thus he imagines the analysand’s problem in terms of how to live without neurosis among ones contemporaries. Fanon interrogates the category itself. For Lacan the analysands suffer psychically due to problems extant within the paradigm of contemporaries. For Fanon, the analysand suffers due to the existence of the contemporaries themselves and the fact that s/he is a stimulus for anxiety for those who have contemporaries. Now, a contemporary’s struggles are conflictual—that is to say, they can be resolved because they are problems that are of- and in the world. But a Blacks problems are the stuff of antagonisms: struggles that cannot be resolved between parties but can only be resolved through the obliteration of one or both of the parties. We are faced—when dealing with the Black—with a set of psychic problems that cannot be resolved through any form of symbolic intervention such as psychoanalysis—though addressing them psychoanalytically we can begin to explain the antagonism (as I have done in my book, and as Fanon does), but it won’t lead us to a cure.
PH I am curious as to how you view contemporary Black filmmakers such as Spike Lee. I daresay that modern film critics would see his aesthetic as situated along a continuum of afrocentricity, but I’m guessing you would not see his method or Oeuvre in this manner? Is this so, and if so why?
FW Spike always has interesting, wonderful moments. Then he turns back on something arcane and rather staid. I’m not sure what it is, a sense of bourgeois can-do-ism I suppose. I always have the feeling that if I would have left the theatre ten minutes before the film ended the experience would have been wonderful. Can’t quite put my finger on it. I think, however, that School Daze might have been the film that didn’t sell out in the end. But I would have to see it again. Of course, his gender politics should be scrutinized closely.
PH What is your view of the impact and potential derailment of the Harlem renaissance? You mention James Baldwin in your latest book. What do you think became of the promise of Baldwin, Hughes and Wright’s work as a legitimate aesthetic base for Black literature, art, or even political impetus? How do we go from the powerful expression of the Harlem Renaissance to the overt cultural regurgitation of the slave aesthetic as expressed in so much of hip-hop and R&B culture?
FW This is a very good question, but it’s far too big for me to tackle. For one thing, I’m not an aficionado of popular culture. I live in a cultural time warp which, musically, spans from about 1955 to 1975. Now, with regards to literature, Baldwin has always been an inspiration for me. I’m not in love with love the way he is, but he has some truly remarkable prose and brilliant insights. He was also writing at a time when there was a Black Liberation Movement which fed him and which he fed in return. I am not writing in such a moment, but his work gives me the courage to pretend that I am and that liberates my imagination.
PH What would you say to an aspiring filmmaker that wanted to make “Black films”?
FW I would ask them to wallow in the contradictions and not try to tie the issues up in a bow at the end of their films. Deal with problems that are too big to be resolved—too big to be resolved on film and in real life. Let the people in the streets take it from there.
PH Have you ever considered translating your experiences in South Africa while a member of the ANC to film?
FW I’d be happy to sell the rights to someone whom I trusted—well, how can you trust an entire film company? I don’t think I’d want to get close to the film project once it was underway, however.
PH It has become very difficult to have conversations with conservatives or liberals that posit that there is a fundamental problem of a power differential between blacks and whites in America. They point to Barack Obama, they assert that until someone puts down the proverbial gun, i.e. stops talking about race as an issue of equality in America, things will never improve. How do you address the issue from your viewpoint and maintain the possibilities of alliances with liberals, humanists, radical Christians, Buddhists and others in a “revolutionary struggle”?
FW In my view the “alliance” is a ruse at worse, at best it is a provisional liaison until we reach a point where the alliance partners must make their own anti-Black play, in the way that the White Supremacist whom we’re all struggling against, did. It’s inevitable, because the alliance partners, so called, are always in the world and they are struggling for expanded access on a terrain that they already occupy. Theirs is a totally different relation than ours. We can pretend that that is not the case when struggling against immediate discrimination; but reality always comes back to haunt us.
PH You use “Monster’s Ball” analogously throughout your new book. The sex scene with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton was deeply disturbing to me, because it did seem “a racist pornotroping of Black female sexuality” to quote from your book. I remember being aghast when she received the Oscar for this role, and Denzel received in the same year I believe the Oscar for “Training Day”. What is, in your opinion, the overarching message imbedded in the rewarding of these two Black actors for those particular roles?
FW Great question, but again too big for me to answer concisely. I think there are some good quotes in the chapter “Make Me Feel Good.” Also, there’s a pithy paragraph somewhere in the book where I talk about Denzel and Halle and the Academy Awards.
PH Who are some Black filmmakers, actors, musicians, playwrights and authors whose work resonates with you?
FW I like much of what Charles Burnett has done, esp., Killer of Sheep. I also like aspects of his film Night John. I think Carl Lumley is a great actor and he’s got a good political head on his shoulders. I feel the same way about Alfre Woodard and Angela Bassett. Musicians: Gil Scott Heron, John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, Abe Lincoln, Nina Simone.
PH Have you seen David Mamet’s new play Race? I would be curious to hear your analysis of it.
FW No, I haven’t seen it, but now I’m curious.
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Gwiz, after reading his views on “allies”, the following passage returns to mind :
“Some, almost invariably via a series of deliberate and/or convenient misreadings (though sometimes the misreadings are honest, and in good faith), foolishly dismiss this “pessimism” as counterintuitive to some notion of life and progress. As if naming, bearing witness to, and thinking critically about the nakedness of our violently untimely position in this nowhere stands at odds with recognizing our collective and individual creativity and resilience. In my pessimism, it is my understanding that a fuller understanding of the problem affords us a more complex and complete diagnosis. If we seek to be healers, cooks, defenders, and creators, we must be careful, centered, and meticulous.”