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What Is Afro-Pessimism? Romeo Jackson on Black Identity and Challenging the American Dream

Educator Romeo Jackson explains Afro-Pessimism, the importance of Critical Race Theory, and the need for transformative justice in reclaiming Black identity in America.

What Is Afro-Pessimism? Romeo Jackson on Black Identity and Challenging the American Dream

The awakening this nation faced in the summer of 2020 is unlike any the world has ever seen. The graphic death of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin launched the nation into conversations about the deadly effects of white supremacy, the social effects of reform, and the necessity for revolution. Activist and writer Angela Davis, whose rise to prominence began in the Black Power Movement of the 1970s, added this gem to the discussion: “Many of us already know that Black trans women constitute the target of racist violence more consistently than any other community. We are talking about state violence, individual violence, stranger violence, and intimate violence. And so, if we want to develop an intersectional perspective, the trans community is showing us the way. We need to point to cases like Tony McDade. But we need to go beyond that and recognize that we support the trans community specifically because their community has taught us to challenge that which is totally accepted as normal.

I don’t think we’d be where we are today, encouraging even larger numbers of people to think within an evolutionist training, had the trans community [not] taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy. So, if it is possible to challenge the gender binary, that we can certainly effectively resist prisons, and jails, and police.”

We owe much of the social progress we’ve made in the last several decades to the efforts of the transgender community. It was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, who led the efforts of the budding Pride movement through various roles such as being a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and Street Transvestite Active Revolutionaries, and allegedly throwing the first shot glass at the 1969 Stonewall Riots. It was the trans community who advocated for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community and confronted police brutality and overreach directly. They’ve thrown bricks. They’ve thrown doughnuts. From Ms. Marsha P. Johnson to Chelsea Manning, trans people have risked their lives to defend their rights and expose the underbelly of America. In return, we have punished them for efforts that benefit all of us. America has imprisoned them, alienated them, assaulted them, and murdered them. And it doesn’t seem to be letting up.

The year 2020 was one of the deadliest to date for transgender and nonbinary people. Last year 44 people suffered violent deaths. This is a major jump from the previous most deadly year, 2017, where 31 people lost their lives. 2021 is on track to be even worse. As of June 12th of this year, more trans and nonbinary people have been killed than in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019. This terrifying statistic is no coincidence according to advocates, considering the record number of anti-trans bills that have been passed in 2021 alone, many of them targeting trans children. It is clear that this community is facing an epidemic of violence, evidence of how short-sighted we are as a nation. Not only are these our fellow countryfolk, but their input and imagination might be the only thing revolutionary enough to inspire the change we need. The voices of the trans and nonbinary communities are more important than ever, for their sakes and for ours.

To this end I had the pleasure of talking to educator and lecturer Romeo Jackson, who has been responsible for transformative approaches to social change at the University of Nevada, about what their idea of a progressive world would look like. Their answers are thought-provoking, revolutionary, and illuminating. Romeo graciously took the time to educate me on Afro-pessimism, why equity is incompatible with our current social model, and what it would really take for them to feel included in the American dream.

Courtesy of Romeo Jackson

HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: What does a more progressive world look like to you?

ROMEO JACKSON: What’s important to remember in order to understand this question from my position is that this country, the United States, is built and maintained through my exploitation and death. This is across multiple identities for me; my identity as a Black person, as a nonbinary person, and as a queer person. I can’t be included in a system where my death is required for it to exist. Period. A more tactile way to demonstrate this is the conversation around the liberation of Native people. The entire United States is predicated on the continued theft of land. Returning this land to Native people has to be a part of that recompensation, which is not compatible with the maintenance of the United States as we know it.

Americans are terrified of radical conversations like these because they would necessitate real sacrifice and real change. It would mean leaving the bubble of blindness that protects privileged people from having to interact with the extreme violence it takes to keep them comfortable. That would mean embracing the “other” that they have been socialized to dehumanize.

Audre Lorde has an essay about the recognition of difference where she discusses how we are taught to think about difference as the enemy. Here is a quote I favor: “For we have all been raised in a society where those distortions were endemic within our living. Too often, we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation, or false and treacherous connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives. We speak not of human difference, but of human deviance.”

If we learn to celebrate differences, we can learn a lot about ourselves. I believe she calls it “the spark that can transform us”.

I like the points you made about the world having to end in order for you to exist. Do you find that you connect with Anarchist principles?

To be honest with you, I find the anarchist to be very white, likely because all of anarchists I know are white people who actually aren’t that anarchist and that colors my perspective quite a bit. I would rather classify my school of thought with Afro-Pessimism. My belief is that as you are ending a world, it’s important to think about and set up a structure to replace it with. I personally would like to see communities given more space and agency to govern and regulate themselves. People know what they need more than institutions do, especially when those institutions were not set up to help these communities at all, but to preserve the interests of an extreme few. Communities are concerned with the preservation of themselves, and so they are the best option for coming up with solutions to address harm and violence within them, even in the most egregious forms. They are the best choice for ending systems that make violence a necessity for survival, and for creating a place where self-expression is valued. As I’ve made clear, I don’t know too much about anarchy, but I will say that I don’t think our government is helping us get any freer at all.

What is Afro-Pessimism?

Afro-Pessimism is an intellectual tradition out of Black studies particularly. It has many components, but the one that resonates the most with me and my work and my life is the concept of anti-Blackness and working with what that means. Afro-Pessimists work from the standpoint that the Transatlantic Slave Trade made Black people property. Even though the slave trade has formally ended, Black people are still very much viewed as property.

An example of this an Afro-Pessimist might refer to is the willingness of the general public to speculate on Black death, characterized by the overexposure of graphic Black death in American media. Look at the willingness, nay, the eagerness to share instances of Black death. George Floyd’s last moments were blasted on mainstream television over and over. People share Black death on social media with no qualms or warnings. There is absolutely no sensitivity for how this affects us as Black people because it doesn’t seem to affect white people. It’s a blatant denial of our humanity.

Black people are not only not viewed as less than human, but other than human. We are discussed as if we are somehow oppositional to the project of humanity, more than any other racial group. So while nonwhite people might be able to be included in whiteness, included in the nation-state, and included in higher education, that is not an option for Black people. We have witnessed over time that whiteness is flexible and open to absorbing other groups of people in order to sustain itself. We will never be included in whiteness because whiteness is positioned as the opposite of us. It’s from this deep belief that I say the world needs to end before we can see meaningful inclusion. It doesn’t matter how much space whiteness attempts to make in the world for me, I’m still its property. It’s the ontological position of Black people that’s hard to escape in the current system.

Definitely. I find myself pessimistic about Black inclusions because of how much other racial groups would have to give up in order to share community with us. There is simply too much to gain from our current social position.

Absolutely. It’s always weird to me when people are like, “I don’t have to lose anything for us to be equal.” I don’t understand that, because of course people have to lose things. The very land we stand on isn’t ours. Black people have yet to receive their reparations. I want my 40 acres and a mule! With adjusted interest! And that’s really the bare minimum to address the harm done, yet that restitution, however insufficient, is still seen as controversial. Because why would property need property? It’s considered a radical idea that people should be compensated for their enslaved, exploited labor for 500 years. It’s wild. Our value continues to be rooted in that we can be exploited and re-enslaved. Look at the dissenters of raising the minimum wage or the people complaining about people not coming back to low wage high anxiety jobs. The nerve that property would want to claim humanity is too much for whiteness to take.

I recently read a great piece by Dr. Joy James where she ends the piece with a discussion on how war was not a metaphor. Slavery was war. Sharecropping was war. Jim Crow was war. The prison industrial complex is war. The War on Drugs is war. I often talk about a similar concept around genocide, because when I draw the parallels, it’s clear that Black people are in a genocide relationship with the American government. The United States is still trying to eradicate us.

Like, take a look at the genocide convention from the United Nations and you notice that it closely describes Black people’s current condition. Forcing sterilization on women of color, being in schools where we can’t speak African American Venacular English, the way the most natural to many of us, and overpolicing our neighborhoods in all genocide. It’s a direct attack on the existence of our bodies and of our culture.

Whiteness uses history as a weapon to dissuade radical opposition to it. It tries to position its major atrocities against human rights as happening “over there” or “a long time ago.” But genocide isn’t happening in some faraway Black or Brown country or a hundred years ago. It’s happening right now and right here, right in front of us.

One of the tools of white supremacy is misconstrued overuse of anything that it feels threatened by. The current conversation around Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a good example of this. Critical Race Theory isn’t taught to children, or even teenagers. If a person is learning about CRT they are in law school or graduate school and have sought out this field of study specifically. But because whiteness likes to define reality for everyone, no matter how far from the truth it actually is, the onus falls on Black people to discover new ways of talking about and contextualizing our experiences. This is why it makes me nervous when scholarly words that Black intellectuals poured over and worked hard to define, come into the public discourse. Whiteness does not respect the scholarship behind or the necessity for these words. It’s going to do what it can to discredit the very language that was invented to combat it; language that was invented to protect the rest of us from it.

I feel like one of the tools of white supremacy is misconstrued overuse of anything that challenges it, and desensitization of people to the effects of white supremacy. And then we are the ones that have to come up with other words to describe the true horror of what we are experiencing. It makes me a little bit nervous to see all of these scholarly words that have been invented to combat that, come into the mainstream into public discourse. what's going to happen to all of that scholarship that was invented to make a difference what's going to happen to all of that scholarship that was to make a difference. It's like now white supremacy will have the language to continue its oppression using the language that was invented to combat it.

What an excellent observation. I feel nervousness around the word “anti-racism” entering mainstream discourse because overuse dilutes the impact. Words like “anti-racism” and “anti-Black racism” were created to combat the lethal effects of white supremacy. They are war words. So when I hear people using those words who clearly aren’t ready to go to war, who are just using them to signal a solidarity that they don’t really have, I’m more frustrated than if they just avoided using the words altogether.

One thing whiteness knows how to do is co-opt words and language. It is really discouraging when one thinks about how much effort went into creating this language so that we can be precise in our indictment of whiteness, only for whiteness to dilute its impact. It’s jarring seeing major corporations creating campaigns and merchandise with phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and around the holiday Juneteenth, so that things we created from our trauma gets absorbed into the very machine we are fighting. My job recently put together an anti-Black racism task force. What does that mean for the potential of that word? What is the force actually tasked with doing, other than avoiding genuine critique about academia’s anti-Black practices? What does it mean that universities are comfortable employing an entire task force in that name when the so-called task force won’t even have the authority to make lasting structural change?

I see the abolitionist movement facing the same issue. Phrases that they created to empower change are being co-opted and employed without any real action behind them. We’re seeing people try to explain that abolishing the police doesn’t actually mean abolishing the police. Um, yes it does. We’re done with police and we’re done with policing. If you aren’t ready to fight for that cause, then get out of the way of it. Don’t make videos to make a movement that was made for radical action cute and palatable for white people. Black people, Native people, and disabled people are dying. There is no time or room for how white people feel about it. Don’t do us the disservice.

Thankfully, abolitionists have done beautiful dreaming work that adds weight to the language they are creating. They’ve done a great job of helping us think about what will happen on the other side of ending modern policing. This isn’t something that I’m personally concerned with, since I’m more focused on how we’re going to get to the end of the world and ways to divest from its current systems. But I appreciate that the abolishment movement has thought far enough ahead to imagine what a world without police would actually look like.

I look to their expertise, but no one has better real life application of a world without policing than women of color who have to respond to sexual violence. I once came across a pod mapping exercise that illustrated how instrumental and effective communities can be in managing the effects of intra-community violence. When women are the victims of domestic violence, the police aren’t on their side. They don’t take it seriously, and they even offend themselves. We’ve seen multiple examples of that. Those women usually have to operate outside of the carceral state for safety and justice. So what do they do? They usually turn to their community.

I remember that it asked the question “What do I do when I’m in a dangerous situation and don’t feel safe calling the state to intervene? What are my options? This pod mapping points out networks that could help; people that could help the woman escape her situation, that could give her a safe, clean place to stay, that would get her a new phone so that she didn’t have to worry about being tracked, that would make sure her children are picked up from school on time, that would make sure that she got to work and that her way of life was protected. And look at the men that protected that woman in Staten Island from her racist neighbors when the police refused to intervene for years. YEARS. These aren’t new solutions. Community management is something that we already employ. We have already built worlds that aren’t dependent on the state’s response to violence. We have community responses that are beautiful examples of what communities can accomplish on their own.

I love the idea of the community addressing community-based problems instead of having to rely on the state. No one can understand what the community needs more than the community itself.

I resonate with ideas about community-based care and solution, transformative justice, and community accountability. Because when people do commit harm it’s usually about something. They are usually trying to address some sort of disparity, sometimes emotional, sometimes financial, and sometimes there are other issues. Especially marginalized people aren’t given many options to support themselves and ensure their survival,  and are pushed into moving outside of the law. As I said before, the system fuels itself on the death of the “other”, therefore aims to make it hard for the “other” to survive lawfully within its borders. Then they are caught, usually because their communities are overpoliced, and brought to prison where they can be legally enslaved for decades. Prisons being restorative would upset that cycle and ultimately disrupt the fuel that white supremacy relies on.

This rebranding of prisons is interesting when you really examine it. Something interesting I learned when reading Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? was that prison and policing as we know it today was the reform. Its grandparents are slavery and stealing Native land. How can we reform such a violent institution into something that actually functions to benefit all of us; that benefits this country’s future? The very point of policing has always been to suppress. You can’t reform your way out of that. You need to remove it.

This is why proposed solutions to police violence like 8 Can’t Wait don’t work. It’s not a viable strategy for change but then again I don’t believe it was meant to be. It was meant to distract us with the illusion of progress from the inevitable failing of the police state, and lately it’s been failing at even that. The story that we have to accept incremental change in order to have social progress is a myth created to be a barrier to revolution. History has been whitewashed to make it look like change is slow, linear, positive, and monodirectional. There is a lie that we are getting better as a nation over time, but that isn’t true (ironically this is something CRT addresses directly). Incremental change has failed us and is often even rolled back. Look at how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was effectively gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.  In Florida they are allowing the government to charge formerly imprisoned people fees before their voting rights can be restored, essentially instituting a poll tax. And since we know that many employers discriminate against them, Florida is setting up many of its Black and Brown to have many of their rights stripped from them, and silence their voices.

The only time the United States has been concerned with restoring the rights of their nonwhite citizens is when the world is watching. The U.S. will put on a show to reinforce its own global imperialism. It will try to assert a moral high ground so that it can justify invading and robbing other countries for their resources, interrupting systems that make America look back, and eradicating any threats to its domination. But how can the U.S. move under the guise of civil liberties when it doesn’t afford those liberties to the vast majority of their citizens? Like when Hillary Clinton got up at the Geneva convention and declared that the United States would work to restore the rights of queer people abroad, I was sitting at home like, are you serious? Have you seen the way Black trans women are treated in your own home country? Where do you find the gall to chastise them?

I’m tired. We’re tired. We’ve been waiting, we’ve been cooperating, we’ve been suffering, and we’ve been dying. And since learning that I can’t imagine this world extending my humanity because it’s designed to keep me out, I have to imagine the end of it before I can even begin to dream.

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For more on this powerful orator, follow Romeo on Twitter @blaqueerfemme or check out their website Romeoejackson.com.

Photos courtesy of Romeo Jackson