Wilderson...blends expressive accounts of his experiences from adolescence through middle age, a roller coaster of highs and lows, with an intellectually sophisticated exposition of his philosophy of life, race, and the world ... a highly charged combination of memoir, criticism, and reflection ... A hard-hitting and mind-expanding introduction to a new way of viewing the past and the present.
Wilderson’s ambitious book offers its readers two great gifts. First, it strives mightily to make its pessimistic vision plausible. Anyone unconvinced by the vision may find this a dubious contribution, but enough people have been convinced by the view to make an accessible introduction to it a valuable resource just for understanding contemporary intellectual life. Second, the book depicts a remarkable life, lived with daring and sincerity ... The main challenge of the book may be that it offers both these gifts at once. It wraps its critical theory in a memoir, in a way that means for both elements to be mutually supporting. The narrative vividly establishes the need for theoretical intervention, and the theory provides keys to understanding the narrative ... This simultaneous commitment to analysis and to narrative sometimes pulls the book in opposite directions. Paragraphs that could have helped develop a scene instead crank up the theoretical machinery. Energy that could have been spent translating jargon into normal prose goes instead into setting up a metaphor. One can almost hear the gears grinding as the book shifts from one mode to the other ... Reading the book felt a bit like returning to the culture wars of the late 20th century ... I confess that Afropessimism strikes me as a refusal of the possibilities that make 'fighting on' conceivable ... If so, I’ll simply commit to admiring the economy and the poetry of his provocations.
His memories are like scraps fished out of the shredder and reassembled into the shape of a monster; just to figure out the order of the events relayed in the book is a task ... What ensues is part Bonnie and Clyde, part Waiting for Godot, and part The Pilgrim’s Progress ... My own intermittent trouble swallowing the story made me feel like a race traitor more than once ... It’s possible to regard Wilderson’s manner of spinning toward and away from the particulars of a story without ever fully telling the thing as a critique of the Black autobiographical tradition ... Wilderson skids from one glint of perception to the next without much regard for grounding details or fluid transitions; in the middle of an anecdote, he tosses you down a chute and you find yourself stumbling through a thick tangle of theoretical jargon. He thinks vertically, in terms of hierarchies and structures; the horizontal time line is beside the point. He writes from history’s humid basement, or from its even less accessible underground bunker, and the plants that bloom in his writing are less floral than fungal ... It falls into a category sometimes called 'auto-theory,' an attempt to arrive at a philosophy by way of the self ... One of the bleakest aspects of Afropessimist thought is its denial that there is any meaningful analogy between Blacks and other nonwhites ... Any system of thought that has refined itself beyond the ability to imagine kinship with the stranded Guatemalan kid detained at the U.S. border, or with the functionally enslaved Uyghur in China, or, again—I can’t get over it—with the Native American on whose stolen ancestral ground you live and do your business, is lost in its own fog.
A compelling, profoundly unsettling blend of memoir and manifesto ... Blending affecting memoir that touches on such matters as mental illness, alienation, exile, and a transcendent maternal love with brittle condemnation of a condition of unfreedom and relentless othering, the author delivers a difficult but necessary argument. It is difficult because it demands that readers of any ethnicity confront hard truths and also because it is densely written, with thickets of postmodern tropes to work through ... The book is deeply pessimistic indeed, as Wilderson rejects any possibility of racial reconciliation in these two-steps-backward times. Perhaps the greatest value of the book is in its posing of questions that may seem rhetorical but in fact probe at interethnic conflicts that are hundreds, even thousands of years old ... An essential contribution to any discussion of race and likely to be a standard text in cultural studies for years to come.
Wilderson’s academic theorizing can be turgid and overwrought ... but when he sticks to his personal experience of racial alienation, his writing is powerful, nuanced, and lyrical ... Wilderson’s passionate account of racism’s malevolent influence is engrossing, but not always convincing.