I have always considered myself an optimist. This may come as a surprise to those who have heard me argue, sincerely, that “everything is anti-Black,” or who experience my total lack of faith in the idea of reform, or who witness me supporting unapologetic non-participation in the electoral system, having long lost confidence that it should be the primary vehicle for Black liberation.
One might say that despite my skepticism of the more common measures of racial progress, I have always held onto faith in a future for Black folks. I would say it is because of my skepticism.
I am just one of many young hopefuls, according to results from the GenForward study, a monthly survey of the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago with the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The survey found that young adults—particularly young adults of color—remain very optimistic about their future. 63% of African Americans and Asian Americans, 68% of Latinx Americans, and 46% of whites age 18-30 believe that their generation will have a better life than their parents.
Though we live in what many feel is the worst racial climate in modern times, and awareness of the ongoing brutality against Black and Brown communities continues to increase with each passing day, it’s unsurprising that people of color have more hope in their future than white folks. Given the many messages around the rapid demographic shifts in this country, it’s clear some people of color embrace the idea that “browning” this country’s electorate should forerun a more agreeable future.
But this is not the source of my optimism. I have argued strongly against the idea that mere demographic shifts will uproot the deeply entrenched, parasitic weeds of white supremacy. In fact, the promise of demographic changes or policy improvements or more awareness of racial issues or stronger visibility often works to obscure the things within which my hope is rooted.
Because of the unique nature of anti-Blackness, we have seen how it is not rectified when it is caught on camera, when Black folks increase participation in the electoral system, or even when entire anti-Black systems are abolished—as long as whiteness remains in place. My hope lies in the fact that despite the stubborn persistence of anti-Blackness, Black folks have always survived and built and rebuilt their lives and worlds. I am optimistic because I believe one day we will abandon the faulty leftover scraps and byproducts found under the system of whiteness—such as incrementalist politics that always leave the margins of the margins behind, or relying on empathy despite the reality of systematic dehumanization that directly prevents its effectiveness. I have hope that we can find stronger, freer foundations elsewhere with which to build a new society, foundations which do not rely on capitalism or patriarchy or the oppression of any group of people.
I want to believe my fellow young hopefuls see a brighter future society because they intend to abandon the materials of this one as well. GenForward also found that a significant numbers of young African Americans (18%), Asian Americans (14%), Latinx (21%), and whites (14%) say that they will probably not vote in the upcoming election. Many will look at this significant disinterest as a cause for concern. Acknowledging the value of pessimism is how we might instead imagine the ways it could be used as a new foundation.
My work and the work of many others in this vein (some of whom embrace the term “afro-pessimism” in the academy) has been dismissed as impractical for refusing to compromise by rejecting piecewise reform, too theoretical because it proposes a future that is unimaginable under the imperial project of whiteness, and too demanding in that it calls for a complete refusal of that project. These works have been misunderstood as “race-first” for honing in on the specificity of anti-Blackness, and for strongly challenging how deracialized feminisms and queer frameworks uphold it.
But one does not have to look far to see that the academy is not where these ideas were born, Black/cisgender/straight men do not have singular claim to them, and they are not too impossible to be practiced.
It is in hoods like the one where I grew up that radical Black thought and action come to life most readily. It is on the streets of Cleveland that I first found optimism in the pessimism that nothing under whiteness can liberate Black folks. Regular hood folks have long questioned justice under whiteness, have long distrusted police reform, and have for many years presented arguments that challenge the idea that one can simply vote for Black liberation.
The breaking and burning and shooting back in response to injustice, which I have defended as valid movement methods, occur uniquely in these places. We have seen these actions in practice by Black women like Korryn Gaines when she told her arresting officers (in an incident before the one leading to her death) that she wasn’t scared of them killing her because she would “live on forever.”
We have seen the optimism of collective pessimism from folks who have given up on the hope of being saved under whiteness, but have never given up on themselves, as on the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charlotte during their uprisings. Regular hood folks participate in these radical acts with full awareness of the retaliation they face, all while those of us too resistant to acknowledge the function of pessimism throw them away. They are killed and locked up their entire lives for their pessimism about the project of whiteness—for their hope that Blackness will forever live.
I am an optimist because I believe that the urge to want a better tomorrow despite the problems of today is how we cross the night. I am an optimist because I do think radical acts can never be snuffed out. Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness,” but too often we imagine light where there is none. Too often we embrace the mirage brought on by centuries of exhaustion because it’s easier than acknowledging the real source is so far away and the journey perilous.
The light of a free Black future exists, but it will take real, difficult, and frightening work. It will take acknowledging the darkness, first. It will take a substantial measure of pessimism.