In ‘Afropessimism,’ a Black Intellectual Mixes Memoir and Theory

In ‘Afropessimism,’ a Black Intellectual Mixes Memoir and Theory

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I did not for the slightest moment think I would begin this book with a psychotic episode that I had at the age of 40-something, and that it would end with the death of my mother. Those two things, which frame the book, were the furthest things from my mind. The first iterations of the book were too direct, too didactic and dry. When I decided to start writing experimentally about this breakdown, I didn’t think I could get it on the page.

I was really fortunate in working with my editor, Bob Weil. He was a godsend. He is a consummate intellectual, and he also knows what makes literary writing sing. He knew I wanted to make people laugh and cry. He was really encouraging.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

Sarah Vaughan. If jazz, opera, the blues and soul were all one voice, that voice would be hers. Which really speaks to my blending of genres. But also on a cosmological level, she was born under the sign of Aries, which I am — and there’s something big and arrogant and sometimes irritating about Aries.

I remember visiting New York City from Minneapolis at 8 years old for the World’s Fair, and the Concorde broke the sound barrier. I asked my mother what that sound was, and she said, “It’s a sonic boom.” And I told her, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” “It’s impossible to be a sonic boom,” she said. “You can be a pilot and make a sonic boom, but you can’t be one.”

We got back to Minneapolis, and I heard her playing Sarah Vaughan. I ran to her and said, “That’s the sonic boom. I thought you said no one could be a sonic boom.”

Vaughan gives me permission to write, and to turn moans into music. Back in 1993, on April 10, my patron saint Chris Hani was assassinated. I attended a lot of rallies and demonstrations afterward with rage and anger, but at night I would cry to sleep with Sarah Vaughan’s music. She got me through that.

Persuade someone to read “Afropessimism” in 50 words or less.

With the narrative drive of a captivating novel and the intellectual rigor of critical theory, “Afropessimism” illustrates how black death is necessary for the material and psychic life of the human species. A high-wire act between rage and paranoia, or a breath of sanity? Read it and decide.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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