Ernest Gaines and Black Studies as Refuge

Earnest Gaines on Art, (Biko Caruthers, 2019)
Part I: Making the wind pink, and the grass Black

In “The Sky is Gray,” James, a young Black boy, encounters Jim Crow racism with his mother as they ride a bus into town. Once they arrive in town, they go to the dentist.

James and his mother are in the waiting room and an older boy with the book catches the attention of James. The boy with the book offers an Afro-Pessimist critique of the modern world. His opening lines are, “That’s the trouble with black people in this country today…We don’t question is exactly our problem…We should question and question and question-question everything” (95).

James watches as the conversation unfolds between the preacher and the boy with the book.  The preacher charges the boy with being mad at the world after he reveals that his father is dead, and his mother is sick in the hospital with pneumonia.

The boy responds with, “I’m not mad at the world. I’m questioning the world. I’m questioning it with cold logic, sir. What do words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored, mean? I want to know. That’s why you are sending us to school, to read and to ask questions. And because we ask these questions, you call us mad. No sir, it is not us who are mad” (97).

The young boy questions the anti-Black structure of America and the modern world. After the preacher slaps the boy, the conversation leads to the boy suggesting what his plans are while studying.

When asked by another lady why he does not believe in God, the boy explains that he doesn’t believe in God because, “the wind is pink.”The lady continues to ask the boy about the grass and the boy responds by telling her that the “grass is black.”He tells the lady that “Words mean nothing. Action is the only thing. Doing. That’s the only thing.” After making that point, he provides some historical context to his statement. When the lady insists that the grass is green because people say it’s green, he answers, “Those same people say we’re citizens of these United States” (101).

The boy with the book or the Afro-Pessimist divests from the world’s anti-Black grammars. The boy moves away from definitions of freedom and humanity that depend and maintain themselves off of the exclusion of Blacks. He understood that Black people are included in the world by their exclusion from these definitions. He refuses the “truths” that structure the world for both non-Blacks and the Blacks with him in the waiting room.

In the boy’s obvious refusal of the world, he says,

“Unfortunately, I was born too late to believe in your God. Let’s hope that the ones who come after will have your faith-if not in your God, then in something else, something definitely that they can lean on. I haven’t anything. For me, the wind is pink, the grass is black” (102).

The boy’s scholarship, a metaphor for Black Thought/Black Studies, led him to call for abolition.

Part II: Celebration and Reflection

 This is a time of celebration. “This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the field of Black Studies in the American academic landscape.”

At the end of Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (2018) Calvin L. Warren speaks to the field of Black Studies, admonishing us to “disinvest our axiological commitments from humanism and invest elsewhere.” Meaning, that Black studies must place its value in something other than humanism because, “Continuing to hope that freedom will occur, that one day the world will apologize for its antiBlack brutality and accept us with open arms, is a devastating fantasy.”

Part III: Afro-Pessimism?

Afro-Pessimism grapples with the modern world (from 1300 to present) as a project of failure.

The world as we know it was made possible through chattel slavery. Frank B. Wilderson III explains that Afro-Pessimism questions the historical forces that produced the category of the human, and what that creation of the human means for the creation of the Black as non-human. It is an analytic lens that offers a critique of the human and a way to think through anti-Blackness and anti-Black violence.

Afro-Pessimism questions a world where people know themselves to be human because of what they observe: gratuitous violence against the Black body. An understanding of the violent conditions characterizing the Black experience cannot structure and characterize the experience of everyone else, the non-Black human beings, in the same manner.

I’m coming to the realization that Afro-Pessimism as a method of critique has huge implications for the field of Black Studies. Scholarship done under this particular lens or framework influences and shifts the demands within Black liberation and social justice activism.

In a recent interview, actor Michael B. Jordan said, “We don’t have any mythology, black mythology, or folklore…creating our own mythology is very important because…You help people dream.”

Jordan’s remarks caused an uproar. Rightfully so, because Jordan may very well have said that that Black people are without a history. Jordan’s comments sounded strikingly similar to racists, colonizers, and enslavers using similar logics to suggest that Black people were not human, and therefore deserving of their position in the world as slaves.

The discipline of Black history, well before it’s capture within the American academy, sought to correct the anti-Black reasoning arguing that the story of Black people began with slavery. This included the notions that enslaved Blacks were happy under slavery, freedom was given to the formerly enslaved, and that Emancipation and Reconstruction were bad for whites and even worse for Blacks.

The interventions of Black scholars to make these corrections to anti-Black reasonings and arguments put forth a formula resulting in the understanding that if Black people have a history, they are also human. However, with all the work done before 1968 and after, Blackness has yet to be accepted into humanity’s fold. There is still much to fight for because humanity maintains itself with an anti-Black logic. The terms of humanity are defined in opposition to Blackness.

Afro-Pessimism critiques this formulaic response.

Afro-Pessimism offers relief from this quest for inclusion.

Afro-Pessimism illuminates what we should be fighting for:

The destruction of the world that comes from the dismantling of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, which is the make-up and set-up of the modern world.

The best illustration for this call is embodied by the boy with the book.

Part IV: Refuge with Black Studies

Black Studies maintains a social justice and activist element because “there is no solution to the problem of antiblackness; it will continue without end, as long as the world exists.”

My only refuge from this is becoming the boy with a book.

My only refuge from this is getting over the “human and its humanism.”

My only refuge is taking risks and crossing the into the unknown to imagine new futures and new worlds because this one isn’t for me nor those that look like me.

For me, Black Studies is a voyage into the unknown and crossing into a new Atlantic, in the hold of a ship to carry Blackness into the future.

For me, since the Human is white, the wind is pink, and the grass black.

*This piece grew out of a workshop on blogging organized by graduate students in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass who met with editors of Black Perspectives to craft these pieces. 

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