Afro-pessimism and Black Optimism in the Afterlife of Slavery

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association 52nd Convention
contact email: 

Afro-pessimism and Black Optimism in the Afterlife of Slavery
Northeast Modern Language Association 52nd Annual Convention, March 11-14, 2021
Chair: Eugene Pae, State University of New York at Albany (

What questions arise when we juxtapose the notion of humanity with the history of slavery? How can critical engagement with the slave past inform our understanding of the black political present? Is it possible to conceive of a black humanity that challenges and transcends existing conceptions of the human? In Scenes of Subjection Saidiya Hartman famously examines the “nonevent of emancipation,” reading ways in which bondage and freedom are entangled in the liberal imaginations of subjectivity. One of the most vigorous debates that has dominated the field of black studies for the recent decade is between critical orientations of Afro-pessimism and Black Optimism that grapple with this “nonevent.” Inspired by Frantz Fanon, critical thinkers such as Jared Sexton, Frank B. Wilderson III, and Orlando Patterson analyze the ongoing effects of racism, colonialism, and enslavement and their impact on structured oppression towards contemporary black people. Afro-pessimists contend that the history of the Middle Passage and slavery left an ontological imprint upon the black body that categorized it as less than human. Varyingly, but not necessarily oppositionally, Fred Moten approaches black ontology through the lens of Black Optimism, reflecting on the possibility of the love for blackness. Blackness and humanity become conjoined through performance in Moten’s study of black radical politics. Extending the critical discussion between two “camps,” this panel seeks to contemplate on the relationship between blackness and humanity in the afterlife of slavery. Through intersectional frameworks of critical race theory, affect theory, queer performance studies, Anthropocene studies, and gender and sexuality studies, the panel wishes to initiate a conversation that critically investigates the genre of the human that transcends its Western definition, and navigate the possibility of black humanity.

To that end, we encourage scholars to submit abstracts (300 words) that contemplate black ontology and its relationship to life, death, and the genre of the human in the afterlife of slavery. The session will follow the traditional format of a panel, with 3-4 presenters each reading a formal paper of 15-20 minutes (2500-3000 words), followed by Q&A. The deadline for submissions is September 30, 2020.

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