Is Afropessimism a form of Black Orientalism?

By Syed Mustafa Ali

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Blog 87

27 December 2023

According to Sherman A. Jackson (2005) Black Orientalism, “…seeks to cast the Arab/Muslim world as a precursor to and then an   imitator of the West in the latter’s history of anti-blackness.” (pp.99-100) Crucially, however, he goes on to state that “[s]ubstantively speaking, Black Orientalism is a thoroughly Blackamerican enterprise, an overtly ideological endeavor with far from objective methods or innocent aims [emphasis added]”, and it has three ‘typologies’, viz. (1) Nationalist, (2) Academic, and (3) Religious (p.100). While space precludes an extended engagement with Jackson’s exploration of the phenomenon, for present purposes it is important to draw attention to the following:

Black Orientalism was and is essentially a reaction to the newly developed relationship between Islam, Blackamericans, and the Muslim world. Its ultimate aim is to challenge, if not undermine, the propriety of the esteem enjoyed by Islam in the Blackamerican community by projecting onto the Muslim world a set of imaginings, self-perceptions, resentments, and stereotypes that are far more the product of the black experience in America than they are of any direct relationship with or knowledge of Islam, especially in the Muslim world. By highlighting the purported historical race prejudice of the Muslim world, as well as, in some instances, the alleged responses to this prejudice, the aim is to impugn the propriety of the relationship between Islam and Blackamericans by ultimately calling into question Blackamerican Muslims’ status as authentic, loyal Blackamericans.” (p.102)

Having briefly clarified the meaning and genealogy of Black Orientalism, I should now like to turn attention to Frank Wilderson III., who is a central figure in the development of Afropessimism, who offers the following brief explanation as to how and when the world become anti-Black:

I think if you read [Orlando] Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death he explains how for the word/concept “freedom” to have any valence, it must exist in a semiotic relation to “unfreedom” or slaveness. So, a stratified society has to have slaves in order for it to be coherent to itself and to other societies. That’s the first move. The second move is that, the words “Black” and “Africa” are elaborated in the process through which a global consensus develops that says Africa is the place of slaves. So, to make it simple but not simplistic, I would argue that for the first time in the history of the world (beginning 625 A.D., with the Arab Slave trade) we have a group of people who ARE slaves (i.e. Africans, Blacks); which distinguishes them from all other people who, at one time or another, BECAME slaves [emphasis added].

(Wilderson, III, F. (2017) I am Frank Wilderson AMA.)

Upon what source does Wilderson III. rely in order to get the idea that the ‘Arab Slave trade’ commenced in 625 A.D.? Certainly not Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press: 1982) since this date appears nowhere in that work.

Here is the relevant extract from Patterson (pp.122-124):

The Islamic states and several of the advanced pagan states of Africa stand out as the slaveholding peoples who relied most heavily on tribute to establish and augment their slave populations. Although most of the slaves in the early Abbasid slave armies were bought, considerable numbers were obtained as tribute. According to Ibn Xurdadhbih, between the years A.D. 826 and 828 two thousand captives of the Turkish tribe Guzz were sent from the province of Xurasan as part of their tax payment. A considerable number of the elite slave corps found throughout the Islamic world came as tribute, the most celebrated being the Ottoman janissaries, who were recruited by means of the devshirme (tribute of children from the Christian subjects of the empire). A large number of the public and private slaves of Muslim Africa were similarly obtained. Among pagan states with advanced slave sectors Ashanti and Oyo were the two that relied most heavily on tribute.

Where did the tributary slaves come from? Often they were persons who were already slaves in the tribute-paying state. Sometimes, however, the unfortunate slave was already part of a tribute paid by another vassal state in an international pecking order. Thus in the mid-nineteenth century the emir of Adamawa (the primary slave center of the Fulani) was paid approximately five thousand slaves by his vassal states, of which he sent two thousand to the sultan of Sokoto. Similarly Bornu, itself a tribute-paying state, received tribute in slaves from the Kwararafa kingdom, which in turn received slaves from its own vassal states. Equally elaborate was the tribute system extending from the Guinea coastal state of Popo to the Ardra, who in turn paid to the Oyo, who were sometimes in vassalage to yet more powerful states.

Many vassal states, too weak to impose tribute on others, did not have enough slaves to meet their quota so were obliged to send their own “free” people as part of the tribute. Thus when Korea became a client state of the Mongols in the thirteenth century, most of the slaves sent as tribute were free persons. The same was true of many of the subjected peoples who paid tribute to the Aztecs. But few societies have had a longer or more unhappy history as tribute payers than the Nubians. They provided slaves both from among themselves and from their southern neighbors as tribute to the viceroy of Egypt from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth dynasties, especially during the viceroyalty of Kush. Over two thousand years later the Nubians were still paying tribute in slaves to foreign conquerors. After the negotiated truce with the Arabs in A.D. 651-652 (called the Baqt by Arab historians) a tribute in slaves was demanded by the Arabs. The terms are instructive. According to the Arab geographer Magrizi, it required that “each year you are to deliver 360 slaves which you will pay to the Iman of the Moslems from the finest slaves of your country, in whom there is no defect. [There are to be] both male and female. Among them [is to be] no decrepit old man or woman or any child who has not reached puberty. You are to deliver them to the Wali of Aswan.” The insistence on slaves without defects touches on a problem that must have plagued all such payments. Indeed, wars were sometimes fought over the quality of the slaves sent as tribute. In the nineteenth century “the custom of the king of Bagirmi of sending his oldest, ugliest and most useless slaves to Wadai was one of the provocations which moved the king of Wadai to attack him in 1870.”

Is it possible, that in making the above statement, Wilderson, III. was drawing upon what is stated in the following work published in 2007:

The relevant pages (30-31) from the latter text are shown below:

Zooming-in on the relevant extract appearing on page 31, we have the following:

Once again, nowhere does the date 625 AD appear in this work; rather, as with Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, the date which does appear is 652 AD.

In short, Wilderson III.’s dating of the onset of systemic/structural anti-blackness or ontological slavehood to 625 CE – insofar as he might be appealing to either/both of the aforementioned works as a source for this date – is simply incorrect.

How is one to explain this?

One possible explanation, which I suggest is plausible, is that Wilderson III. has simply reversed the last two digits of the date. In short, it is a transcription error, a mistake. Unfortunately, it is also one that he repeats – consistently.

Yet – and here is the rub – this arguably accidental reversal makes all the difference in terms of dating the said phenomenon, viz. systemic/structural anti-blackness or ontological slavehood, to what I suggest is the definitive formative period of Islam, i.e. the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) during which the revelation of The Qur’an took place. This period ended with the death of the Prophet in 632 CE which was around 20 years prior to the concluding of the Baqt Treaty in 652 CE.

Going further, it is interesting to note that, as stated in the above extract, Patterson maintains that “the Islamic states and several of the advanced pagan states of Africa stand out as the slaveholding peoples who relied most heavily on tribute to establish and augment their slave populations [emphasis added]”, and that “among pagan states with advanced slave sectors Ashanti and Oyo were the two that relied most heavily on tribute.” (p.123) Consistent with this view, the black Muslim anthropologist and historian of Africa and the Islamicate, Danjuma Bihari, offers the following insightful commentary on the Baqt Treaty:

[T]he offer of an annual GIFT of 360 slaves a year to the Arabs does hint at the existence of a slavery in Nubia predating the arrival of the Arabs, despite the romantic pan-Africanist narrative that prior to the Arab invasion there was no word for slave in any African language…

(The Black Muslim Experience, Facebook post, 12 February 2016)

Elsewhere, Bihari has re-iterated that “slavery in Nubia, (if not an actual thriving Nubian slave trade) must have been in existence before the rise of Islam [emphasis added].”

What are the implications of Bihari’s observations for Wilderson III.’s claim?

At a minimum, I suggest it means that Wilderson III.’s “simple but not simplistic” (sic) assertion that “for the first time in the history of the world (beginning 625 AD, with the Arab Slave trade) we have a group of people who ARE slaves (i.e. Africans, Blacks); which distinguishes them from all other people who, at one time or another, BECAME slaves” is problematic if not completely bogus on historical-empirical grounds.

Why might Wilderson III. repeatedly make such a claim? Is it because Afropessimism is a form of Black Orientalism?

Author’s bio

Dr Syed Mustafa Ali is Lecturer and Convenor of the Critical Information Studies (CIS) research group in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University. His research focuses include Heideggerian phenomenology, critical race theory, and postcolonial/decolonial thought, explorations of how race, religion, politics, and ethics are ‘entangled’ with various technological phenomena.

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