The history of slavery, colonization, subjugation, gratuitous violence, and the denial of basic human rights to people of African descent has led Afro-Pessimists to look at black existence through the lens of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Against this trend, Black Existential Freedom argues that Blackness is not inherently synonymous with victimhood. Rather, it is inextricable from existential freedom and the struggle for political liberation.This book presents an existential analysis of continental and diasporic African experiences through critical interpretations of music, film, and fiction that portray what it means to be human— to persevere in the tension between life and physical, psychological, and social death—for the sake of freedom. With its transdisciplinary perspective and convergence of Africana existential philosophy, African-American Studies, Afro-French Studies, Diaspora Studies, and African studies, this book is not concerned with disciplinary boundaries or certain appropriations of European metaphysics that are committed to a reading of black “non-being.” Black Existential Freedom explores the continuities and discontinuities of black existence and the manifestations and the meanings of blackness within different countries, time periods, and social and political contexts.
Etoke's book empowers the reader to understand and process the complexities of racialized identity in a globalized contemporary society. Ultimately, it is an ode to human survival and freedom.
Nathalie Etoke is associate professor of French and Africana studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her book Melancholia Africana received the Frantz Fanon Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association. In 2011, she made a documentary entitled Afro Diasporic French Identities that examines how the legacy of slavery and colonization challenges the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
It is tempting to regard the 2020 murder of George Floyd by law enforcement as a contemporary variant of the meaning of Blackness in society, a meaning traceable to slavery, colonialism, and then postcolonialism. In such a case, Blackness translates into a cynical and pessimistic outlook on life for Black people everywhere. Further, some see this pessimism manifested in so-called Black-on-Black violence. It is this very cynical outlook that Etoke challenges here. By analyzing Black people's creative productions—e.g., spirituals during slavery, the freedom songs of the 1960s, contemporary hip-hop and rap music, and Black theatrical performances—Etoke argues, contra the Afro-Pessimists, that Black people have constantly been affirming their humanity and subjectivity, hence optimism, even in the face of white supremacist domination and oppression. Etoke calls attention to oppressive structures specifically in France and the US but generally in the Global North, where the notion of Black citizenship seems like an oxymoron. Even so, Black people have not just been “singing the Blues” and waiting for death, but instead have been articulating forms of resistance and engaging in self-affirmation that bespeaks optimism and existential freedom. Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
Afro-pessimists have dared Black scholars to look into the abyss and suspend their belief in the illusion of humanity. Nathalie Etoke has accepted that challenge and found at the bottom of nothingness the power of struggle to create existential resources that shatter the shackles thought to ontologically bind Blackness to the condition of the slave. Black Existential Freedom takes the refusal of Blacks to BE what the white world demands to be a mode of theorization. Etoke’s text is an insightful analysis of racism in France, the United States, and Africa that cannot be ignored in these darkening times.
Nathalie Etoke has written a beautiful and moving book that shows how the living practice of existential freedom has never been more important in resisting a politics of discouragement that gives into our seemingly desperate times. She not only answers Afro-pessimism, but also moves widely to bring back Black existentialism to the burning issues of the times—notably the attacks on LGBTQ people of color. She reminds us on every page that Black existential freedom was not and cannot be buried under the horrors of enslavement and colonization. The struggle for freedom is celebrated as what makes us human.
With the characteristic lyricism that readers of Nathalie Etoke would expect, Black Existential Freedom weaves a throbbing counternarrative of continental and diasporic African unremitting insistence on life. Speaking on music, film, and fiction about an existence that includes disaster and hell as undeniable components, Etoke joins the rich history of struggle that generated Black Studies, refusing to see Africana existence through pessimistic, conservative, and distorting lenses that are all too in vogue. Warning that homophobia strengthens bonds between repressive post-colonial states and their disempowered citizens, she offers us a precious, multifaceted archive focused unflinchingly on freedom.
Against the death fetishism, Eurocentrism, and de facto political conservatism of Afro-pessimism, Nathalie Etoke offers, through meticulous scholarship and poetic insight, the existential dimensions—from the global perspective of Black political struggles to the practices of joy and pleasure in everyday life across the African diaspora—of Blackness as an affirmation of life. She exposes “the banality of white supremacy,” which attacks human agency, dignity, and freedom and argues that the humanity of Black people extends beyond moral and political forms of resistance. It is, as Etoke beautifully demonstrates, in the lived reality of Black people’s affirmation of life in contingency, in making meaning beyond the quagmire of despair. Black Existential Freedom reminds us that no better world can emerge without active, fought-for freedom. She counsels us to be inspired and learn from those who rose to the occasion of that responsibility and to draw upon the resources of our creativity at every aspect of existence, which, we should remember, also means life. Yes, this book is at birth a classic work in Black existential thought. Read it. Learn from it. And share it, as I plan to, far and wide.”
Boston Review: Nathalie Etoke talked about her book in this author interview.