Carl A. Grant, Ashley N. Woodson, and Michael J. Dumas, eds.
The Future is Black: Afropessimism, Fugitivity, and Radical Hope in Education
Routledge, 2020
144 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy D. Horne

The Future is Black: Afropessimism, Fugitivity, and Radical Hope in Education, edited by Carl Grant, Ashley Woodson, and Michael Dumas, utilizes Afropessimistic thought to explain how social constructions of blackness and being fundamentally shape Black students’ educational experiences. Afro-pessimism critically theorizes how chattel enslavement produces the permanent and irreconcilable antagonism between blackness and humanity (Wilderson, 2020). Blackness and enslavement remain inextricably bound well after legal emancipation. In conversation with Black studies scholars such Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Calvin Warren, Hortense Spiller, Jared Sexton, and others cited in the text, contributors to this collection generally define this ontological rupture within the human paradigm as anti-blackness. As such, this edited collection contends, “to fully understand Black students’ ongoing racialized experiences in schools, we have to understand the ways Black people, including children, are positioned in the larger world.” Contributing authors both analyze institutional policies and practices that sustain anti-blackness and thoughtfully engage with fugitive and abolitionist politics.

The first section, “Afropessimism and Fugitivity”, describes the (im)possibilities of Black being in schools revealed through an Afropessimistic analytic. kihana ross advances the afterlife of school desegregation as an anchoring theoretical construct. ross contends, “Black students remain systematically dehumanized and positioned as uneducable,” even though the Brown v. Board legislation declared separate and inequitable schooling unconstitutional. This contradiction recognizes that the ceaselessness of anti-black violence in schools is not reducible to discriminatory policy; rather, Black suffering is a constituent element of Black life across spacetime. By rearticulating Black students’ relation to time, the afterlife of school desegregation disrupts linear progress narratives that relegate the technologies of Black death and dehumanization to the historical past. As Dancy and Edwards aptly suggest, educational institutions still serve as sites for the “propagation and maintenance of a ‘civil’ society dependent on the ownership of Black bodies.” 

Holding such persistent anti-black racism in simultaneity with Black fugitivity provides a critical examination of how Black peoples escape, even if for a moment, racial violence in schools. Jared Givens necessarily places Black fugitivity within the temporal particularity of the antebellum south. Since the state has always contested Black education, Givens argues, “enslaved person[s] stealing away to gain literacy represents the quintessential persona (and political tension) at the heart of the Black education.” This historical framing provides grounding for kihana ross’s contemporary rendering of Black education fugitive spaces, or the refuge that Black educators and students carve out for themselves despite persistent oppression. Although fugitivity is not a permanent place of reprieve, creating spaces where blackness can exist in its fullness is an opportunity for Black peoples to imagine an otherworld beyond their current existence. Thus, fugitive spaces cultivated by Black peoples in classrooms, hallways, or after-school programs, for example, become sites of possibility.

In the next section, “Conceptual Considerations,” contributing authors build on the epistemic breaks within Black fugitivity to examine hope and resistance in educational contexts. For example, Kevin Henry and Shameka Powell find conceptual synergy between Critical Race Theory’s racial realism and Afropessimism’s social death. In one regard, both theorizations describe how the relations of anti-black domination become normalized and pervasive in United States society. In another sense, clarifying the fundamental structure of human antagonism eviscerates (neo)liberal fantasies of educational equality or reform. “neo-liberal norms of civil society would no longer get a free pass as the base frame for political negotiation” according to Shanara Reid-Brinkley. More deeply, Black folks’ liberatory fantasies are bound in what Carl Grant describes as a radical hope that “the world as we know it will have to change” to realize Black “enoughness.” Centering anti-blackness in education research is consequently not overindulgence in damage-centered research (Tuck, 2009) as academics or practitioners could assume; contrarily, radical resistance may emerge through mourning Black suffering.

Contributing authors in the last section, “Research Vignettes,” use empirical inquiry to explore how Black students’ navigation of “the wake” (Sharpe, 2016) may inform research practice. Roderick Carey describes the wake as “the everlasting, seemingly immovable afterlife of slavery.” By acknowledging the logic of Black fungibility as omnipresent in schools, contributors imagine how Black students live within and beyond the veil of antebellum objecthood. Carey, for instance, examines how one Black high school student departs from the pathology typically ascribed to Black maleness by imagining his life beyond current school and neighborhood inequities. In doing so, the contributing author articulates Black futurity as central to the Afropessimistic project to be taken up by educators. In practice, this futurity entails a violent confrontation with the state as a point of departure from anti-black racism. “It is our job, as organizers, to facilitate the type of political consciousness that leads to this type of un-civility,” says David Turner III. Further echoing Professor Givens’ sentiments, Black education is a freedom practice from this perspective, an insistence upon social life amid persistent social death. Educators may consider to what end does their research or practice approach the radical futures Black youth to imagine for themselves.

Overall, centering Afropessimism in education research offers an incisive critique of humanistic assumptions common even in critical race discourses. However, The Future is Black is much more than an unyielding commentary on race theory and education. In a sense, it is the culmination of a collective longing for ‘justice’ beyond that which illegitimate institutions of governance, including schools, can grant Black peoples. This longing eventually yields to the abolitionist desire to “turn this motherfucker out” as Ashley Woodson proclaims. Consequently, The Future is Black is a profound call for the end to schooling as we know, the utter destruction of the anti-black mechanisms that collude in Black dispossession.