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Q&A: Prof. Joseph Winters discusses balance between hope and melancholy in Black literature

Joseph Winters, Alexander F. Hehmeyer associate professor of religious studies and African and African American studies, is the author of “Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress”. In the book, Winters explores the Black literary and aesthetic tradition of exploring loss and anguish to challenge beliefs of America’s sustained racial progress. 

The Chronicle spoke to Winters about problematic conceptions of American history, the value of remembrance and how prominent Black writers grappled with these themes in their writing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Tell us a little bit about your work. How did you come up with the idea for this book, and why did you feel like this idea of Black melancholy was important to document and explore?

Joseph Winters: My work is in looking at Black religious thought in conversation with critical theory. So I approach Black religion through literature, philosophy and African American studies. Generally, I got interested in ideas of melancholy and mourning, not only in the sense of remembering loss but also a melancholy of the disposition. So I was reading a lot of authors that people thought of as not optimistic, and I said, “No, I actually think that these authors are not necessarily leading us to despair, but are actually leading us to be more attentive to the suffering and violence of our social world.” 

I saw these themes in works of philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin and authors like W.E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. I was also looking at the world around 2008-2009, when eformer] President Barack Obama was ascending and I was hearing language about American Exceptionalism and being post-racial. So I was trying to think about if we can imagine a kind of hope that’s not optimism, a hope infused with melancholy, which would allow us to mourn and be attentive to suffering.

TC: In the book, you decry the narrative that our history is a mostly linear forward path towards progress. Can you speak to why this narrative is historically inaccurate, and give us some examples of how our history cycles back around to the same themes of racial backlash and retrenchment?

JW: We can see that there are certain conditions that reproduce themselves over time—certain conditions that don’t change much. We can acknowledge the fact that certain things have changed—the fact that I’m teaching here proves that. But we also know that there are structural conditions, whether they are modes of exploitation associated with capitalism, anti-Black racism or sexism, that have been inveterate, sedimented conditions. 

There’s something about the linear notion of progress that allows us to see certain achievements as somehow resolving and eliminating those structural conditions. Empirically, we can take a look at state violence against Black people or U.S. militarism and see that certain things intensify and perpetuate over time. Events like [the Capitol insurrection on] Jan. 6 show the persistence of the idea that something is being taken away from white Americans and needs to be taken back. You hear Frederick Douglass talking about this idea with some of the white workers in his narrative from the mid-19th century as well. In addition, when [President Joe] Biden and [Vice President Kamala] Harris won, Biden said something along the lines of “America’s back.” So this misplaced optimism about recuperating an ideal [that has never existed] has been repeated across the aisle and over time.

TC: Relatedly, what do you find problematic about popular conceptions of America as existing in a post-racial era? How can the narrative that we’ve mostly solved our racial problems act as a limit to real progress?

JW: It’s precisely in moments when we can actually reflect on the fractures, conflicts, and enduring conditions of violence and suffering in order to change things that rhetoric comes in and says that this is somehow a deviation and something needs to be restored instead of changed. Ideas of U.S. exceptionalism and progress, conceptions that [former President Donald] Trump is just an aberration, get reproduced subtly through commercials, film, music, and political and civic rituals. 

There are certain discourses in popular culture—such as Kendrick Lamar’s album Section.80, which pushes back on the popular romanticization of the 80’s—that exemplify the reckoning that we need to have with our history. There are also ways in which activism, with slogans about remembrance, help us keep negative events in our memory, to prevent us from wilfully forgetting or reconciling some of these things.

TC: Instead of this vision of America, you contend that we must continuously grapple with notions of loss and sorrow in order to move forward. Can you further explain this idea? What can you say about the productive value of confronting negative emotions?

JW: What’s important to me is recognition of loss and melancholy as an ethical practice. I’m interested in vulnerability and openness to the “other.” Ultimately, I’m interested in a kind of existential wound as a way to heighten our sensitivity, permeability and exposure to the world. Many of our practices shape us to desire autonomy and coherence in our identity, but there’s something about melancholy which forces us to acknowledge that suffering actually affects us. There’s a way to relate through negative aspects like grief or anger, instead of trying to repress or deflect these emotions. We have a tendency to define ourselves as stable subjects in contrast with incoherent “others.” I’m wondering if anguish and melancholy can help us distance ourselves from that and find new ways of being in the world—an anguish that’s about acknowledging wounds but also acknowledging possibility at the same time.

TC: You use the specific phrase “the agony of progress”. How do you posit that hope, specifically, can exist in the absence of optimism and through this recognition of anguish?

JW: I’ve actually changed my view on hope a little bit since writing the book. But in the book, I recognized that hope itself acknowledges a kind of doubt in the same way that faith does. If we think of hope as the expectation of some desired outcome for a better future, there’s always the possibility that things can turn out in a way we don’t want them to. In the book, I’m trying to say that if we want to think of alternative possibilities to the present, there’s an implied hope that things can be better. This hope is a little amorphous, but I wanted to suggest that one of the prerequisites to a better future is a heightened attentiveness to the suffering and violence that gets inflicted on people. I also think that often, people have really good intentions, but even with those intentions, certain forms of violence, erasure and ignorance of people’s grievances and concerns can repro. 

I’m at a place now where hope is not what I’m interested in, but rather energy or even just openness. One of the reasons I’m so interested in literature, aesthetics and music is because we find melancholy beside other aspects. In music, for example, there’s melancholy but also joy and beauty and creation involved. I’m using the term “kinetic anguish” to describe this idea: “anguish” gets at the suffering but “kinetic” gets at the possibility of ongoing movement.`

TC: You use the work of prominent writers such as Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and W.E.B. Du Bois as examples of the Black literary tradition of exploring loss and tragedy. What are some of the most important themes you came across in this tradition? 

JW: When I was reading these authors, I noticed three really important things. For one, in the titles of their books, notions of hope and melancholy don’t have to be opposites. As a matter of fact, these authors say that we have to recognize both together. The second thing is the relationships between art and politics. I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy relationship between the two, but these authors’ engagement with things like racism, sexual violence, patriarchy or capital draws from aesthetics like music or poetry. I’m really interested in how aesthetics can open up new ways of understanding problems in the world. And lastly, reading these authors gave me more confidence in Black literary sources. In academics, we’re educated to think that certain kinds of sources, particularly in the Black literary tradition, are somehow secondary or not as formative as Eurocentric discourses that make up Western thought. For me, reading these authors’ works showed me that they have a lot to contribute in transforming the way we think about the familiar topics of humanity, time, memory and possibility.


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