Black (ante)heroism

Stefano Harney & Fred Moten

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten are authors of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Autonomedia/Minor Compositions 2013) and the forthcoming All
Incomplete also from Minor Compositions. The Undercommons has been translated into Spanish and German, with further translations under way in Thai, Portuguese, Italian, French and Indonesian. Fred Moten teaches in the Performance Studies Department at New York University. Stefano Harney is an independent scholar and holds an Honorary Professorship at the Institute of Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia and is a Theory Tutor for
the Dutch Art Institute. Stefano and Fred are Visiting Critics at the Yale School of Art. Fred is also the author of the trilogy from Duke University Press consent not to be a single being (2018-2019) and a number of poetry collections including The Service Porch (2016), The Little Edges (2014), and The Feel Trio (2014). Stefano is author of State Work: Public Administration and Mass Intellectuality also from Duke University Press (2002). Fred lives in New York City and Stefano lives in Brasilia.

The Undercommons | © fFurious, 2013

The work of The Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) allows us to ask a question about heroism. The example of the way they worked, and the conditions under which they worked allow us to say that they both produced a wall of heroes, and did so under heroic conditions, in the eye of the permanent climate change of racial capitalism. Now as we look back on this time, OBAC’s work on the Wall of Respect seems to place the heroic into sharp relief for us. And yet at the risk of being misunderstood, especially misunderstood in our profound respect for OBAC, and in our own ‘black hero’ worship, we nonetheless are prompted to ask: is the black hero an oxymoron? Unless we are to understand the black hero as a version of a white hero—that is as a monument to a people—then we must suggest that the black hero somehow and against our own hearts, must be understood as unheroic, or more accurately, anti-heroic, or even anteheroic. Indeed insofar as the black heroic stands in relation to the heroic it must be anti-heroic, and insofar as its formation is outside the heroic, it must be anteheroic. Its failure to form the relationship of hero and people makes it anti-heroic but its preservation in/of the deformation of anything as regulatory as a people by its individuated and monumentalized hero marks it as anteheroic.

It seems clear that trying to understand the black hero as a derivation of the white hero only multiplies derivation and could therefore be satisfying only to the most derivative class, the most regulative and self-regulated class. In fact, the white hero is himself a derivative of a derivative, derived of a people who are themselves derived of the human which is itself the category of regulation of the species-being that gives rise to racialization, a phenomenon of which ‘a’ people are a (di)version. That white hero in turn is erected to monumentalize a people, and fix a part of so-called humanity in a regulatory relation with other peoples, with their own heroes and monuments. The hero is the individuated monument to this racialization. The monument is a racial artifact, a regulatory fetish of a people in the figure of the individual, one and many in fallacious relation. There’s a telling moment in Heidegger’s infamous ‘Rectorate Address’ which Noam Chomsky notices in his essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’. Heidegger speaks, and Chomsky derisively and rightly criticizes that speech, of ‘truth [a]s the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge’ The hero might be said to embody that truth and it is in this regard that the hero is a monument to a people. Such monumentality cannot be ours. It requires us to consider what it is to be a people. Are black people ‘a people’? What do we call the everyday relinquishing of the fantasy of being a people in which black people have been engaged? What do we call that intensity of the entanglement of solidarity and differentiation, which constantly and radically disrupts certainty, clarity and whatever modality of strength that accompanies them? We want to say that the beauty of black people is in their consistent refusal to constitute a people. We move against heroism and monumentality and we need a word, or something, to correspond to the beauty and intensity of that movement. At the same time, when we have appealed to that word/concept it has never really fit even in the midst of an appeal to it which exceeds it, like the Wall of Respect. Maybe this has to do with the long tradition of muralism that links what AfricCobra and OBAC did to folks like Rivera and Cuevas and Flores in Mexico. And this also has to do with the relation between whiteness, subjectivity and heroism, a fantasmatic convergence that models subjectivity. The black anti-hero, or the black anteheroic, then, is not so much a figure as the cutting of a figure, which Richard Powell brilliantly reveals, perhaps a little against his own grain—soloist as bas antechamber to a social practice; a continuous preface, a swinging door, a blood stain’d gatelessness, a vestibule as Hortense Spillers says, that leads to the rupture, the preservation in deformation, of black social life, by no invitation only. This is the black (ante)heroic, which is to say that heroism isn’t the right word until you put some black in front of it that can’t wear off.


Could it be then that the white hero must fall, but the black hero must fail? This is the first sense in which those we love on the Wall might be honoured with something more and less than heroism. They might be honoured instead with a redacted heroism, an honour born not of the history of dishonour but the history of disowning honour, of its collectivization. That refusal of the game of honour, as Orlando Patterson puts it, which constitutes subjectivity as an effect of power and as the degradation of sociality, is what is refused before it is offered. Here we should perhaps begin this failure to honour honour with Huey P. Newton. H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were on the Wall, but Newton was to rise as the Wall fell. He was to struggle in the double sense through heroism, through the monumental, honoured as a black hero. But in the end (and as the end of the beginning) he recommended what he called revolutionary suicide. Was this perhaps—especially as it was outlined in the autobiography—something more than dying for the people? Could it be that in the idea of revolutionary suicide—death as part of life, and not its monumentalization—that Newton suggests the following formulation: the black hero does not sacrifice for the people, he is sacrificed for the people? Moreover, this black heroic passivity/passion bears an irreducible sociality. Or, to put this another way, what if what must die for the people is not only the hero but also the very idea of a people.The black ante-hero sacrifices to preserve the anticipatory and anti-regulatory deformation of the people against the grain of monumentalization and the formation of a people.

Another way to approach this is through applying the most stringent form of analysis, the logic of black pessimism. No slave, no world, as Frank Wilderson says; and given that this wall is erected and comes down, like its black heroes, in the world, those heroes have failed (at abolition); and so the world remains, in all its geocidal, genocidal relation to the earth and its beings. This kind of analysis zeroes in on the undeniably unheroic, the hero who fails, who fails to cohere into the monumental, who fails to instantiate any coherence of a people, as statue, statute, status, or state. She would appear most devastatingly as never to have been erected to be torn down, who cannot fall having always already fallen into abandon and dispossession.

This analysis washes the wall for further revision of the black anteheroic, for preservation and priority of this washing away, this washing over and under. Cedric Robinson writes about the preservation of the ontological totality. It is his answer to how something that should have been impossible given the laws of the hero and his people, nonetheless comes into existence. The ontological totality is a conjuring of collective African being at the moment of struggle, at the height of insurrection, and even at the point of death in battle. But crucially and excrutiatingly it is this impossibility that forms its condition, or perhaps deforms its unconditional. Its Africanness is therefore more than African and more than being. Its preservation requires its opening, its incoherence, its refusal to coalesce into anything like a people. It is, in other words, not African but Pan-African! It is the black radical tradition insofar as it was given to us and in us to be given away, such dispersion itself being the opposite of the heroic and more in the direction of the sacrificial. And what’s continually sacrificed is the soloist and yet at the same time the soloist continually appears to be sacrified and dispersed, preserving the experiment by failing its monumentalization. Albert Murray can’t quite get to this in The Hero and the Blues. But Nanny Grigg or Nat Turner, Robinson teaches us, keep something going through their more or less certain deaths, keep something going that itself cannot win under the rule(s) of the hero and his people, but survives in even more impossible ways. There is something unheroic about this, the failure to win, and something other than heroic about it, too. Under the law of the hero, even tragic heroes are remembered despite their own fall or death through the victory of a people. They are monumentalized for having fallen on the road to success. Or, at least, this is the way a white hero is conceived. But the black anti- and anteheroic is condensed and dispersed in sacrifice for the victory of the people by the ontological totality in its antagonistic relation to a people.

And with the help of OBAC—as well as AACM, Africobra, Jazz in the Alley and others—we can imagine that there could be another way to think about the women and men we call black heroes, the soloists, about what they did, and about what they rendered, beyond the heroic and unheroic as it comes to us in this world. And to do this, like many before us, we have to look closely at the work, their way of working, and the place where their work went on.


The first thing we notice when we pay attention is that OBAC, the street gangs, the tavern operator, the neighbours, survived under daily conditions that we might otherwise say, but should not say too easily, gave rise to the heroic. The place where the work went on and the people who did that work emerge from black social life, from the impossible everyday, conducted everyday. People live in the anti-/anteheroic in the quotidian world of a denied and refused peoplehood. In the space around the Wall, the superlative, virtuosity, the impossible under generalized conditions of the impossible, is on from can’t see to can’t see. In the presence of a certain kind of profanation of heroism, we see the everyday quality of the deed, its constant revision, its collective condition, its disruption, its unmonumental apposition.

But we might have to resist taking away an idea from this unmonumental apposition that everyday black people are heroic, and instead, without denying it, focus on the opposite: that the black anti-heroic is quotidian, ordinary, common, vernacular, in a constant variation on the routine. It’s not so much that daily life is infused with heroic deeds, but rather that heroism is reworked, or unworked, as daily collective social life, that is, as prosaic, repeated, revised, varied, experimental, discontinued, started up. A lot happened to the wall. There was first and foremost what Romi Crawford called ‘a being present and around the Wall.’ There were plays put on and music played in front of it, yes. But parts got painted over, a dead body left propped against it, the FBI took pictures, and it got burnt. Some journalism portrays this as what the Wall went through, a sign of the times, and symbol of the place. But really, that was the Wall, not what it went through; that’s what OBAC was, and this anti-heroism existed in service to the black anteheroic, an everyday commitment to the annihilative provisionality of being that was, at the same time, total.

OBAC did not just render the black anteheroic but enacted it, and thanks to them, we can feel black (ante)heroic differently. Revision—collective, roughed up, held, handed and rubbed—and also its dissolution, its violence, like the Wall itself, come from the everyday to make the black anteheroic. But it is also so because the black anteheroic does not erect a people, a monument, a destiny, but fucks with them. If we look at photos we have of the painting, and hear the poetry around the wall, and the music, we encounter again and again antagonism, painting over, house paint and white wash, cardboard and string, as well as a total commitment to the impermanence of form because form is to be used, like an everyday thing. You use it, that is to say deform it; you use it without owning it, without permission to use it; you don’t keep it for a monumental occasion but preserve it, in letting it go, in acceding to and enacting its transformation, in and for the everyday. Destruction is not the opposite of creation, but its kernel; or, as Arthur Jafa says, love is the message and the message is death.

(We also get to ask about the perversity of the trite figure of the everyday hero in wider popular culture. The worthless coin of misrecognition. The imposition of the statue, the portrait, the testament as a way archetypically to freeze the individuating moment in the ontological totality in the figure of Archie Bunker, the original King of Queens. The recognition of the everyday hero threatens the preservation of this ontological totality, but it can be parried and deflected precisely because the bestowal of heroism in the interest of telling the truth of a people rings false in the impossibility of its relation to the people’s black and open generality.)

In other words, the aim of the wall was not its preservation, which will have never forestalled what we might call its disappearance, but, rather, its transformation precisely in the interest of the preservation of the ontological totality. In this it differs from the monumental. Nor was the aim, strictly speaking, the preservation of the heroes but, rather, the general anti- and ante-heroism that sent them. Nor, and finally most importantly, was the purpose the preservation of a people, their monumentalisation. What OBAC gives us is the deformations of a people in the name of something else, something stranger, weirder, more beautiful—a general antagonism of species being.

The Wall and its histories help us see that a people is just a regulatory reduction of the people; and a person is simply the sign of a people or, better yet, a people’s unit of value, pegged to the hero in mutual impossibility. This reductive formula bears the national(ist) subjection of the people’s weirdness, the constant differentiation of which—in and as undercommon practice, in and as irreducibly haptical and topographical social poiesis, in and as study—will have been rendered coherent by means of arithmetical separation. This is how nationalism and individuation go together, how there can be this seemingly paradoxical combination of national character and the absolute singularity of persons. The monument, which is an extension and intensification of the logic of the portrait, is the crystallization, resolution, and/or embodiment of this paradox: the national individual in the glory of a general equivalence he stands for, simultaneously abstract and unique—the representative man as a kind of currency, the coin of the realm. But differentiation is neither individuation nor pluralization. It refuses the law of the integer. Go to any bar to see this weirdness under duress, on display, as it tries to defend itselflessness. Go to a black club, or church, to see how this is done with the greatest and most delicately violent technique, preservation given in an immeasurable range of dispersion and disbursal, as our romantic disposition, our mantic deposition, our antic apposition. We so crazy we tore up our own monument—kept rubbing it with furious questions, kept submitting it to the terrible enjoyment of our condition, until it disappeared. Nathaniel Mackey might say that the wall of respect is another instantiation of our “eroding witness.” In this regard, black nationalism is anti- and ante-nationalism, just as black heroism is anti- and ante-heroism. That’s that African pan.

Washing our work

Now what might this mean for those of us who walk in the footsteps of OBAC today, which is to say in the footsteps of the black radical tradition, and in the footsteps of everyday black social life as the collective honour to refuse honour, the black anteheroic? Well, we’ve always had black heroes. So, what does it mean to render them in our work, in our writing, with this understanding of the anteheroic? How do we do that? Does it mean, with OBAC, we have to find ways to de-monumentalise our work and the work we write about? Is it unfair to say that the current academic form, insofar as it has been adapted in black studies, places black study at risk to monumentalisation, seeks the heroic, pulls away from the black anteheroic?

One version of this monumentalisation is the amount of honour bestowed on individualized position. Spillers speaks of it as the ruse, or the lure, of personality. The mere presence of the black studies scholar is taken as the victory to be preserved, rather than as an effect of the compromise forced on universities by a movement of black people. When we allow this to happen it is not just that this mere presence in the academy assumes a model of heroic representation of a people, but also that this attitude seeks to regulate what that movement might really wish to make disappear or wash over amidst these derivations of appointment and position. We are not the culmination, in individuated units, of a people.

On the other hand, taking OBAC, AfriCobra, AACM, and others not only for how they inspire us but for how they undo us, how their anteheroics preserve the chance to undermine the temptations of the monumental and the lies of the hero and his people, we can perhaps start to help each other disappear, paint over each other, play over one another, allow our solos to fade into our noise. The Wall was at the service of an undercommon collective flight from being. It was not the object. So long as edited collections, conferences, and books are the object, we will be heroic. We have to find new ways of working that insist on the impermanence of the monuments, of the heroes, and the inconsistent and exhausted totality of the collective. This is more than a reversal of all we do, though it is that; it is a sacrifice. Sacrifice right now is regarded as foolhardy, and the preservation of status, statue, station, state is lauded as virtuous. But black virtuosity, black heroism, had better be something bad!