In recent months, hope has become our daily companion. But what if we lose hope? A conversation with the author and professor of psychology Bayo Akomolafe
“Hope” has become a powerful word as we struggle toward the end of the pandemic. The promise of medical breakthroughs, of more personal protective equipment (PPE), of vaccines, and of a more just method for their distribution, has, for many of us, kept us going. We’ve endured months of lockdowns and loneliness by clinging relentlessly to hope.
But what if hope isn’t the answer? In this interview, Bayo Akomolafe, philosopher, writer, activist, professor of psychology, and executive director of the Emergence Network, talks about what it means to lose hope, and what not having hope allows us to see.
Bayo is globally recognized for his poetic, unconventional, and counterintuitive take on civic action and social change. He is the author and editor of We Will Tell Our Own Story!, with professors Molefi Kete Asante and Augustine Nwoye, and These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home. Furthermore, he hosts an online course, We Will Dance with Mountains: Writing as a Tool for Emergence. In all his work, he inspires an activism that does not treat the crises of our times as exterior to who we are, and that raises the question of whether our response to the global crisis of civilization, ecology, and colonization is part of the crisis itself.
Bayo, in 2017 you published These Wilds Beyond Our Fences, in which you look at some of the world’s most pressing questions through the lens of fatherhood, specifically in letters you wrote to your then three-year-old daughter, Alethea. What will you tell her about the pandemic?
The pandemic has shown us that we are not the lords that we think we are, that we are not sovereign; we are not independent. We are more intimate beyond nation-state boundaries and borders than we think we are. We call this era, this epoch, this post-Holocene period, the “Anthropocene” for a reason: it is a controversial term, but the way we use it and the way it’s been used, and how I sometimes deploy the term, is to invite us to sit with this idea that we’re not alone. In a sense, we are living on an alien planet. And it has always been alien. We thought we had everything together, but we don’t. The modern settlements that have created our bodies, created our senses of stability, are withdrawing their endorsement. And so, we’ve become fugitives, we’ve become refugees, even within our own home environments.
In one of your essays you write, “My ultimate purpose is to show how working faster most likely reinforces the crisis we are trying to evade.” You also use the term “coming down to earth,” which sounds like falling from grace. How do you make that resonant so that people are not scared?
I wouldn’t rule out fear altogether. It has its place. My broad response to this question is that history doesn’t support the idea that the more we put in work, or think faster, and work harder, the more things shift, especially for people who look like me and come from the part of the world that I come from. It has been the case historically, even contemporarily, that the more we have been recipients of Western benevolence, the more the world has tried to fix our problems, the more those problems have been exacerbated. So, those of us apportioned the territory rudely designated as the Global South have a ringside view of the irony of agency.
Contemporary forms of activism are increasingly part of the architecture of the norm. So that even with our most radical acts of escapism and emancipation, it seems we are entrenching ourselves deeper and deeper into the paradigm that gave birth to them in the first place. There’s a carceral toxicity at work here, a cyclicity, if you will. We keep on going round in circles, driven and motivated by the premise that human beings have this essential power, and that we’re cut off from the rest of the planet, and that it's left to us to fix things. I’m so glad that conversations that are sometimes caught up within the field of discourse that is known as “new materialism”, posthumanism, indigenous insights, are helping to disturb the idea that we can unilaterally change our world.
I think the world is agentially alive. It is vital. And it makes vital, stunning, shocking contributions to how it comes to matter. This is not about us winning the trophy at the end of the day. This is probably about us learning to listen, learning to slow down. Because if we keep on doing the solutions — not that solutions are ruled out, I’m not trying to create a binary here — but most of the solutions that we come up with are still entrenched in the paradigm of mastery, of colonial mastery. And that gives birth to so many problems.
You once said the predominant metaphor or structure that still underlies all of our thinking is the slave ship. Can you elaborate on the significance of the slave ship?
I feel drawn to think of the slave ship as an energetic, vibrant, shimmering figure that hasn’t disappeared. It hasn’t been composted. It’s still functionally, practically alive in how the world comes to work today. And by “the world” I mean modern civilization. Industrialization did not just spring out of thin air. It was built on the backs of slaves, it was built on the backs of the Middle Passage, it was built on the backs of the transatlantic slave trade, it was built on the backs of cotton plantations. It was built on the back of excavation, denial, displacement, all of that, and the slave ship was key to that.
The story we tell is that the last slave ship, possibly called Clotilda, just fell to the earth, became waste and was forgotten. I think that that’s not exactly the case. I think the shoreline ate up the slave ship and became the slave ship. So that the ways we work today still mimic the hierarchical structures, the architecture, the presumptions, the power dynamics, the inequities that were available and functional within the slave ship.
That brings me to notice that we might still be in the slave ship: we are steered, instigated, moved, settled, and shaped by the cybernetic legacies of the slave ship, which are operant in the world the slave ship made possible. The ways we conduct our business, how we perform protest, how we hierarchically arrange bodies all the way down to (what we rudely call) “nature”—even how we try to solve problems — crystallizes a form of colonial mastery that is the pulse of the Anthropocene. For instance, the idea of justice as inclusivity seems to me to be a way of bringing people from the lower deck, which was where black bodies were incarcerated, to the upper deck. And I like to say, maybe “justice” doesn’t serve the radical aspirations, the desirous imaginations, we might be invited to attend to today. Maybe we need something more radical than just climbing up on deck while we’re still within the same slave ship.
Something more radical — what might that be?
I don’t know, brother. And that’s it! If I could come up with a manifesto — I’m very, very shy about notions of the future, of utopian ideas of arrival. That is not to say that I’m not already engaged in anticipatory dynamics and futural politics. But I feel that part of our deep-threaded, loamy composting, place-based work today is to stay with the trouble of our imbrication with patterns and bodies and hyperobjects that exceed us.
There’s something about this moment that almost invites us to not be so eloquent. To pause. And not be so trigger-happy with our visions of the future. That there’s some kind of work that invites us to slow down, to stay with the confusion. And that is not something on the other side of thinking about what the world might look like. But there is some kind of work that maybe invites us to work with the tensions of this time.
By tensions, I mean, for instance, the phenomenon of grief, of grieving and grief. There’s something about staying with that, that might allow us to have new kinds of visions, because visions are not human phenomena. Visions are territorial assemblages. So unless we meet the world and form new wild coalitions of acting, we will continue to reproduce visions that keep us in colonial, toxic cycles of becoming.
Some of the concepts you examine very critically, specifically the idea of human agency, of a human-centric, anthropocentric view of the world, seem integral to the world of business. In many ways, business is instrumental in driving change. But you could also argue that real change is not going to come from business. What do you think?
I wonder if the very notion of business is already changing. I wonder what a pandemic brings to the picture that we may not be able to see or language at the moment. I think as value changes, and the way we think about value, and the way we think about the human body, and the way we think about human settlements, and the way we even conceive work, and language, and becoming, and travel — as all of these change, I think business will have to change as well. And business might be unrecognizable. Business in ten years might be unrecognizable to us today. As such, I wouldn’t rule out business as already being radicalized by a pandemic, or by the chaos of the moment. I think it just might well be. And so, maybe the questions that we need to look forward to might come from the realms and the places that you are curating.
How optimistic are you about the behavior change, the mindset change, that’s needed to tackle climate change?
Pessimism is my weapon. That might be scandalous to some of us who need to champion hope, or who need to be optimistic. I’m not ruling out optimism. I’m not even thinking about pessimism as ‘the other’ in a binary or dualism that situates optimism against pessimism.
Let me put it this way: black bodies can no longer depend on the idea that the world is working in our favor. For all of us for that matter. Remember, I’m still sticking with this idea that we’re on the slave ship. To those who insist that we hope, I wonder what hope does within the shackled environment of the slave ship. The slave ship needs to crack open for me to even begin to understand what the world might do with us, what generosity might mean, what hospitality might look like.
So, I don’t have a lot of optimism with these gatherings. I wouldn’t rule out visiting them, I wouldn’t even say don't go there or don't gather. But I’m looking for something that is a shock to thought. Something that disturbs continuity, something that breaks us and stops us in our tracks, and invites us to go to places that we've never gone before.
Image: Bayo Akomolafe