Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid.
Frank B. Wilderson, III.
South End Press.
498 pp. $18.
This chronicle of the adventures of Frank Wilderson, III reminds Black Americans that the classic novel and film “The Spook Who Sat By The Door”—where social worker Dan Freeman, the first Black CIA agent, uses his training to turn a street gang into a revolutionary army—wasn’t always metaphor. The author proudly portrays himself as a modern-day Br’er Rabbit-David Walker combo, a trickster character who loves truth so much he’s willing to literally fight for it, regardless of the costs. This beautifully written book documents those struggles for truth, both in South Africa (where he was a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress between the period of Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison and his first years as president) and in America, as a teen in the heyday of late 1960s Berkeley and as a middle-aged Baby Boomer in early 00s-era California academe.
Wilderson is anything but a good Black liberal. A laughable notion, that, since he’d clearly eat one for lunch and spit out the bones. The wickedly great twist of this American Book Award-winning memoir—which went through two book publishers unsuccessfully before landing at South End Press—is that Wilderson was/is a hard-core Leftist revolutionary during an era in which that was/is insanely unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic.
In South Africa, Mandela once called the author, one of the few African-Americans to help lead the ANC, “a threat to national security”—in short, a terrorist. Wilderson was named such because he and his colleagues continued to clandestinely push for socialism by any means necessary while Mandela had embraced the military-corporate establishment and the idea of peace and reconciliation—the latter the author dismisses as “anger management for Blacks.” The hope of a socialist South Africa led by Leftist Chris Hani, Wilderson’s leader (seen with Mandela above), is eventually shot full of holes as Hani‘s blood leaks out. “It was a blind faith I never threatened with scrutiny,“ he said of his time as a South African revolutionary. “I simply incorporated my dream to no longer be the slave of my appearance (the slave of thick lips and guilty eyes; my dream to free my mirror of all contemporary gestures—you’re Black but you’re intelligent, Black but fairly handsome, Black but you come from good….good Black stock?), incorporated it into the dream of a proletarian dictatorship. For five years I kept the faith. But now the world was rushing in again.”
He doesn’t fare much better later, in the land of the free, hope of the slave. The stifling nature of white elite “liberal” universities—and his romantic relationship with a white woman, a fellow professor—brings out his inner Huey Freeman in ways that would make the character’s creator Aaron McGruder chuckle and Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West quietly step away before their speaking tours get canceled. In one of many serious-but-hilarious episodes, Wilderson laughs at the tension he created in his department after he told his white students he went to South Africa because he wanted to kill a white person, but wanted it to matter politically. At one point, the author asks himself “if Black hatred isn’t a deep well. I drop a stone into it and listen, waiting for the sound when it hits the water. It’s a sound I never hear.”
Simultaneously an honorary Black South African and an honorary American, Wilderson is under the illusion that he is free wherever he goes, which brings all kinds of trouble down on his hard head, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. (As he admits, terms such as delicate and balance “are words I can hardly spell.”) The repeated collision between freedom and voluntary slavery makes a spectacular creative tension that is sustained throughout, deftly sailing the near-500-page tome onto intellectual, personal and socio-political shores occupied by 20th-century writing legends James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver and Black Panther living legend Assata Shakur. “I find myself wanting to go home,” he muses at one point, “with no idea where that might be.” His home is with those writers.
Wilderson combines poetry, political travelogue/adventure, diary, radical theory, autobiography, essay, domestic comedy and folklore into organized, relentless time-shifting fragments that explode, shooting up to cut through pre-conceived notions and perceptions carried by those who dare to follow radical autobiography and memoir. “Incognegro” is a clinic for aspiring writers and thinkers. Wilderson’s need to find the larger meanings contained in the glory of (his own) narrative serves him well; he is doing what his former ultra-Leftist ANC comrades, in a lost struggle against Mandela and the ANC’s compromised hegemony, had to eventually do when the music died: “[to] speak his name and mark his moment in history before history came to an end.”
By willing to leap, bloody sword in hand, into contradictions most Black people happily choose to ignore, the author shows a dangerous level of self-awareness and honesty that has led many of his scribe-tribe to madness or deep cynicism. He is saved by his righteous and romantic rage, sarcastic humor and incredible command of the mysterious alchemy of turning word to lyric, past to present and back again, thoughts into actions, and actions into written memories. It’s that latter magic, superbly done here, that is truly revolutionary.