Reconfiguring hope, with room for melancholy

“The American way of thinking can be quite optimistic. We tend to embrace the idea that the future will always be better, and hope is seen as the opposite of the melancholic and the tragic. ” — Joseph Winters *09
Courtesy Duke University Press

In the days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, politicians and pundits hailed the ascendance of the nation’s first black president as a turning point in United States history — even, according to some, the dawn of a new “postracial” era. 

But Joseph Winters *09, an assistant professor of religious studies at Duke University, argues that the desire to see Obama’s election as a collective triumph for the country left little space to acknowledge and mourn the complex racial history that preceded it, as well as the racial tensions that persisted throughout his presidency. 

In his new book, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress (Duke University Press), Winters draws on African American literature and film to offer a new vision of hope that makes space for vulnerability and tragedy.

What do you mean by “hope draped in black”?

It’s about refiguring how we think about hope through a kind of melancholy. In the book, I make a distinction between hope and optimism. The American way of thinking can be quite optimistic. We tend to embrace the idea that the future will always be better, and hope is seen as the opposite of the melancholic and the tragic. But it seems to me that the melancholic can actually make us aware of the suffering that has been — and continues to be — part of our world. It ensures that we don’t forget. So our hope for a better world really becomes dependent on the idea that we can continue to acknowledge suffering and violence and tragedy, in our past and in our present.

How have African American artists grappled with this kind of hope?

I look at how jazz and blues have operated in the works of the writers Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. Their novels trouble a certain way of understanding time. One important element of jazz is dissonance and competing rhythms. Morrison and Ellison draw on jazz tropes and images to expose the limitations of linear narratives. What we think of as progress might not be progress at all for some people — in moving forward, they might think we’re erasing something. Or you might think you’re moving forward, but in fact you’re repeating the past. Morrison draws on this concept to illuminate how the North became a site of violence and discrimination for black people who migrated there in the early 20th century. Instead of the North being a place of progress and possibility, the trauma of the South actually repeated itself. 

What are other ways that we can see melancholic hope embodied in our culture?

I watch a lot of sports, and I was very struck by the recent protest of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who chose to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem. His explanation of why he knelt during the celebration of the flag echoed an argument I engage with in the book: this idea that America has a special errand in the world, but it’s not living up to its ideals. For Kaepernick, the current violence against black communities by police is an example of that. You don’t undermine the specialness of the country by criticizing it — in fact, if you believe America has this privileged place, you have to speak up. You acknowledge the violence and the dissonance by saying, “We can be better, and we have to be better, and this is how we’re falling short.” Although in the book I challenge that assumption about America’s uniqueness, I appreciate the relationship between melancholy and hope in Kaepernick’s protest. 

You also examine Barack Obama’s writings and speeches — what kind of hope does he embrace?

Others have observed that Obama has this tragic sensibility. He always wanted to temper the enthusiasm that was projected onto him; he’d remind his readers or his listeners that racial inequality is very much still with us, and it won’t go away just by wishing it away. But that tragic sensibility was always placed within a progressive narrative — even at very bleak moments, he’s said that every single generation is making progress, getting better. And in some ways, for me, that sheds light on the limitations of politics. He has to frame hope in this way that diminishes its tragic quality.

Interview conducted and condensed by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux ’11