Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Wyatt Sarafin reviews Afro-Fabulations

Tavia Nyong’o. Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life. New York: NYU Press, 2019. 280 pp.

Review by Wyatt E. Sarafin

6 May 2020

Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life is a work of methodological subterfuge—an impressive feat of critical fabulation in its own right. What do posthumanism and performance, queer of color critique, and afro-pessimism have to do with one another? Sampling everything from Crystal LaBeija’s drag queen spectacles to Samuel Delany’s speculative futurities, Nyong’o weaves these disparate threads together across eight chapters, guided by the ghostly hand of José Muñoz. A spectral assemblage of multiple moving parts, Afro-Fabulations is very much a product of the theoretical present, and yet it is haunted by the remainders of a queer past. A key formulation comes early on: “I am less interested in giving afro-fabulation a precise definition than I am in conveying something like the varieties of afro-fabulative experience. I write at a time when the powers of the false are needed more than ever, precisely in order to refuse the terms by which present cultural politics are increasingly being reordered to suit the dictates of a bullying and belligerent white nationalism. In the age of a Liar-in-Chief seeking to make American great again, many have argued for the need to double down on Enlightenment reason and have even sought to blame ‘old school postmodernism’ for creating the conditions of moral relativism in which climate change denials and ‘alternative facts’ can flourish with impunity. This critique badly mistakes oppositional performative strategies that have emerged from the margins as being the same as, or even comparable to, the enduring powers of propaganda that have long occupied the center. It blames those who have been victimized by the empowered fictions for inventing countermythologies of their own. . . . Like other forms of minor and reparative expression, they are ‘weak’ insofar as they fail to provide robust self-defense against the partisans of positivist and empirical history” (pp. 43–44). That is the crux of the Afro-Fabulations, and as such Nyong’o is very much in conversation with Stephen Best’s None Like Us (2019), Darby English’s To Describe a Life (2019), and Phillip Brian Harper’s Abstractionist Aesthetics (2016). These erudite, revisionist projects constitute an intriguing shift in black studies: namely, a turn-away from the critical tendency to revisit the site of the slave archive as what is fundamentally lost and lacking. Instead, the reexamination of black social and aesthetic production is privileged over the Benjaminian tradition of melancholy historicism. This revisionism is not without its critics. I am sympathetic to the critical skepticism that artworld remediation—the financialized spaces of the gallery’s white cube and black box—can somehow inculcate contemporary black subjectivity. While I do want to push back on certain parts of Afro-Fabulations (mainly, the function of “countermythologies” and the reparative desire to remediate “the varieities of afro-fabulative experience”), I also want celebrate the book’s disjunctive synthesis of minoritarian critique, historical duration, and institutional time. This method of historiographic narration, what Nyong’o terms as “countermemory” in The Amalgamation Waltz (2009), suggests an alternative to historicist paradigms, while still historically grounded in the cultures of performance of early and modern America.