Hope Draped in Black

Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress

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Joseph R. Winters
Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , June
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Frank Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign encapsulates the problem Joseph R. Winters’ Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy and the Agony of Progress seeks to correct. The poster is a visual of Obama’s countenance. It stems from a photo of him taken by Mannie Garcia in 2006 for the Associated Press. In this photo, his face is turned slightly to the right as he looks far off into the distance. And even though the onlooker of this poster should know that Obama is black, the tone of his flesh is concealed in a manner that reveals something else about the political marketing that necessitated his rise to the oval office. Obama’s face—half red and half blue—harkens back to the keynote speech at the 2004 democratic convention that galvanized his popularity, a speech where he spoke emphatically about the unity of the red and blue states, a speech where he stated that there was not “a Black America nor a white America nor a Latino America.” In this poster, Obama is not looking the spectator in the eye, there is no direct eye contact that establishes a connection to the onlooker and the portrait, because the emphasis of his message is found underneath his eyes. The emphasis and center of his message is found beneath his countenance in all capital letters: HOPE.

Hope was the theme of his speech in 2004, it was the word that he not only proclaimed to the nation; but also it was the word he tacitly “enfleshed” for American voters in 2008. Obama became the sign of progress, the evidence of post-racialism, the democratic mascot for American liberal advancement.  But this is where Winter’s text intervenes. Winters takes the concept of hope and detaches from it any semblance of optimism; he “blackens” it by replacing optimism with Freud’s theory of melancholia—an unconscious pathological feeling of loss and sorrow—and theorizes what he calls “melancholic hope” (17). This hope is a hope that doesn’t forget, that doesn’t move on, a hope that remembers the cuts and breaks of Black historical life. For far too long liberal conceptions of hope and progress have swept the groans and cries of Black voices underneath its Black teleological rug. Triumphant narratives of integration cover the wounds embedded in the fabric of Black history.  Winters believes that by hoping through the sounds of black sorrow—through instead of against—better possibilities arise in the future of our social worlds.

W.E.B. Du Bois grounds Winters’ monograph. The Souls of Black Folk (A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903), Du Bois’ classic text, functions as the complicated but necessary form of historicizing for Winters’ overall project. In spite of its elitist sensibilities, Winters argues that Du Bois’ book is a “fissured text” that “draws from the sorrow-song tradition to undermine narratives of progress” (32). Souls reflects a “broken predicament” for Winters. It is neither a text that is for or against hope, nor is it a text that ignores or is reduced by its melancholy. Through a reading inspired by Theodor Adorno, Winters sees that both hope and melancholy not only make the mood of the text, but also the two are foundational in countless black aesthetic creations.

Although Du Bois grounds the text, Winters fleshes out melancholic hope by analyzing a plethora of other figures that include the late Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, American pragmatists, the Frankfurt school and a number of Black films. One of the most fascinating chapters of the text is chapter three which stages a debate on theoretical contributions of jazz between Morrison, Ellison and Adorno. 

Winters highlights the historical connection between black literature and jazz by emphasizing jazz’s ability to circumvent harmony, and its embracing of collisions and improvisations. Ellison’s Invisible Man (Random House, 1952) troubles grand narratives in the way Winters is arguing, but Ellison’s “fidelity to the idea of America . . . potentially diminishes the work of mourning in his texts” (107). Preferring Morrison—and even Adorno in spite of his racism—Winters highlights how jazz “compels us to imagine history as turbulent movements marked by both painful and pleasure-filled contradictions” (88).

Winters then turns to the troubling performance of Sidney Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967) and contrasts it with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977; 2008). The fragmented nature of Killer of Sheep calls into question the post-Civil Rights liberal progressiveness of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is Killer of Sheep, along with F. Gary Gray’s Set it Off (1996) and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) that exposes the failed dream of Black American liberalism.

Winters’ book is a necessary read—and reminder—in terms of what it offers Black historical methodology. It refuses to prioritize pessimism as a theoretical disposition but avoids romantic conceptions of progress; however, progress is still a feature of its conclusion. Allow me to invoke Cornel West in this concluding paragraph. I mention West because Winters is transparent about how Cornel West’s tragic-comic sensibilities hovers over the text in his acknowledgements. I find West to be an excellent invisible interlocutor in this text. But I actually find Winters closer in some ways to Ellison—and for what he critiqued Ellison—than to West. For Winters, the amelioration of sorrow is paradoxically found in the embrace of it. That is the avenue to what seems to be a possibility of success in Black political strivings. For West, success—in a totalizing sense—is always mitigated and unlikely, although in his Christian expressions, forms of hope are vital for human agents. West’s Christian expression maintains that hope is a virtue, but that virtue is also tethered through his tragic-comic sensibilities. In contrast to Winters, West accepts the inevitable failure of success in Black striving no matter what. But humans must continue being hopeful regardless. Winters is more hopeful considering that he seems to only desire us to be wary of the optimistic linear trajectory that liberal Black historicizing engenders. However, triumph or, at least success, is still a part of Winters’ project, even if it is dwindled or mediated through sorrow. This is a compelling book and I imagine thinkers will be enriched by its offering for Black, music and religious studies for years to come. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamall A. Calloway is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and an Affiliated Faculty in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph R. Winters is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University.


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