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On Sorrow + Pleasure + Melancholic Hope

By Joseph Richard Winters | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, July 11, 2016.

In my book, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, I respond to post-racial fantasies and concomitant notions of progress and freedom. While the yearning to get beyond race is not new, it takes on heightened energy in the age of the first black president.  In opposition to triumphant images of racial progress that minimize or explain away the tragic quality of history, I put forth a conception of melancholic hope, one that is informed by black literature, film, music, and religion. I show how authors like WEB Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison and filmmakers like Charles Burnett share a tendency to connect hope and possibility, within the context of black strivings, to remembrance, loss, and a recalcitrant sense of the tragic.  

In the first chapter of the book, I suggest that we revisit one site of ambivalence (or doubleness) in Du Bois’s 1903 classic, Souls of Black Folk. While Du Bois yearns for black strivings and achievements to be integrated into narratives of progress and civilization, he also acknowledges that civilization (the nation-state, Euro-American modernity, whiteness) relies on violent exclusions and erasures. While Du Bois wants something like advancement for black people – better education, voting rights, more opportunities to flourish—he suggests that a better world will depend on how we remember, narrate, and mourn the losses that accompany the march of history.  

For Du Bois, the sorrow song is one cultural site where black people have been able to record the pains and pleasures, hopes and despairs, and beauty and horror associated with black life (in opposition to histories that either exclude black experience or use this experience to reinforce dominant imaginaries and modes of being). Du Bois anticipates Baldwin’s hyperbolic claim that it is “only in black music that black people have been able to tell their story.”

In my book, I am not only interested in particular songs like “Motherless Child” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” nor am I only alluding to Du Bois’s investment in the Fisk Jubilee Singers keeping these slave songs alive. Following the work of Jonathan Flatley, I am also interested in how sorrow, or melancholy, operates as a recurring trope in Souls, how it works as a structure of feeling and way of being attuned to blackened bodies and experiences. For Du Bois the sorrow song expresses and resounds, “death and disappointment” while breathing a kind of opaque hope. This cry of hope is directed toward different objects and possibilities – God, Justice, liberation, escape, and/or death. Between and beyond optimism and pessimism, Du Bois’s use of sorrow is “unhopeful but not hopeless.”

In other writings, I have shown how the trope of sorrow works in contemporary hip hop and black music more generally. I acknowledge that blackness or black life changes over the time (and that the conditions that occasioned the slave community’s singing of “Motherless Child” are different from those that enabled Ghostface Killah’s version).

At the same time, tracking contemporary sorrow songs allows us to identity continuities and discontinuities across time with regard to racial modernity, black strivings, and black cultural production. In my reading, sorrow is a response to and expression of death and its various intimations – loss, pain, invisibility, shame, exclusion, alienation, social death, etc. Yet as Saidiya Hartman shows us, sorrow can fuse with other kinds of affects and emotions – anguish, pleasure, intimacy, and so forth. Below are five or six songs that capture this melancholic hope or sorrow-filled pleasure.

“The Message” – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

This is a classic early 80s song that provides part of the soundtrack for postindustrial urban life. The song begins with “broken glass everywhere” and ends with an image of a prisoner’s body “swinging back and forth.” While “The Message” draws attention to poverty, police surveillance, immobility, labor strikes, and drug addiction, the song is also an occasion for dance, festivity, and a twisted kind of laughter (uh ha ha  ha).  

“Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst” – Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick takes the perspective of two murdered friends and the younger sister of a woman/slain prostitute that Kendrick wrote an earlier song about. This track prompts the listener to think about how narrative and memory “keep painful details alive,” how music enables us to dance on the boundary between death and life. “Sing About Me” also raises questions about who has the authority to tell the stories of absent others. The second part of the song ends with a baptism and the promise of new life (and of course there is the “running” metaphor which conjures up Fred Moten’s understanding of blackness as a kind of fugitivity).

“The Prayer” – Ghostface Killah and Ox

“Life is so painful yet I’m thankful”

In Ox’s prayer, the listener hears an existential struggle. While God tells him that suffering will be rewarded or redeemed, Ox responds by underscoring how difficult it can be to live and embody that suffering as an earthly being. In other words, the idea of redemptive suffering has its limitations and contradictions.  The finger-tapping and call and response add to the “spiritual” quality of the track.

“Thin Line” – Roxanne Shante

This is an underappreciated song dedicated to women who have endured domestic violence. Shante speaks from the perspective of an abused women who fights back. After throwing boiling water on her violent partner, she finds herself “doing a bid.” Yet she ends the track expressing a kind of pleasure in revenge, in making her partner experience pain. The song resembles older tracks like Bessie Smith’s “Sing Sing Prison Blues”; in addition, Shante’s line about “not being able to see through black eyes” adds new meaning to Du Bois’s notion of looking through a veil.  

“I Wanna Be Happy” - Mary J Blige

So fitting that this is the final song of her second album, My Life. While the song expresses a desire/yearning for happiness and wholeness, the listener wonders if this very desire is ambivalent and often the cause of melancholy, alienation, and disappointment. Here I am not objecting to our desires to feel loved, respected, cared for, and so forth. I am suggesting that desire is always defined by a kind of lack and that our attachments to objects and ideas that promise wholeness and happiness have ambivalent effects and implications.  

“Song Cry” – Jay-Z


Jay-Z tells the story of betraying and being betrayed by his girlfriend. While he refuses to show tears, he allows the song to cry; the song, as well as the woman’s voice on the track, become vicarious sites of mourning. Jay-Z acknowledges that gender norms and expectations compel him to act indifferent and “heroic” even though deep down, he is “so sick.”


Joseph Richard Winters is an assistant professor of Religious Studies with a secondary position in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Winters' first book, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, (Duke University Press, June 2016), examines how black literature and aesthetic practices challenge post-racial fantasies and triumphant accounts of freedom. The book shows how authors like WEB Du Bois and Toni Morrison link hope and possibility to melancholy, remembrance, and a recalcitrant sense of the tragic.

On Sorrow + Pleasure + Melancholic Hope

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