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Saidiya Hartman and André Holland

Ahead of André Holland’s live dramatic reading of her dramatic monologue “The End of White Supremacy: An American Romance” on April 29, award-winning critic and writer Saidiya Hartman talked to us about W.E.B. Du Bois, the connection between scholarship and speculative fiction, Holland’s brilliant performance, and more.

Listen to prerecorded excerpts of Holland reading “The End of White Supremacy” below:

“The End of White Supremacy: An American Romance” is based on a reading of W.E.B. Du Bois’ speculative short story “The Comet,” published in 1920. Du Bois used a variety of experimental modes of inquiry and narrative forms in his writing; you’ve described your own work as a bridging of theory and narrative. What is the nature of Du Bois’ influence on your work?

Du Bois thought across genres. He wrote novels and short stories and poems because he believed that multiple forms were required to address the matter of Black life. These creative modes enabled him to think beyond the limits of social science and the prevailing terms of discourse and to represent the lived experience of Blackness in its complexity and nuance. He described his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, as a study in political economy.

André Holland’s reading of “The End of White Supremacy” at 92Y is itself a kind of reverential retelling of your piece – a gifted actor channeling your thought. What interested you in this project? Do you view Holland’s reading as a collaboration, or as his creation outright – or as something else entirely?

André’s reading is another creation. It is not simply that he is an amazing actor, but that we experience the full weight of the drama about life at the end of the world. His reading conveys so powerfully Jim’s desire for another set of human arrangements as well as the heartbreak and loss produced by white supremacy and its seemingly interminable horizon.

The essay was originally published in BOMB Magazine early last June, right at the beginning of a summer marked by protest against systemic racism following the death of George Floyd. When did you begin writing it? Did the months that followed its publication change your perspective on it?

For a year, I had been thinking about Darkwater, the collection in which the story appears. It is perhaps the most angry and pessimistic work of DuBois and Darkwater seemed to be as timely today as it was one hundred years ago. In The Wretched of the Earth, which refers to the anticolonial class, Frantz Fanon describes and invites the end of the colonial world. In 1920, the only way Du Bois could imagine the end of white supremacy was in a speculative fiction about the literal destruction of the world. The police murders of Black men, women and children and the Covid pandemic’s racialized distribution of death made “The Comet” painfully relevant.

Du Bois’ “The Comet” depicts a post-apocalyptic New York City in which a Black man confronts new thresholds of racism – and perhaps hope – at the end of civilization. It was itself a response to the 1918 flu pandemic and that era’s quickening drumbeat of racial violence in the US. It ultimately poses a question for you toward the end of “The End of White Supremacy” – “Is love a synonym for abolition?” Do you see the events of the last year – the societal reckoning brought on by the pandemic and a renewed resistance to systemic racism – as a potential turning point in the story of white supremacy in the US as told by Du Bois?

Love here isn’t invoked as a romantic ideal or a transcendence of social antagonism. I was thinking about Kathleen Collins collection, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, and reflecting on what it means to love Blackness and Black people in an anti-Black world. The suggestion is that love in this context might be a practice of abolition; to love what is not loved is an undoing of the hierarchy of value and worth that sustains white supremacy. To care for another in a world of gratuitous violence and premature death is a radical act.

What do you most hope someone listening to Holland’s reading of “The End of White Supremacy” will carry forward with them?

The yearning and the hope for something better than this.

Don’t miss André Holland’s live reading of Saidiya Hartman’s “The End of White Supremacy: An American Romance” on Thursday, April 29.