Top of page
Skip to main content
Main content

Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation

by Calvin L. Warren

Calvin L. Warren is Associate Professor of African American Studies in the Department of African American Studies.

In Ontological Terror Calvin L. Warren intervenes in Afro-pessimism, Heideggerian metaphysics, and black humanist philosophy by positing that the "Negro question" is intimately imbricated with questions of Being. Warren uses the figure of the antebellum free black as a philosophical paradigm for thinking through the tensions between blackness and Being. He illustrates how blacks embody a metaphysical nothing. This nothingness serves as a destabilizing presence and force as well as that which whiteness defines itself against. Thus, the function of blackness as giving form to nothing presents a terrifying problem for whites: they need blacks to affirm their existence, even as they despise the nothingness they represent. By pointing out how all humanism is based on investing blackness with nonbeing—a logic which reproduces antiblack violence and precludes any realization of equality, justice, and recognition for blacks—Warren urges the removal of the human from its metaphysical pedestal and the exploration of ways of existing that are not predicated on a grounding in being.

“Calvin L. Warren recalibrates Afro-pessimism in new directions while he seriously deepens, extends, and requires that we pay closer and better attention to the claims made by Afro-pessimist thinkers. He turns toward a new philosophy of the Americas that requires a re-reading of philosophy insofar as it is founded in producing the absence of blackness and black people as the foundation of its very possibilities. Poised to reanimate Black studies in an important way, Ontological Terror will be a foundational text of Afro-pessimist thought, even as it exceeds the term. This is a work of accomplishment.” Rinaldo Walcott, author of Queer Returns: Essays on Multiculturalism, Diaspora, and Black Studies

“In this careful and cogent account of the metaphysical structures of antiblack violence, Calvin L. Warren introduces a much-needed philosophical intervention in the claims and propositions of Afro-pessimism. His superb intellectual skills and beautiful philosophizing make this magnificent work important to a whole generation of scholars.” Denise Ferreira da Silva, author of Toward a Global Idea of Race



From the author

Publishing Ontological Terror as open access seemed like a necessary and revolutionary idea. Fragments of my work are often shared via social media and other forums—there is a public interest in black nihilism. The question of black existence hits the contemporary moment with seismic force: black youth are dying at staggering rates, black infant mortality rates are abysmal, spiritual pulverization and emotional distress are more quotidian than exceptional. What is black life (and death) within this structure of continual obliteration? My students have asked for answers to this question, and they want to share these answers with their friends, family, and peers. But expensive texts often make knowledge accessible only to a privileged group. Open access publication allows me to reach beyond the walls of the academy and encourages my colleagues to assign the book in their classes.