Frank B. Wilderson III, award-winning author of Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (South End Press, 2008), gave this year's Emerson Spring Honors Lecture on February 16 in the Bill Bordy Theater.
Wilderson is one of two Americans to hold elected office in the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's governing party since 1994. He was an insurgent in the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Earlier in his life, Wilderson was associated with the Black Panthers. He first met members of the Black Panthers in Berkeley, California, when he was only 12 years old. Later, in the 1980s he used his life story to help college students at The Loft Literary Center understand South African apartheid, a popular political cause of the day on U.S. campuses.
In the 1990s, Wilderson moved to South Africa and taught at University of Witwatersrand. He told the Emerson audience that it was actually students in his Comparative Literature class there that encouraged him to become a member of the ANC.
Wilderson's memoir builds off his complex personal history to reach a nuanced analysis of race and transnationalism. “One of the most challenging parts of writing the book,” Wilderson said, “was juxtaposing my life in the U.S. with my life in South Africa.”
Wilderson said the inspiration for his memoir came from the autobiography of former Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member Assata Olugbala Shakur.
In 1973, Shakur was pulled over by New Jersey State Police and was involved in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which she was shot twice. In 1977, she was charged with murder of a police officer and of seven other felonies related to the shootout. Three of the charges were acquitted and three others were dismissed. Assata spent six and a half years in prison before escaping from the maximum-security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979 and moving to Cuba, where she has been under political asylum since 1984.
Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid has received the American Book Award, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award, the Eisner Prize for Creative Achievement of the Highest Order, and the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.
Wilderson teaches African American studies and drama at the University of California, Irvine.