Victor LaValle’s Destroyer: An Afro-Pessimist Leftist Conviction in an Afrofuturistic Transhumanist World
Patrick Jonathan Derilus
Victor LaValle’s Destroyer is a visionary comic whose narrative synthesizes the vigorous, innovative drive of Victor Frankenstein with that of his descendant, Dr. Baker, a twenty-first century scientist of artificial intelligence, who hopes not only to create life, but to also recreate the way in which humans exist in and navigate through an elaborately transhumanist world. When we read Destroyer through the lens of Afro-Pessimism, we can identify how Dr. Baker attempts to transcend the social, political, and ontic constraints that are continually put upon Black bodies. Although Baker prevails in this effort to foreground the notion of Black longevity, the results of her efforts to sustain a safe world for her son, Akai, leave more to be desired.
In calling into question Dr. Baker’s project as the so-called “destroyer,” I draw on the framework of Afro-Pessimism as articulated by the editors of Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction:
One of the central tenets of Afro-Pessimism. . .is a reoriented understanding of the composition of [anti-Black] slavery: instead of being defined as a relation of (forced) labor, it is more accurately thought of as a relation of property. . .as such, [Black people] are not recognized as social [subjects] and are thus precluded from the category of “human”—inclusion in humanity being predicated on social recognition, volition, subjecthood, and the valuation of life. (8)
With the disquieting result that Black bodies are not recognized as sentient, human beings, we are therefore, unequivocally vulnerable to white supremacist violence. Dr. Baker does not conceive of reform or retributive justice through the criminal justice system as sensible solutions to the status quo. Baker evinces an impassioned militancy in the face of absolute hopelessness, developing an innovative, radical way for her to provide safety for Akai. With the “reoriented understanding of the composition of antiBlack slavery” (Afro-Pessimism 8) in mind, it is enough to say that the following Black characters, regardless of their mechanization, are seen as property: Dr. Baker, Akai, and also Akai’s fully-mechanized father. Dr. Baker has avowed a significant portion of her labor and time to the recreation of her half-mechanized, son, Akai, whose Black life was lost to white supremacist state-sanctioned police violence.
In his review of Destroyer, Anthony Breznican highlights how LaValle’s work echoes the sociopolitical climate of twenty-first century America:
A young Black boy is killed by police. There is no justice, and definitely no peace for his grieving mother, Dr. Jo Baker. She comes from a long line of researchers, and she immersed herself in science rather than religion to fight through her grief, finally unearthing a family secret that may allow the unthinkable: a way to bring her son back. This is the setup for Destroyer, a new monthly comic book series that fuses the heartbreak of the Black Lives Matter movement with an age-old story: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (1).
In the case of Akai’s murder by police, it is clear he did not need to do anything threatening. The “danger” was simply his Blackness. Akai’s death is seen as a manifestation of what Afro-Pessimist thought identifies as racial vulnerability:
Given the ongoing accumulation of Black death at the hands of the police—even despite increased visibility in recent years—it becomes apparent that a Black person on the street today faces open vulnerability to violence just as the [Black] slave did on the plantation. . .this reveals that when one is Black one needn’t do anything to be targeted, as Blackness itself is criminalized. (Afro-Pessimism 9)
Nevertheless, Dr. Baker is able to retain Akai’s memories. For example, he helps his mother recall his childhood, when she and his father allowed him to navigate the world outdoors independently.
By this point in the narrative, by preserving his heart and consciousness intact, Dr. Baker redefines his murder. As a memory, his murder is not so much a moment of intergenerational trauma as it is a moment in which Akai can transcend the constraints of human mortality. Dr. Baker says to the reanimated Akai, “You were twelve when we really let you go places alone” (LaValle ch. 1). Akai does not recall his moments of youthful indulgence as a Black boy; he must be reminded. Here, LaValle’s narrative echoes one of the primary sociopolitical missions of the Black Lives Matter movement: the abolition of capitalist, colonial, imperialist war against Black people. This effort begins with children above all else, as they are the future of this world. It is for this essential reason and many others that the comic confronts the disquieting truth that Black children have never been attributed the human right to exist like their white counterparts. When Akai’s consciousness asks his mother why he cannot recall his encounter with the police, she replies, “Because that’s when you died” (LaValle ch. 1).
Aisha Sabatini Sloan has addressed Destroyer’s links to Shelley’s novel: “To be young, gifted, and black in the work of Victor LaValle, as it turns out, is to be a kind of compassionate Frankenstein, a patchwork quilt of cultural influences and coping mechanisms no civil rights activist in his or her right mind could have imagined” (1). Incorporating the social, historical, and political factors of race, class, gender, and human ability, LaValle’s work explores what a better world would look like for Akai, and its other Black inhabitants, while also making the subject matter of Shelley’s text more accessible to twenty-first century readers. Yet, in the world LaValle produces, Black life is still under the threat of white supremacist, patriarchal, state-sanctioned police violence. LaValle does not ask whether Black lives matter but instead whether Black lives matter even in an Afrofuturistic, transhumanist world. I argue that the answer Destroyer provides us is “no.”
As the plot of Destroyer unfolds, it gradually becomes more evident to readers that Dr. Baker espouses vehemently Black anarchistic politics that contain undertones of afropessimist sentiment. What I mean by anarchism, in its most precise description, is defined by Kim Kelly:
Anarchism is a radical, revolutionary leftist political philosophy that advocates for the abolition of government, hierarchy, and all other unequal systems of power. It seeks to replace what its proponents view as inherently oppressive institutions — like a capitalist society or the prison industrial complex — with nonhierarchical, horizontal structures powered by voluntary associations between people. Anarchists organize around a key set of principles, including horizontalism, mutual aid, autonomy, solidarity, direct action, and direct democracy, a form of democracy in which the people make decisions themselves via consensus.
For example, Dr. Baker recounts the assassination of Mississippi-born Civil Rights Black activist Medgar Evers by the white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. After Myrlie Evers receives notice that Beckwith was acquitted for his murder, she calls into question the Euro-American tradition of white supremacy, colonialism, genocide, systemic anti-Black oppression, and so forth. In an interview with local news reporters, depicted in Destroyer, Myrlie virulently fantasizes about using a firearm to murder her white neighbors as well as police officers: “Myrlie remembered wishing she had a machine gun. . .if she had it, she said she would’ve mowed down the police and her white neighbors. The depth of her hatred was indescribable” (LaValle ch. 2). Following this example, Baker indulges in this sanguinary phantasmagoria.
The scientist’s stifled burst of rage is the inexorable result of the inherently oppressive system that has not “failed” her, but has instead functioned as it was supposed to. To that end, Baker’s militant disposition becomes more pronounced throughout the comic. This disposition is composed of her dual identities as an impassioned Black mother and as an erudite scientist. Baker is at once ambivalent, nihilistic, yet enthralled by the opportunity to prolong her son’s life. This particular disposition is articulated at one point by her lab’s supercomputer, who assures Dr. Baker that she is going to cry: “Your endocrine system has released hormones to your ocular area. You are going to cry” (LaValle ch. 1). Though the supercomputer is accurate in their observation of Baker’s emotional condition, she appears unmoved, withdrawn, and eager to proceed with her scientific work. She replies to the supercomputer, “I don’t have time to cry.”
Returning to her work, Baker cites Victor Frankenstein: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (LaValle ch. 1). Baker repurposes Frankenstein’s sentiment and proclaims that her “dark world” is an anti-Black world, in which Black lives are under the quotidian, systemic threat of white supremacy. As such, she makes the revitalization of Akai, the “torrent of light,” her primary objective. “The problem, of [antiBlackness] as always, is systematic,” Baker warrants (LaValle ch. 1). Because this issue is intergenerational and systemic, all of LaValle’s Black characters are vulnerable to white supremacist danger. Still, Akai’s Black and youthful curiosity remains undamaged when he attempts to distinguish the material reality in which his Black body had been taken from him by the state; Dr. Baker assures him that he is out of danger, saying, “No, baby. Not anymore” (LaValle ch. 1). By reanimating her son’s heart and consciousness, Dr. Baker, in the symbolic sense, destroys that which destroyed her son: “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks xi).
In the world of the comic, systemic white supremacy still exists and endangers Black life; however, Baker instills what we might call a transhumanist hope within the intricacies of the human condition. We observe Baker as the mother, who is better able to commit to loving her son. In recounting the acquittal of the police officer who murdered him, Akai claims an essential goodness of the human species: “These men aren’t that man, mom. You didn’t raise me this way” (LaValle ch. 2). Regaining her composure, Dr.Baker calmly approaches and hugs him, affirming that Akai is in fact, her “better angel.” In spite of this momentous occasion, however, the comic calls our attention to how this world functions in relation to its would-be property, i.e.: Akai’s Blackness in cooperation with his mechanization.
Dr. Baker’s project is a manifestation of what is allowed in her world, or what Hari Ziyad identifies as that which must be sacrificed in order to survive:
If Black people are contending our humanity in response to whiteness or the state under which whiteness operates, what does that mean? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to force ourselves to fit under the definition of humanity that will not and cannot encompass us? Blackness cannot exist as humanness within the realm that whiteness conceives. Black lives cannot matter under the standards of whiteness, by necessity and design. (147)
Akai’s design is viable; however, it is also intersectionally nebulous to the destructive force of whiteness. Akai’s disposition represents a carefree intellectual and emotional curiosity, as well as Black youthfulness. Though it is compelling to see that Akai has felt aloof about his mechanization, he exists as though his youthfulness was never deprived of him. It is left to readers to assess Dr. Baker’s architectural genius and its function in the real world. Like the “West Wind” in Percy Shelley’s famous ode, Dr. Baker regenerates: “The stress, or structure, or problem of the ‘Ode’ may also be defined as the ‘death and regeneration’. . .for the west wind is both destroyer and preserver; it shatters established structures that new ones may be built from their ruins; it scatters the withered leaves. . .in order to ‘quicken a new birth’” (Fogle 221).
Dr. Baker’s plan, while birthed, is nevertheless unfinished. Though mechanizing Akai solves one problem—his literal safety—it is not enough to curtail white supremacy. The case of Blackness, despite transhumanist privileges, cannot escape suffering under whiteness, as Ziyad asserts:
As the ‘Other’ that exists outside subjectivity, outside [of] humanity, obtaining reprieve from suffering is impossible because [Black people] are not understood as capable of suffering. Under whiteness, there is no answer to the centuries of abuse, no redress, because abuses are not registered in order to be healed. There is no way to ‘fix’ the abuses that come with the exclusion of the nonhuman from the benefits of humanity except to stop benefiting humanity. So long as we exist under whiteness, so long as whiteness exists, Blackness has no recourse. (147)
Among all other existing antiBlack institutions, Dr. Baker concludes that America exists solely as a “big Civil War monument,” and she vengefully fantasizes burning this monument to the ground. (LaValle ch. 6). Thus, it is with an anarchist conviction that Dr. Baker seeks to achieve the following: 1) the eradication of all antiBlack institutions, 2) unconditional safety of Black people across the country and 3) a world in which Blackness and machine cooperate impartially. From her ideations of murdering police officers and her white neighbors, she progressively espouses direct action in the face of danger. To some, Dr. Baker’s anarchist politics may seem naive and useless. However, Baker preserves the significance of her project. She says with assuring fervor to Akai that “even the monster, in the end, is only human. You are actually a new life-form” (LaValle ch. 5). By making Akai take heed to the antiBlackness of the world—that in the eyes of white people, he is by default, a monster—she centralizes his existence as a beautiful, Black being.
Dr. Baker is certain that as Akai progresses through the world, he may not be able to assure non-Black people that despite his visible mechanization, he is as human as they are. In her tirade against America’s chronicles of antiBlack injustice, she broaches the subject of his future:
Artificial life will be humanity’s next great concern. Not just you, but other life-forms totally nonorganic. Pure machine. What will we do with you? It’s not just about how humans treat artificial life, but how you all will treat us. What kind of ethics should we expect? What kind do we deserve? You are the start of what will dominate as humanity declines. Global warming, rising tides, none of that will kill you. But we’ll be dying by the billions. Some will even blame you for our end. They’ll label me mankind’s enemy, too. (LaValle ch. 5).
Assessing the severity of current conditions of the material world, and contrasting it with that of a “better” one, Dr. Baker still articulates an afropessimistic skepticism. Baker commits to her speculation about the safety and well-being of Black lives. As Joy James states, Black people are and will still be open to “gratuitous violence” as “colonial, imperial, and corporate state violence will still [foment] antiBlack practices and policies” (125). Dr. Baker imagines herself as “The Destroyer” who dethroned Abraham Lincoln, as she proclaims in chapter 5: “The Destroyer. And I will welcome the title. If it kept you safe, I would destroy them all.” In essence, we see that Dr. Baker is not the ‘destroyer’ she insists she is; instead, she is undoubtedly Akai’s sole protector and liberator of Black people in America.
“Afropessimism.” Art Terms, The Tate Museum, Tate.org.uk, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/afrofuturism. Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction. Racked & Dispatched, 2017.
Breznican, Anthony. “Destroyer Comic Book Fuses Black Lives Matter with Frankenstein.” EW.Com, 13 Feb. 2017, ew.com/books/2017/02/13/destroyer-comic-black-lives-matter-frankenstein/.
Fogle, Richard Harter. “The Imaginal Design of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind.’” ELH, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 219-226.
hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. Routledge, 2004.
James, Joy. “Afrarealism and the Black Matrix: Maroon Philosophy at Democracy’s Border.” The Black Scholar, vol. 43, no. 4, 2013, pp. 124–131, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5816/blackscholar.43.4.0124
Kelly, Kim. “Everything You Should Know About Anarchism.” Teen Vogue, 7 Sept. 2018, www.teenvogue.com/story/anarchy-explained-what-it-is-why-pop-culture-loves-it.
Sloan, Aisha Sabatini. “A Forecast for Blackness: The Work of Victor LaValle.” Callaloo, vol. 33, no. 4, 2010, pp. 979–981. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40962766
Ziyad, Hari. “Playing ‘Outside’ in the Dark: Blackness in a Postwhite World.” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, pp. 143–161. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/jcritethnstud.3.1.0143.
 Citing Hortense J. Spillers, the editors of Afro-Pessmisim: An Introduction note that “the social death of the slave goes to the very level of their being, defining their ontology. Thus, according to Afro-Pessimism, the slave experiences their ‘slaveness’ ontologically, as a ‘being for the captor,’ not as an oppressed subject, who experiences exploitation and alienation, but as an object of accumulation and fungibility (exchangeability)” (8).
 Afrofuturism is defined as “a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history and fantasy to explore the African-American experience and aims to connect those from the black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry” (“Afrofuturism”).