Mapping the (Thres)hold of Care: An Introduction
Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is at once autobiographical, hermeneutical, and testimonial. Published in 2016, a symposium on In the Wake may seem tragically late, and thus potentially superfluous, but any book that confronts the ways in which the world militates against the very existence of Black people is always already felicitous. Since its publication, it has been my intention to convene a space to celebrate and push In the Wake in order to create a critical tension in the ways we read and think about Sharpe’s sublime and, at times, uncanny meditations about this world. Moreover, as I see it, this symposium is a collective exercise in mapping the (thres)hold of black care. It is an entangled initiative of sorts, a symposium where the aim is not resolution or shared understanding, rather an effort to intensify the critical contours of black study beyond academicism.
In the Wake is the result of a thinking and writing practice that is simultaneously communal and singular. It is a text that explores the lived experience of blackness along with its enduring facticity and does so using a literary philosophical structure that moves from personal anecdotes and photos, news reports from a Philadelphia coroner’s office and shipwrecks in the Mediterranean to African film. The juxtapositions, reflections, and rolling repetitions that fragment the book’s constitution tells us something about the problem it addresses as well as the difficulties in finding a consistent way of writing about the Black world. It is a book that exhibits the vertigo1 that haunts Black writing, more specifically, and “Black cognition,” more generally.2 In the Wake is a form of literary fugitivity, a book on the run, created and organized in the torsion of the everyday, a book that attempts to explore a different form of Black disclosure in the midst of fetishistic devastation and disorder.
On the one hand, In the Wake explores the ruins of Black non-being and its symptomatic consequences. And, on the other hand, Sharpe is interested in the excess of black suffering, the opacity that Black social death does not see or is unable to grasp. While In the Wake holds in the balance the lingering presence of antiblackness as “total climate,” it places an emphasis on “reading and seeing something in excess of what is caught in the frame” (104 and 117). In order to do so, Sharpe suggests an aesthetic practice that incarnates the inner truth of Black humanity, known as “wake work.” It is a book that features elements of so-called Afro Pessimism, while foregrounding the “social” wealth created, accumulated, and spent in another market of being. As a result, wake work serves as a regulative ideal in that it embodies the promise of something beyond death. The result, I believe, is a text of “anguished eloquence,”3 a book caught in what is assumed to be a vexed binary—to live or die.
As a result, In the Wake is asking a fundamental and comprehensive question of ethics: how shall Black people live? Comprehensive in the sense of how to confront the world and how to endure in confronting it? As anyone schooled in philosophical questions understands, ethics starts with the individual. Any ethical argument is valid only insofar as it articulates an individual’s search for meaning, but for Black people it is a search for meaning in the midst of damnation.4 For Sharpe, this ethical question, or what Calvin Warren might call a “meditative strategy,”5 provides a respite, a psychic detour that allows Black people to return better equipped to partake in the Ellisonian “battle royale.”6 In this sense, Sharpe echoes Bobby Seale in that maybe “the best care package we can send to the other liberation struggles around the world is the work that we do at home.”7
And so, In the Wake taps a deep archive on care as study, as labor, as an aesthetic practice that serves as a resource for political work. It draws a picture of a kind of practice-based (anti) sociality that brings together the redacted and annotated (116). In other words, Black care is understood as a form of critique, an attentiveness to the internal, black interior, as it relates, but is beyond, what Sharpe calls “the weather” (102–34). And for this, readers are often touched by the book’s insistence on attending to the Du Boisian “spiritual strivings” of a community, to take care, and remain critically attentive to not falling victim to this world or to the reality of being a(s) problem.8
This readerly focus, however, may say more about the political moment, inside and outside the academy, than Sharpe’s own intentions. Therefore, is the collective enthusiasm surrounding In the Wake because it illustrates various forms of “ontological resistance” despite Fanon’s clinical observations? Or as Calvin Warren might suggest, does “applying the grammar of coherency (agency) to fractured beings,” reveal “more slavery fatigue than it does any substantial ability to eradicate antiblackness?”9 Thus, I wonder if In the Wake has been read too carelessly over the years: that is care considered in abstraction from the weather, for how one reads often depends on what one is reading for. What, for example, might it mean to underwrite Black care over and in place of Black self-defense? Fortunately, the twinned meaning of care, as both burdensome and conscientious, is illustrated in the following reviews.
In the end, this symposium is an attempt to expand and create generative dynamics among scholars interested in black liberation and freedom. It is a symposium which attempts, in some ways, to disrupt what I think is the safe scholarly attention that In the Wake has received since its publication five years ago. As exhibited in the reviews, In the Wake has the potential to activate a tension, a feud, that so often occurs during wakes; a tension, as I see it, that is stipulated by love for forging a new way of living and being in community. If my efforts in organizing this symposium generate a new appreciation for the challenge that is In the Wake, the symposium will have served its purpose. In the meantime, as Ziggy Marley poetically lims, “Still the storm comes . . .”10
Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the Political Trials of Black Insurgents,” InTensions 5 (2011) 1–41, http://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/frankbwildersoniii.php.↩
Greg Tate, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press, 2016).↩
Ato Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience (Harvard University Press, 1996), 16.↩
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press, 1963).↩
Calvin Warren, “Black Care,” liquid blackness 3.6 (2016) 37.↩
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin, 2016).↩
William Klein, “Eldridge Cleaver,” Black Panther, Biographical Documentary Film (1970).↩
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Yale University Press, 2015).↩
Calvin Warren, “Black Time: Slavery, Metaphysics, and the Logic of Wellness,” in The Psychic Hold of Slavery (Rutgers University Press, 2016), 63.↩
Ziggy Marley, “Still the Storms,” Love Is My Religion (Tuff Gong Worldwide, 2006).↩