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).↩
C. Sharpe Grammar; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wake
for agnes and darryl
The last wake I was present for involved a friend who died suddenly at age 30. His final text: “I’m holding . . .” The wake I expected to attend prior to his was for the woman I called my grandmother; I was absent in protest . . .
Sitting with Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being encourages transparency and elicits a response, especially if one regards its arrival as an invitation.1 This kind of beckoning usually compels worry because what is at stake in the imm(i/a)nence of that contemplation is the category called you, and the grammars utilized by you or others for naming. That said, if these memories, personal or corporate (as in transmitted among the body politic), are an emblem of and a regard for how one chooses to exist, then the devices of the grammatical shape how to understand this text and the wakes of our lives.
As a grammarian, Sharpe traverses multiple registers on the journey toward mindfulness. Under the aegis of the anagrammatical—“blackness’s signifying surplus: the ways that meaning slides, signification slips, when words . . . abut blackness” (80)—with all the wakes convened in the book, she obliges us to envision blackness askew, the ever-slight tilting of the head to visualize the crooked straight. This is an affect similar to when one hears a blue chord, or beholds a body at its final viewing. This latter occasion walks us down a theoretical aisle to acknowledge what lies before us through the channeling of mourners from a bygone era who questioned pre-wake: who’s got the body?2
Engaging in this undertaking marks the text with an epic quality whereby one could claim blackness and being akin to that of Antigone regarding her brother. In so doing, one declares to the powers that be: give me the body so that I may properly bury it through the ritualized act of a home-going, or -coming. If Sharpe syncs with the aforementioned sister, then all those who identify themselves as black, or black adjacent, potentiate to be Polynices. This funereal scaffolding structures a vessel called Care (131). Whether in the wake, the ship, the hold, or the weather, the once discarded and submerged resurface and engender us awake.
Likewise, the ship, and the shipped, reveals a language as unknown as it is familiar. The grammar, skinned, of flesh in transit has a final resting place upon a shelf, high and lifted up, comprising The Forgotten Space while accumulating dust (25–34). Repurposed for curatorial whimsy, this manifest of shelf life, with an indeterminate expiration date, is also known as archival discourse. Often, these epistemic machinations occur because some never consider the mantle, the uneasy yoke, people carry just to be considered “human” because the lighter burden is to conjure the architecture of the showcase as the “all” that “matters.”3 A 2017 Slate interview, an exhibition of these reductive constructions, compelled my own wake work.
Having explained the impetus behind his book, followed by the interviewer pressing him about his diagnosis as to “what has gone wrong with liberals since the 1960s in the United States,” the author contends that a “break” happened around 1980 with the rise of Reaganism, a response to New Deal-era politics up to that point in which “the sort of governing ideas were solidarity, equal protection under the law, public duty, and there was a sense of the country pulling together ever since the Depression and the Second World War to take care of each other.” The interviewer, further interrogating the logic that this forty-eight-year period was not about America being “united” but rather “the idea was to be united,” recalls the ’60s again, namely the Civil Rights Movement (alluded to but never explicitly named), and the fact that throughout the majority of said forty-eight-year period, “we had segregation in this country.” The retort: “I’m not talking about the reality on the ground. I’m talking about the way we thought about the reality on the ground. . . . The word we is the most important word in the Democratic lexicon. If you cannot appeal to that, you cannot rally people.”4 In my estimation, the most important word in this interview lexicon is thought. This is to say, the dialogue at hand concretizes precisely “what has gone wrong with liberals”: while some people were (too) busy in “thought,” likely in a nebulous “somewhere,” as others were getting their heads bashed in or dogs sicked on them or could not go to church in peace because the edifice was smoldering in pieces—all “on the ground”—the calculation that such juxtapositions are rendered equitable in the cause of “we the people” is more than troubling. And yet, despite these enactments of terror, we still “kept our heads” when all about us they were losing theirs and blaming it on us. But was that keeping to our detriment? In this way, I hear Sharpe quoting Abderrahmane Sissako in an endnote for “The Weather”: “all that is forbidden is allowed when someone goes crazy” (152). Maybe we should have lost it, too. Nonetheless, this rationale makes legible the conceit of the being of blackness, even in a “liberal” frame, as “the position of the unthought.”5
We have been cautioned about the danger in, and thus a healthy suspicion toward, the desire for commemorative gestures: their invocation provides the false sense that “the work” has been accomplished; it is a stop sign where living things become dead things.6 My mother reverberates in remix vis-à-vis the parable of the wineskins as metaphor: since putting old wine in a new wineskin brings about an oenological outburst, the construction of “new” institutions, without retrofitting a critical edge on the “old” ones before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, does nothing but clear freshly uncluttered corridors for the evils of yore to saunter about in bacchanalian stupor.7 The totality of this bedevilment, by way of blackness in In the Wake, constitutes the overarching mantra and continued repercussions of the afterlife of slavery.8 Thus, Sharpe equally ponders: how does one memorialize beings who have been categorically eradicated from memory—the operation of planning “solutions” via task forces and steering committees and multiday workshops, etc.—with relation to a conundrum that is timeworn and as yet unsolved? And can the blackness of those attempted to be remembered be love and be loved?9 The answer: WHO knows . . .
That sounding of “who” evokes a station’s call letters, and the mention of said location resonates with the poem “In Memory of Radio.” In this ongoing rumination on grammatology, I assert that Sharpe’s text inserts itself into a genealogy of poetics that excavates
. . . undersea folk.
. . . (after the transformation, [who]
& invisible & the unbelievers [who] couldn’t throw stones?) . . .
The book queries, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” One conjectures that the folk, repetitions of ditto in perpetuity (52), nominate Sharpe to answer, “The Shadow knows.” Is In the Wake WHO The Shadow is? If this premonition is correct, one comprehends the text as not simply an act of “love,” but an exorcise of evol.10
Sharpe not only translates at the level of the anagrammatical, but also at the site of the palindromic insofar as what is backward does not offer a drawback; it propels the literate eye forward, toying with sankofic deference. Could one, then, retrospectively construe the text as music, vocalizing that although “[t]he snow is snowing / The wind is blowing,” I-as-we “can weather the storm” because “what do I care how much it may storm” if we’ve “got my love”—of blackness and being?—“to keep [us] warm”?11 This modality of climate change would require the precision of protective gear and compassionate instruments—whether the annotative/redactive apparatus of “second sight” reimagined over a century on (113–30); or the aspiration an attuned ear cognizes prior to the simultaneous clarity of Louis’s growl and the grit of Ella’s bell on this recently cited record—because to care for something the atmosphere renders evil, which is to say killable and ungrievable, is nothing short of wake work, an opportunity for “seeing and imagining [a response] to the [weathered] terror visited on Black life and the ways we inhabit it, are inhabited by it, and refuse it” (116); it is a Ruttier. Nevertheless, the work of the wake is to rethink what has been theorized as evil and offer it the room to live above and below and within the veil. To be love as it is held and be loved as it holds.
An evil word it is,
Yet one also accounts for the wake, the hold, the ship, and the weather occupying the homonymic: the conjoining of the homographic and the homophonic. In the Wake, therefore, may stunningly depict a Grammar Book. This distinction further enlists a hermeneutic for defining what it means to be “sleep” and “woke.”
Transitively speaking, if blackness might be understood as always already queer, and sleep’s a queer thing, then blackness is sleep—as in every shut eye ain’t—and that which is slept on.13 The cultural cachet of woke-ness, though, stands to be problematized because lack of sleep insures the likelihood of preventable mishaps. Hence, wakefulness is a mediating posture, bridging sleepfulness to wokefulness. In the Wake is that interstice and incites the “woke” to echo the sounds they saw (132), no different than celebrating a bittersweet mourning on the pulse of its homophone.14 Or as Danez Smith intimates:
listen to my laugh
& if you pay attention
you’ll hear a wake.15
Yet all of this transparency might uncannily engender opacity, recognizing that who and what has been lost cannot be created anew or destroyed but rather, like matter, repurposed. That which eludes capture while maintaining captivation. So, whether you, like my departed friend, are, still, holding (on); or you, like me, protest while honoring the passed, perhaps the easiest thing to do is, simply, WAKE UP!
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Hereafter, all citations from the text will be parenthetical.↩
For an extended meditation on this colloquialism, see Karla FC Holloway, Passed On: African American Mourning Stories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 15–56.↩
In saying this, I ponder the controversy regarding the Whitney Biennial and Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a funereal depiction of Emmitt Till. More specifically, I strike a convergence between Christina Sharpe and Jared Sexton. See Siddhartha Mitter, “‘What Does It Meant to Be Black and Look at This?’ A Scholar Reflects on the Dana Schutz Controversy,” Hyperallergic, March 24, 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/368012/what-does-it-mean-to-be-black-and-look-at-this-a-scholar-reflects-on-the-dana-schutz-controversy/; and Jared Sexton, “The Rage: Some Closing Comments on ‘Open Casket,’” contemptorary, May 21, 2017, http://contemptorary.org/the-rage-sexton/.↩
Isaac Chotiner, “There’s Been a Slightly Hysterical Tone about Race,” Slate, August 25, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2017/08/mark_lilla_thinks_identity_politics_are_destroying_the_democratic_party.html.↩
Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle, 13.2 (Spring/Summer 2003) 183–201; and Sharpe, “Black Studies: In the Wake,” Black Scholar 44.2 (Summer 2014) 59–60.↩
“Hortense Spillers: The Idea of Black Culture,” 57:35–1:03:30, YouTube, November 24, 2013, https://youtu.be/P1PTHFCN4Gc?t=57m35s.↩
Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37–39.↩
Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 6. Sharpe refers to this formulation throughout the book.↩
I hypothesize here a dialogue between Bob Marley and the Wailers’s “Could You Be Loved” (Uprising [Kingston, Jamaica: Tuff Gong/Island, 1980]), and Fred Moten’s inquiry—“Can Blackness Be Loved?”—in the documentary Dreams Are Colder Than Death (dir. Arthur Jafa, Glas Negus Supreme/Pumpernickel Films, 2013).↩
Amiri Baraka, “In Memory of Radio,” in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Harris (New York: Basic Books [2009, 1991]), 10–11. For more on ditto, see also M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong! (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008).↩
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” Ella and Louis Again (Los Angeles: Verve, 1957), emphasis mine.↩
E. Patrick Johnson, “‘Quare’ Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother,” Text and Performance Quarterly 21.1 (2001) 1–25; Richard Wright, Lawd Today! (New York: Walker, 1963), 137; and Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, eds., Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 (Little, Brown, 1994).↩
Here, I am contemplating Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning (New York: Random House, 1993).↩
Danez Smith, “not an elegy,” Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2017), 70.↩
Parsing the Landmines of “Wake Work”
Apprehending the Nuances of Answering Christina Sharpe’s Call in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
Those of us
who were imprinted with fear
. . . were never meant to survive.
Each time I re-read . . . “A Litany for Survival,” the chaos and confusion I feel is cleared away. The lines are clean and defiant. . . .
By the poem’s end, I’m washed clean. It’s a blessing and a baptism and a challenge to me to engage in a world that would seem to deny my life.
I needed it again, when news came of the shooting death of Michael Brown, and then again this week.
In what I am calling the weather, antiblackness is pervasive as climate. . . . There is, too, a connection between the lungs and the weather: the supposedly transformative properties of breathing free air—that which throws off the mantle of slavery. . . . Those narratives [wishing and/or presupposing freedom] do not ameliorate this lack; this lack is the atmosphere of antiblackness.
And there has been yet more debris being blown about by the “weather” upon which Christina Sharpe is reporting in 2016; many more references to the litany’s continuum since Syreeta McFadden’s response to the Ferguson decision in 2014; more Black “noise”—the protests in response to more deathly gasps for air in the unrelenting, bubbling churn—the brutal baptism in and by—the wake. The crash landing yet again into the tempest: the wake[ing] of George Floyd … and all the wakes that have followed since.
These epigraphs underscore the acuity that is necessary to do the work of radical care, while existing within the murky precarity to which they each gesture. Sharpe’s now six year-old analysis remains as current as ever and presents us with the challenge of how to read its reading. Black survival “in spite of” the continuing onslaught of the weather upon which she reports, is neither cause for celebration, nor a beacon announcing a way out of either that weather or the climate that precipitates and sustains it. Rather, Black survival is as much a part of the wake’s churn as are the continued critical analyses and radical praxes necessary to weather the perilous conditions that prompt Sharpe’s call to the work.
How does one write the “noise” of that radical praxis for precarious “living” within the residual, ongoing turbulence—what Sharpe terms the “climate” of antiblackness—indeed, the wake itself; a living that is also unlivable? How does one write the paradoxical condition of blackness, and in so doing, avoid recourse into the insistence upon a subjecthood that refuses the fact of that paradox? It seems to me that Sharpe’s assertion that “we must become undisciplined” (18) pertains as much to the willingness to engage in the practice of wake work without the buoy of language that presupposes a universal “subjecthood” and/or “being,” as it does to a dead reckoning with the limits of language, period, in taking up blackness as a subject for thought. This move to grasp (and gasp) for inhabiting the paradox of blackness and what that really means is to continue weathering the “weather,” while being Black. This also means a reckoning with the math—what Sharpe calls, in her essay “Three Scenes,” the “terrible calculus of the inability to ‘save every black life,’ an awful arithmetic and violence of abstraction.”4 These reckonings comprise that very praxis, not only in In the Wake, but, I would offer, in all of Sharpe’s works to date.
I have two concerns, in this present, limited engagement, with this deeply important work. The first is that we continue to lean into and not lose sight of what wake work churns up: namely, that there is no escaping the climate, or getting beyond the weather, despite what some might presume about the enduring narratives of “civil rights” and “social justice,” a more “diverse and inclusive world,” and what the attainment of identity and citizenship, and the lifelines they appear to be, really mean in the climate of antiblackness that repeats and repeats. . . . We must tarry in the question: What are the implications of our (Black folks’) investments in these narratives?
The second is that Sharpe not disarticulate this wake work from her previous labors in making this critical turn toward what Saidiya Hartman paraphrases, in the winter 2017 salon at Barnard College celebrating the book, as “the multiple meanings of that abjection through inhabitation; that is, through living them as consciousness.”5 I read this work, at least in part, as a heeding of Hortense Spillers’s call for “an intramural protocol of reading.”6 For example, in an interview with Selamawit Terrefe entitled “What Exceeds the Hold?” Sharpe describes much of her labor in Monstrous Intimacies as “trying to think through black and white encounters with this violence,” and views her present work as a departure from a focus on that binary.7
To the contrary, I find I cannot continue on the path of this present work, its dangers and its shattering implications, without being mindful of Sharpe’s unflinching analysis of antiblackness as a defining disposition of the many registers within which the world captures, consumes, marks, contains, repackages, and obliterates blackness. If anything, wake work attends to the non-binariness of antiblackness; i.e., as a condition that is not at all a binary between black and white, but a crucible of positioning blackness for and beyond the world.
As I read and reread In the Wake, I see it as Sharpe’s carrying forward of a commitment to tarrying in the predicament of blackness and the onslaught of violence(s)—demands and overdeterminations to which it is subjected by the atmospheric pressures—what Spillers calls the “meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth.”8 I surmise that were Spillers writing the essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” today, she would likely revise “national” to “global.” This exposes blackness as a locus vulnerable to an endless array of uses. In her chapter in Monstrous Intimacies, entitled “Bessie Head, Saartje Bartman and Maru: Redemption, Subjectification, and the Problem of Liberation,” Sharpe distills the systematic processes through which “the nation that recreates oppression as freedom for some bodies . . . discursively re-creates itself as free.”9 Through those processes, these degraded black women “dream and [tell stories]” that reveal their desire to be unmolested—that is, to simply be left alone as one who is recognized as what is recognized as human.”10 In distilling this, Sharpe does not appeal for recognition, so much as seize upon the very entrapments of the project of “redemption” as one that “has allowed continued injustice to be rewritten as freedom.”11 It is precisely through this indictment and exposure of the dream of redemption for the landmine that it is, that Sharpe is already reading the antiblack climate in South Africa as but one locus along the Diaspora across which Black people navigate that climate.
In the third section of her essay “Three Scenes,” Sharpe foregrounds one of Joy James’s and João Costa Vargas’s pressing questions around the Trayvon Martin murder: “What happens when instead of becoming enraged and shocked every time a black person is killed in the United States, we recognize black death as a predictable and constitutive aspect of this democracy?”12 And with this question, she returns to Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return, which asks, “What happens when we accept the door as our optic and proceed as if we know this anti-blackness to be the ground on which we stand, the ground from which to attempt to speak a ‘we’ who knows.”13 It is this collective knowing, to which I suggest Sharpe is referring at the very end of In the Wake. That “we” is not recognized by the antiblack world; and that recognition is not the endgame toward which Sharpe is pivoting in this knowing. My question is, what happens when we (Black folks) reckon squarely with the precarity of “we” in the antiblack climate that is “the wake”?
Audre Lorde’s poem sings in resonant concert with all of this work because, after all, “we were never meant to survive” an antiblack climate beyond the animating and reifying of its ceaselessly overdetermining needs, desires and demands onto the deathly-living that Sharpe indexes in her ongoing labor(s).14 I’m also thinking here of David Marriott’s formulation of “deathliness,” to which Sharpe also alludes in her interview with Terrefe, and which Marriott describes as “that name[,] a mirroring that, in relation to the object, has no reflection.”15 That “name” might be thought of, in one sense, as the identity formation toward which so many black people gesture, as means of seeing themselves reflected within and as part of a larger cohesive whole that exceeds “the hold” (of the ship, into which Sharpe writes in the third chapter of In the Wake). But what of that larger context and its tripwires, bamboozles and betrayals that inflect that desired reflection?
“Antiblackness” is not a word we tend to hear uttered very much in the reportage on the global turbulence of the present moment. More often, we hear references to “racism,” “white nationalism,” “white supremacy.” Within these broader conceptual framings resides the collective unconscious demand that all those suffering the symptoms of these be acknowledged by the intertwining, coalition-driven outcries against “anti-immigration,” “discrimination,” “exploitation,” and “oppression.” The assertion of “antiblackness” as a descriptor is often (mis)perceived as an obliteration of all the rest; and its unflinching attention to the deathliness of the climate that subsumes blackness is often perceived as a reduction, rather than a keen, expansive reading of its incalculability. This is to say, if antiblackness constitutes the weather—the conditions that comprise the global landscape—then blackness is, in a sense, anti-weather. And if the global context is dependent upon the presence of weather in order to exist; and, paradoxically, is against weather, then the world is, in effect, against itself, posing an ecological crisis, as an autoimmune disorder presents a crisis to the human body.
With this crisis comes a strain toward the restoration of equilibrium, by both those who never question whether or not they are human, and those, as Jared Sexton observes, “whose human being . . . raises the question of being human at all.”16 In the Wake meditates on—is—this very tempestuousness; this instability and precarity; this obdurate marking of Black “life” as objecthood; as altered life; as monstrous disfigurement; as non-life; as something(s) in excess of living, even in and through some of the acts of “saving” that life.
To withstand this sustained meditation—the surveying, indexing, analyzing of it—is not to reduce blackness to the death(s)/deathliness to which it is repeatedly subjected, but to reckon-as-praxis with the fact of a climate as blunt and o’ertaking as the force of tempestuous water. Sharpe’s survey of the mounting objectification and murder of Black people as they are, in effect, re-soldered to the ship’s hold by the collective unconscious process and its performed manifestation in the real, is work that must be done; even as we are, in effect, drowning, in the process of doing it. In the Wake is an offering; not of a way out of the present climate, but as a tarrying in precisely where Black folks are—having to chart the unchartable: how to breathe (with)in the unbreathable; the unlivable, and to know that the climate we suffer is not of our making. And so, our care of and for one another, in conditions within which we cannot save one another, must also extend to our intellectual praxis—a recognition that our different dispositional navigations of this wake are neither indictments, nor limitations of blackness, but rather, of the conditions that subject it to incalculable and ongoing suffering.
If we didn’t heed Phyllis Wheatley’s reading of the climate from the slave’s purview in her poem “A Farewell to America,” bemoaning the onward to yet another port-of-exchange . . . :
In vain for me the flow’rets rise,
And boast their gaudy pride,
While here beneath the northern skies
I mourn for health deny’d17
. . . we now have the newest verse of the litany to mind:
Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe . . .”
George Floyd: “I can’t breathe . . .”
Ronald Greene: “I’m scared! I’m scared!”
. . . and Audre Lorde continues to echo:
. . . we were never meant to survive . . .
. . . while a chorale of Black voices tarries in the wake . . . treading . . . drowning . . .
Frank Wilderson’s rumination on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder observes just how heavily those fathoms crash into, barrel over and bear down upon Black folks:
The state kills and contains Black bodies. The left kills and contains Black desire, erases Black cognitive maps that explain the singularity of Black suffering, and, most of all, fatally constricts the horizon of Black liberation. [Despite their] important differences[,] the nub of the anti-Blackness that saturates these desperate strategies lies elsewhere—in the shared unconscious beneath their disparate conscious acts.18
In the face of all of these diagnostics, and of that devastating “meeting ground” to which Spillers refers, we would indeed do well to heed Sharpe’s call to ponder the both/and of “disaster and possibility,” affirming that “we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by [that climate that would reduce us to] the singularity [of its force]” (134). But we must never mistake our rumination on that precarious threshold for an escape hatch into the ruse of “human being” offered up by the turbulent climate that is the world.
Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn (New York: Norton, 1995); Poetryfoundation.org https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147275/a-litany-for-survival.↩
Syreena McFadden, “After the Ferguson Decision, A Poem That Gives Name to the Hurt,” https://www.npr.org/2014/11/28/366839245/after-the-ferguson-decision-a-poem-that-gives-name-to-the-hurt.↩
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Hereafter, all citations from the text will be parenthetical.↩
Christina Sharpe, “Three Scenes,” in On Marronage: Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness, ed. P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon Woods (Africa World Press, 2015), 147.↩
“In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe,” https://bcrw.barnard.edu/videos/in-the-wake-a-salon-in-honor-of-christina-sharpe/.↩
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 277.↩
Selamawit Terrefe, “Conversation: What Exceeds the Hold? An Interview with Christina Sharpe,” Rhizomes 29.1 (2016) http://www.rhizomes.net/issue29/terrefe.html.↩
Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 1.↩
Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Duke University Press, 2010), 109.↩
Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies, 109.↩
Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies, 109.↩
Sharpe, “Three Scenes,” 143.↩
Sharpe, “Three Scenes,” 143.↩
Lorde, “Litany for Survival,” 31.↩
David Marriott, “Judging Fanon,” Black Holes: Afro-Pessimism, Blackness and the Discourses of Modernity, ed. Dalton Anthony James, Rhizomes 29.1 (2016) 12, https://doi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.↩
Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions 5 (Fall/Winter 2011) 5, https://www.yorku.ca/intent/issue5/articles/pdfs/jaredsextonarticle.pdf.↩
Phyllis Wheatley, “A Farewell to America,” Public Domain; Poets.org., 1773, https://poets.org/poem/farewell-america.↩
Frank B. Wilderson III, “An Afropessimist on the Year since George Floyd Was Murdered: Notes of a (Minneapolis) Native Son,” Nation, May 27, 2021, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/george-floyd-afropessimism/.↩
We did not simply or only live in subjection and as the subjected.
—Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
There is a profound conundrum playing out across the pages of Christina Sharpe’s challenging meditation, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.1 It is not the conundrum of political thought, however, as Sharpe is clear about her investment in the role of consciousness in creating new realities, of thinking one’s way through the violent tendrils of the present. At the outset of her book, Sharpe writes “that rather than seeking a resolution to blackness’ ongoing and irresolvable abjection, one might approach Black being in the wake as a form of consciousness” (14). It would seem that this proposition is offered up as a resolution, of sorts. In the final chapter of the book, Sharpe states, “I am interested in ways of seeing and imagining responses to the terror visited on Black life and the ways we inhabit it, are inhabited by it, and refuse it” (116). This “wake work” qua consciousness aims “to enact the movement to that inevitable—a counter to abandonment, another effort to try to look, to try to really see” (117). To the degree that political struggle appears in Sharpe’s text, then, it is as a mode of thinking—namely, the thought that black people are more than the overwhelming force of antiblackness—and as a form of representation that depicts the world’s foreclosure against black humanity as something remediable through symbolism.
The pressure to think about the world as a place of human potentiality is extraordinary. The burden weighs differently, of course, depending on how respective thinkers are positioned in the structure of humanity—as Sharpe notes, “We can all be said to be in the wake but we are not all in the wake in the same way.”2 Sharpe states that in ITW, “I’m trying to be very clear about the ‘we’ I’m summoning.”3 ITW is intended as an intramural address, calling on black people to understand their relationality with and to each other, in excess of the structure of humanity proscribing such relations. For Sharpe, the intramural calls for an “ethics of care” in which the gratuitous violence of the antiblack world is modulated “laterally.” Sharpe offers ITW as one expression of this “lateral thought,” and as such, she does not see the conundrum in black feminist politics. In addition to Sharpe’s intimate engagement with black women thinkers—Brand, Hartman, McKittrick, Morrison, Philip, Spillers et al.—there is the prominence of black women’s “enfleshed work”; Sharpe’s contribution to queer politics with her notion of black as quintessentially “trans*” (and here we might wonder why the un-cited Cathy Cohen, who argued over a decade ago that black people are “queer” by definition, does not inform “wake work”); and the repeated notations on black female “un-gendering” (21, 30, 49, 85, and more). Although the nature of gratuitous violence that Sharpe records would seem to compel a rethinking of “gender” and “sex” discourse altogether, ITW is committed to black feminism as a mode of intramural address, in the least.
Despite the premium on consciousness, and the setting for black feminist thought in particular, the conundrum of ITW is not that of the black intellectual. While she acknowledges that ITW “is the performance of theorizing,” Sharpe’s meditations do not include reflection on the place of this performance in the longstanding debate within black letters as to the role of the intellectual in black liberation, nor on the efficacy of performativity itself, for that matter—after all, that is the crux of “wake work,” to perform a refusal of “the weather.”4 ITW occupies the controversy and dissent that has always imbued black thought with its critical content and ethical purpose, and does so in a manner that clearly marks a moment in this tradition. Although its core message is familiar, its performance at this historical conjuncture appears new.
If Sharpe does not see a conundrum in political thought, in black feminism, or in terms of the role of the black intellectual, then I suggest that the conundrum rent across the pages of ITW is that of black social movement in our contemporary “post-racial” period. What does this book say about the state of black political struggle? What kind of black public sphere warrants, authorizes, or is reflected in this kind of intellectual work? How is black mobilization and political participation immanent (to use a word that she plays with) in Sharpe’s “wake work”? What does ITW signify about the state of black independent thought, art, and publishing? Sharpe’s emphasis on the intramural, ironically, ties directly to these questions of the state of the black public sphere that makes such an intervention possible. Moreover, the book has been enthusiastically received in the five years since its publication, with numerous honorary panels and a kind of mini-canonization within certain quarters of the academy. What are we to make of this state of affairs and what reading of ITW does this scenario and do these questions compel?
All writing bears an autobiographical imprint, and in this vein, the act of publication institutionalizes personal vulnerability. This way of thinking, although all too common, leaves us trapped in an impasse where critique is taken personally by authors and critics hold back for fear of offense or because they know their turn will come. It is the same dead-end wherein a body of thought is conflated with individual authors, with the consequence of encouraging self-aggrandizement in scholars and the unmooring of thinkers from the traditions of thought out of which they emerge. Both of these processes feed the corporate academy, as well as bestow upon individual scholars a prestige unaccountable to a “community,” constituency, electorate, or to historical struggle. It is more productive, and more faithful to the black freedom struggle which is the backdrop to this particular Syndicate symposium, to remember that since thought is social, not individual, it is more properly understood as a collective intellect temporally entangled and expressing itself through individuals and their communal discourse at a moment in time. I venture these thoughts on ITW in this spirit, and out of solidarity with the black traditions of dissent and heterodox critique in which it is engaged. My reading, therefore, is interested in enjoining the coproduction of knowledge that this symposium facilitates and for which books like ITW are exceptional occasions. We might say, however, that although I am a longtime student of black studies and black historical struggle, as a white man I am not of it. Further, this means I am outside of Sharpe’s stated delineation of the “we” to whom she addresses herself in her book. My position as critic and outsider to that which I am critiquing does not undo the social production of thought from which I write or dim the collective intellect to which my comments hopefully contribute, nor does it necessarily qualify my contribution as more or less credible: anti-racism cannot be proprietary, after all. Nonetheless, my position (as opposed to my identity) does bear noting given the structural coordinates for Sharpe’s development of a particular intramural performance. I aim to fortify a blackened praxis, but ultimately, the program for black liberation will be developed in quarters to which I do not belong.
Reading ITW, therefore, as reflective of the conundrum of black social movement at this point in time highlights three issues of concern for me. What are black feminism’s internal limits? What are the drawbacks to withdrawing from a structural analysis? What are the alternatives to “aspiration” that “wake work” might also accommodate? Every discourse has a time and place of its emergence, and contemporary post-civil rights black feminism appears through the violent suppression of the Black Power Movement at the hands of COINTELPRO, the cooptation of the independent Black Studies Movement through its institutionalization in historically white universities across the country, and the loss of independent black artistic and critical publishing venues that marked the evisceration of the Black Arts Movement. The commercial viability of black feminism after the suppression of black power bespeaks both the tokenistic treatment of black arts in the post-civil rights era and the coopted frame in which black feminism is legible to the mainstream, including corporate academia.5 To be clear, the indictment rests not simply on individual black feminists as it does on the absence of a vibrant and critical black public sphere (drummed out of existence by terror campaigns and political economic restructuring) capable of providing the basis for black self-determination that would imagine blackness apart from the categories of antiblackness set forth by Western slaveholding society. The withering of independent black institutions with the capacity for creative autonomy has left an overwhelmingly homogenous culture of politics in which we must struggle to rethink the battle lines. Black thought, including black feminism, is left to duck for cover and lob often impotent mortars with imprecision.
There are complex forces at play, but ITW compels me to ask after the continued viability of black feminism in the afterlife of black power, if you will. Yes, black power does indeed live on, but it has been effectively sidelined from the public sphere and it continues to be dogged from within and from without wherever it may raise its head in discourse, analysis, rhetoric, or action. Why does the institutional life of black feminism appear in inverse relation to black power’s viability? One factor may be the former’s attempt to challenge racist violence by redeploying the same discourses of the body—“gender” and “sex”—that Western civilization creates to position black people as sub-human, and that the corporate academy exploits by richly rewarding individuals at the expense of the masses. Throughout ITW, Sharpe notes the un-gendering that black people endure due to gratuitous violence. Unfortunately, the sheer repetition of this point without developing it blunts its “trans*” potential. Sharpe rides on two insights from Spillers more than any others: Spillers’s notion of the “flesh,” the un-gendering of black bodies wrought by enslavement; and her call to deal with the intramural life of this violence. But Sharpe, and black feminism generally, seems to treat these two insights as distinct. What happens when we think them together? If black people are continually confronted with antiblackness as “gender” and “sex,” as ITW amply reminds us, then why hold on to its terms? If we let go of “gender” and “sex,” then how does the intramural shift? How might blackness emerge conceptualized anew? If blackness is conceptualized differently, shorn of the terms slaveholding society has used to subjugate black people, what space might be opened up for black power?
These questions are provocations without answers until black collectivity creates them. The point, however, is that black feminism’s viability in the afterlife of black power reflects a particular kind of delimited public sphere wherein the desire for individual agency and the fear of collective efficacy leads, in turn, to a kind of gendered “wake work” that may not be up to the task. Which is not to say, let me be clear, that “wake work” is women’s work and therefore is not ready for heavy lifting. On the contrary, the history of black struggle has shown that militancy has no gender (with examples too numerous to list here), in direct response to the un-gendering of gratuitous violence. What makes “wake work” gendered, then, is not the connotations of care-taking as feminine, but rather its diminished capacity for militancy. For instance, given the all-day trials of antiblackness, as Sharpe puts it, why is “wake work” about a self-care in which self-defense seems to go missing? An early excerpt of ITW appeared as “Three Scenes” in On Marronage: Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness.6 In that chapter, Sharpe writes about Christopher Dorner, the former Los Angeles Police Department officer who allegedly went on a murderous rampage against his LAPD superiors after his efforts to follow departmental protocols in holding his fellow officers accountable for their misuse of force were thwarted. Sharpe juxtaposes Dorner’s counter-violence against the state violence not only of the spectacular manhunt that led to his death and the mundane realities of policing that he attempted to remedy, but also that of President Obama’s State of the Union address that coincided with the police bombing of the cabin in the woods to which the fugitive Dorner had retreated, causing the suspect’s immolation (supposedly). Where does Dorner fit within “wake work”? More to the point, what are the range of acceptable responses to “the weather”? And what happens when consciousness about “the climate” translates into action of a certain kind? Or, when the pathology of nonviolence comes home to roost, as in Dylan Roof’s ability to walk into Denmark Vesey’s house unchecked? Or, when counter-violence is self-care and therefore self-defense? Is not defense of the collective a prerequisite for the efficacy of a people? These questions, of course, are explored throughout the black studies archive, from Malcolm X to Frantz Fanon to Assata Shakur to Joy James, in the least, and their absence from ITW reflects, again, the conundrum of black social movement at this time.
Joy James has argued that black feminism has no purchase on contemporary political struggle precisely because its analysis of violence is not up to the task of liberation. Across a growing corpus of essays and lectures in recent years, James has developed a pointed analysis of how radical praxis by “those most vulnerable to violence, war, poverty, police, and captivity” simultaneously threatens and sustains “the possessive empire that claims and dispossesses them.”7 While the capture of black agency happens to both the black petit bourgeois progressives and to their militant counterparts, the latter deal with the day-to-day scarcity and aggression that the former largely evade through their access to the academy’s institutional power, prestige, and pensions. In turn, according to James, academics “play curious roles in stabilizing civil rights markets and defending questionable accumulations within their networks.”8 As a matter of political analysis, then, Sharpe seems to have faith that the academy’s predatory role in society has self-correcting potential, that ITW’s performance of a kind of dramatic unaccountability to black masses will not play right into the cooptative and consumptive requirements of slaveholding culture and its corporate university structure.
ITW is amply aware of the structure of antiblackness, and yet, it retreats from doing a structural analysis. One consequence of this retreat is that it undermines the strength of its own insights. Stop-and-frisk is without doubt an apt illustration of “the hold,” and Sharpe is poised to upgrade the existing voluminous work on policing—and yet she backs off. She notes how policing un-genders the black people it visually apprehends a priori as suspect, and yet this does not lead to new awareness of how everyday policing is a carnal circus commensurate with lynching or slavery—is slavery—and how sexual violence is the basic grammar of antiblackness everywhere. If this is how the police power of society moves, then where does “gender” belong in the program for self-determination? On a practical level, how do you adjust your consciousness “in the wake” to “refuse the abandonment” signified by the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, to resist the terms of structural vulnerability that the absence of protections against “unwarranted search and seizure” manifest—to wit, what kind of resistance, exactly, does Sharpe envision when you are driving while black, walking while black, or residing inside of your home while black?
A second drawback to the retreat from structure is that performativity becomes unmoored from reality. ITW is a performance text and its agenda is how to theorize black performativity. Without a structural analysis, however, the performance is accorded far greater efficacy than it actually enjoys in the world. Does modifying the portraits of Drana and Delia after the fact modulate the force with which they are apprehended by the racist gaze? Perhaps more outrageous are Sharpe’s reflections on the photo of the Haitian girl with “ship” taped to her forehead: “I saw that leaf in her hair, and with it I performed my own annotation that might open this image out into a life, however precarious, that was always there. That leaf is stuck in her still neat braids. And I think: Somebody braided her hair before that earthquake hit” (120) (emphasis in original). What is missing here is Hartman’s delineation of the meaning of practice for “redressing the pained body”: “the significance of the performative lies not in the ability to overcome this condition or provide remedy but in creating a context for the collective enunciation of this pain, transforming need into politics and cultivating pleasure as a limited response to need and a desperately insufficient form of redress.”9 Sharpe does not specify that the importance of the performative is merely to testify to the breach, rather than to overcome it, and her extensive word play performance (puns, multiple meanings, alliteration, neologisms, repetition) as the basis for the book’s “wake work” encourages her audience to read the redressive actions described therein in agentic terms in excess of actual structural constraints.
By “aspiration,” is Sharpe saying that we can handle only so much violence analytically before we need a breather—intellectually? emotionally? Even if a time-out is the diagnosis, then why is the prescription to modulate the analysis, to ratchet down the scale at which we apprehend the world’s violence? The problem, it seems, that a paradigmatic analysis of antiblackness represents for black thought is more fundamental than the reluctance to give up the presumption of a previous generation’s hard fought gains; it is more basic than the desire for recognition or to “exceed the hold” of antiblackness; it is a drag on performances of black success in the academy; and it emerges in the present historical moment in which the longstanding crisis in black intellectual struggle continues to reflect the conundrum of black social movement.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Hereafter, all citations from the text will be parenthetical.↩
Christina Sharpe, in Selamawit Terrefe, “What Exceeds the Hold? An Interview with Christina↩
Sharpe, in Terrefe, “What Exceeds the Hold?”↩
Sharpe, in Terrefe, “What Exceeds the Hold?”↩
Kalamu ya Salaam, “Black Arts Movement,” in William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds., The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (New York: Oxford, 1997), available online at http://www.english.illinois.edu/Maps/blackarts/historical.htm↩
Christina Sharpe, “Three Scenes,” in P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, eds., On Marronage: Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2015), 131–54.↩
Joy James, “The Womb of Western Theory: Trauma, Time Theft, and the Captive Maternal,” Carceral Notebooks 12 (2016) 255. See, as well, https://sites.williams.edu/jjames/captive-maternals/.↩
Joy James, “‘New Bones’ Abolitionism, Communism, and Captive Maternals,” Against the Carceral State: Verso Roundtable, June 4, 2021, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5095-new-bones-abolitionism-communism-and-captive-maternals.↩
Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford, 1997), 51–52.↩
In the Wake’s Black Practice
I’m writing and listening to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Aretha innovates, improvises, and annotates in her various recordings and performances of the song. It is part of a playlist that my former student, Amara, made as research for a project about Black intimate, cultural, and domestic life in the throes of the carceral state.2 The playlist, six hours and thirty minutes in length, sounds an “ordinary note of care,” which is to say urgent intellectual and aesthetic work.3 In the Wake propels Black study toward entanglements of research and thought and affinity; care, as In the Wake teaches us, animates Blackness and being. Everything beautiful, everything necessary, is formed and forged in relation; Christina Sharpe’s work on the wake and the weather and the hold and the ship propel her toward the contention that “thinking needs care” (5). In this way, it is a commentary on the value of Black intellectual reproductive labor to Black life in the midst of always-reappearing terror. Care emerges as integral to Black study and intimately connected to a refusal, namely the refusal to engage in methodological conceits that sever relation such as objectivity, abstraction, and liberal historicism. We are pushed instead toward Black creative intellectual practice.
All, all around.
Aretha is singing about the weather. Pain is the element tracked and measured as day changes into night and the word “so” documents a visceral vocal theory of the magnitude of the violence of evening. The thing about evening is it falls every day. If, as Christina Sharpe contends, antiblackness is pervasive as climate, as expansive and capacious and sedimented and ingrained as ecology, as all all around as Aretha declares, as eventual as evening falling, it is also as capricious, searing, and abrupt; it is the certainty and inundation and embeddedness and swiftness and shrillness, and sharpness of white supremacy that is so brilliantly bound in Sharpe’s theory of the weather.
Hi. Mikia Hutchings’s “sole offense was writing the word ‘Hi’ on the wall [of her school] while a young, Black girl child without financial resources” (123). For this, at age twelve, her image was splashed across the pages of the New York Times. She was not able to pay her fine and so she was made to perform contrition through hours of community service and an apology letter to another student in her school in Stockbridge, Georgia. Through In the Wake we are, as Sharpe argues via Dionne Brand, “sitting in the room with history” (12) with Mikia Hutchings and Black girls who, in the same place more than one hundred years earlier, were nineteen times more likely than white girls to be arrested. They too could not pay their fines, and so they were sentenced to hard time breaking rocks on streets or other forms of debilitating labor. These pasts that are not past reveals the “ditto ditto ditto in the archives of the present” (82). Is there a theory of historical continuity or historical repetition or historical duplication that takes Black girls’ forced penance for simply being at its center? Sharpe’s conceptualization of antiblackness as weather captures the relationship between time and place and the violent dissonances of changing sames—wake work urges readers toward a theory of Black historical environment and visual economies of Black transgression; Black redaction enters as historical counternarrative and a new way of seeing.
Sharpe brings Mikia Hutchings into sight through Black redaction. If white redaction is a disavowal of state violence through Blackness, Black redaction gathers words and ideas in Blackness to enhance a field of vision that both conveys and reaches beyond antiblack violence. Those rendered journalistically and archivally surplus, superfluous, and abject appear differently. In her Black redaction of the New York Times article about Hutchings, the following words are left visible:
I only wrote one word, and I had to do all that,”
“It isn’t fair.”
I’ll take your part.
Through Black redaction Christina Sharpe takes apart antiblack literary, vernacular, and epistemological order; in this case, she takes, in the tradition of Aretha, Mikia’s part, rendering her words and critique more visible precisely through the Blackness that surrounds it.
In this way, Sharpe refuses the all all around pain of the hold and the weather with a Black intellectual and aesthetic all all around practice of holding; Black redaction holds Mikia Hutchings by submerging violent and objectifying words in patterns of Blackness. This differently illuminates her critique and newly images the single word, “Hi.” In so doing, it raises a set of questions about interiority that are integral to Black life and being. Nobody bothered to ask Mikia Hutchings why she wrote the single word “Hi” to all who could see the wall. What was her art practice? Who was she writing to, and what did she hope to introduce by making the small word big? Was “Hi” meant to offset a general blues that had taken hold of the school? At least, nobody who bothered to ask was quoted in the papers.
When she wrote “Hi,” on the wall, Mikia Hutchings practiced Black annotation—insisting that commentary was necessary, something more than whatever it was that the school provided in the way of sociality and/or art and/or thought. Black annotation places the interior lives of Black girls in confrontation with the imaginaries that render them flesh in a book that insists that Black living is an ordinary note rather than a footnote.
Black redaction makes Black annotation practices, like Mikia’s, more visible, visible as more than a footnote in a liberal humanist story of injustice or redemption. The erasure of her interior life and the legal categorization of her annotation as crime, makes Mikia Hutchings coeval with girls past; the architecture and design of the room in which she sits with history is familiar. Ditto, ditto, ditto.
Black redaction and annotation are reading and seeing practices that refuse and renounce journalistic, scholarly, and juridical violation in order to create new modes of apprehending that challenge existing arrangements of power; in this way, Black redaction is related to critical fabulation, a writing practice that requires what Saidiya Hartman describes as the “double gesture” of “straining against the limits of the archive” and enacting the impossibility of historical representation.4 The status of the word(s) and the status of the historical event are deeply connected in the archive of Black disappearance and both are thrown into crisis by Sharpe and Hartman. Like Black redaction, critical fabulation sits in the room with history, mining the fragment in recognition that scraps and traces are both historical violations and historical leads, redefining what it means strain, not only against but for more than an outline. Redaction and fabulation enact the conundrum of “lives made visible through their own disappearance.”5 Distinct sight projects, they emerge in relation as afterlife methods, linking knowledge and being by expanding the practice of dwelling with history. Critical fabulation and Black redaction are practices of Black abolitionist gesture at the nexus of historiography, orthography, citation, punctuation, effacement, conspiracy, art, and politics, perhaps especially the politics of abolition.
The abolitionist performance qualities of Black redaction and Black annotation lie in their work to counter visceral and structural modes of abandonment by encouraging the inevitability of seeing in excess of terror. This leads to one of the most bleak and beautiful (for me, unraveling) lines in In the Wake:
“Somebody braided her hair before that earthquake hit” (120).
Black women’s reproductive labor is often imagined as resolving and rescuing, something to which everyone has access and which fails if it cannot save (or soothe). That the braid here clearly holds no such magical power reflects the character of Black feminist care and Black being. It does not sacrificially serve, but it does contest historical forgetting, it does reject the premise of annihilation. In this sense, it joins Black feminist reproductive labor with what Tina Campt elaborates as refusal—honed, nimble, often quiet creative responses that express and insist upon a future outside of racial dispossession.6 In the interface of Black feminist reproductive labor and Black feminist refusal, care in the context of what Campt calls everyday exigency and duress (before the earthquake hit), both exceeds and creatively responds to violation of extreme, varied, and unpredictable magnitudes. The braid has a lush and powerful temporality of attention: someone made the time, someone sat still long enough, the intimacy and depth of focus lingers in its look and feel in the aftermath of the earthquake; that temporality of attention, which is recalled in both the visual and the haptic character of the braid, is anathema to the terms of order of abandonment, grounded in structural geographic forgetting7 and obliteration. The pause for reflection on the braid is an ordinary note, one of the many placed delicately throughout the book, notes countering the antiblack violence of erasure and abstraction and elaborating the deep stillness of Black life in and through the wake.
Aretha Franklin, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” Aretha Live at Fillmore West (Atlantic Records, 1971). This essay was written in 2018 shortly after Franklin’s passing.↩
Amara Lawson-Chavanu, “Untitled No. 1” (April 2018).↩
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 132. Hereafter, all citations from the text will be parenthetical.↩
Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 (June 2014) 11.↩
Hartman, “Venus,” 12.↩
Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017), 32.↩
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Forgotten Places,” in Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale (University of California Press, 2008), 31–61.↩