by Carston Johannsen
Published by Duke University Press, 2016 | 163 pages
Almost three years ago, I sent Christina Sharpe all of my notes for the first chapter of my dissertation. Someone needed to see, to verify, the archive of my suffering and work, to untangle the ugly “orthography” of trauma (re)inscribed onto my being for thinking Black thoughts in increasingly hostile territories.
Almost three years ago, I reached out—into the dark of the ship’s hold, rocked and shaken by clamoring calamity storming disaster—to Christina Sharpe. Against all expectation—the lowering and discarding of expectation being part of my training—she reached back, at first as mentor and advisor to my then, graduate student self. More recently, she reached out once more through In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, her critical, caring exploration of what it is to be, think, create, live, and die as Black peoples “in the wake” of legal chattel slavery.
As is made clear in In the Wake, Sharpe’s volume is written for Black peoples “living blackness in the diaspora in the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery”—that is, for Black peoples living and dying “in the wake.” Taking into account the many definitions and resonances of the word, “wake”—“the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness”—Sharpe explores what might happen if we understand Black being in the wake as “a form of consciousness.” Most imperatively, she considers the nature, mechanics, and stakes of the kind of work, wake work, Black peoples have done, do, and might do, as we “occupy and are occupied by” the wake, by its resonant meanings, and by the deathly logics it carries. Through the images, poetry, literature, theory, lives, and deaths to which she turns and, importantly, repeatedly returns in her text—rather, one might say that she stays with them in the wake—Sharpe theorizes how we might “imagine” Black life and death “otherwise” from within, with, and against the wake.
Sharpe begins her text and her theorization of the wake autobiographically, wading us through the thickness of the deaths of her eldest sister, IdaMarie Sharpe, her nephew, Caleb Williams, and her brother, Stephen Wheatley Sharpe, all occurring over the course of ten months, between May 2013 and February 2014. Citing Saidiya Hartman, she begins with the personal because the “autobiographical example” enacts an attempt “to look at historical and social processes and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an example of them.” Through this window, or perhaps this rupture, we bear witness to death—or, rather, we bear witness to a life surrounded by and bound up with death and repeated dying; a life that knows death deeply and intimately; a life for which death appears not only as the (slave) ship or the unimaginable conditions of its hold, but also, and disastrously so, as the water and the weather. Through the window, through a specific family’s lives-and-deaths, we bear witness to the space, time, conditions and climate of Black life, lived inextricably with death, in the wake.
Imperative for Sharpe, and for all of we who inhabit the wake of enslavement, is an ensemble of questions aimed at the work of Black being—questions Frank B. Wilderson III might describe as “menacing and unbearable:” “What does it mean to defend the dead? To tend to the Black dead and dying: to tend to the Black person, to Black people, always living in the push toward death?” Further, what might emerge should we-in-the-wake really harness “the power of sitting with someone as they die,” and really, devotionally be about “the important work of sitting (together) in the pain and sorrow of death as a way of marking, remembering…celebrating” and “[trying] to really see” Black life, “if only momentarily?”
Against the “dysgraphia” and misnaming that subject Black being to every order of disaster, Sharpe works to “find the language for this work…to find the words that will articulate care…[and] to sound a new language,” to consider “how to perform the labor” of those words and that language. Chapter by chapter she proceeds, carefully working to examine the space and time of Black subjection in the antiblack world, while also taking care to “insist”—a verb Sharpe returns to repeatedly—upon real, fleeting and/or fractured glimpses of Black life scattered throughout the violence of the archive. Be that deathly life on or as “The Ship,” (Chapter 2), life as “boat people,” which is life marked by the figure of the slave ship—itself like the photograph of the young Haitian girl with “ship” mysteriously, menacingly, taped to her forehead (Sharpe returns to this girl and her image throughout the text). Or, be it in “The Hold” of the ship (Chapter 3), known by all its attendant conditions and resonant images, which continues to hold—bind, contain, strangle—us, the very same hold which we (are made to) hold within, in the flesh. Or, be it in the gasping for air against the reality of the “disaster” that is “The Weather” and the water (Chapter 4) that is antiblackness. In every iteration of the space and time of Black life and death, life/death, Sharpe locates a moment, glimpse, or fragment that insists Black life/death through the wake.
For Sharpe, this is deathly Black life, and these are its words and doings. Black life is “anagrammatical.” “Anagrammatical blackness…exists,” as she puts it, “as an index of violability and potentiality.” This is a Blackness betwixt and between, caught in the opening/rift/tear marked by this index—“blackness anew, blackness as a/temporal, in and out of place and time putting pressure on meaning and that against which meaning is made.” This is a Black betwixt/betweenness. This betwixt/between region, like the asterisk in Trans*, holds open a space/time in the imagination for “new modes of writing, new modes of making-sensible” with/against the orthographies of the wake, an alternative set of reading and writing practices that carry out wake work, what Christina Sharpe calls “Black annotation and Black redaction.”
Perhaps most essentially, in relation to the dead, the dying, and “those living lives consigned to the possibility of always-imminent death, life lived in the presence of death,” Black life—in blips and bits, silences and looks—insists upon a different kind of holding, an alternative kind of care, and a violent and lifesaving kind of aspiration—aspiration, in Sharpe’s use, being the process of “keeping and putting breath back into the Black body” as we approach “the histories and presents” of Black life and death in the wake.
To be, to think, and to move with In the Wake is to meet the look of this insistence unflinchingly, to linger in that look and to look carefully, with care, and to claim, to accompany, and to hold those dead, dying, and living in death’s proximity in our memory, our thought, and our imagination, through, and as our very consciousness. Without and against the desire to fantasize a Black humanity and subjectivity that fills in the silences, the breaks, the lapses and absences in the archive, In the Wake, and the wake work it practices and theorizes, insists on a reimagining of the way we locate, hold, carry, and, again, really try to see Black life as it is lived bound up with death—as it creates, thinks, and moves with, through, and against storming, disastrous antiblackness.
What precedes is a circumstantial account. I am unable to capture in this limited space the complexity and beauty of the maneuvers Christina Sharpe makes as she sits with, drifts with, and never abandons, the many Black lives and deaths that give In the Wake, its theorization, and its practices their force; even less am I able to wholly account for the fullness of the “new language…new modes of writing, [and] new modes of making-sensible” she painstakingly develops, applies, and reexamines in her work. This is, after all, only a sounding of a small note of care and careful critique for an extraordinary work. Instead, I will conclude with Sharpe’s own summation of the mission of the text, its theorization of the wake, of its wake work and ours, of the past and ongoing works it holds tightly, and of the work it has inspired and is bound to inspire. At the end of the first chapter, “The Wake,” she writes:
I want In the Wake to declare that we are Black peoples in the wake with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected, and to position us in the modalities of Black life lived in, as, under, despite Black death: to think and be and act from there. It is my particular hope that the praxis of the wake and wake work, the theory and performance of the wake and wake work, as modes of attending to Black life and Black suffering, are imagined and performed here with enough specificity to attend to the direness of the multiple and overlapping presents that we face; it is also my hope that the praxis of the wake and wake work might have enough capaciousness to travel and do work that I have not here been able to imagine or anticipate.
To echo Fanon, perhaps, here, in the wake, and from In the Wake, and with all the work it holds close, sits with, and aspires/inspires, “might an authentic upheaval be born” (Black Skin White Masks).
With In the Wake, Christina Sharpe looks out from the text and really tries to see us, both those here and gone, living and dead, in the wake, for all we are. We might begin, anew, by carefully looking back—double emphasis on care.
Dr. John Murillo III is a graduate of Brown University with a PhD in English. His primary research interests include twentieth century black literature, afro-pessimism, critical theory, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and cosmology. He is currently working to complete his manuscript, Quantum Blackanics: Untimely Blackness, and Black Literature Out of Nowhere, as well as a collection of essays, entitled Hunger/Hungry.