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‘In The Wake: On Blackness and Being’ by Christina Sharpe

‘In The Wake: On Blackness and Being’ by Christina Sharpe

Author: Sarah Schulman

October 12, 2016

We, in America, are in the middle of a new Black Renaissance of arts, ideas, movements, and combinations thereof, designed to transform all our daily lives, and rooted in the power of vision exploded from real experience. Christina Sharpe, an English professor at Tufts University starts this deep and highly creative work with the personal tragedy of the deaths of her nephew, mother, sister, and brother in the same short period of time. She uses her own experience of the familial “wake,” and multiple meanings of that word, to open a door to the larger political and global revelations of Blackness as a force for expression, resistance, and therefore, existence in the face of the “on-going ruptures of chattel slavery.”

The overriding engine of US racism cut through my family’s ambitions and desires. It coursed through our social and public encounters and our living rooms. Racism, the engine that drives the ship of state’s national and imperial projects, cuts through all of our lives and deaths inside and outside the nation, in the wake of its purposeful flow.

This intense time of family loss follows on a history of untimely deaths: one relative was killed by an acquaintance, another by the police. Sharpe faces, straight on, the social normativity around pre-mature Black death, how it is a product of political norms, and since created, it becomes expected. This “antiblackness,” she writes, is “the ground on which we stand.” Living in the wake of slavery, Sharpe explains, means inheriting the mantle of the non-person, about whom any absurdity can be claimed, i.e. they “shoot themselves while handcuffed.” She raises the problem of how to “memorialize the everyday” when injustice is so on-going, that it can’t be contained enough to be adequately addressed. What she calls “The semiotics of the slave-ship” means to recognize antiblackness as “a total climate.” Literally, the weather.

Sharpe proposes a turning away from “existing disciplinary solutions to blackness’s ongoing abjection.” Her work, therefore, is a confrontation and defiance of every structure that maintains the destruction of Black people and Blackness as normal, and that depends on anti-Blackness for its own sense of itself as objective and neutral. This could have been a one thousand page book, filled with “evidence”, citations and systematic “proof”, but instead it is an earned, slim volume of poetic, intellectual and, in fact, spiritual enactment of struggle. In this way, In The Wake is an effective, personal conversation with the reader that uses both fact, image, and emotion, legitimately, to illuminate argument. Her encyclopedic reach encompasses the Ship, the Hold, the Water, the Shore, Phillis Wheatley (named for the slave ship that brought her family to North America), Haiti, Ebola, Migration, The Academy, Visual Arts, Film, Poetry, Public Monuments, Birth, and Michael Brown’s autopsy report as just some of the parameters of this book. For example, her meditation on “The Stop” is really breathtaking. Always looking for multiple meanings to reveal the formal construction of ideas and experiences, Sharpe expands our associations with “Stop” from “Stop and Frisk” to carding, detention centers, quarantine, obstruction, and exclusion.

Sharpe’s book is also a conversation with some of the great Black intellectuals of our contemporary moment: Fred Moten, Claudia Rankine, Saidya Hartmann, Kamau Brathwaite, Toni Morrison, Hortense Spillers, Kara Walker–and for US readers this is an rigorous loving tribute and in depth evocation of the rich, insightful work of Sharpe’s partner, the Canadian poet and cultural icon, Dionne Brand, whose writings clearly should be better integrated into US consciousness.

In The Wake is part of a new opening in academic writing, along the lines of other queer experimental scholars of color like Sara Ahmed, also published by Duke University Press. And hats off to Duke for taking chances with work that takes chances, outside of the author’s official discipline, that may or may not ordinarily survive a stodgy, repressive concept of editorial boards. If we are truly committed to interdisciplinarity in its logical expressions, the integration of politics and theory, and making room for new ideas, publishers have to also re-imagine their mandates and responsibilities. So glad, that in this case, they did.


In The Wake: On Blackness and Being
By Christina Sharpe
Duke University Press
Hardcover, 9780822362944, 192 pp.
November 2016

Sarah Schulman photo

About: Sarah Schulman

SARAH SCHULMAN’s 20th book, LET THE RECORD SHOW: A Political History of ACT UP, New York 1987-1993, will be published in May by FSG.

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