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Issue 1: Queering Across Borders

essays+reviews

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

By Suchismita Dutta         June 10, 2019

Christina Sharpe refers to In the Wake: On Blackness and Being as her “wake work” and points to the nonexistence of a safe space in a landscape marked by the constant tension of “antiblackness as total climate.” Sharpe draws from her loss of her own family members from untimely deaths to invoke a lyric of awakening which demonstrates that Black cultural studies and Black knowledge production cannot be separated from the archive of black deaths. Several reviews of In the Wake have illuminated the need to imagine Black ontology “beyond pre-scripted death” as well as to strongly consider the “derivative oppressive regimes that have emerged in the aftermath of chattel slavery.” However, Sharpe’s book makes a further investment in rethinking our current sociopolitical environment, which is informed by hashtag activism, racial profiling, and police brutality. In between the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2013, the initiation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent death of Stephon Clarke on March 18, Sharpe’s monologue finds a place to expose the underrepresented middle passages that still transport black bodies silently.

In conversation with some of the great Black intellectuals of this contemporary moment--Fred Moten, Claudia Rankine, Saidya Hartmann, Kamau Brathwaite, Toni Morrison, Hortense Spillers, Kara Walker, Dionne Brand and others--Sharpe treats the social normativity around pre-mature Black death as the byproduct of political medians created by the state through state-sponsored violence. In the Wake is neither a memoir nor simply a theoretical text. It is divided into four chapters titled, “The Wake,” “The Ship,” “The Hold,” and “the Weather,” in which the terms “wake,” “ship,” “hold,” and “weather” play a profound role in confronting death and migration in Black cultural studies. Sharpe situates contemporary discourses on the afterlife of slavery within deep historical contexts. She argues that “the past is not yet past” (62). The text does not present a positive black ontology. It attends to themes of victimhood and the normalization of black social deaths. This attention makes her book an indispensable work for understanding the growing racial fear and disillusionment in the United States.  

In chapter one, titled, “The Wake,” Sharpe likens a series of deaths in her family with “silences” that need to be mourned. These silences emerge from financial, educational and racial hurdles that form an inescapable part of black lives. Sharpe illustrates each of these impediments with her own experiences as well as with those of her family members. She writes about how her mother, a Black woman, is told by the White nuns at her West Catholic Girls School that Black girls could not become artists. Highlighting the omnipresence of personal and institutional racism that is transmitted transgenerationally, Sharpe states that, “[T]he overriding engine of US racism cut through my [her] family’s ambitions and desires” (3).  Sharpe establishes the graphic time-table of the deaths of IdaMarie, Caleb, Robert, and Stephen--Sharpe’s family members--to enter them into an archive shared by the likes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Chapter two, “The Ship: The Trans* Atlantic” foregrounds the study of the displacement of bodies, and Sharpe continues with her analyses of spaces, like the sea, that bear witness to the objectification of living bodies that are harbingers of trade and capitalism. Sharpe studies the ship as a vessel and confers upon it a coffin-like quality, as it contains damaged, bruised, and sometimes dead black bodies. The Atlantic and the Mediterranean are read as the burial grounds where unwanted bodies are disposed of. Sharpe intertwines a range of materials--from Allan Sekula’s and Noel Burch’s The Forgotten Space, The Fish Story to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina to Zong!--to present the communal dilemma caused by the presence of the absence of blackness.

In “The Hold,” the Atlantic’s current symbolizes a premonition that brings Black bodies to a door, a port, a junction or a station and makes them want to “hold” onto that destination. Using the word “thirsty” from Dionne Brand’s poem that goes by the same name, Sharpe explicates instances of unquenchable thirst or the inability to come to terms with one’s lived reality. Black men and women killed by police officers, captured Africans who are thrown overboard into the ocean, and child migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who are kept below the deck all form a part of the framework that manifests “always-possible deaths” (71).

Sharpe also brings our attention to the way bodies of black women perform the role of the belly of a ship carrying future Black lives in them, thus becoming the living middle-passage and connecting what Hortense Spillers calls the “human and the non-human” world to each other (78). In chapter four, “The Weather” Sharpe’s analysis of the photograph of the Haitian girl with the word ship written on her forehead mandates the need for a new mode of writing and performance that can initiate care work and prevent states of Black non-being. In our present sociopolitical moment,  In the Wake emerges as an important text. It transcends intertextuality and demands the disclosure of the structural silencing of violence on Black bodies using trans-spatial and trans-temporal methodologies.

Footnotes

[1] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 21. Future citations for this work will be given parenthetically.

[2] Patricia Nguyen. “In the Wake: on Blackness and Being” in Women & Performance, vol. 28, no. 1 (2018), 85. Mahaliah A. Little, “ In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe (Review),” from Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 6, no. 1 (2017), 138.

Works Cited

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

 

Mahaliah A. Little, "In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

    (Review).” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp. 137–140.

Patricia Nguyen, "In the Wake: on Blackness and Being." Women &Performance: A Journal

    of Feminist Theory, vol. 28, no. 1, 2018, pp. 85–88.

Suchismita Dutta is a PhD candidate at the Department of English, University of Miami. Her research interest lies in contemporary American immigrant writing, multiethnic literatures of the U.S. and citizenship studies. Presently, she is the Managing Editor of Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. She is also a research assistant for the WhatEvery1Says project, a multi-university digital humanities project that investigates how the news media and other public sources portray the humanities. She recently presented a part of her research on epigenetics and post-racial trauma at the 32nd annual MELUS Conference.