In this original and trenchant work, Christina Sharpe interrogates literary, visual, cinematic, and quotidian representations of Black life that comprise what she calls the "orthography of the wake." Activating multiple registers of "wake"—the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness—Sharpe illustrates how Black lives are swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery, and she delineates what survives despite such insistent violence and negation. Initiating and describing a theory and method of reading the metaphors and materiality of "the wake," "the ship," "the hold," and "the weather," Sharpe shows how the sign of the slave ship marks and haunts contemporary Black life in the diaspora and how the specter of the hold produces conditions of containment, regulation, and punishment, but also something in excess of them. In the weather, Sharpe situates anti-Blackness and white supremacy as the total climate that produces premature Black death as normative. Formulating the wake and "wake work" as sites of artistic production, resistance, consciousness, and possibility for living in diaspora, In the Wake offers a way forward.
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In the Wake
On Blackness and Being
By Christina Sharpe
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
I wasn't there when my sister died. I was in Chicago at the Cultural Studies Association meeting and I was finishing the paper that was my first attempt at the work that became this book. My brother Christopher called on that Wednesday in May and asked if I was busy. I told him that I was finishing the paper I would give on Friday. He asked me to call him back when I was done. When two hours passed and I still hadn't called, he called me. He said that he'd wanted to wait but that our brother Stephen and sister Annette had urged him to call me back. They'd told him I would be upset if he waited. Our eldest sister Ida-Marie was dead, Christopher told me. There were very few other details. She lived alone. She was late to work. No more than ten minutes late, but she was always so prompt that ten minutes with no call, text, or email so alarmed her employers that they called the police and convinced them to go to her apartment. They found her there. I put the phone down. I called my partner and two friends. I texted one of my fellow presenters to tell him that I wouldn't be on the panel and why. I texted another friend, a former student who is now a professor at DePaul University, and he said that he was coming to get me. He told me that I shouldn't be alone. I put down the phone and fell asleep.
That was May 2013 and I had no idea, then, that two more members of my family would also die within the next ten months. This would be the second time in my life when three immediate family members died in close succession. In the first instance, between February 2, 1997, January 19, 1998, and July 4, 1999, we survived the deaths of my nephew Jason Phillip Sharpe; my mother, Ida Wright Sharpe; and my eldest brother, Van Buren Sharpe III. As this deathly repetition appears here, it is one instantiation of the wake as the conceptual frame of and for living blackness in the diaspora in the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery.
No one was with my sister when she died at home less than a week after she, my brother Stephen, my sister Annette, and my brother-in-law James had returned from a ten-day vacation together in Florida. Her death was sudden and alarming. We still don't know what caused IdaMarie's death; the autopsy report was inconclusive.
IdaMarie and I weren't close. We had only ever had moments of closeness, like in the chiasmic aftermath of the death of her son, my nephew, Jason (figure 1.1). This lack of closeness was largely, though not only, because almost twenty-two years my senior we had never spent much time together, we had never really gotten to know each other, and I had grown used to her absence. I didn't, in fact, experience her absence as absence because when I was born she was already living in her own life, at a distance from me, because her relationship with our father was irretrievable, for reasons that remain unknown to me.
There are many silences in my family. I am the youngest of six children. My parents were born in Philadelphia in the first quarter of the twentieth century. My father, who went to Overbrook High School, was one of eight children and middle class (his mother had gone to Normal School in Washington, DC; three of my father's brothers went to Howard University), and my mother, who went to West Catholic Girls High School, was the only child of a working poor and single mother. My parents married on my mother's nineteenth birthday; my father was thirty. Neither of my parents went to college. My mother had always wanted to be an artist, but was told by the white nuns who were her teachers at West Catholic Girls that Black girls couldn't do that. So after graduating she trained to become certified as an X-ray technician. My father worked in the sorting room at the post office at Thirtieth Street in Philadelphia. My mother worked as an X-ray technician before I was born and then at TV Guide after she was diagnosed with and treated for cancer the first time. After that she worked at Sears, Roebuck, and Co., in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, in the garden department and then in the personnel department. We children went to Archbishop John Carroll High School, St. Katherine of Siena, the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, Devon Preparatory, and also Valley Forge Junior High School and Conestoga Senior High School; good-to-mediocre Catholic schools, elite private schools, and good public schools. We went there, that is, until the scholarship money ran out and/or the racism proved too much; sometimes the scholarship money ran out because of racism. In each of these private and public institutions and across generations (there were twenty-one and twenty-two years between my eldest siblings and me) we faced the kinds of racism, personal and institutional, that many people, across race, like to consign to the pre–Brown v. Board of Education southern United States. 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 room. Racism, the engine that drives the ship of state's national and imperial projects ("the American ship of state ... the ark of the covenant that authorized both liberty and slavery": DeLoughrey 2010, 53) cuts through all of our lives and deaths inside and outside the nation, in the wake of its purposeful flow.
Wake: the track left on the water's surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming or moved, in water; it is the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow.
In 1948 my parents moved with my two eldest siblings from West Philadelphia to Wayne, Pennsylvania, on the Main Line. They were Black working, middle-class, striving, people who lived at a four-way intersection, at one end of a small mixed-income Black neighborhood called Mt. Pleasant that was surrounded by largely upper-middle-class and wealthy white suburban neighborhoods (up the street were the St. David's Golf Club and the Valley Forge Military Academy). From what I understand, my parents moved to the suburbs for opportunity; they wanted what they both imagined and knew that they did not have and their children would not have access to in Philadelphia: from space for their children to grow (there would be six of us and the house was small), to a yard large enough to have fruit trees and a vegetable garden, to easier access to good educations for their children. (Opportunity: from the Latin Ob-, meaning "toward," and portu(m), meaning "port": What is opportunity in the wake, and how is opportunity always framed?) This, of course, is not wholly, or even largely, a Black US phenomenon. This kind of movement happens all over the Black diaspora from and in the Caribbean and the continent to the metropole, the US great migrations of the early to mid-twentieth century that saw millions of Black people moving from the South to the North, and those people on the move in the contemporary from points all over the African continent to other points on the continent and also to Germany, Greece, Lampedusa. Like many of these Black people on the move, my parents discovered that things were not better in this "new world": the subjections of constant and overt racism and isolation continued. After my father died when I was ten, we slid from lower-middle-class straitened circumstances into straight-up working poor. With all of the work that my parents did to try to enter and stay in the middle class, precarity and more than precarity remained. And after my father died, that precarity looked and felt like winters without heat because there was no money for oil; holes in ceilings, walls, and floors from water damage that we could not afford to repair; the fears and reality of electricity and other utilities being cut for nonpayment; fear of a lien being placed on the house because there was no, or not enough, money to pay property taxes. For my part, my dining services access was cut during my first semester in college, and after that semester the University of Pennsylvania almost did not allow me to return to campus because we were unable to pay the (small but too large for us) parental contribution. But through all of that and more, my mother tried to make a small path through the wake. She brought beauty into that house in every way that she could; she worked at joy, and she made livable moments, spaces, and places in the midst of all that was unlivable there, in the town we lived in; in the schools we attended; in the violence we saw and felt inside the home while my father was living and outside it in the larger white world before, during, and after his death. In other words, even as we experienced, recognized, and lived subjection, we did not simply or only live in subjection and as the subjected. Though she was not part of any organized Black movements, except in how one's life and mind are organized by and positioned to apprehend the world through the optic of the door and antiblackness, my mother was politically and socially astute. She was attuned not only to our individual circumstances but also to those circumstances as they were an indication of, and related to, the larger antiblack world that structured all of our lives. Wake; the state of wakefulness; consciousness. It was with this sense of wakefulness as consciousness that most of my family lived an awareness of itself as, and in, the wake of the unfinished project of emancipation.
So, the same set of questions and issues are presenting themselves to us across these historical periods. It [is] the same story that is telling itself, but through the different technologies and processes of that particular period. (Saunders 2008a, 67)
It is a big leap from working class, to Ivy League schools, to being a tenured professor. And a part of that leap and apart from its specificities are the sense and awareness of precarity; the precarities of the afterlives of slavery ("skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment": Hartman 2007, 6); the precarities of the ongoing disaster of the ruptures of chattel slavery. They texture my reading practices, my ways of being in and of the world, my relations with and to others. Here's Maurice Blanchot (1995, 1–2): "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. ... When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. The disaster is its imminence, but since the future, as we conceive of it in the order of lived time belongs to the disaster, the disaster has always already withdrawn or dissuaded it; there is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment. "Transatlantic slavery was and is the disaster. The disaster of Black subjection was and is planned; terror is disaster and "terror has a history" (Youngquist 2011, 7) and it is deeply atemporal. The history of capital is inextricable from the history of Atlantic chattel slavery. The disaster and the writing of disaster are never present, are always present. In this work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, I want to think "the wake" as a problem of and for thought. I want to think "care" as a problem for thought. I want to think care in the wake as a problem for thinking and of and for Black non/being in the world. Put another way, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is a work that insists and performs that thinking needs care ("all thought is Black thought") and that thinking and care need to stay in the wake.
December 2013. I was in the grocery store when my brother Stephen called. I listened to the message and I called him back immediately. The tone of his voice and the fact of the call let me know that something was wrong because in recent years my brother became very bad at making and returning calls, a fact that he was always deeply apologetic about. When he answered the phone, he told me that he had bad news about Annette. I froze. Asked, "What? Is she okay?" Stephen told me yes, physically she was okay, but Annette and my brother-in-law James's adopted and estranged son Caleb (called Trey before he was adopted and renamed) had been murdered in Pittsburgh. Stephen had no other information.
Caleb had been severely abused before he was adopted at the age of five. He was very small for his age and quiet, and my sister and brother-in-law at first were not aware of the extent or the severity of the abuse he had suffered. But when Caleb continued to have trouble adjusting, they sought the help of therapists. In response to a therapist's question about the difficulties he was facing, the then six-year-old Caleb replied, "I'm just bad." Eventually Caleb was diagnosed with a severe attachment disorder, which meant that it was likely he would never bond with my sister. There are other stories to be told here; they are not mine to tell.
I put my basket down and left the store. When I got home I searched online for Caleb's name, and the brief news stories I found on the websites of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the TribLive were about the murder of a twenty-year-old young Black man on Pittsburgh's North Side, and together they provided all of the details I had of my nephew's death. "Caleb Williams, a twenty-year-old Black male from Turtle Creek, was fatally shot to death in the trunk and neck as he and another person left an apartment in the 1700 block of Letsche Street in the North Side. Shots were fired from an adjoining apartment. He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital, where he later died. No one has been charged; the investigation is ongoing."
This wasn't the first time that I searched newspapers for the details of a murdered family member. In 1994 the Philadelphia police murdered my cousin Robert, who was schizophrenic; he had become schizophrenic after his first year as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. What I have been able to reconstruct with the help of my brother Christopher, my partner, memory, and online news archives is that Robert was living in an apartment in Germantown not far from my uncle, his father, and my aunt, his stepmother, and he had stopped taking his medication. He was a big man, six foot eight. Apparently he was agitated and had been walking the neighborhood. "A Germantown man was shot and killed last night when he ended an eight-hour standoff with police by walking out of his apartment building and pointing a starter pistol at officers, police said. Robert Sharpe, forty, was shot several times outside the apartment building on Manheim Street near Wayne Avenue. He was pronounced dead a short time later at Medical College of Pennsylvania Hospital's main campus" (Taylor 1994).
What the paper did not say is that Robert's neighbors knew him and were not afraid of him; they were concerned for him and they wanted help calming his agitation. What the paper did not say is that the police shot Robert, who was unarmed, or armed with a starter pistol — a toy gun — point blank eleven times, or nineteen times, in the back. There was no seeking justice here. What would justice mean? Joy James and João Costa Vargas ask in "Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs": "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? What will happen then if instead of demanding justice we recognize (or at least consider) that the very notion of justice ... produces and requires Black exclusion and death as normative" (James and Costa Vargas 2012, 193). The ongoing state-sanctioned legal and extralegal murders of Black people are normative and, for this so-called democracy, necessary; it is the ground we walk on. And that it is the ground lays out that, and perhaps how, we might begin to live in relation to this requirement for our death. What kinds of possibilities for rupture might be opened up? What happens when we proceed as if we know this, antiblackness, to be the ground on which we stand, the ground from which we to attempt to speak, for instance, an "I" or a "we" who know, an "I" or a "we" who care?
That these and other Black deaths are produced as normative still leaves gaps and unanswered questions for those of us in the wake of those specific and cumulative deaths. My niece Dianna sent me a video about her cousin, my nephew. It was dedicated to "Little Nigga Trey," and that the video exists speaks to my nephew's life after he relocated and returned to live with and in proximity to his birth family in Pittsburgh and also speaks to the nonbiological family he made as a young adult. Caleb's life was singular and difficult, and it was also not dissimilar to the lives of many young Black people living in, and produced by, the contemporary conditions of Black life as it is lived near death, as deathliness, in the wake of slavery. "The U.S. Marshals this morning arrested a Pittsburgh homicide suspect in New Kensington who has been on the loose since December. is charged with killing Caleb Williams, 20, of Turtle Creek on Dec. 10." Wake; in the line of recoil of (a gun).
I include the personal here to connect the social forces on a specific, particular family's being in the wake to those of all Black people in the wake; to mourn and to illustrate the ways our individual lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery. Put another way, I include the personal here in order to position this work, and myself, in and of the wake. The "autobiographical example," says Saidiya Hartman, "is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it's not about navel gazing, it's really about trying to look at historical and social process and one's own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an example of them" (Saunders 2008b, 7). Like Hartman I include the personal here, "to tell a story capable of engaging and countering the violence of abstraction" (Hartman 2008, 7).
Excerpted from In the Wake by Christina Sharpe. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents1. The Wake 1
2. The Ship 25
3. The Hold 68
4. The Weather 102
What People are Saying About This
"Christina Sharpe brings everything she has to bear on her consideration of the violation and commodification of Black life and the aesthetic responses to this ongoing state of emergency. Through her curatorial practice, Sharpe marshals the collective intellectual heft and aesthetic inheritance of the African diaspora to show us the world as it appears from her distinctive line of sight. A searing and brilliant work."
"Christina Sharpe's deep engagement with the archive of Black knowledge production across theory, fiction, poetry, and other intellectual endeavors offers an avalanche of new insights on how to think about anti-Blackness as a significant and important structuring element of the modern scene. Cutting across theoretical genres, In the Wake will generate important intellectual debates and maybe even movements in Black studies, cultural studies, feminist studies, and beyond. This is where cultural studies should have gone a long time ago."