Wake Work: "A Long History and Present".
Christina Sharpe's In the Wake begins with death; from here she theorizes Black life, trauma, and promise within and through that which the author terms "the long history and present" (115) of an antiblack material and ideological global climate. In this beginning, death underwrites the book's central claim that the "planned disaster" (26) of enslavement and its afterlife unsettles chronological narratives of slavery's afterlife and narratives of post-slavery transcendence for Black individuals and communities. As a counterpoint to teleological narratives of overcoming racial antagonism and white supremacist violence, In the Wake exposes the history and afterlife of enslavement across a nexus of political and politicized spaces and eras, where the signifiers and the material impacts of enslavement appear and reappear, the signifiers of slavery's continued presence repeat, shift, and repeat again. From the Italian island of Lampedusa to West Philadelphia, from the 1781 slave ship Zong [Zorgue] to the "gratuitous violence" (28) done to a Black mother from Long Beach, California, in the 2010 film (The Forgotten Space) explorations of "globalization and the sea" (25), Sharpe's study rejects historical and artistic narratives citing an unflagging march of racial progress in order to reckon with the devastating global narrative and climate of antiblack repetition. Thus, Sharpe reveals this long history and present as an active and interactive nexus, shored up by global white supremacist infrastructure and policy; as a paradoxical emergence and repetition across centuries and continents; and as the localized national and neighborhood practice of public and private institutions.
Hence, In the Wake covers a scope often discouraged in academic monographs; yet, the scope is the disaster Sharpe investigates. The expansiveness of the book underscores the profound obfuscation in theorizing and reckoning with slavery's intended damage and lasting trauma--its history and its present--in temporal, geographic, and psychic isolation. More, the book's breadth limns the manifestations of slavery and slave law at the intersections of time, space, institution, city, nation, to assert a history that is the present, that is in the present. In response and resistance to this wide and deep scope of antiblack terror, Sharpe theorizes "wake work"--most succinctly defined as "attend(ing) to physical, social and figurative death and also to the largeness that is Black life, Black life insisted from death" (17)--with and alongside Black individuals, families, and communities, beginning with Sharpe's own. Sharpe's project operates as a praxis of attendance that requires one to be with and to carry--not to watch, but to hold--the present traumas and indignities forced upon Black people and to simultaneously persist, to insist Black life, expression, love, and future in and through the wake of deliberate antiblack trauma that is firmament, soil, water, and climate.
Underwriting this praxis is Sharpe's assertion that Black scholars "become undisciplined" (13). Echoing a 1994 appeal from bell hooks for the rejection of white discipline in the classroom (Teaching to Transgress 4), Sharpe describes an academic environment that consigns Black academics who "want to produce legible work in the academy" to "doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise" (13). In a refusal to be complicit in such destructive forces, both casual and large-scale, Sharpe introduces a rejection of traditional white Western research approaches to databases as the bearers of undeniable or total available truth. Instead, In the Wake makes salient the fictions of the archive, its ability to "force us [Black scholars of slavery] into positions that run counter to what we know" (13). Vis-a-vis the practice of Sharpe's own wake work, this project analyzes and explicates a broad spectrum of sociopolitical, artistic, and cultural expression including poetry, fiction, film, visual art, and essays from the Black Diaspora alongside interrogations of antiblack sociopolitical and cultural productions. The study in full exposes the archive's fictions and partial truths, pivots on the process of becoming undisciplined, and offers a response, a way for Black being that holds the wake of slavery's legacy in tension with multitudinous expressions of Black life.
Through the conceit of four chapters titled, "The Wake," "The Ship," "The Hold," and "The Weather," Sharpe models "wake work," clarifying a praxis of Black life and living despite the quotidian antiblack violence that threads everything from natural disaster rescue missions to city street policing. Modeling the presence of Black terror and Black being in such a present, In the Wake offers no introduction. Rather, it calls upon Toni Morrison's removal of a "lobby" in her fiction, locating us in media res, into the wake of the first chapter.
Chapter 1 offers "the wake" as a method for understanding the afterlife of slavery, making a case for "the past that is not yet past" (62), which contextualizes, interacts with, and acts upon Black peoples around the globe and of the Diaspora. The metaphor of the wake maps an understanding of Blackness and being from a panoply of perspectives: that of mourning, that of process, that of turbulence, that of unattended aftermath. Signifying in part on the contemporary ubiquitous-ness of the term "woke," Sharpe's tense shift to "wake" and "wake work" introduces her emphasis on the historical presence and present of antiblack terror and Black persistence, asserting that "while the wake produces Black death and trauma [...] we, Black people everywhere and anywhere we are, still produce in, into, and through the wake an insistence on existing: we insist Black being into the wake" (11). This entry into Sharpe's study emerges through examples of Sharpe's personal, familial, and professional experiences in the wake, where Sharpe ultimately asserts, "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" (22). With this constant tension of "antiblackness as total climate" (21) and Black resistance to and rejection of such enforcement of Black abjection, Sharpe enters Chapter 2, "The Ship."
The central argument in "The Ship" focuses on the physical body of the ship and the action of shipping, noun and verb. Sharpe contends that we rightly cannot speak of, think about, or theorize ships and shipping containers without addressing the attendant violence of the ship, its role in the "planned disaster" (26) of enslavement as a past and present signal of a global antiblack environment. Sharpe does this through critiques across time and space, moving between the 2010 film The Forgotten Space, logs from the 1781 slave ship Zong and the thousands more like it, 1992 and 2010 images of non/rescue efforts of imperiled Black girl children in Haiti, the heinous mis/handling of the 2013 shipwreck carrying 500 African migrants off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa, and finally the 2015 artistic rendering of the legacy of slavery in the memorial structure The Ark of Return. These critiques and interrogations are neither careerist nor dependent upon strawman arguments. Rather, Sharpe highlights the unintentional revelations of these various texts, illustrating the vulnerability of Black peoples to projects undertaken without attention to or reckoning with slavery's afterlife.
The critiques of these texts are bracing in particular for two reasons. First, Sharpe's critical comparisons of these events and representations present careful regard for--though not expansive unpacking of--the historical and geopolitical contexts of each. Second, in a refreshing rhetorical and analytical move, Sharpe balances her critiques with analyses of creative renderings that constitute examples of wake work. Here she foregrounds Dionne Brand's, Kamau Braithwaite's, and M. NourbeSe Philip's poetry, June Jordan's essays, Toni Morrison's fiction as the theory attending to "black being" in the wake of enslavement. These examples, and Sharpe's explications of them, provide material rejoinders to works that address or utilize Black peoples but ignore the long history of enslavement and its aftermath, works that suggest a counter-narrative yet offer another untenable reality.
Chapter 3, "The Hold," presents a critical development for In the Wake as Sharpe traces the ways that Black women specifically are, through their bodies and the legal obtaining of their bodies through partus sequitur ventrem, occupied by the hold of slavery while occupying the hold itself. Theorizing the slippage of the term hold as a space intended for containment, yet also known to us through the ways that Blackness exceeds the hold, sharpens Sharpe's case for the past that is not past. Sharpe states, "The belly of the ship births blackness (as no/ relation). [...] The slave ship, the womb and the coffel, and the long dehumaning project; we continue to feel and be the fall... out" (74). Thus, Sharpe shuttles between, reading the belly of the ship, the womb, and the coffel using the trans-spatial and trans-temporal methodology that guides previous chapters.
Rather than following on as a repetition of Chapter 2's "The Ship," in "The Hold" Sharpe proposes that "with these logics [of the slave ship] in mind, I want to suggest that what is also being birthed (in the hold) is what I call anagrammatical blackness that exists as an index of violability and also potentiality" (75). This presents one of the key theoretical successes of Sharpe's book. Conceptually, anagrammatical blackness offers a descriptor for what Sharpe refers to as the "difficulty of sticking the signification" (77). Thinking anagrammatically exposes what Sharpe terms the "dysgraphia" of antiblack thought, representation, and violence repeated and repositioned across and time and space. It permits connections between a ship belly, Black women's wombs, African migrant boats, Malawi prison cells, Chicago neighborhoods--connections that without Sharpe's theoretical frame would too quickly be termed reductive, lacking historical and sociopolitical context. Indeed, we cannot arrive at the conclusions Sharpe compels without reckoning with the warped time/space continuum that sustains anagrammatical blackness. The power in Sharpe's theory of the annagrammatical is that it exceeds intertextuality, or makes possible intertextual readings deemed otherwise invisible through the structural silencing of white Western institutional practice. If anagrammatical blackness is the place where meaning and words fall apart, it can also be the place to make meaning through what Sharpe terms "The Weather" in Chapter 4.
In Chapter 4, the weather converges with anagrammatical blackness, where the repetition of antiblack politics, policy, quotidian violence, social arrangements and more form the atmosphere for Black being and Black peoples. Rather than beginning with the weather, as we might when discussing nature or a natural uncontrollable condition or force, Sharpe ends the text with weather ostensibly to highlight the horrific and repeated conditions and forces contextualizing and constantly impacting Black lives in the US and around the globe. Here, too, as Sharpe discusses the historical record of Margaret Garner's life and attempted deaths within what she terms an antiblack climate, the author also convincingly explores the realm of possibility within the wake and through the weather. Possibility is, of course, possibility re-envisioned or re-imagined within and against that antiblack climate. Sharpe attends to possibility in suggesting Black annotation and redaction of depictions of Black abjection, terror, suffering, loss, and death. For Sharpe, annotation and redaction--seen as autonomous Black textual, visual, and sonic self-representation--offer "ways of seeing and imagining responses to the terror visited on Black life, and the ways we inhabit, are inhabited by it, and refuse it" (116).
In the Wake is a multivalent study, one that is epistomological, material, literary. While not ahistorical, the book will not satisfy readers seeking an extensive historicization of each individual incident, era, and location supporting Sharpe's case for wake work. However, the goals of the text make clear that such a task is not within the scope of Sharpe's project. Scholars may find themselves unnerved, too, by the meditative prose of the text, by Sharpe's movement across a wide range of disciplinary schools of thought, but then readers will do well to heed the call in the opening chapter to become undisciplined. And, among this breadth of disciplinary approaches, Sharpe's work enters always through the frame of Black Diaspora studies, guided and shaped most notably by the critical works of Dionne Brand, Katherine McKittrick, and Saidiya Hartman.
In the closing of In the Wake, the conceit of wake, ship, hold, weather coheres precisely because the metaphors reveal the constant slippage of signifiers in tandem with anagrammatic repetition: a different yet distressing same. If In the Wake begins with death, the unfolding of Sharpe's theory and practice exposes "the structural silences" of death's production, the institutional protections of death's designers. In the Wake lays the necessary groundwork and models for a praxis of wake work that would create and sustain the "blackened consciousness" Sharpe seeks (22).
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||In the Wake: On Blackness and Being|
|Author:||Cali, Elizabeth J.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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