In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke Press. 192 pages; $84.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke Press. 192 pages; $84.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.

In the Wake, Christina Sharpe's theoretically engaged meditation on “the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery,” begins with the deeply personal as she recounts a succession of deaths in her family (2). In the tradition of black feminist intellectualism, Sharpe engages her lived experience in order to theorize the processes and structures which condition Black life. Inviting the reader to join her in the wake and consider the ongoing disaster of chattel slavery, Sharpe asks: “In the midst of so much death and the fact of Black life as proximate to death, how do we attend to physical, social, and figurative death and also to the largeness that is Black life, Black life insisted from death?” (17).

Sharpe's work contributes a generative theoretical language to the vast corpus of scholarship on the ongoing relegation of Black subjects to zones of political, social, and ontological non-being. Unlike much of this literature, however, Sharpe's work forgoes concerns with melancholia, mourning, and memorial (after all, how does one mourn or memorialize that which has not ended?). Instead, Sharpe seeks out ways of seeing, imagining, and accounting for the “modalities of Black life lived in, as, under, and despite Black death” (20). Drawing on visual culture, poetry, contemporary news media, legal discourse, documentary film, and social policy, Sharpe engages the work of Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, Frank Wilderson, and Stephanie Smallwood to explore the fraught representations of Black being in the wake of slavery.

Chapter One, a kaleidoscopic treatment of the wake considers the many meanings and manifestations of the term–the track left on the water's surface by a ship, a region of disturbed flow, a vigil by the side of the dying, a ritual of mourning for the dead, and a state of consciousness – in order to lay out the text's theoretical and methodological contributions. Sharpe calls for methods that exceeded what the archive willingly reveals and instead pulls from Black expressive culture and the everyday knowledges that emerges from within “the ongoing disaster” of slavery (5). Displacing the drive to recuperate the Black subject as/for humanity, Sharpe argues that inhabiting the space of non-being “avails us to particular ways of re/seeing, re/inhabiting, and re/imagining the world” (22). These “undisciplined” methods, this “blackened knowledge,” produce and are produced by what Sharpe terms wake work: the “plotting, mapping, and collecting the archives of everyday Black immanent and imminent death,” and tracking of “the ways we resist, rupture, and disrupt that immanence and imminence aesthetically and materially” (13). To be in the wake, then, is not only to live in/with “the continuous and changing present of slavery's as yet unresolved and unfolding” (14). To be cognitively in the wake, to think from and through the conditions of Black life in the aftermath of slavery, is to recognize the categories of the wake, the ship, the hold, and the weather as “the ongoing locations of Black being” (16).

The figure of ship, the subject of Chapter Two, indexes the processes by which the captive African and her descendants were and are rendered as property, as something other or less than human. Drawing on representations of the ship as it appears in documentary film, photographs taken in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the history of the slave ship Zong, the life of Phyllis Wheatley, and ethnographic photographs of enslaved people, Sharpe contends that the processes of the slave ship set in motion the system of signification through which all Black subjects would be read in its wake (44). This system of signification, what Sharpe terms the orthography of the wake, is comprised of both “quotidian catastrophic events” and the work of Black artists, poets, writers, and thinkers such as Dionne Brand, NourseBe Phillips, Kamau Brathwaite, and Toni Morrison. Throughout the text, Sharpe places the quotidian disasters which render Black being illegible alongside examples of Black expressive culture which rupture these formations.

The repetition of catastrophe, Sharpe argues, results from the continual renewal of the logics and language of the hold. Through an analysis of the hold as a space of confinement and surveillance underwritten by gratuitous violence, Chapter Three considers the production of what Sharpe terms anagrammatical blackness. The violence which conditions and produces Black being in the wake puts pressure on normative systems of meaning such that the concepts of mother, girl, and child are rearranged in their contact with the signifier “Black.” Reiterated as Jim Crow laws, stop and frisk policies, migrant ships crossing the Mediterranean, detention centers, and quarantine zones, the hold reverberates long after the slave trade ends. In the hold, violence supersedes language. There is no system of representation which can fully comprehend slavery and its wake.

And yet, though black life is conditioned by the hold, Sharpe argues that the optic of the door (a reference to the Door of No Return) might allow for imagining and envisioning an otherwise (100). Throughout the text, Sharpe pairs discursive and visual analysis to excavate the representational grammar of the wake. A photograph of a young girl with the label “Ship” affixed to her forehead opens onto an in-depth consideration of the dysgraphia of the wake: “the inability of language to cohere around the bodies and suffering” of those who live and die in the aftermath of slavery (96). On the other hand, a photograph taken by (critically, not of) Oscar Grant in the moments before he was murdered by BART security officer Johannes Mehserle invites the reader not to see Black being but to see from the position of Black being. Taken from a low angle (Grant was shot while lying on the ground), the image shows the view from within the hold and thus counters the violent gaze often fixed upon Black being.

Although the weather–the total climate produced by and in the wake of slavery–is anti-black, rupture and imagining otherwise are possible. Dionne Brand's poem, “Ruttier for the Marooned in the Diaspora,” provides the theoretical ground of Chapter Four. Understood as “a way-making tool, a gift of knowledge that, and how, Black life is lived in the wake,” Brand's poem propels Sharpe's articulation of aspiration, Black annotation, and Black redaction as methods which rupture the epistemes of the wake (107). The second autopsy of Michael Brown (commissioned by his parents), for example, annotated the official narratives and representations of Brown as not endangered but a danger (124). Sharpe thus offers Black redaction and Black annotation as ethical viewing and reading practices that counter the repetition of violence (117). Sitting in the wake, inhabiting the “known lived and un/imaginable lives” of Black being in the wake, Sharpe's work insists on capacious modes of Black being despite proximity to death (16).


Sarah Fong is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation, "Making Citizens: Racialization, Settler Colonialism, and the Logics of Social Welfare 1865-1924", explores the foundational place of slavery and settler colonization in U.S. practices of education and social welfare.

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