The Woman Shaping a Generation of Black Thought
"Christina Sharpe is expanding the vocabulary of life in slavery’s long shadow — peeling back the meaning of familiar words and resurrecting neglected history.
On a recent Monday afternoon at York University in Toronto, Dr. Christina Sharpe was waiting for her students to arrive. Campus felt sleepy, blanketed in snow from a recent storm. They trickled in, arranging themselves around the classroom. That week they were discussing “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison. No one in attendance had read the book before.
Sharpe pulled out her copy, which she has had for more than 30 years and keeps carefully sheathed in protective plastic. Sharpe, who is 57, sat poised in a black tunic over black pants and boots, her red lips immaculate. She smoothed a hand over the well-worn cover. The book was fat with stickie notes and tabs, its pages so marked up with highlights, exclamations, notes and annotations that it resembled a devotional.
Historically, narratives about slavery prioritized white readers, displaying atrocities to rouse support for abolition. Morrison’s fifth novel, in contrast, focuses on the interiority of the enslaved and formerly enslaved, placing the textures of their lives at the center of the story. “I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time,” Sharpe told the class. It “completely rewired how one could write and think about slavery.”
“Beloved,” at its core, is a story of multiple hauntings: The remnants of trauma left in those forced to be property, the fury of a petulant baby-spirit that seems to come back from the dead to find the mother who killed her rather than let her be taken into enslavement. The book holds horrors, but it also raises questions about the beginning of freedom time. “Freeing yourself was one thing,” Morrison writes, “but claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” The work of embodiment, belonging and rest become the central themes for the characters and, by extension, the readers. For Sharpe, “Beloved” is rich in techniques for refusing the logic of slavery. One of those is infanticide; another, Sharpe shared with the class, is love.
She held the book aloft and read the title aloud: “Beloved.” She paused and reframed the word for us. “Be loved.” The name of the book, Sharpe told the class, is “an injunction, a command, a wish, a plea, a lamentation.” To love the self, to believe the self worthy of love and to let that love radiate out and fill up others around you.
A thick silence settled over the classroom as the students absorbed the force of the revelation. The first and final words of the book were not merely an epitaph on a grave: They were instructions for living. Be loved. What I was witnessing, I later realized, was more than a lecture. It was a portal into Sharpe’s methodology. “I think with ‘Beloved’ almost every day,” she later told me.
Like Morrison, Sharpe — who is a professor of English literature and Black studies — is intent on showing how language is like a knife: a tool or weapon depending on who is wielding it. She also understands the way terms like “white supremacy” and “anti-Blackness” run the risk of losing their potency as they become more familiar and commonplace. Sharpe refuses the devaluation of these words and resuscitates them with her critical analysis and poetic reflections.
The book Sharpe is best known for, “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,”landed in the fall of 2016, just as the final delusions of a post-racial America were disintegrating amid the rise of white nationalism. The book begins with a stark declaration: Black death is foundational — even necessary — to American democracy. Death, literally, but also spiritually, culturally, socially. Sharpe is not the first academic, poet or artist to assert that the negation of Black humanity that began with the Middle Passage is still animating American life, but she offered a new metaphorical framework for understanding how.
“In the Wake” roiled the academic world. It appeared during a “raging and at times venomous debate between Black optimism and Black pessimism,” says Saidiya Hartman, author of “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” who met Sharpe nearly a decade ago at a conference and has become a close friend. “Christina’s work totally unsettles that binary. She addresses the structural conditions of anti-Blackness that condemn Black people on a variety of levels and still attends to the richness of Black social living, and it is an essential contribution.” Sharpe is part of a cohort of thinkers and artists — including Hartman, Arthur Jafa, Fred Moten, Simone Leigh, Garrett Bradley, Ja’Tovia Gary, Lorraine O’Grady and others — who are interrogating the rendering of Blackness in American culture and offering new ways of looking, seeing and being seen.
In the book, Sharpe lays out an exploded view of the word “wake.” One definition is the disturbance a boat leaves behind as it moves through water. What would it mean to understand all of American life as still caught in the wake, still caught in the undertow of the ships that carried the enslaved? Sharpe also put forth the metaphors of the ship (the processes by which Black people are still seen as property), the hold (the ways that captivity and punishment are still central to Black life) and the weather (the ambient anti-Blackness that is as pervasive as climate).
The word wake invokes the funereal, yet Sharpe also summons the celebratory nature of a wake, the ways Black people find “an insistence on existence” through family, music, dance, community and art. This she calls “wake work.” Her aim is not to suffuse people with a sense of despair, she told me, but to galvanize them to “turn our attention elsewhere.” “It doesn’t mean don’t mourn and don’t grieve,” she told me, but rather to stop expecting redemption, validation and justice from white society and institutions.
Sharpe never directly mentions the word “woke,” an idiom that has been used as far back as the 1930s to mean readiness and watchfulness. In recent years, the word has been weaponized as a rallying cry against progressive ideas and policies. Its inevitable perversion is implied in the book’s central premise. Woke is caught in the wake too, its fate a warning about just how powerful the churn behind those ships can be.
Sharpe’s latest book, “Ordinary Notes,” which was published in April, is her most liberating and poetic experiment yet. Made up of 248 individual notes, it is a deft blend of memoir, theory, archival documents and lyrical reflections on her daily life. It also includes Sharpe’s photographs of moody skyscapes, images of flowers, family photographs, art installations and paintings.
There is wonder (Note 133, marveling at a rare photograph of her mother and grandmother, leaning sweetly against each other, her mother’s hands gracefully cupped, Sharpe asks, “Where did she learn that?”); personal history (Note 195, on a nervous tic developed in graduate school of strangling herself when she spoke: “Speech and speechlessness; each one has a cost”); cultural criticism (Note 27, after visiting the Legacy Museum in Alabama, which features a photo wall showcasing historical images of white violence: “How many more lookings?”); meditations on archival work (Note 185, on collective memory: “We have to function as a living library; as an institution”).
The notes build in momentum and assemble themselves into a mosaic that holds the relentless terror of Black life as well as its undeniable beauty. “I wanted them to have a certain kind of force and velocity and accumulation,” she told me. By turning her gaze inward, Sharpe offers a framework for understanding how to move forward, even when burdened by all the knowledge of the world’s cruelty. (Note 106: “You do not have to save the things that kill you.”)
The day after class, Sharpe welcomed me into her home. It felt sturdy, like a farmhouse. A mantel held candles, flowers and artwork by a friend, the abstract painter Torkwase Dyson, who Sharpe says renders Blackness with “breath and air.” She set out a lime green tray of fresh figs, bright orange clementines, crispy grapes and a fragrant tea served in delicate floral cups. The mantel and dining table were covered with fresh flowers: red tulips and scalloped pink ranunculus the size of baby cabbages. At the edge of my view, the tips of deciduous trees were patiently waiting out winter.
Sharpe has lived in Toronto for the last five years, drawn in part by her partner, the poet Dionne Brand, who has lived there since she was 17. Brand was in Tobago for the winter, and Sharpe and I arranged ourselves around a coffee table covered in books by photographers and scholars working in the African diaspora, including Marilyn Nance, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Her voice is soft and girlish except when she breaks into a full-throated laugh that takes over her whole body, her careful regality surrendering momentarily to spontaneous delight.
Sharpe told me that the idea of “Ordinary Notes” came from a scene in “Beloved” depicting a character who tries to escape enslavement only to end up in a Georgia prison. Each morning and evening, another incarcerated man calls out a clear, high note signaling the start and end of their day. He is called Hi Man. Hi Man’s offering are the notes of humanity amid grisly conditions of bone-breaking labor and sexual assault. To Sharpe, this “sounding of care” is an offering of generosity and presence despite untenable circumstances, and it is enough to sustain the men until their eventual escape. Her book is a prismatic examination of all the notes in her own life — the ones that sound care and the ones that don’t — and how knowing the difference offers a kind of sanity.
“How to find the words and grammars we can live in?” she asked, and paused. “Because we do live in them. How to keep working in the knowledge that we do make them and we do live in them?”
Sharpe gave me a tour of the artwork in her home, much of which is the byproduct of a collaboration. She is an art critic and has contributed to the monographs of some of the most important artists of our time, including Leigh,Jafa, Dawoud Bey, Alison Saar, Jennifer Packer, Martine Syms and Theaster Gates. There was a drawing by Saar and a painting by Cauleen Smith. A framed print called “Vanishing Act,” by the artist Kara Walker, caught my eye. In her first book, “Monstrous Intimacies,” Sharpe writes extensively on Walker’s work to reveal how society is programmed to default to racist narratives. Sharpe and Walker are connected through their mutual desire to understand the “disfiguration of blackness and whiteness” and the consequences of denying our shared complicity in the way the past still shapes the present.
In Walker’s print, a woman kneels before a rapt audience, devouring a small child. The title refers to a sleight of hand, a trick performed by a magician, but the vanishing in this image involves cannibalism. The setting — a stage — and their dated clothing — petticoats and stockings — recall minstrelsy. The hands of both figures, even the person being eaten, are relaxed, complicating the relationship between exploiter and exploited. The work in Sharpe’s office, like many of Walker’s famous prints and sculptures, is devoid of color. One could make assumptions about the figures and their respective races, but the only clues are drawn from historical characterizations of Black people (the older woman is wearing a head scarf). Over the last two decades, Walker has been attacked by critics for reproducing racist tropes, but that outrage is misdirected. It is the presuppositions that viewers bring to the work that are so repellent, not the figures themselves. In “Vanishing Act,” it is impossible to tell who is the victor and who is the victim. Only their acceptance of what they’re doing, and perhaps the pleasure they’re taking in doing it, is truly legible.
The more time I spend with Sharpe’s work, the more it inflects my ways of seeing the world. According to Sharpe, Blackness is anagrammatical, meaning that the structures that order language, thought and society become disordered — if not destroyed entirely — when they encounter Blackness. “Her work has shown that we, as Black people, are the foils of humanity,” Frank B. Wilderson III, author of “Afropessimism,” told me. “If humanity defines itself against us, what does it mean for us to live every day as the anti-human?”
In my daily life, I’ve been interrogating headlines, interactions, film, TV and visual art with a radar attuned to the frequency of Sharpe. The Kansas City Police not immediately taking Andrew Lester into custody after he shot Ralph Yarl in the head for ringing his doorbell — the wake; watching Justin Jones and Jim Pearson get pushed out of the Tennessee House of Representatives — the hold; Angel Reese, a Division 1 college basketball player for Louisiana State University, being villainized in the media for her behavior on the court, yet still pulling down 10 rebounds, carrying her team to victory in full lashes and polished nails — the hold, the ship and wake work; companies using artificial intelligence to create Black music and Black models for free labor — the ship, the hold and the wake.
In 1948, Sharpe’s parents, Ida Wright Sharpe and Van Buren Sharpe Jr., moved from West Philadelphia to Wayne, Pa. “They wanted what they both imagined and knew that they did not have,” she writes. A home big enough for the family that would eventually grow to six children, a yard, access to good schools and proverbial opportunities. Her mother worked in a department store and her father was a mail sorter and chef. Sharpe was born in 1965. Her eldest sibling was almost 22 years her senior, and by the time her sibling who was closest in age went to college, she was 11. It was lonely. “I mostly felt like an only child,” she said.
‘There’s criticism that is meant to help you and there is criticism that is meant to stop you.’
Her mother, Ida, doted on her and gifted her “a love of words,” inscribing books to her daughter in her ornate script. Ida also gave her the gift of time to get lost in them. Sharpe read “The People Could Fly,” “Song of Solomon” and “Little Women” for hours, curled up in a roomy windowsill in the house. In the spring, she collected wild violets for her mother who used them to make jelly. In lieu of trips to the ballet or theater, Ida hosted Sunday salons where she served poundcake and tea, and mother and daughter read poetry to each other.
An idea that reverberates in all of Sharpe’s work is that you might be forced to live in subjugation but that does not mean only living life as a subjugated person. “That is what I always want to animate, she said. “I don’t want to deny the violence. But that’s not the only way we encounter each other.” Beauty, pleasure and the “space to dream” (Note 51) were forces applied steadily to a young Sharpe, counteracting all that threatened to destabilize her self-worth. “I marvel at my mother’s commitment to joy,” she told me. That joy made Sharpe possible. The final note in Ordinary Notes reads, “This is a love letter to my mother.”
But what happened inside the Sharpe home was one thing. What happened outside it was another. “Things were not better in this ‘new world,’” she writes. In person, she tells me that her experiences as a young girl in Wayne were “terrible.”
In “Ordinary Notes,” Sharpe recalls photographs of white terror — people screaming from the sidelines of a school and neighborhood integration, the Charlottesville tiki torches in 2017. They dredge up something dormant for her. “His face is an open-mouthed rictus of hatred,” she writes in Note 5. “I felt I knew it.” The next note includes a heartbreakingly tender photograph of Sharpe as a little girl, hair in plaits, smile broad and unbroken, for the moment.
“It was not a happy time,” she said, falling silent.
When she was almost 12, her father died. Money became scarce. Bills went unpaid, winters were spent without heat, repairs to the house went undone. Throughout, her mother cultivated beauty. Forsythia, cut from the yard, arranged in a vase, served as a welcome distraction from a ceiling that was falling down. Mustard greens, corn and tomatoes from the garden supplemented meals, and beautifully rolled logs made from paper were burned for heat. During Sharpe’s first semester as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, her mother was unable to make a payment, and the school threatened to kick her out. That experience indelibly shaped her, but so did the teachers, many of them Black, she met during that time.
Sharpe enrolled in the English Ph.D. program at Cornell University — “so I’d have the most time and space to think and learn” — and planned to start an independent Black middle school in West Philadelphia. In our conversation, she declined to revisit her time at the university in detail, but she re-enacted a 1999 interview Nina Simone gave to the British journalist Tim Sebastian, who asked her about her decision to leave the United States in 1972. Simone, in pearls and gold eye shadow, answers before he can finish the question. “RACISM,” she announces, her contralto voice almost belting out the word to eject it more forcefully from her body. Sharpe’s impression is uncanny. “They were a trip,” she told me.
In academia at that time, personal experience and knowledge were viewed as inauthentic forms of scholarship, and those who tried to incorporate these elements into their work were deterred. It was disparagingly called “mesearch.” “I was trained as an academic; you don’t do that,” she said. “Despite everything we know about objectivity, we were not encouraged to include ourselves in particular ways.” Still, she left her mark by advocating for more diverse teachers, pressing the university to bring in more Chicana, Asian and Native professors, which they did.
The harshness of academia took a toll on her confidence, keeping her stagnant longer than she imagined possible. “There’s criticism that is meant to help you and there is criticism that is meant to stop you,” she told me, with a leveling look. During this time, her mother died. She fell into a deep depression. (Note 156: “It was as if I’d lost my center of gravity.”) She lay in bed so long she developed a sore. Once again, her mother intervened. She had given young Christina a book on North American birds, and turning her gaze skyward had become a passion. She returned to the hobby while mourning; looking up was a way out.
In 1998, she was hired at Tufts University, later becoming the first Black woman to get tenure in the English department and the only one during her time there to be promoted to a full professorship. It took nearly 20 years.
Last summer, an invitation for a conference called Loophole of Retreat, scheduled for early October in Venice alongside the Biennale, began circulating online. The sculptor Simone Leigh, who represented the United States at the art fair, hosted the convening as part of her presentation (it was organized by the curator Rashida Bumbray), and Sharpe was among the more than 60 scholars and thinkers enlisted to share their work.
Leigh, like Sharpe, is invested in the project of wresting back control of Black imagery from its historic (and continued) abuse without reproducing past terrors and trauma. The towering scale of her magisterial sculptures commands an indisputable authority rarely afforded to Black women. They — and she — author their own narratives; they validate their own importance.
The conference took its name from a phrase that the writer Harriet Jacobs used in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” to describe the seven years she spent hiding in a crawl space that was so cramped it left her permanently disabled. Yet she still claimed the tiny attic as a site of independence, a place to dream and plot strategies for freedom until she could enact them. Italy is a complicated place to undertake practices of freedom, in part because of the routine deaths of African migrants who drown seeking refuge in the country. Participants in the conference invoked the connection between Jacobs’s confinement and the modern-day horrors experienced regularly.
One of the conference’s themes was maroonage, referring to people who escaped slavery to build their own independent communities on the outskirts of society. For those three days, the tiny lush island off the coast of Venice where the convening took place became its own planet, accruing a powerful density anchored by hundreds of Black people, mostly women, who flew from all corners of the world to participate. Scholarly presentations lived alongside films about utopian Detroit and about Drexciya, a mythological aqueous society, and emotional readings about Black motherhood. The convening suggested that the potential for Black sovereignty was more than just an idea; it had already arrived.
On the first day, Sharpe took the stage to read excerpts from “Ordinary Notes” inside a large, ornate hall, dressed in a blue striped tunic layered over a multicolored turtleneck. It was the first time many in attendance were getting a preview of the successor to “In the Wake,” and the room crackled with anticipation.
She read a series of notes about a photograph of her mother and a moving encounter with a man she witnessed kneeling on the ground on an earlier trip to Venice. Sharpe closed her reading with Note 175: “Tenderness might just be a gesture, it might just be a look, a Black look, some regard, relayed between people in peril.”
Care, as practiced by Sharpe, means small gestures that acknowledge one another’s humanity. It means cultivating an awareness of the possibility of re-enacting violence even while trying to critique it. The time in Venice felt imbued with such care. It was a pause from the abjection that many of its attendees experience on a regular basis; a temporary space to practice methods of consideration, decadence and stillness. On those grounds, in this collection of moments, Sharpe’s theories sharpened into focus. Freedom and love will never come from white society: They must be obtained by the self and also exchanged freely among ourselves.
One note that has most stuck with me, Note 96, describes an interaction between Sharpe and a young woman who works in the cafe in the Tate Modern in London. Sharpe pauses to say hello. The greeting doesn’t register. Sharpe tries again. Finally, the woman draws herself into the moment. She tells Sharpe that she has been working at the museum for months and no one had ever spoken to her beyond asking her to do something. She thanks her for “seeing me and asking about me.” Sharpe records the reminder of their interaction as follows:
“I say, ‘I see you.’
She says, ‘I know.’
I say, ‘We see each other.’
She says, ‘Yes. We do.’”
(Note 181: “Regard is a habit of care. It is appreciation and esteem. It is the right of repair.” )
If there’s an argument at the center of “Ordinary Notes,” it is that attentiveness and imagination are powerful restorative agents capable of reconstituting what has been broken down and targeted for obliteration. I often think back to that time in Venice, suspended in motion, embodying survival and sustenance. I felt carried along by a great momentum, perhaps on another kind of vessel, powering us toward the beyond.
Mickalene Thomas is an artist known for her paintings of African American women that combine historical, political and pop culture references. She uses photography often to examine complex notions of femininity while challenging common definitions of beauty and aesthetic representations of women in recontextualized interior settings."