Everything Comes Back to Christina Sharpe's In The Wake
“Why you doing it if it ain’t helping nobody,” my grandmother Gussie Mae asks, staring at my father’s still life painting of bottles. Against the weight of her question, my father’s cockiness spills across the floor. My father, Tyrone Geter, an Alabama-born artist, is 19. He’s on break from his first year of college at Ohio University, where he’ll be the second Black person in the school’s history to receive an MFA in painting. My grandmother, who left school after fourth grade to sharecrop Georgia fields, is 46 and has already spent more than two thirds of her life cleaning white people’s homes. Her back, like her hands, hurts.
“I learned from my mother that the only way to salve a personal pain was to heal the collective. I took her question and returned to college understanding my art and myself differently,” my 78-year-old father says, speaking to me over video chat from The Gambia. “Your grandmother was more concerned with what my life would contribute than the medium I would use to do it.”
This Black tradition of communal care, the Black scholar Christina Sharpe calls “wake work.” In her extensively footnoted monograph, In the Wake, Sharpe traces how the aftershock of chattel slavery still animates daily representations of Black life. Wake work is how, through art, resistance, attention, and imagining, we can thrive, and create im/possible futures from the aftermath of chattel slavery—that past that is never past.
In the Wake offers a lyric framework—the weather, the wake, the ship, the hold—to understand the ways the Middle Passage and its aftermath haunt contemporary life. Sharpe embraces “the wake” in all its linguistic undulations: It is the trace that lingers in the water behind a ship; a state of attention; the path of a gun’s recoil; the rituals that embody the way Black folks mourn our dead.
“The ship” is the transformation of Black people into commodity, and lives on through incarceration, migrant detention centers, cash bail, and prison labor. “The hold” is the way enslavement transformed into the Jim Crow conditions my father was born into, into the prison industrial complex, migrant ships, stop and frisk, and internalized anti-Blackness.
That white supremacy and anti-Blackness function as total climate, Sharpe calls “the weather.” The weather being how my Nigerian Muslim mother didn’t live to see me graduate from college but lived long enough to see a world in the process of being transformed by Islamophobia, 9/11, the Patriot Act, and climate disaster.
By the time I’d begun working on my memoir, The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin, about how the stories we inherit can be remade, my mother had been buried in Confederate land for 13 years. More than a decade later, I was still trying to write my way through that loss. Then, in 2019, the formidable book critic Parul Sehgal suggested I read In the Wake, a book that, she told me, helped give language to her own politic of care.
Despite having gone unreviewed by major book outlets, In the Wake, published by Duke University Press in 2016, continues to be referenced as seminal by writers Yaa Gyasi, Tayari Jones, Claudia Rankine, Min Jin Lee, Kiese Laymon, Ross Gay, Elizabeth Alexander, Alexander Chee; playwrights Lynn Nottage and Jeremy O. Harris; prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba; and artists Molly Crabapple and Simone Leigh. Like it passed from Parul to me, In the Wake has passed, like a game of telephone, from person to person mostly through word of mouth.
As a Black woman who works in publishing, I recognize what I’m seeing to be rare. Through this single text, I am witnessing a new intellectual renaissance. One that, in real time, I can track. I can trace In the Wake’s wake in HBO’s Watchmen, in the movie Sorry to Bother You, and in Questlove’s documentary, Summer of Soul. J Wortham, culture writer for New York Times Magazine and cohost of the podcast Still Processing, points out that Sharpe’s ideas regarding anti-Blackness as the moral ground of society have become foundational—so widely circulated that Sharpe’s language has spilled over everywhere, even on Twitter. Across our different genres and identities, Sharpe’s analytic—which the writer Sarah Schulman calls “poetry”—demonstrates, Schulman says, that “all approaches are necessary.”
Jamaican American poet Camille Rankine says, “Though we’re speaking from different decks of ‘the ship,’ In the Wake helps us recognize the ship is what we’re all still on.” For those embracing Sharpe’s new modes of care, In the Wake inspires us toward an analytic that disrupts the violent winds of history through the combined power of our bespoke wake work.
Is In the Wake one of those collective salves my grandmother was talking about?
“We live in a world where all our appetites are oriented towards anti-Blackness. In the Wake offered me a new paradigm and new grammatical way to talk about being awake and awakened to the impact and aftermath of transatlantic slavery,” J Wortham says.
Like me, Wortham travels with their copy of In the Wake. “It keeps me tied to my integrity,” they say, describing how the book serves as their compass and helps them ensure their work is not reproducing Black erasure, “because, that world,” Wortham says, “has created more context for Black death than there is our life.” Sharpe’s wake is an active verb. It’s still trailing after us.
Poet and novelist Phillip B. Williams calls In the Wake a catalyst for his need to “reimagine Black life as retrievable from and defiant against the abyss of violence in our daily lives, revealing the possibilities of caring for both the living and the dead with nuance, rigor, relentless command.”
Sharpe sits wake for her family, including her brother Stephen, lost in 2014 to mesothelioma, which his doctors suspected came from a summer working at an insulation company when he was 14. After their father died when Sharpe was 10, her family became “straight-up working poor.” One can surmise that the insulation job that gave Stephen cancer was out of a necessity to work. Sharpe sits wake for Haitian migrants, and for Aerieile Jackson, a Black woman who, in the aftermath of her children being taken by the courts, is losing her hair. “Sharpe legitimizes as scholarship our experiences, our stories, our trauma or tragedy, our melancholia, our mourning,” writer Dawn Lundy Martin says. One vigil at a time, Sharpe—whose Ordinary Notes will be published in April by FSG—creates a new analytic of care and record keeping.
In Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the white poet and novelist Ben Lerner and I walk with our elbows brushing, bundled against January’s chill. Built in 1838, in its beginnings, Green-Wood buried Free Black people in plots of land lacking foundation. Eventually, those headstones vanished into soft ground. “Sharpe’s work challenges us,” Lerner says, “challenges me, to think about the past that isn’t past, not just how to memorialize slavery, but how to break habitual modes of artmaking or viewing that act like we’re beyond slavery as opposed to in its afterlife.”
Lerner tells me that In the Wake helped him connect all the minute ways the Middle Passage lives in everything, including who is allowed to freely access public space. But that it also “clears new ground for making and encountering art beyond the mere repetition of racist logic.” At Brooklyn College, where Lerner teaches, he opens the semester by having his class read In the Wake, using it not just as a work of art or a piece of criticism, but as a threshold.
“We have to acknowledge that the class takes place in an emergency. Everything we read after In the Wake—from Walt Whitman to Claudia Rankine—we test against and think of it alongside Sharpe’s idea of the wake and the different ways, like it or not, we are all operating inside the afterlife of slavery. It does something to the class.” In the Wake helps students see the weather we live in. Through classrooms like Lerner’s—as well as Dawn Lundy Martin’s and Parul Sehgal’s, who also teach the book—wake work enters the next generation.
We pass the grave of J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology” who tortured and experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. “In the Wake isn’t another book that tells us why creativity or artmaking is impossible given what Hegel called the ‘slaughter bench’ of history—it’s a book that clears new ground for making and encountering art beyond the mere repetition of racist logic,” Lerner says. Across the headstones of people who never fathomed a world where my mother could birth a free Black child, or a world where Lerner and I could have a conversation like this, the birds sing.
“In the Wake,” Ben says, “asks us what it means to grieve together.”
The afterlife of slavery lives on through the murder of the Emanuel Nine in Charleston, that same city where so many Africans-turned-slaves were brought in. The afterlife is in the litany, the repetition, the mesothelioma that lay dormant, decades later killing Sharpe’s brother.
Centuries after the fact, transatlantic slavery could still kill any one of us. But under Sharpe’s directive to “become undisciplined,” from every medium and genre, we are arriving to the chorus with our own lyric and, together, are authoring a collective song. My soul looks on with wonder.
In that wonder, I hear my long-gone grandmother’s gentle voice. “Why you doing it if it ain’t helping nobody?” That “baby” a reminder that salving collective pain required tenderness. That tenderness, like that question, her politic.
I imagine the gaze of my grandmother meeting my mother’s, meeting ours—where, in this new intellectual renaissance, Sharpe is the shorthand between us.
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