Christina Sharpe’s Perpetual Present

Cover of Christina Sharpe's "Ordinary Notes," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023. Image courtesy of the publisher.

Free from an autobiographical or narrative format that would encourage an epic spun out from a punctum, Christina Sharpe’s newest book, Ordinary Notes, casts another distinct shape. Sharpe’s 248 notes pile up to form a pointed, sculptural thesis on the destabilized life of the Black diaspora. By this I mean that the notes themselves have an uneven nature to them that texture and construct the book. They shift in tone, form, and mood, between common definitions and intimate recollections, strategic redactions and vigorous, critical contextualizations of personal, contemporary, and historical events related to Black life and death. There is both duty and beauty to how Sharpe remembers and encounters those two poles. Successive losses in her family leave her bereft; so, too, do the murders of Black people that have made for morbid public spectacles for centuries. She is haunted by the videos of these recent murders that she cannot escape despite her best efforts. When she chooses to visit memorials dedicated to lynching victims and a plantation turned into a museum, she finds them disorienting in their dishonest contrivance. They recall for her exquisite sentences from books and poems she’s encountered throughout her life that ground her experiences of dissonance. Just as vividly, she’s able to conjure the scent and the sound of stirring cambric tea her mother would make for a tradition of Sunday salons where her family would read and sing together. Her interpolated notes, unbound by the logics of narrative and linear time, create intricate shapes that perhaps more honestly reflect the synaptic architecture of the act of remembrance: how one memory calls another, in a seemingly far-flung corner, to respond. 

When I first approach Ordinary Notes, I’m curious if the book could be read in a nonsequential order the way an anthology might. By the end of its first section, however, I realize that although this book’s order does not follow linear logic, if I read it out of order, I’d risk missing Sharpe’s subtle and, on occasion, abruptly mounting arguments and fulcrums. I’d miss her carving out an evocative memory “game” inviting readers to reflect on their own patterns of remembering and connecting memories to the world that they’re made in. “I write these ordinary things to detail the everyday sonic and haptic vocabularies of living life under these brutal regimes,” Sharpe confesses in Note 242. In this way, Sharpe’s excavation and examination in Ordinary Notes is also an invitation. That note triggers my own pattern of recollection to seek out the very tactile first line from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: “Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.” 

Sharpe’s own memory is enviable in its clarity. This is the case even, and maybe especially so, when she makes distinctions between the incidents she doesn’t remember amid those she does. Of what she recollects, she lays out in her notes, some short, others long, and several accompanied by images of objects and occasions she references from her childhood, from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, from her brother’s garden. She combs through her memories carefully and deliberately. 

Christina Sharpe. Image courtesy of the author.

As I continue to read, I feel in tune with Sharpe’s growing rhythm. Starting at Note 60, I follow her somber juxtaposition of whiteness’s expansive depth and width in our popular imagination, a space it thieves, leaving only a narrow margin for that of Black life. She summons news headlines and articles about white-supremacist terrorists whose humanity remains a subject of curiosity and even care. Over the course of the next few entries, Sharpe’s scale shifts. She enumerates reproductions of this phenomenon, of humanizing whiteness at the expense of Black people, on a personal dimension through her mother’s surreal childhood stories, and via a running list of books and performances read and witnessed in her own childhood, some of which grow to betray her like Little Town on the Prairie

At times there’s even a forensic remove to Sharpe’s recall. In Note 65, she remembers two incidents a year apart where she witnessed a woman and her children experiencing violence at the hands of a man. She lays the brutal scenes out in efficient detail and a vivid present tense. As her reader, I assume her posture of observation from a distance.

These modulations in scale and posture of recall make for one of the more constant rhythms in the book, specifically Sharpe’s interest in divergent-memory practices—the matters of how we collectively and individually remember or forget. In Note 21 she recalls a 2017 event where Claudia Rankine presented her film Situation 8, which features footage of murders and mutilations of Black people in the United States. Rankine’s insistence that those in the room, the “us” and “we,” had to sit in this violence compels Sharpe to ask what heavy and unspoken assumptions that “we” carries. “[And] it was an undifferentiated we, a distributed we,” she asserts.

Another evaluation of the futility of a presumed collective memory comes via Note 104 as Sharpe juxtaposes two funerary wakes: Amiri Baraka’s service and that for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. At Baraka’s wake, poets and musicians performed and testified in stirring sounds, Sharpe recalls. She specifically describes Savion Glover’s tap dance. “[Mourning] and joy and presence—it was all there,” she notes. President Barack Obama gave the eulogy at the latter service. It was the second to last year of his second term during which the public murders of many Black people ushered in the Black Lives Matter movement. During his eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, Obama breaks his speech to sing “Amazing Grace.” Sharpe remembers watching the stream of this event in disbelief. “To sing ‘Amazing Grace’ is to mispronounce the song. It is to insist on a romance of salvation in which the grace is for Newton,” she writes, referencing John Newton, the slave trader who wrote the song. “The grace is not for us … ‘Amazing Grace’ is about Newton’s journey; it has nothing to do with the horrors and terrors of slavery for the enslaved.” As Sharpe writes it, there is an unbearable dissonance to the song that rings out.

Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, interior. Photograph by Catherine G. Wagley.

The labor and practice of memory is jagged in all sorts of ways, Sharpe compellingly argues. “The demand is uneven,” as she writes in Note 43. “What if white visitors to a memorial to the victims of lynching were met with the enlarged photographs of faces of those white people who were participant in and witness to that terror then and now?” If the “we” was differentiated, maybe the fractures of collective memory wouldn’t widen at sites of international and passive memory. “The architecture of the memorial stages encounter,” Sharpe asserts in Note 22. “Spectacle is not repair.”

Not remembering, or noting the fractures of collective memory, does nothing to cure the past’s presence in our present. Sharpe knows this. Saidiya Hartman does too. Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Dionne Brand as well. Their “wake work,” as Sharpe phrases it in her previous book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, is cited frequently in this book. And that wake work isn’t as heavy or petrifying as the denial and the forgetting, Sharpe argues. “Each occurrence of a thing is not the same, either in velocity or force,” reads her 220th note. 

Sharpe’s citations carry on, with care, the Black feminist tradition of remembrance and the acknowledgment of contemporaries and ancestors, as opposed to a clinical and hierarchical burden of the academic footnote. “There was a time when I would answer people’s questions largely with quotations from plays, novels, poems, and nonfiction works,” writes Sharpe in Note 154. “What I wanted to say had already been said and said better than I could have hoped to say it myself.” Hers is a recollection infused with admiration and a relief that her own conclusions have been uttered before with tremendous grace and beauty. Here I recall bells hooks’s essay “Theory as Liberatory Practice”: “Let me begin by saying that I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing.” It’s an incredibly cogent reflection on hooks’s part about that desperate state that many find themselves in when they arrive at her work and the work of other Black feminists. And once the words have been found, there’s respite in repeatedly citing them. 

There’s a relief for readers like me, which is to say writers, in watching Sharpe’s book grow into its shape. For all the weight of its subject matters, for the losses and the losses in the wake of those losses, there is space. Sometimes literally on a page hosting one lonely sentence. Or in an image of the sky followed by another. There is space, too, in the noteworthy absence of the usual editorial and academic logics the subjects of Black life and death are often scaffolded by in text. Though an academic herself, Sharpe writes and arranges these particular notes away from that sector’s writing conventions. There is a palpable expanse when Sharpe, on occasion, leaves her notes suspended in the air, contextualized only to her choosing, not convincing the weakened imaginations that editorial and academic writing often appease. Surely this could be phrased as the absence of the white gaze, but that concept is commonly, and arguably too narrowly, understood as a white reader being the default and standard. But what of the infrastructures that have adopted that reader’s logic and preferences? What of the formats of writing that reproduce that white reader’s imagination? Free of that infrastructure, Ordinary Notes instead encourages the reader to remember things as they are. To note life as it happens and hold memories with all the flaws and glints of their renderings. 

That’s the solace that Sharpe offers through her entries. Her remembering is not cheap nostalgia nor redemptive narrative-making that finds victory in measuring the distance between the past and the present. Instead, it’s a perpetual practice of living in a present that contains both the past and future possibilities without trading one in for another. Despite their magnitude of scale and subject, it’s easy to imagine many of Sharpe’s notes as gleaned from a letter to a dear friend or an email she composed and sent to herself. Which of us are not telling and remembering stories that way, remembering to ourselves and to our closest confidantes with some imagination that someone—maybe even some other version of ourselves—might revisit our memories later.

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