David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Bill Carty’s We Sailed on the Lake, a collection of poems published by Bunny Presse Fonograf Editions. It is a follow-up to Carty’s debut Huge Cloudy which was long-listed for The Believer’s Book Awards. Matthew Rohrer has said of his poems, “Carty is at home with the satisfying little facts of nature, the frustrations of politics and its annoying little sidekick, the media, as well as human introspection and what can only be described as magic. Alternating longer, occasionally narrative poems with short lyrics, We Sailed on the Lake finds unexpected affinities within urban and natural environments alike. As one poem states, ‘to cross the lake / you’ve got to make each step / pertain to the water,’ and these poems explore relationality in many forms, moving from gentrifying cities to coastal beaches, from the sculptures of antiquity to YouTube searches, cataloging passing days ‘of which light is the measure.’” We Sailed on the Lake is out May 9th and available for pre-order now. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Sara Herchenroether The Night Flowers, which Hilary Davidson calls, “Hypnotic, heart-wrenching, and harrowing.” Following Librarian Laura MacDonald and veteran detective Jean Martinez as they remain determined no matter the cost to uncover the truth behind three cold case murders, Herchenroether’s debut novel unfolds with pulse-pounding precision. Says Katy Hays, “Herchenroether has crafted a truly original narrative that unfolds with a shocking array of twists and turns against the backdrop of the Gila National Forest. Every voice in the chorus that makes up this novel sings a siren song of suspense you won’t be able to resist. I devoured it.” The Night Flowers is out May 2nd from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’m beyond excited to share this conversation, this conversation with Christina Sharpe and I could go on, and on talking about the many reasons why. But because I do this very thing within the interview itself talking about the ways Christina’s work has deeply influenced the conversations on Between the Covers over the last several years, I will keep this intro brief. But I will say that if you haven’t heard of Christina Sharpe before today, you certainly will going forward. Since we talked, she’s been profiled in The New York Times Magazine by Jenna Wortham, and the title of this feature is not an overstatement. She really is The Woman Shaping a Generation of Black Thought. Her latest book is many things and engages with many things, from memorials to memory to memoir, from painting to photography to poetry, from the violence of reasonableness to the beauty of abolition. I want to also say that the last three episodes with Charif Shanahan, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and now Christina Sharpe, you might reasonably think that they have occurred consecutively by design but really they are an accidental triptych, a happenstance juxtaposition that I think nevertheless is a very meaningful one where the three by chance find themselves not only next to each other but in conversation with each other. The first with Charif about intersections between Arabness and Blackness in both North Africa and North America, the second with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o about how the geopolitical situation for post-colonial Africa is related deeply to the status of African languages on the continent and how securing a base of power for Africa, securing its resources for its people begins with securing African languages, and today’s conversation with Christina Sharpe which looks at Black life in the African diaspora, and how to sound an ordinary note when the totalizing climate is one of anti-Blackness. For the bonus audio archive, Christina contributes many things, seven readings in fact, readings from Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, readings of the poetry of Victoria Adukwei Bulley, and readings from Canisia Lubrin’s forthcoming 2024 book Code Noir. These join an immense archive of readings from everyone from Dionne Brand herself to Nikky Finney to John Keene to Douglas Kearney, from Layli Long Soldier to Viet Thanh Nguyen to Teju Cole. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode pointing you both to the things that I discovered while preparing: videos, essays, books, more, and what to potentially explore after listening. Then there are a ton of other things from rare collectibles from past guests to the Tin House Early Readership Program where you receive 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Christina Sharpe about the extraordinary Ordinary Notes.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. Today’s guest, writer, and scholar Christina Sharpe has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in English and Africana studies and a doctorate in English Language and Literature from Cornell University. She has taught at Hobart and Williams Smith College and for nearly 20 years at Tufts where for part of her tenure, she was director of the American Studies Program, teaching courses in the English Department including Black Feminist Theories, Queer Diasporas, and Race and the Senses. Since 2018, she has been at York University in Toronto where she is the Canada Research Chair in Black Studies. Her essays have appeared in many books including Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America and Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. Many of her essays are parts of exhibitions or books engaging with visual artists from Painter Jennifer Packers: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing to Perceptual Drift: Black Art and an Ethics of Looking. She recently wrote the incredibly insightful and extensive introduction to Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems by Dionne Brand. Christina Sharpe’s first book Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects also engages with both the textual and the visual across disciplinary projects using history, literature, performance studies, art history, and film as critical lenses with Sharpe, in Sarah Cervenak’s words, “Illuminating the complex entanglements of desire and horror at the heart of Black and White subjectification ‘after’ slavery.” But it is with Sharpe’s second, now iconic book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being that her work really came to the fore prompting New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal to declare the discovery of Sharpe’s work her most valuable discovery that year for Harper’s Bazaar this year to publish an article tracing the incredible influence of this book called Everything Comes Back to Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake, to prompt Simone Leigh and New York Magazine to likewise comment on just how many contemporary artists and scholars have been changed by In The Wake. Saidiya Hartman says of the book, “Christina Sharpe brings everything she has to bear on her consideration of the violation and commodification of Black life and the aesthetic responses to this ongoing state of emergency. Through her curatorial practice, Sharpe marshals the collective intellectual heft and aesthetic inheritance of the African diaspora to show us the world as it appears from her distinctive line of sight. A searing and brilliant work.” Madeleine Thien for The Guardian adds, “In the Wake speaks in so many multiple ways (poetry, memory, theory, images) and does so in language that is never still. It is, in part, about keeping watch, not unseeing the violence that has become normative, being in the hold, holding on and still living.” It is thus with great pleasure and much anticipation for me to be talking to Christina today about her latest book out from FSG in the US, Knopf in Canada, and Daunt Books in the UK, Ordinary Notes with starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Writer Alexander Chee says, “Ordinary Notes is like an intellectual ice climb–you move along a careful series of handholds to cross a terrain that might otherwise seem impassable, and afterward, you are amazed at the passage. At once an act of careful attention and a juxtaposition of observations and questions, the result is a powerful vision of American life, drawn from the Black intellectual history and aesthetics that Sharpe has cultivated as the means to her own liberation, so that she might offer it to others.” Poet, writer, and translator John Keene adds, “Among the many achievements here, these exemplary notes―which include a stirring recounting of the author’s intellectual and aesthetic formation, and a tribute to motherly and familial love in the face of this country’s and world’s relentless brutalities―show how one might combine memoir, memorial, literary criticism, political and cultural critique, and theoretical accounting in order to imagine a new model, suffused with grace, subtlety, rigor, and care, for how to read and think with and against, which is to say, to produce true and lasting knowledge.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Christina Sharpe.
Christina Sharpe: Thank you so much, David, for that generous introduction. It’s such a pleasure to be with you here today.
DN: Thinking of Keene’s notion of creating new models to produce true and lasting knowledge, I think this echoes one of the meanings of the word note, notation, and annotation, of creating an archive, of sustaining an archive. Before we begin, I wanted to speak into the ways your work has shaped this show and its archive long before today. I probably won’t get the chronology right but I read In The Wake as part of my preparation for my conversation with Ross Gay as he talks about, in his acknowledgments to his book Be Holding, how crucial your book was to him writing his book and I was reading In The Wake in anticipation of talking to him when I was preparing to talk to Natalie Diaz which was happening before talking to Ross Gay, which became a two-part, nearly five-hour conversation that ended up being deeply informed by my reading of you and also discovering by Natalie’s own independent reading of your work, and only through reading it could I have had the more recent conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen where your scholarship I think became a subtext for what we explore around Asian-American studies and Asian-American identity. It shaped my more recent of two conversations with Solmaz Sharif as did your essay Lose Your Kin, also, of course, the conversation with Dionne Brand, the guidance of your introduction to her life as a poet, then with Lidia Yuknavitch when she came on Crafting with Ursula to talk about Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction where Lidia and I read in a call-in response from your incredible piece “What Could a Vessel Be?” which also exists in relation to Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory. Then very recently, your notion of shared risk, of distributive risk became a frame when I was talking to both Monica Youn and Charif Shanahan about the ways their poetries engage with Blackness, and anti-Blackness in their communities. I’m understating the influence but I wanted to begin today by naming it and noting it and also saying thank you, Christina Sharpe.
CS: Thank you so much, David. I’ve listened to Between the Covers for quite some time, so to my surprise when I listened to that Ross Gay, yet to listen to all of the people, almost all of the shows that you’ve mentioned, I am at a loss for words. I learned so much from your interviews, from the incredible amount of work that you do to prepare for them and you have deep engagement with all of this work. It’s been a deep honor, pleasure, and surprise to see the way that my work has also engaged these other writers and thinkers whose work has influenced my own, and who I often teach, and who I certainly have great respect for. It’s been, can I say, mind-blowing. [laughter]
DN: For me too.
CS: I have to say that when you and Lidia did that common response, coming at the end of that episode which does so much work and thinking with Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, it was just a beautiful movement and arc of that episode. Thank you so much.
DN: Thank you. Well, one significant connotation of the word note in your book Ordinary Notes is auditory, is sounding a note, perhaps most notably a scene in Beloved of how each day begins and ends with the calls of Hi Man, and what this does to the atmosphere on the chain gang, how these twice daily calls establish a way to connect, endure, and persevere when the facts on the ground haven’t yet changed. But I wanted to start not with the ear but with the eye. As I tried to highlight in the intro, you have a long-standing interest in the visual. You’re often in an engagement with visual art and artists with painting, sculpture, photography, and video, and one of your research interests is listed as Black diaspora visual cultures. I watched a short video of you talking about the 1978 film Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett and in it, you said that the second time you watched it, you decided to track the children in it and you noticed how lovingly they are rendered, and you noted how boy and girl are not categories normally afforded to Black people. You talk about how you showed an excerpt to your class to find out if you would teach it and when a White student of yours said it reminded them of The Little Rascals, you knew that their eyes weren’t ready for it yet, so you didn’t teach it. You also mentioned in that same video Toni Cade Bambara and how she said that the film Daughters of the Dust tries to, “Heal our imperialized eyes.” When I think of this and I think back to Alexander Chee’s blurb about this book being an intellectual ice climb across something that at first seems impassable, it feels like you provide an opportunity, if we’re willing to do the work, to be ready to see or to become ready to see. I would love for you to talk to us about your long-standing interest in the visual, in the eye or in the regard and seeing as not something entirely passive, and receptive, not something that we just take in but something that we might prepare ourselves for.
CS: David, I love your question. [laughter] It’s funny because I said to myself, “I think I need to reread all of my work and listen to all of my talks to prepare myself for this conversation,” which I did not get to. [laughter] But somehow I knew you were going to speak about that Killer of Sheep video which I even often forget that I did. I think that you could look at a film like Killer of Sheep or you could look at a film like Daughters of the Dust and engage it as only a kind of spectacle, depending on how one is positioned to see it. One of the things Julie Dash says about Daughters of the Dust, so I saw Daughters of the Dust when it first came out and I saw it in a theater in Brooklyn in 1992, and it was all Black people in the audience, it was packed and the audience was so appreciative and responsive. When the food is being cooked, people are explaining. It was the best way that I could have first encountered that film. Then I saw it again at The Ritz Theater which I don’t even know if it’s still called The Ritz in Philadelphia. I saw it with my mother then, and again, the audience was super appreciative of it. One of the things that Julie Dash says is that she made that film first for Black women, then for all Black people, then for everybody else. She and Arthur Jafa, who was the cinematographer, were making a film to engage all of our senses. I think a film that, in its visual aesthetics, the ways that the frame rate slowed down, does its own kind of reparative work for a kind of cinema of our assault and violation. I think that the way that Dash talked about the aesthetics of the film, the people who worked on the film including sets by Kerry James Marshall, James Marshall and other people, does so much work to prepare us to enter the scenes. But I remember at the time a number of White feminists writing about the film in national publications and saying things like, “It looked unrealistic. Why are they wearing Laura Ashley clothing?” etc., so it was really clear that there was a particular eye/I, subject I who was being hailed by the film. I think Toni Cade Bambara is right when she says that Dash intends to heal our imperialized eyes. Dash and Burnett were part of the L.A. School, sometimes called the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers and I think that Killer of Sheep does a similar kind of work, I mean you said that I have written about the ways in which Black children are often denied the status of child, of boy or girl, so that’s one of the things I still love about that film is even though it begins with this harsh moment of a father chastising the son for not defending his little brother and it’s that child that’s on the cusp of adulthood, so much of the film, when the children are involved, looks at the children as children and they’re allowed to be children living in the still present aftermath of the Watts rebellion and the devastated landscape but they’re allowed to play and laugh. I love the little girl Angela who’s got the rubber dog mask on. It’s just like I feel my heart when I watch that film. It’s just these complete moments of tenderness and play, then also not so much tenderness but I see moments of my own childhood in that film in a way that I think I haven’t often.
DN: Well, to stay with your childhood for a minute, this book is many things and one of them is memoir and I think one way you could characterize the book is a love letter to your mother. You’ve talked about how you didn’t have a Black teacher until you were in University, that you weren’t being taught the literature, philosophy, and history of Black life except at home where this was happening very consciously by your mother, her curating and nourishing in an engagement with Black thought, Black art, and Black stories and putting them before you and around you. I was thinking it would be good to hear you speak a little into how she shaped your home life in this regard in the first two decades of your life and how that regard for you in this way reverberates into Ordinary Notes.
CS: Yeah. As you were asking the question, certain questions can make you see your own work differently or make a really clear connection to something, so as you were saying that in the beginning by talking about my own schooling and how I had no Black teacher until I got to University, and then I had many, and I took classes with people over and over again, it made me think of I think it’s Note 52 which is called Ma’am. It’s a reading of moments in Beloved with Sethe but it’s about how those captive Africans enslaved in the new world offered a different kind of education than the White man called schoolteacher. At that moment as you were asking the question I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s Note 52.” I didn’t have any Black teachers except my mother. She offered me the counter imagining to those White school teachers who, for example, didn’t know who Sojourner Truth was but I knew who Sojourner Truth was, so I had to do a kind of educating work in my elementary and junior high school of teachers who were ignorant to their own history, meaning the Black history is US history. My mother who had only a high school education, her mother had a seventh-grade education, loved reading, loved books, loved poetry, wrote, sang, and completely infused my childhood with reading. My mother sold Doncaster clothing at some point and the little cardstock that you would use to give to potential clients, the back was blank and my mother would make little crossword puzzles. She taught me to read when I was three years old. I don’t remember a life without reading. I don’t remember a life in which words were not central to it. My mother had a really beautiful reading voice, and at a certain point, my mother recorded books for the blind and dyslexic. She recorded textbooks. After she died, the woman sent me some of those recordings so that I would have her voice on cassette.
CS: Yeah. I had an extensive vocabulary at a very young age, probably more extensive than it is now because my mother would also makeup, I don’t know what those little things are called, [laughter] they’re acrostics or something where you fill in the letters though. Of course, that love of reading, that commitment to language, the love of even reading aloud which I do in all my classes is directly because of my mother’s influence, care, and her own, I don’t know, ways of trying to make a whole self in the midst of deep stress and anti-Blackness.
DN: Well, in a Loophole of Retreat event at the Guggenheim Museum three years ago, you read a piece largely about your mother which begins with the lines, “Beauty is a method,” and it’s a line that I’ve never stopped thinking about and which reappears in Ordinary Notes as the line “I’ve been thinking about what beauty as a method might mean or do.” I think of your curation of images of beautiful skies and flowers on Twitter, I think of your photo montage as part of the book Joy Has a Sound: Black Sonic Visions from The 3rd Thing Press which are pictures from travel you did in Trinidad and Tobago, Cartagena, and Porto, of wrecked buildings that have been reclaimed by greenery, of a sugar mill that had the architecture of slavery but has since joined with a tree and you caption these photos with lines like, “I need quiet or what Kevin Quashie calls ‘the sovereignty of the interior.’” But mostly when I think of beauty as a method, I think of your mother, and I wondered if you could speak a little more about beauty as a method, and what it might mean or do as you wonder in Ordinary Notes, what that means for you if it is connected to your mother as I’m particularly interested in it because it also changes things from something passive and observed like, “Oh, that’s beautiful,” to something that one might have to actively or even painstakingly manifest.
CS: Yeah. Again, that’s great. I like that “one might have to actively or even painstakingly manifest.” I think that’s absolutely right. I think that encapsulates it. It does have everything to do with my mother and certain conditions under which I grew up where you couldn’t do anything about the big things for lack of money but you could, as I say, cut some branches of mock orange to bring them hot in the house even though you were allergic to them because it was to bring some sense of beauty into a space. I always appreciated my mother’s attention to beauty. We would go to the farmer’s market, we would always bring home flowers if it wasn’t in the spring or summer when we could bring in our own flowers. But I don’t think it was really until I was working on that piece for Simone Leigh’s Guggenheim show when she won the Hugo Boss Prize that I really realized that it was a method, it was a praxis. I think even when I was writing In the Wake in the very first pages, it hadn’t quite hit me at the time how much of a praxis it was, but certainly it was, that she had a commitment to it that she also inculcated in each of us. I do think that we think about a book like Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives in which she traces the ways that those young Black women and girls had a commitment to living free which involved a commitment to making a beautiful life in the midst of the harshest conditions, you really do begin to encounter beauty not as something that is passively received but something that is actively made. Then I always think of a novel that I used to teach all the time, not by a Black writer but a Polish writer, Polish/Russian writer because the borders change, but Anzia Yezierska Salome of the Tenements in which she talks about the democracy of beauty and in which her whole life is dedicated to living in beauty and making beauty accessible to everyone no matter what one’s financial situation is. That’s why it’s the democracy of beauty, that, “Why should she have to live in a hideous tenement? Doesn’t she also have an eye for beauty? Doesn’t she also deserve to live a beautiful life?” I think beauty really is that thing that we must have some active relation to. It’s related to imagination, it’s related to producing the kind of worlds that we might actually want to live in with other people.
DN: Well, in the Harper’s Bazaar article Everything Comes Back to Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake, I was particularly taken by how Ben Lerner teaches your work which feels in the spirit of how you decide whether and when to teach Killer of Sheep. He says he opens his semester with the class reading In The Wake, using it not just as a work of art or not just as a piece of criticism in and of itself but, in his words, 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.” When I think of this curation of sight, it isn’t surprising to me that you’re interested in memorials and memorialization as it involves both the eye, and the mind’s eye, it involves memory and imagination, and vision or envisioning, decisions about what to show, when to show it, and how to frame it. When Dionne Brand was on the show, for the bonus audio, she did a reading of several of the notes from Ordinary Notes when it was still a forthcoming book. To bring her voice into the space, I’m going to play one of the notes that she chose, read by her, that occurs early and engages with this question of curating memory and sight.
[Dionne Brand reads Note 3 from Ordinary Notes]
DN: The questions that you raise early in Ordinary Notes that Dionne reads here, they’re not particular to this memorial, I mean this debate, it exists in the Jewish community, it exists in the Black community, and you unpack it in a variety of ways. Many of them early as we read through the book, you quote Bryan Stevenson saying to Henry Louis Gates Jr., that to change the narrative around lynching, we must do better at showing how brutal it was. You talk about Claudia Rankine’s presentation at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and her playing of one of the situation videos that she makes with her filmmaker husband which is assembled footage of murders and beatings of Black people in the United States and you talk about how Rankine, doing this in front of an audience, insists on an us and a we who needed to watch and sit in this death and violence that’s undifferentiated. She insists on an undifferentiated we, something that was unwelcome and stunned many people in the room. You include a letter from Black academics at a different event in Montreal where she shows a video and their feelings that “spliced together as a long Black death made no new revelations.” This question is something you explore in In The Wake as well, looking at the spectacle of slavery’s brutality in the movie 12 Years a Slave versus, as you’ve already described, the ways Daughters of the Dust engages with it. It makes me think of your quote of Frank Wilderson early in Ordinary Notes before this section where he says, “Shared experiences in the realm of the social do not necessarily index shared positions in the realm of the structural,” or your words, “Visuality is not simply looking. It is a regime of seeing and being, and any so-called neutral position is a position of power that refuses to recognize itself as such.” I was hoping you would talk to us about what comes up when you listen to Note 3, why you want to position these questions raised in Germany and in America early in the book so that we enter these spaces with you in this way, and to what end.
CS: What, again, a beautiful question because you begin with Ben Lerner. Are these the threshold questions? I guess in some sense they are. But hearing that note again read by Dionne, first, I want to say it makes me not want to read my own note myself, [laughter] I mean it’s read so beautifully.
DN: It is.
CS: I really hear it again in a different way. I’m always interested in the we, what wes are being summoned, what wes are being imagined. I do use the pronoun we. I try to be clear that I’m speaking to end of Black people and not just Black people in the US or North America, differentiated Black people but I’m trying to speak into the ways that, as I’ve said before, no matter where we are or where we’re positioned, we are subject to similar kinds of ongoing violences. That’s a kind of we that I’m working with but it’s not the we of the situation film, it’s not a we that doesn’t account for those different registers of how the afterlife of slavery is lived and encountered, whether from a position of power or from a position of both oppression and particular kinds of structural violence. Maybe you could ask me another part of the question again.
DN: Yeah. The debate around what we achieve from showing more or what belief is behind showing more versus other ways of showing.
DN: I mean this fear that we’ve made a museum for the Nazis.
CS: Yeah. I didn’t expect to experience that. Again, I guess it’s not the Holocaust Museum, it’s the Nazi Documentation Center. Nonetheless, I found it, as I say, reproducing that kind of, I don’t know, allure of the Nazi. I suppose that is a deep risk that one runs when one is trying to document the brutality at all the material levels, aesthetically and otherwise. I suppose that is the risk that one runs but to have experienced it, and this was what, 2015, 2016? I was really taken aback. It’s not at all what I expected to feel as I walked through, to feel that others were feeling as I walked through because that’s not what I was feeling. It’s not that I don’t think, or I can say it positively, I do think The National Memorial for Peace and Justice should exist. I do think The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration should exist. I think though, and it’s clear in terms of the kinds of responses, the initial responses of people who went to both spaces, that there were many White people who didn’t go to the space but had something to say about it about like, “That’s in the past, we should forget this story who made angry.” There were others of course who felt deep sadness, remorse, guilt, whatever range of feelings, a desire to learn more. Then for many Black people, it was a different kind of encounter, sometimes with the names of relatives, sometimes with a history that had been repressed, forgotten, or unspoken, sometimes just an encounter with a history that is still ongoing in terms of the numbers of Black people who we have experienced being brutally murdered and their murders circulating widely, and still circulating. I suppose there’s even more so than the circulation of those lynching postcards which circulated, of course, openly in the US mail until it was made illegal in 1942, so then circulated I guess in an envelope. But these videos circulate again and again and again and there’s really no stopping their circulation, the murders of multitudes of people. I am bewildered by the idea, by the holding on to the idea that if we show it enough, something will change because I think that we can say across all experiences in which atrocity is attended to by, as I write the materialization of more atrocity, that it doesn’t do the work that we imagine that it’s doing. That encounter with brutality may produce more of that fame brutality as opposed to an aversion to that brutality, as opposed to a dedication to ending that brutality. It might land in the space, which is the space we are living now in which it produces a commitment on the part of those people who name Black people among others as not human, a desire to engage in what Cornelius Eady calls Brutal Imagination.
DN: Thinking of these questions of what to remember, how to remember, how to present or represent, and thinking also of you quoting Kevin Quashie about the sovereignty of the interior, we have a question for you from Madeleine Thien.
Madeleine Thien: Hi, Christina, it’s Maddie. It’s really a joy and an honor to step into this conversation. Christina, I felt a real kinship with the way Ordinary Notes respects opacity and untranslatability, and how it places seeing, noting, and notation as a practice, a kind of making and unmaking. I wondered if you could speak about the methods of the scholar and the methods of the writer working towards a recovery of sight and of regard. I would love to hear you speak about your reframing of the act of scholarship itself and scholarly investigation. There’s a line in Note 163 that I love when you reflect on the parts of your mother’s life you can’t know and this part of the note reads, “I have tried to enter with grace and imagine with tenderness or I have left them alone.” Thank you, Christina, and love to you.
CS: Thank you so much, Maddie. It’s lovely to hear your voice. Thank you. Thank you for the question. But I feel like I suppose I have many ways to try to answer that. It’s a beautiful question. I would expect nothing else from Maddie. Thinking about reframing, maybe I want to start at the end which is the question about what I do not know I have tried to render with care and tenderness. I thought a lot about wanting to use those photographs of my mother, then my grandmother, and how I would try to read them. Then in the midst of writing, I took a break one evening and I got this email, and the email was from a woman who, as soon as I saw her name, I knew exactly who she was even though we had never met because her maiden name was Wheatley and my brother’s middle name was Wheatley, Stephen Wheatley Sharpe, so yes, Phillis Wheatley but also my mother’s friend and I was stunned. She wrote me these letters, emails, which I reproduced in the book with her permission and I just realized it opened up this life I knew nothing about and that had been closed to me, close to me because I think things changed so much between the time—my brother was 11 years older than me—of his birth and childhood and my own change in terms of my parent’s relationship, changed in terms of other kinds of conditions, and change in terms of growing up, there were no visitors. My father’s family would come sometime and I would have friends come over once in a while but my mother had no visitors. I didn’t really meet anyone who my mother called a friend until after my father died. It just opened up this aperture that I also thought there were many things my mother talked to me about, many of which I do not reproduce in the book, some of which I do, and I thought it opened up any number of questions, as well as giving me some other insight on my mother’s interior life and that I didn’t think as her daughter, I needed necessarily to either enter or to write on the page perhaps different than if I encountered this person as a subject of study, as a “scholar” who I might have felt the need to do another kind of probing work to put on the page, although there are many examples of people who do that scholarly work and still allow people their own non-exposed interiority if I’m making sense. Because I think Hartman does it in Wayward Lives. I think I try to do it when I redact people’s names. I think I tried to do it in the note Tender. I hope I’ve answered the question about a kind of reframing. I think what I wanted the notes to do was to build and accumulate, and thereby make an argument without my having to work an argument through in the ways that I have been taught to as an academic. Part of that I think is to allow for space to do its own work.
DN: Well, let me extend Maddie’s question about opaqueness and untranslatability or even the refusal to translate into the things that you don’t show or perhaps refuse to show in Ordinary Notes. I wanted to start with the redactions that you just mentioned that happen throughout the book. First, I’m going to mention another book by The 3rd Thing Press that you’re involved in, Quenton Baker’s We Pilot the Blood which is an erasure poem using a senate document related to a revolt of slaves being transported on a ship called Creole and at the end of it are meditations by you. But what is interesting is that you are relating not only to Baker’s erasures but also to images by Torkwase Dyson, to Baker’s redactions, and Dyson’s abstract representations. In the section called Black Redactions, of the many sections that you write, you say, “Quenton Baker’s redactions are Black redaction. It is redaction work that allows that which and those whom the state has silenced the possibility of being heard. This is not the blacking out of text that the state declares too sensitive. It is not to conceal information that the state decides is classified. It is to make documents that have a particular kind of uniformity speak something that they were never meant to reveal,” then you choose some of his lines, the lines that he has created by blocking out other words, “A long bloody possession. They could not kill the sunrise in me,” and “I will not be the fulfillment of the object,” then about Dyson’s Hypershape you say, “Dyson shapes are not here to augment the poems. They enact a language of line and curve, shade and grid. They invite us to think about how we are made and unmade through shape, and in place. They are vector and foil.” Your redactions too don’t necessarily always have the same purpose or function as we encounter them. Sometimes it feels like you might be protecting someone, sometimes you might be blocking out the name of a horrible person so as not to repeat it, sometimes to erase or withhold a slur. But how do you see the redactions in Ordinary Notes? Talk to us about making us aware of what’s being removed or blocked out.
CS: First, I want to go back to thinking about Quenton Baker and also the Paul Hlava Ceballos Banana, so it’s two poems, right? The Paul Hlava Ceballos Banana, then redacted and that’s a found poem, then Quenton Baker’s We Pilot the Blood which is the redaction poem now published as Ballast. I so loved both poems and was so really deeply moved to write about both of them, and to think about Quenton’s redactions and also the shapes of the poem like that book Barracoon were the ones that looked like three ships and to think about the shape the redactions took and the work that the form did, as well as the declaration that they will not kill the sunrise in me. I found them stunning, deeply moving, and can’t wait to teach with the book. Thinking about redaction in my own work, it’s not consistent. It’s not as you say the same kind of redaction every time in two of the early letters. It’s a redaction of individual names and identifying details, so not like the state but still a kind of redaction because in one sense, those names and details mean a great deal to me but they, in another sense, mean nothing because those sentiments move out through Black life, that many of us could receive letters like that, one being innocuous, one, in my experience of it, not really innocuous at all. Those redactions are to do away with identifying names and information that specify when it doesn’t actually require that specification to do the work that I wanted to do. The other kind of redaction I redacted, and there’s one name that appears in the book that I think in the paperback edition I will redact because I wish I had redacted it, it is to spare the repetition of a certain kind of brutality circulating attached to that name, both because I want those people to have their life as they lived it outside of that particular brutal thing that was done to them and secondly, I think because again, it’s a kind of brutality that is both very specific and also not specific in the ways in which violence against Black people gets reproduced, circulated, and reanimated. Redaction is working in those different registers of the non-repetition of particular details that allow it to be a kind of individual experience or an individual thinking through their relation to anti-Blackness, then the kind of redaction that allows people who have been grievously harmed a life outside of that grievous harm.
DN: Well, I’d love to spend a moment with whether your redaction methodology with text is the same as what you choose to show or not show in images and if not, how they differ. Ordinary Notes is full of images of all sorts: family photos, lots of photos of art, of your much loved and annotated copy of Beloved, of one of your mother’s amazing letters to the editor, several of which we get to read in full. The emphasis feels different than In The Wake which is also full of images, two of which have never left me, one of prisoners sleeping in a cell in Malawi packed together with no space where one body isn’t contacting many others and a photo that’s partly disturbing to me because it’s also very beautiful as a photograph, and the other photo which is even more unsettling is a close-up of Black girl’s face lying on her side in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake with a piece of tape across her forehead that has the word Ship on it. It’s unnerving because of its indeterminacy. Is it a command? Is it a reminder to ship her somewhere for her good or not? Is this part of a rescue? But even if it is, it evokes her as cargo, as property, and the viewer feels unmoored on how to position themselves to what they’re seeing. You so wonderfully and richly explore that gap in In The Wake between what we know and what we see with these photos and others. But given that Ordinary Notes doesn’t have these images, I wondered if anything has shifted for you around your ethos, around what you want to show and why. But either way, talk to us about redaction in relation to images, what you won’t show, and what you want to curate and show.
CS: Yeah. I think that’s a great question. I think, again, kind of a long answer because there are also images in In The Wake that are redacted, the redacted images are of the eyes of those two enslaved young women whose photograph moved the daguerreotypes taken by J.T. Zealy at the instruction of Louis Agassiz. I decided not to repeat those much-repeated photographs of Delia and Drana, and to only use a strip of their eyes. I thought if the Peabody doesn’t give me permission to just reproduce their eyes, I won’t reproduce any part of the image. I will simply speak to the photographs. I hope that in In The Wake, with my attention to images and my re-reading of the image of the little girl who survived the Haitian earthquake, I would be enacting a kind of method for how one might read photographs and how one might read photographs in the aftermath of disaster, how one might read what most photographs should produce with the sense of not quite knowing what one is seeing instead of a kind of assumption of knowledge of what one is seeing. I don’t know if that was always successful. I do think that I sat with the photograph of the little girl who had the word Ship taped to her head for a very long time before I began to try to write about her. I knew that she was alive. She might someday encounter my writing. I knew that I did not want to reproduce harm. I also knew that even if I didn’t write about her, that others would in a way that might reproduce harm, so I tried to balance, “Should I write and reproduce this image? Should I not?” But if I’m going to reproduce it, I want to reproduce it in a way that attends to the image with a kind of regard, a real attention to the person in the image, to the person whose photograph has been, and I would say in this instance, taken. I recently had a conversation with Dawoud Bey who says he doesn’t talk about taking photographs, he talks about making photographs. I think this photograph was taken. I think John Edwin Mason also talks about what if the Black person being photographed actually, to the photographer, had the right to say no and that no would be taken seriously? I don’t think there was any such right there, so I wanted to really try to attend to that and I think the same in the photographs in Ordinary Notes. But of course, they’re quite different books. He talks about being the photograph of the little girl and the viewer doesn’t know how to enter the photograph necessarily. But I think there’s more than one viewer of the photograph. I felt like when I encountered that photograph, I first had to just close my computer because I thought, “Wow, that photograph was too painful,” and immediately invoked those 500 years of slavery and transatlantic, then the trans-Mediterranean passage. I thought, “I have to come back to this at another point. I can’t attend to this now.” But I knew that she was alive. There are people who can write about images of people who have been killed. I actually can’t do that. I wanted to come back to this image because I knew there was more to see there than a child who had been hurt. I do think that again, there are different viewers who encounter this and who bring to it their own understanding of what that word Ship might mean. Now, to go to the question of Ordinary Notes and images, mostly, they are photographs of mine. There are only a few that aren’t my photographs, so do the images from the Legacy Museum and the National Museum for Peace and Justice, there are photographs of my family with a photograph of my uncle Carl who was a railroad porter on the cover of The Pennsylvania Magazine from 1954, then images of sky, etc. I think that I wasn’t attending in Ordinary Notes, at least in terms of reproducing photographs, of photographs that hurt even though discussion about such photographs does appear in the book. But I will never reproduce a photograph of a lynching. That’s nothing that I’m going to do. I no longer show those photographs when I teach. From experience, I won’t say I don’t think, I know it doesn’t do the work that in my showing it I wanted it to do. It can often re-traumatize Black students and do weird distancing work with non-Black students, so I decided that I would never reproduce those images again.
DN: Well, to stay another minute with Maddie’s question and in the aura of this question of opacity and what we curate to show, I want to talk about the part of the book I think about the most and it has to do with an encounter you had with a stranger who spoke to you, a White woman when you were at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery Alabama which memorializes victims of racial terror lynchings. But first, could we hear Notes 36 and 37 which would tell us what happened and some of the meaning-making that happens afterwards?
[Christina Sharpe reads from Ordinary Notes]
DN: We’ve been listening to Christina Sharpe read from Ordinary Notes. What most sticks with me about this is how you say both no and yes to these White analysts at the same time, letting them know that this is work they should be doing themselves to understand. But also I think going back to Alexander Chee’s notion of the intellectual ice climb, I feel like your book will feel more or less like a climb at various times depending on who you are as a reader and I suspect there are many people reading the same book who end up having very different journeys through Ordinary Notes. But what I loved about it is—and this is a great example I think—this pairing of notes that comes early in the book, of how if it wasn’t obvious to a given reader, why you wouldn’t acknowledge this woman, and maybe it wasn’t entirely satisfying to hear you explain it on the next page, nevertheless, if you work your way through Ordinary Notes, I think it becomes obvious later on in the act of reading, in the act of working through and allowing oneself to be worked upon by the book. To return to your mother who curates a Black life for you when you were the only Black person in an almost all-White Catholic Elementary School, being called the N-word nearly daily, spit in the face by a White schoolmate in front of your father who says nothing and you’re both shamed in the process, in that same section, we see a photo of Horace and Sara Baker trying to move into a White neighborhood under police protection, and the line by you, “There is the violence of the baying crowd and there is the violence of reasonableness, each part necessary to maintain something called an all-white neighborhood.” I wanted to bring up the violence of reasonableness in relation to the woman who approaches you in the museum because I’m thinking about how you include how classmates of yours as a child, you don’t say if these classmates themselves were perpetrators of racist aggression toward you, but I think we at least imagine that they were complicit in their silence, how these classmates now reach out to you 40 years later to tell you that their child is in a doctoral program reading In the Wake, speaking to you unbidden without any acknowledgment or apology. Another classmate the same week wanting to “reconnect”, perhaps because you’re now known and respected. Again, you don’t respond to these people similarly to the woman in the museum, and yet you include your unsent and redacted response for us, which includes the phrase, “So much rehabilitated and reconstructed into that goodness and perpetual innocence that whiteness extends.” I don’t know if it’s a stretch to connect this to the White museum goer who isn’t addressing you but addressing you as a function or as a representation, but I wondered if you could speak more into the violence of reasonableness for us.
CS: Absolutely. Again, a kind of beautiful and evocative weaving together of moments. I want to say to the beginning though that in the aftermath of that spit in my face, but redacted, I do know his name, I probably will never forget his name, it wasn’t that my father saw it, it’s that really what happened after that is really a blank for me. I know that afterwards my father was headed to his car to go to work because he worked a three-to-eleven shift at the post office. For me, it’s a question of whether or not he saw it or not and it’s a question of if he did see it, so it’s in my imagining, I’m trying to work through like, if he saw it, then we were sealed in our mutual shame in relation to it that it could be done to me and that he could be witness to it. But I think it’s a great question about the violence of reasonableness, the reasonable White people in the crowd who are like Mr., well now I can’t remember his name from Raisin in the Sun who comes with the check to give to the Youngers to say you don’t want to move to that neighborhood, that kind of reasonable violence, this was just simply one arm in the failing of brutality, the brutality that is White supremacy. So I do think that they’re related. I do think that the woman who asks me the question, because I think I’m looking distraught, but it’s her distress that is occupying her, not the possibility or even the fact of my own. The White psychoanalyst I think, what was wrong with her question? Why wouldn’t you answer her? Even though I relate this note as the encounter in which I say why, they still won’t accept why and it’s lovely that they’re psychoanalysts. It couldn’t be better. [laughter] I think it’s related because I think it is like the exonerative tenth, things were done. Things were done that have some connection to you but you don’t have to stand in the verb of the doing. I think that our encounters with that museum, walking underneath those 805 hanging monoliths, and then going into the graveyard with 805 monoliths laid out like coffins are very different experiences. I go on to talk about, in the graveyard, it felt like desecration to be stopped and spoken to in the midst of whatever it is you’re trying to collect in yourself as a Black person as you move through that space. Because it wasn’t a space of mutual mourning but the same kind of mourning, the texture. She might have been mourning but I don’t know the texture of her mourning and I don’t think it was for me to know. I think it is participant in a kind of violence of reasonableness, the kind of reasonableness of the violence of the reasonable person. She’s a reasonable person and I’m not talking about her now but it’s the kind of violence of reasonableness that says, “Well, that 84-year-old man, because now we have to know that he’s 84 years old, White man, who shot that 16-year-old Black child in the head and then shot him two more times, well, maybe it’s reasonable for him to be afraid that a Black person appears on his porch.” That’s a violence of reasonableness and another register perhaps, that’s what Claude Lanzmann called the, I want to say the violence of understanding because it’s a kind of understanding and a kind of reasonableness that would seek to excuse violence as opposed to some other register of understanding, which is situating it in power structures and thereby seeing how it happens. It’s a kind of understanding that would seek to excuse. That’s the kind of violence of reasonableness, which we’re to say a kind of both sides and there isn’t.
DN: Yeah. I’m going to play another note that Dionne chose. I think it suggests another relation White people could have in relation to these questions, perhaps this notion that you just said so well of standing in the verb of doing, of action. Here’s Dionne Brand reading another note from Ordinary Notes.
[Dionne Brand reads Note 43 from Ordinary Notes]
DN: Thinking about why people going to a slavery memorial and being confronted not with the spectacle of Black death but with White faces, I wanted to take that for a moment into the realm of visual art. You gave the keynote speech at the Black Liberation Center at an event called Art of Collective Care & Responsibility: Handling Images of Black Suffering & Death, where you talk about Torkwase Dyson and how her abstract art is a rubric, not a destination and you quote her saying, “I decided to make paintings and drawings that reconfigured that history of murders and tortures in a way that was diametrically opposed to images in photography. And I did this so that I would unkeep that history.” And you talk about Jennifer Packer’s paintings of flowers and talk about her flowers are not unlike the flowers left at places where people have died, and you show a painting of flowers she made after the death of Sandra Bland, and then you say, “The painting is neither a replacement or substitute for the body of the person who has died. It is not synecdoche. Packer herself says, ‘When you go to a funeral, the flowers aren’t a stand-in for the body. They’re a stand-in, in a way, for desire and for consideration. They’re a beautification, but we wouldn’t call them unnecessary attributes at a funeral. You wouldn’t call the lilies on a casket decadent, right? You’d just say, ‘This can’t even match what I’ve lost.’” I wanted to think about these gestures of Dyson and Packer in relation to the controversial painting engaging with the death of Emmett Till, Open Casket by Dana Schutz, which is also an abstraction and which you spend some time with in Ordinary Notes. Could you speak a little into the crucial differences you see in these gestures of abstraction; how Dyson and Packer are making a different gesture than Open Casket is making?
CS: But again, your questions make me want to go back to the very beginning of your question, for the beginning of the kind of offer to speak into. You were talking about, again, hearing Dionne read Note 43. I was thinking about who might that not be a different endeavor might that not hit a different note, and thinking about the kinds of work that White people might call on each other to do to repair, to attend to, our wealth is accumulated. All those Black people driven out, everything lost, all those Black people fleeing by night to save their lives and the lives of the people they love and having to leave everything behind: land, implements, all possessions, nothing could go with them that they couldn’t carry. I was thinking about what would come of making a kind of database about that kind of accumulation of the Black people who had to leave, flee Wilmington, North Carolina, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida, and on and on including the Black people who are having being forced out of places now because of a different kind of violence called gentrification or financialization that have laid waste to Black communities who have been preyed upon by all kinds of predatory financial instruments; thinking about how all those things are linked. Then to go to the second part of your beautiful question about the keynote I gave for the visual Art of Collective Care which was a conference organized by La Tanya Autry I think two years ago in time as you know given the pandemic has been completely stretched and collapsed and everything else. La Tanya Autry has done so much work to show us and tell us how museums are not neutral, how they aren’t just presenting knowledge but constructing knowledge in the ways in which we approach work and communities, etc. I love what Jennifer Packer says about those bouquets, well, of course, they don’t replace the body. You wouldn’t call lilies on a casket decadent, would you? But how it’s a marker of all that we have lost, and also, what that person has lost, what that person has been unable to do. I think there’s a world of difference between what Dana Schutz was doing in Open Casket and what Torkwase Dyson is doing with the painting like She He, and I think it’s She He and He She, those paintings which speak to the lives of those Black people who were lynched using the language of architecture and the language of landscape. Then Jennifer Packer’s beautiful bouquets that don’t replace the body. She also says something like, “What is the experience of grieving for people who you didn’t actually know but that the bouquets are an indication, a holder of grief and more than grief?” Those kinds of abstractions, which I think are abstraction that attends to Black life without reproducing a certain kind of violence but attends to the life that exceeds violence, put Dyson and Unkeeping in those paintings and also for those bouquet paintings, those still lives, like a rendering of Black still life in which the still is like the continuation of a life as opposed to the cessation of a life. I love contranyms. I did an interview with Siddhartha Mitter about the Dana Schutz painting right around the time that it happened and I think that the Schutz abstraction doesn’t work because she makes abstract the very thing which Mamie Till-Bradley wanted to make clear and that is look at what they have done to my son. I’m not sure to what end should abstraction works toward something like an understanding of the violence of White supremacy. I’m not sure who needed that particular reproduction in a way that really deviated from the kind of work or the kind of subjects that Schutz would normally paint. If you think about some of the other paintings in that show, well, that was in the Whitney but in the show in which her own show and which disappeared, I think there’s the kind of painting of Solange, Beyonce, and Jay-Z in the elevator, the moment of the fight in the elevator. I think it’s abstraction to different ends, a kind of abstraction that says, “Look, not all abstraction is violence. We might think about how abstraction allows us a space from which to know and imagine something else about Black life that is not rendered in the kind of say, clear tones of violence versus the kind of abstraction that Dana Schutz has made that reproduces a spectacular refusal in a way of the work that Till-Bradley had to do to make those photographs public.
DN: Well, like you, to return to the beginning of my question, you also say about this proposed project of White people identifying, naming, and creating a database of the faces and these lynching postcards, that the reason why people put forth to not do this is that these identities are “lost to history” but that abstraction lost to history is like this vague placeholder to prevent people from looking rather than an actual historical truth.
CS: Yeah, I think so. I’m actually really indebted to Kimberly Juanita Brown for really sitting with and thinking about this because I heard her say in a talk once about those. She’s somebody who writes about death in a way that’s really powerful. I remember her saying in a talk that she gave at Tufts University once about how many of those White people in those photographs are still alive. I’ve sat with that over the years and said, “Yeah, people know them as their aunts, uncles, mothers, grandmothers, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc., people have a relation, those people’s faces are really clear and so that people haven’t identified them, or at least identified them, maybe they do identify them to each other like the people who would reproduce that violence, proudly, I’m sure claim that violence but they don’t speak it into the world in such a way that is an attempt to repair that violence and to repair how that violence looks in the present.
DN: I don’t know if this relates to this question of abstraction and visual art but it makes me think also of you writing about this man at The Legacy Museum who spends his days in the museum watching museumgoers watch video testimonials of the formerly incarcerated including himself. He does this because he thought that people didn’t care so he would watch them watch him as a form of therapy witnessing them caring. You say about this, “To look into other people’s faces for your therapy is a dangerous proposition,” and I think of that along with your meditation on Amazing Grace where the composer of the song who changes his position on slavery with his conversion to Christianity actually continues to work in the slave trade long after his conversion and the redemption he sings about in the song is not that of slaves but of himself. Somehow both of these things feel related to this question of who is being centered and by whom, which feels like it’s in play when looking at Schutz, Dyson, and Packer, or even when you’re talking about who is the viewer of the photograph of the girl with the word Ship on her forehead, it’s a quality of Ordinary Notes. The way you’ve made this into these modular sections I feel like welcomes everyone and provides different experiences for everyone somehow. But I didn’t know if these moments, and I’m not saying this well, but I don’t know if these moments connect for you around Amazing Grace and this man that you speak to in the museum who seems trapped in a loop, a psychological loop as he watches himself on loop. Does that bring up any thoughts for you?
CS: It does. I don’t know that I would have put them together like that but that you have put them together makes perfect sense to me. Part of what I would say is that—I’ll call him a young man—that young man had not been out of prison for very long and he was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 14 years old. Bryan Stevenson, he’s a lawyer and part of the EJI mission is also to represent anyone in Alabama who has either a death penalty case and then young people who have been sentenced to life in prison. He represented this young man and so it was because of that representation that he was released from prison I think after like 15 or 20, 17 years or something like that. Maybe I think what connects these notes is the question of reparation and the question of repair, both. John Newton keeps on working on that slave ship or on those slave ships even after his conversion says something to me about a kind of refusal of repair, that repair didn’t enter into the question. I guess I want to tie that to something like reparations being paid to those who claimed ownership over people as opposed to those who were enslaved. Nobody has paid preparations to the formerly enslaved, only to those people who claimed ownership over other people. I think there’s some connection there and that the kind of question of regard, repair, reparation, or what those notes might constellate around, I do wish I had said to him whether it would have been welcome or not, that to look into other people’s faces for your therapy is a dangerous proposition because he is engaging people who he might have to argue with to declare his being rightfully free, and that just seemed terrible to me. He was lucky to engage me that I did not feel that way but many people come through that museum and he related some tense encounter he’d had with an older White man and I thought that would have been the end of those encounters for me. But he kept doing it. I doubt that he does it now or I don’t know if he does it now. That was 2018. But I think he was just like in this position of both trying to embrace what it meant to have escaped that hold and to really fully live in something like freedom and that there’s something about encounter, I’d say the other thing that these notes constellate around is something like encounter, like what’s given, what’s taken, what’s negotiated, what is refused. Those would be the set of terms that I would think. Even if I didn’t put them together in that way before your question and your invitation, I think those might be the terms around which I would think them together.
DN: You did an event with Saidiya Hartman and others including Canisia Lubrin called Poetry Is Not A Luxury: The Poetics of Abolition where Saidiya said something that encapsulates a lot of what we’ve been talking about but with different language, comparing and contrasting anti-racism and abolition where the former, anti-racism, is always aiming to give a brutal account of our now to describe and document its violence, all of it as a mode toward changing and transforming the given, but that an abolitionist imaginary is trying to create the world of relations we want in the world now. It is the act of destroying completely the world, the end of the world. She says there is a pressure on an abolitionist poetics to imagine how we want to be living now in the now, that it is not involved in an eternal mode of waiting. It feels like what you’re suggesting as a project for White people in that note that Dionne read, this reckoning with the actions of kin, this project of making visible what remains hidden and unspoken, of naming people and accounting for what they’ve accumulated through what they’ve done is a very different project than you and your mother’s project, perhaps the sovereignty of the interior beauty as a method, though perhaps both are part of an abolitionist poetics together I wonder. Maybe when Dyson says she’s trying to unkeep history, that you’re suggesting that White people instead should be unearthing it. I don’t know if this provokes any thoughts. We have a question from Canisia for you but if you have any thoughts about that before I play it, I’d love to hear them.
CS: I have lots of thoughts about it. Thank you again. I’m always impressed by the number of things you find and listen to, like, “Oh, yeah, I did do that.” I’d say that I think, of course, that there’s not just one project so I wouldn’t say the project of beauty is a method versus the project of what you called White people unearthing and doing that deep material analysis of the ground that they work from, grow from, stand in, or etc., we need any number of projects to bring into being the kinds of relations that would allow all of us to live, to actually really live as opposed to just survive or not survive. I think as you were talking, I was thinking about when I first encountered contemporary politics of abolition was in 2008 when I was at Tufts and I was running the Black Cultural Studies seminar, and a colleague and I invited Ruth Wilson Gilmore to give a talk. It was on abolition after Hurricane Katrina and it began by her talking about, of course, those people who were imprisoned, who were abandoned. There was no evacuation of the prisons. It was my first real encounter. I had read some of her writing about abolition but it was like a real deep encounter with what would this actually mean. I do think the work of abolition and the work of anti-racism are two different projects, the kind of naming because I also feel like some people who position themselves to do anti-racist work position themselves as allies in that work as opposed to really doing the work because it also benefits them to see the end of anti-Blackness and White supremacy, etc. I think anti-racist work maybe also sometimes allows for a kind of taxonomy of the present that doesn’t necessarily go into the work of imagining or what kinds of relations do we really want. I think that abolitionist work, hopefully at its best, is really invested in thinking about how do we, as we work toward this thing, also make livable worlds along the way as we work toward a reconfiguration of how we might live together that we’re also making those livable worlds along the way. Some of them fail, some of them don’t. Some of them are seeded and sprout other things. That’s what your question invites me to think on what anti-racist work might also actually be a work of reform. Abolition work is a work of revolution and liberation, not reform. That is where they, for me, split.
DN: Well, let’s invite Canisia into the conversation to pose a question to you.
Canisia Lubrin: Hey, Christina. It’s Canisia. I decided I would come on here and do something a little different than what David asked me to do, or maybe it’s not so different at all for me to come here and simply want to say how much your presence and your work enrich our lives, and anyone should be so lucky to have your attention trained on any moment of how we live, nevermind to have the power of your brilliance, grace, and understanding felt across the entirety of what we call Black life. As much as I only want to say how lucky we are and to thank you, I wonder if you might speak a little about the practice of yours, which I find so remarkable, is that you focus on a single word and then move toward great word shifting insight with that movement, and the great care that such accumulation requires to my mind is a rare thing. It is a pleasure to celebrate you and Ordinary Notes. We celebrate the other two also but this moment is for the extraordinary Ordinary Notes and I am happy to say thank you.
CS: Thank you so much, Canisia. David, you brought Canisia on here to try to make me cry or something. [laughter] But, Canisia, the feeling is mutual and the gifts of language and thought that you usher up into. I love that question, how to answer it though? At a salon in a camp organized for In the Wake at Barnard in 2016, Hazel Carby spoke and she said that I was a forensic etymologist, and I loved that. While I aspired to be a forensic etymologist, I will say that I really do love words and I think it’s a particular obsession. The other thing you could say, I just get obsessed about certain things and I just want to keep staying with it and worrying it and worrying it and worrying it. Really, I think the title In the Wake, for example, really came after seeing that photograph. I might have wanted to call it In the Wake already but something crystallized for me after seeing the photograph of that little girl and how those ships were still everywhere present in our lives. Then I think note, note is me working something through from In the Wake about that moment that you referred to earlier, David. I think we began with it about Hi Man, the heigh and the ho and morning and evening that stops a particular violence only to continue another form of violence. I’ve been obsessed with that, the kind of note that makes possible escape even if escape is only in the mind but that makes possible a kind of maybe lateral care. Then, of course, I had to think, “Okay, well, what are all the other definitions of note and how might they inform the ways in which I’m thinking about organizing this book and writing this book?” Of course, each chapter doesn’t have a definition of note but many of them do, and so of course, thoughts written down to assist memory, their musical notes, I just love the idea of being able to keep all of the definitions at play at any given moment and what doing that allows us to think through, how it allows us to get something of a kind of wholesome idea of a particular set of questions, propositions, or ideas. Again, it’s down to my obsessive qualities where I can return to the same thing again and again and again and again because I’m trying to see it from all of these different angles and trying to understand something about it. I did that with Wake and I did that with Note, and probably I try to do it with Monstrous Intimacies as well. But I just think that staying with something can open up a different kind of aperture by which we don’t collapse everything into it but by which we can make an argument or see the world.
DN: Well, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to spend a moment doing that with the word ordinary and then ask you about it. There’s an epigraph to section three, an epigraph by Dionne Brand, a section called Can I Live, that goes, “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction—a creation of empires, and also self-creation. It is to be a being living inside and outside of herself. It is to apprehend the sign one makes yet to be unable to escape it except in radiant moments of ordinariness made like art.” When I talked to Dionne for the show, she said, “I’m faced every day with the spectacularity of Black life from all media, and so therefore I’m faced every day with the question of breaking down that spectacularity or rejecting that spectacularity for what I know which are the complex deep arrangements of the everyday.” Perhaps in a kindred spirit, Claire Schwartz said when we talked, talking about Mariame Kaba’s idea that for the spectacle to be the threshold of the unfair or what we deem unacceptable means that the ordinary is acceptable. But in fact, where we need to attend is actually the very fabric, the very root of our lives as we know it. It’s not actually the spectacular thing. Then she talks about her own poetry, how do you make the ordinary as terrifying as it is? Lastly, of the many possible examples I could choose from, you gave a speech in Berlin called “Black. Still. Life.” where you talk about how at a meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission, Sheila Hines-Brim, through the ashes of her niece, Wakiesha Wilson, a niece who died in police custody in 2016, she threw the ashes of her niece at Charlie Beck, the head of the LAPD. As she threw them, she said, “That’s why Keisha, she’s going to stay with you.” After she was arrested, she said, “I used her ashes so they can be with him so he can feel her, because he murdered her.” Then you switch to talking about how in In the Wake, you wrote about an ordinary note of care, and that ordinary note of care, the calls of Hi Man to the 46 men in the chain gang in Beloved, and then you return again to Wakiesha Wilson whose cries for help went unheard and unattended to, and you say, “I am not trying to romanticize or to aestheticize Hines-Brim’s act as she sounds an ordinary note but I want to attend here to her political act, to her note of care, and to her political demand.” In light of all of this and Canisia noting that you have this knack for building worlds from a word, talk to us about ordinary for you, what it means for you, and what sounding an ordinary note means too because it seems like that also has the shifting meaning with different contexts too.
CS: Right, because that’s also note one, what the texture of those notes might be that they might reconstitute anti-Blackness, they might cut through anti-Blackness, they might bypass it altogether, they might attempt to bypass it altogether. I wanted to attend to the multiple meanings of the set of the word note but also the word ordinary and what ordinary might mean in a Black life at this moment in the world. The ordinary, as it appears in the book, is literary visual, it’s the violence that we live, survive, and don’t survive. It’s arbitrary, it’s the beautiful, all of these things are the kind of ordinary notes or the fabric of Black life. I will return to that moment with Sheila Hines-Brim and Wakiesha Wilson, and another thing that I’m working on but I thought that was such a profound act, it was a profound act to intervene in the kinds of ordinary disregard and violence that decimates our communities and our lives. I thought that it was a political gesture. I thought it was a political demand. I thought it was taking a kind of ordinary and also extraordinary steps to say you are going to attend to me. No, I love those sentences from A Map to the Door of No Return, about ordinariness made like art, which is that there’s a quality to the ordinary that is well, that’s the quality of what we live every day and we can, at least, try at moments to choose what we do with it even in the midst of all kinds of ushers. The climate is anti-Black and so I love the texture of that. I’ve listened several times as well to the interview with Claire Schwartz talking about her book, Civil Service, and I think she’s right quoting Kaveh and thinking about attending not to the spectacular, and I think certainly we learned this from Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection where she refused to repeat the spectacular like she’s going to attend to these quotidian violences that structure our lives and that get repeated. It’s not the spectacle. While the memorial attends to 4,400 spectacle lynchings, there are other lynchings that are happening that aren’t drawing the crowds of those lynchings, the kind of everyday brutalities, murders, etc., but also the everyday ways in which we make a living together and a part that allows us to move to the next day and allows us to do the work of imagining something different. I think the work of imagination can be put to brutality and it can be put to brutalities opposite. But it is part of the ordinary texture of the ordinary extraordinary matter of Black life. I realized as I was writing the book that I thought I’m paying a lot of attention to note and it’s much later on that I define ordinary. But all along, I’m trying to think about the kind of ordinary textures of Black life and I really am not trying to attend to the spectacular but trying to attend to the layered daily and how we experience it, how we live it, how we reflect on it, how we shape something out, how we make notes that carry each other into some other space.
DN: As one moves to the tail end of the book, it feels like it becomes more and more a celebration of beauty, of books that meant a great deal to you, of sharing the answers from others that you asked on Twitter of what books meant the most to them, sharing an incredibly beautiful question you were asked at one of your talks, sharing photos you’ve taken. It would be a failure on my part not to mention that the book itself, what FSG did with this book, how seriously they took the project of making the book into a thing of beauty is remarkable. It also has this incredible haft due to I think the quality of the materials that made it. It’s gorgeous like a museum exhibition book as well as for all of its thought and care in the words. But I wanted to mention one of the things that happen in the latter part of the book that really resonated with me, and it’s a critique but it’s also delivered, not as a blow, there’s a generosity to how it’s delivered and I think that makes it paradoxically more cutting in the end. But it feels right that at the end, it’s a softly delivered critique even as much as I feel like it comes from the pain due to all the ways in your own life as a student in universities, and as a teacher, you’ve met obstacles with only half concealed or not concealed racist subtext to them, which you do talk about in the book. But at one point, you’re talking about reading Kazuo Ishiguro and admiring many aspects of it, and yet also noticing that his finely observed concerns seemed to elude him when it comes to race. After pointing out how Black people are described and racialized versus others in his books, you say, “Ishiguro’s vast imagination utterly falters when it encounters blackness. And he is not alone.” To be fair, you’re not singling out him in this book in particular, but 30 pages later, you say that you suspect that many writers who are not Black, who you’ve taught or otherwise found useful, interesting, and moving have themselves not read the work of Black writers. And leaping forward another 40 pages in your book, I’m going to read Note 218 called At This Late Stage where you say, “I am watching a famous writer and a famous theorist in conversation. They’re speaking about the writer’s new book. They are speaking about white people and whiteness. The theorist, who has written books that upended and changed fields, loses words on whiteness; and in relation to blackness, they transport wonder to the conversation, but not depth. I think about the theorist’s early and influential work and how different that work would have been had they, at the very least, considered the work of the Combahee River Collective, Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, Hortense Spillers, and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí.” At this late stage, to still wonder, to still lose words, in the aura of this, I feel grateful for this way of coming into this place of beauty in the end with this critique also embedded in it. We have a question for you that speaks into the Black Archive from Rinaldo Walcott.
Rinaldo Walcott: Hi, Christina. This is Rinaldo. I know that you had an association with Kitchen Table Press and I’m wondering if you might say something about how that association has impacted your own craft as a writer. Of course, you got to witness the work of some of the most important Black feminist writers of an era pass through that press, but then you were there.
CS: Thank you for that question. Yeah, I was like 23 years old after my first semester in graduate school. But I had met Barbara Smith when I was 19. I went with her and another young woman, whose name I can’t remember now, to the ABA in Washington, DC. It was at that meeting actually where I met [Josephine]. So then I continued corresponding with Barbara Smith who, of course, has done those books that transformed my life, meeting her when she came to give a talk at the University of Pennsylvania when I was in my first year as an undergraduate, completely transformed who I thought I could be in the world. I think to add to the way that you began the question, David, and first let me say thank you, Rinaldo, it’s so good to hear your voice asking me a question, if I think about the ways you began, like in the aftermath of Home Girls, But Some of Us Are Brave, Loving in the War Years, all the work that Kitchen Table Press edited and put out into the world that continues to impact really everything about how I understood myself as a feminist, to still ask those questions. I think it comes back to the question about given all the work the Kitchen Table Press has done, given all the work that Barbara Smith has done, given all the work that Oyěwùmí, Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and I’m thinking across generations, how can it not have shifted the ways that people think and talk about race? It’s not just the talking about race. When I talk about Ishiguro, it’s not that he doesn’t have some complex rendering of people who are “raced,” it’s really when it comes to Blackness that the complexity falls apart, and suddenly you get the black-skinned woman and a black-skinned man. I don’t know what that means, like who is the black-skinned? [laughter] It’s a complete failure of imagination. When all of these writers, thinkers, and philosophers of Black life have given us such detailed careful understandings that shift across time but that we can certainly build on, think with, and remain deeply important to our contemporary living, that we are left with something like wonder instead of real encounter and real engagement, becomes, well, at the very least, deeply troubling. But the world of writing and thinking that Kitchen Table Press opened me up to, I’ll always be grateful for because it really did go into shaping who I was. It gave me permission to speak myself as queer. It gave me permission to speak myself as a feminist. It gave me permission to inhabit a way of approaching and understanding the world that I took into graduate school that people tried to discipline me out of, but thankfully they weren’t successful. To be in that light and in that world was a tremendous honor.
DN: Well, before we end, I want to at least briefly return to your mother. Given that we’ve talked this whole time about questions of what to show, how to show it, when to show it, talk to us about your mother asking you not to write about her. I feel confident somehow that what you’ve done has honored her and is loving, and somehow, I mean I don’t know your mom, she would love it. I don’t know why I can say that. I can’t say that with any authority but you do include in here that she’s asked you not to write about her and yet has made you into a writer. I would love to hear you speak into that paradox.
CS: I had a book launch in Toronto on April 4th, which is when the book came out in Canada. Oh, I want to go back to one other thing that you said and I want to say that it’s really my editor at Knopf, Lynn Henry, who’s also the editor-in-chief, and Eric Chinski at FSG, between them, they really did do the work of making it, as you said, a beautiful book, a beautiful object. Lynn certainly was really committed to saying, “Christina, we’re going to make this a beautiful object.” I think they were so successful. I couldn’t be happier. My brother’s five years older than me, I have two living siblings and my brother Christopher came to the launch, and he told me how proud our mother would be. I think she would, even though she said don’t write about me, would approve the way that I’ve written about her. I do think it was a question of she couldn’t understand why I loved those photographs even though my mother used to tell me stories about her growing up, some of which I share a little bit so, that were like the most amazing stories. I would ask for them again and again and again. I think she would approve. I was going to make a bad joke but I’m going to make this bad joke but you can’t put it in, she wouldn’t approve of my naked picture. [laughter] But you can’t include that. She’d be like, “Christina, you have to put that in there.”
DN: I want to put it in there but I won’t. [laughter]
CS: I don’t care if you say that. I think it’s funny. We could have a little laughter at the end. She’s like, “Did you have to put that in there, Christina? In fact, did you have to have it taken?” [laughter] Anyway, but I think she would approve of the ways that I’ve written about her and things that I’ll never forget like the possum leg, yeah, I think she would approve.
DN: Just to satisfy my curiosity a little bit, in preparing for today, I came across many other book projects that you mentioned in passing as you give talks or speeches. One of them is a book called Black. Still. Life. Another, the Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness. You mentioned to me directly after, I was so taken by your speech at the Venice Biennale “What Could a Vessel Be?”, that that too is being expanded into a book, and I just wondered if you could speak to any of those, or perhaps an unknown work that I don’t know of that you’re engaging with or that we can anticipate from you.
CS: The Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness is not going to become a standalone book, not in that iteration anyway, but there is a chapter, part six in Ordinary Notes preliminary entries toward the Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness. That section is a chorus in which scholars, writers, poets, architects, thinkers, colleagues responded to my invitation to choose a word and define it from the point of Black life. Thinking within Black life, tell me what the word time means, elegance, liquidity, or life. It’s a kind of choral response to an invitation. When you asked about one of the books, Dictionary, in Ordinary Notes, that’s what it became. “Black. Still. Life.” will be a book and that will come out with Duke at some point, 2025 maybe. How I’m thinking about this is changing but part of it I know will be to take up soil and it will be partially thinking about the Soil Collection Project of the Equal Justice Initiative, which I find utterly compelling and so I want to think about the black still life of soil. I also want to think about dust, so that’s where Sheila Hines-Brim will come back and thinking about dust, soil, air, and various other things. Then “What Could a Vessel Be?” is a book that will come out with Knopf and FSG also in 2025 where I will continue thinking both with Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction and also with all of these propositions on a vessel that are both related to visual artists but also growing from not always related to visual artists. I just found that when I wrote that piece that’s in the catalog Milk of Dreams and then I gave an expanded version of it at the Biennale in June 2022, I just kept wanting to write it and it would be a very short book like 80 pages or so. But the proposition of the vessel, the importance that the vessel has had in Black life diasporically, yeah, I am going to keep working on those things. I think that’s enough. I’m also thinking putting together and writing some additions to something that I am tentatively calling To Have Been to the End of The World: 25 Essays on Art, because I’ve written all of these pieces about visual artists and for catalogs, Saidiya Hartman said to me, “I didn’t quite realize that you’d written all this work on artists and it would be nice to have it in one place,” but also to continue and think about some other artists who like I’d love to write something about [inaudible], I’d love to write something else about Jennifer Packer’s work, Steve McQueen. There are other artists who I really want to think about and this would be an occasion for me to write about them as well. I’m going to say one last thing is like when I wrote Monstrous Intimacies, which was partially my dissertation but then three chapters that weren’t my dissertation, I wasn’t sure that I would ever write another book so it’s really such a pleasure to imagine multiple projects.
DN: Well, it’s a pleasure for us on the other side to imagine them.
CS: That’s very kind.
DN: Let’s go out with the brief but very deep note, Note 234.
CS: I don’t know what 234 is so I’ll be surprised.
[Christina Sharpe reads Note 234 from Ordinary Notes]
DN: Thank you, Christina Sharpe.
CS: Thank you, David Naimon. It’s been a real pleasure.
DN: It really has. I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.
CS: It’s really an honor to be talking with you, one of two podcasts that I deeply admire. Thank you so much for your deep attention and rigorous care.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Christina Sharpe, the author of Ordinary Notes. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. Christina contributes quite a few things to the bonus audio archive, readings from my favorite of Dionne Brand’s books, The Blue Clerk, readings of the poetry of Victoria Adukwei Bulley, and readings from Canisia Lubrin’s forthcoming 2024 book Code Noir. These join readings from everyone from Dionne Brand to Nikky Finney to Charif Shanahan to copies of the Arab American Journal Mizna, their Black Takeover issue, to the Tin House Early Readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests, and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with every conversation. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.