Christina Sharpe’s radical, profound new book, “Ordinary Notes,” gathers 248 consecutively numbered notes spread over eight individual parts. Sharpe takes some of her section titles from the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “note,” ordering them with Roman numerals (i-viii) like the resource’s schematic. Each section reads as a standalone essay, each one in conversation with the others. Like claims in a precis, the essays advance and sharpen “Notes” iteratively. The book outlines new possibilities for reading, examining, interpreting, and being in the world.
“Notes” is both sequel to and artistic swerve from “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” Sharpe’s lithe, daring 2016 monograph. Both works are preoccupied with the West’s foundation in spectacles of violent Black death, photographic/pictorial representations of Black experience, and philosophies of Black freedom, especially those conceived by literary artists and critics.
Many notes inform “In the Wake,” including one from “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine’s 2015 essay: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day . . . no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”
Sharpe’s theory of “the wake” draws from Rankine’s noticing: “To be in the wake is to live in those no’s, to live in the no-space that the law is not bound to respect, to live in no citizenship, to live in the long time of Dred and Harriet Scott…To be/in the wake is to occupy that time/space/place/construction (being in the wake)…To be in the wake…is also to recognize the ways that we are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to overwhelming force though not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.”
Knowing ourselves and others in this alternative manner demands another angle of discernment, as NOTE 1 describes. “There are all kinds of ordinary notes: there are unreservedly antiblack notes; there are notes that attempt, but fail, to undo antiblack logics; then there are notes that refuse altogether to accede to those logics that simultaneously de/re/ and unhuman Black people. These Black notes may land in silence or a tone, a sound, a pitch, a record, or an observation made with care; these notes might just reach you across distance, time, and space and with them you may be ‘held and held.’”
As she does above, closing the note with a riff from Dionne Brand’s book-length poem, “thirsty,” throughout “Notes” Sharpe cites ideas and images, name-checks, or quotes lines from an array of artists, including Jacob Lawrence, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Saidiya Hartman, Cauleen Smith, Rinaldo Walcott, Kara Walker, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Toni Morrison, and John Keene. Sharpe’s annotations of their works articulate a counternarrative, call it, “preliminary entries toward a dictionary of untranslatable blackness” (section vi). “Notes” – a hefty, textured, physical object – is a Black Diasporic literary/visual arts catalog.
Though it bears formal and thematic resemblance to Roland Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” and “Mourning Diary,” and Rankine’s “Citizen,” “Ordinary Notes” stands on guard against both authors. In “Lucida” (section v), Sharpe studies a set of family photographs memorializing her matrilineage. Her effort improvises on Barthes while challenging his inability to consider or see “deeply Black” experience as “beautiful, elegant life.” In section ii — a nuanced rumination of silence, terror, and the Bryan Stevenson-founded National Memorial for Peace and Justice — Sharpe thinks again with Rankine’s work. Pondering the poet’s “Situation 8,” a video-essay assembling footage of murderous violence against Black people, Sharpe’s re-engagement becomes rejection. While Rankine imagines that “Situation 8″ frames a collective, an American “we” responsible for bearing witness to Black death, Sharpe argues that the “architecture of violence fractures we; affect does not reach us in the same ways.” She also levels architectural critique against Stevenson’s museum: “Every memorial and museum to atrocity already contains its failure.” “Spectacle is not repair.”
While it expands the personal narrative about economic precarity and death in her family that Sharpe laced through her introduction to “In the Wake,” “Notes” is not a memoir proper. Sharpe does present terrible scenes of subjection from her childhood and professional life, but her self-portrait is oblique, even opaque. The book’s true protagonist is the author’s late mother, Ida Wright Sharpe, a deep reader who gifted her daughter “a love of beauty, a love of words.” Returning the favor, Sharpe’s “Notes” “is a love letter to [her] mother.”
Section by section, Sharpe’s overlapping personal and critical writing becomes more liquid and intense. Her prose simmers, drawing language and narrative into a potent reduction: possibility. Pointing to Audre Lorde’s essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Sharpe argues that “[t]he grammar of a possible life is made in the sounding of it. The work of words–opening into possibility.” Her neologism, beautyeveryday, does workhorse labor, evoking both an attitude toward being that resists the “everyday” white supremacist degradations and violences exercised on Black bodies and a practice of noticing the world’s ordinary wonders. “Ordinary Notes” models a practice for those ethically, politically committed to people of color living freely in possibility and futurity.
By Christina Sharpe
FSG, 392 pages, $35
Walton Muyumba teaches literature at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”