- In the Wake: On Blackness and Beingby Christina Sharpe
C hristinaS harpe's I n theW ake:O nB lackness andB eing challengesits philosophical readers to rethink our expectations both of what a work of Black thought is and how it can be structured. Sharpe's is not a work of Black theory in the style of some of those thinkers that she invokes across the text, whose project and form would be more recognizable to a philosophical audience: Frank Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Hortense Spillers, Edouard Glissant. Though her subtitle, On Blackness and Being, seems to announce it as a kind of ontological treatise on the nature of blackness, In the Wakedoes something different. Moving through family history, political speeches, accounts of contemporary refugee crises, theatre, Black theory and criticism, and poetry, In the Wake's seemingly disparate concerns do not try to argue one thesis about blackness and being. Instead, it works to exemplify the pull and passage of the wake that is the book's center: the wake of the transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing ripple effects of its passage.
Sharpe's claim that Black life is lived in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade is not a unifying theoretical argument. Indeed, even her uses of the word "wake" itself are multiple, drawing on different overlapping meanings without resolving them into one set signification. As such, the movements between Sharpe's different accounts of blackness and being in [End Page 99]the wake can be disorienting. For example, her critique of the erasure of the slave trade from the 2010 documentary The Forgotten Spaceand its account of the ocean as the unthought ground of capitalism, moves into a discussion of the Black Californian woman who appears in that film, "former mother" Aereile Jackson. Sharpe then traces the systems that have taken Jackson's children from her and left her living, precariously, as a worker at the base of a cargo ship, holding onto symbols of her lost children. She notes how Jackson has to defend herself against the claim that this holding is a sign of mental illness and not of her being, as Sharpe notes through poet Dionne Brand, "… held, and held" (68)—kept in another ship's hold—in the wake. Sharpe's account of the 2014 legal ordeal of Mikia Hutchings, a twelve-year-old girl threatened with a felony for drawing on a locker-room wall, flows without a clear causal tie into her reading of Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktuand an account of life in that film's titular city after Ansar Dine's takeover, then moves into a reading of one Timbuktu woman's sense of the brokenness of time.
The impulse to find an explanatory or argumentative through-line as a way to show the connection between the mother and the ocean and the girl and the city belies the fact that the sense of blackness at work in In the Wakeis more ontological than it is ontic. It is not a discrete being or kind of being, just as, and because, the slave trade was not a discrete historical fact. For Sharpe, the slave trade is an event or singularity in the sense that it is not reducible to an efficient cause bound to clear effects. Consequently, it is not a situation with a clear-cut beginning and end. As Sharpe puts it,
In the United States, slavery is imagined as a singular event even as it changed over time and even as its duration expands into supposed emancipation and beyond. But slavery was not singular; it was, rather, a singularity—a weather event or phenomenon likely to occur around a particular time, or date, or set of circumstances. Emancipation did not make free Black life free; it continues to hold us in that singularity.(Sharpe, 106)
The slave trade as singularity is the ongoing withdrawal of a presence, the falling apart of a disaster, that precipitates different and...