Imaginative Metaphor to Bring Home Social Justice: Christina Sharpe, “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being”.

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“The means and modes of Black subjection may have changed, but the fact and structure of that subjection remain” (12)
— Christina Sharpe

By Angelina Eimannsberger

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being explores the realities of being black in the diaspora through the metaphor of being “in the wake.” She uses several valences of being ‘in the wake;’ the most central meanings of wake crystallize around being awake, having consciousness, of being in the wake of a ship, where the dead bodies of slaves thrown overboard exist between erasure from humanity as cargo and human beings to be grieved, forever suspended. Another relevant meaning is the wake for a person who died, wake work as grieving. By outlining the reality of our being in the wake, Sharpe gestures toward the work we can do to grieve, be aware, and rebuild. In consequence, this creates a temporality because the wake is the past of death, or can be the anticipation of future, the latter being the goal of wake work: “In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (9). The present is saturated with grief about black lives in the wake of violence, being awake to the deaths and erasures can potentially create a future that can expand on being in the wake for more liveable lives of the black diaspora. It can also be the site of wake work, of attempts at creating social justice out of the metaphor Sharpe gives us.

‘Wake’ as metaphor is highly abstract while using the materials and stories of the everyday for its explanation: photos, poems, facts. Sharpe tells us about her approach: “I’ve been trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past. A method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, and a tracking of phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples any and everywhere we are […] I am interested in plotting, mapping, and collecting the archives of the everyday of Black immanent and imminent death, and in tracking the ways we resist, rupture, and disrupt that immanence and imminence aesthetically and materially” (13). Sharpe is not about the spectacular. Instead, her project cares for “current quotidian disasters in order to ask what, if anything, survives this insistent Black exclusion, this ontological negation, and how do literature, performance, and visual culture observe and mediate this un/survival” (14). She desires nothing less than an ontological shift in our understanding of blackness in the diaspora and how to negotiate the wake of this paradigmatic change of understanding the world, and especially US society and an anti-refugee, anti-life, anti-blackness European Union. Black people in the diaspora are not slaves anymore, but they are not free either. They live on the margins, they risk life by living, and the ontological shift is required to create a more stable place of survival.

Showing the necessity of this shift, Sharpe quotes the poet Claudia Rankine from a NYT op-ed: “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” (16). No white person in the U.S. leaves their house thinking they might be killed for being white. However, all women know that they might be raped, harassed, or killed for being women; trans and queer people likewise have experience with categoric threats to their safety because of their identity. This has the power to create solidarity from femininity to blackness and other forms of non-normative identity. Doing this, for Sharpe and myself, means defining a new, more inclusive personhood: “At stake is not recognizing antiblackness as total climate […] How might we stay in the wake with and as those whom the state positions to die ungrievable deaths and live lives meant to be unlivable?” (21/22) At stake is turning violence, through wake work, into a site of tending to, creating, caring for resilient personhood.

Sharpe’s work has come at the right time. Poor white people who feel alienated from current politics might be necessary to explain Donald Trump but they are most certainly not sufficient. Socio-economic progress won’t fix the problems of the current political situation because white supremacy is real. Social injustice is not symptom of socio-economic inequality but rather part of how this nation was conceived.

On a side note, this difference, and the public’s grappling with them, can be understood by example of two books by men that recently topped bestseller lists. Liberal America turned to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy after the election as a shibboleth to understanding poor white people. Vance describes the good-hearted people who brought him up in spite of alienation, poverty, and petty violence. Readers came to his text to understand who voted for Trump, a moral disaster, and why they yet aren’t monsters. In the age of Obama and continued, maybe increased, violence on black bodies, liberal America turned to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, his letter to his teenage son on what it is like to be a black man in the US. For Vance, racism exists but economic progress is the cure-all. For Coates, white supremacy exists. While economic progress can help it, it does not change the root cause of black people being killed because they are killed for ontological and traditional emotional reasons. Socio-economic details only intersect with those larger reasons, and economic progress can help mollify racism but it cannot eradicate it.

Poor white people live difficult lives. However, they do not get killed on the street for being white. They can claim the greatness of the American “We are all immigrants here” myth and they can hope for bootstraps and factories. They can recognize a better version of themselves in Donald Trump. Often, the worst they suffer is alienation and joblessness, but never erasure from the founding myth and omittance from the guiding vision of the nation. Black people, on the other hand, get killed on the street. They sometimes are immigrants, but sometimes they are the children of kidnapping victims who have survived generations of forced labor, violence, and a country trying to exploit and kill them at the same time; in the US, this is also called slavery. Even if African Americans reach respectability, high income, or status, they still can’t claim an easy life of American liberty and happiness due to systematic racism. They can recognize themselves in Michelle and Barack Obama, including the backlash, scrutiny, and hate the presidential couple faced. The difference between black and white Americans is much larger than socio economic progress: both groups need it but only one of them will be sufficiently helped by it.

Therefore, we white people need to step it up. We need to read Sharpe and Coates and other accounts of the realities of black lives and believe in the mundane as the key to truth and social change. To begin with baby steps, we can all follow some woke instagram or twitter accounts, heed Linda Sarsour’s advice that “If You’re Not Following A Woman Of Color, You’re In The Wrong Movement.” Even half of it, a woman or a person of color, are often already very helpful; and if you haven’t heard of Linda Sarsour, this might be a good time to learn about her. Allow yourself to accept your own complicity in society’s power structures of whiteness, anti-femininity, and hetero-cis normativity because that is where the American freedom lies. Be awake, grieve the many injustices being done, trail the violence, be part of the change; do wake work.

Christina Sharpe. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press 2016.