“I want In the Wake to declare that we are Black people in the wake with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected, and to position us in the modalities of Black life lived in, as, under, despite Black death: to think, to be, and to act from there. It is my particular hope that the praxis of the wake and wake work, the theory and performance of the wake and wake work, as modes of attending to Black life and Black suffering, are imagined and performed here with enough specificity to attend to the direness of the multiple and overlapping presents that we face” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being [Duke University Press, 2016], 22).
A hope that reads likes hopelessness at the outset of a book that is best described as a dirge, a lamentation that bears witness to Black suffering and death without imagining or believing that suffering or death will come to an end.
“The modalities of Black life lived” that Sharpe’s book presents are very circumscribed. She offers no exemplars of resistance or defiance, no models of collective organizing. This lack is only supplemented by a vague call for mutual aid. She speaks persistently in the first person plural, of a “we” who are called to “distinguish” practices of “care from state-imposed regimes of surveillance. How can we think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally, in the register of the intramural, in a different relation than that of the violence of the state? In what ways do we remember the dead, those lost in the Middle Passage, those who arrived reluctantly and those still arriving” (20). Those practices of lateral care remain non-specific (except for the braiding of a young girl’s hair, as seen in a photograph ), while the book compulsively repeats the trauma of black suffering and death.
This is not a critique. It is my attempt to come to terms with a discourse shaped by hopelessness. The need to repeat again and again the facts of black suffering is rooted in the general oblivion of, the persistent will to deny, that suffering. What does it mean—and how does one live—in a society that is more committed to your death than to your flourishing? If the political institutions of that society are your enemy, where do you turn, what do you do? Are there sources of power, of effective action, available to you outside the “normal” channels and able to carve out at least a minimal shelter in this storm?
I think of Ellison’s “invisible man,” trying to disappear, to escape the state and society’s gaze, as the only possible way to live (quite literally, to live—bare life, but still alive). Being a fugitive, perpetually, because in the eyes of the law you are always suspect. For Sharpe, this means that the fugitive slave law still governs the shape of Black lives.
Presumably, under these conditions, the only slight ray of hope would rest in a solidarity, in a “we,” forged by being oppressed together. But that solidarity has proved hard to achieve. In many works written by blacks, the strength of the black family is examined and celebrated. But black community beyond the family is hard to achieve and sustain. Despair and its concomitant violence on one hand; the temptations of accommodation, respectability, and uplift on the other. And it’s very hard to create and sustain a social movement (political unity) that can persist in the face of continued frustration, of rare victories poised against daily defeats.
The hard facts are eloquent enough. The high rate of incarceration, the grim reality that blacks as a group have made no economic progress relative to whites since 1960, the resegregation of the nation’s schools, police harassment and brutality, gentrification, the environmental degradation of the places where blacks live. The list goes on and on, its own dirge of hopelessness.
The dilemma (at least as I experience it): there could be few things worse than helicoptering in with facile suggestions about how these continued (and continual) outrages could be ameliorated, if not consigned to the trash bin of history. Yet everything in my pragmatist temperament rebels against declaring a situation so intractable that all remedial action is pointless from the get go. Yet, yet: it is surely true that nothing is more soul-destroying than futile action. How long can one keep doing things that have no positive outcome, that demonstrably do nothing to change the prevailing, deplorable, conditions one is trying to work against? Isn’t banging one’s head against a wall a terrible way to spend a life? Are there alternatives to working at a change that will never come? Is there an “elsewhere” to escape to–and can you bring your family and friends with you, or is it every man for himself, an individualized escape from the general woe?
Sharpe’s solution of telling, over and over again, the tale of woes is not appealing to me. I don’t see what to do with it, how to “go on” from where her book deposits me. But I must respect that “weeping by the rivers of Babylon” may be the only option in some situations. Situations where there is no way to “go on,” no way forward–and where devising one’s own personal escape is too shameful to accept. That I cannot quite wrap my head around that kind of situation speaks eloquently to my own subject position, what Bernard Williams would call “moral luck,” and what today’s jargon labels as “privilege.” William James wrote about “a certain blindness” in human beings, about our inability to empathize past a certain point, to understand another’s despair (in this instance) if one’s own life has not been dominated by unjustly inflicted suffering and death.
I have come more and more to think that being able to “affirm” life (the core reference here is to Nietzsche) is a touchstone for thinking about human insanity. A fundamental rage against the very terms of existence seems to underlie the violence we humans inflict on one another and on the world we inhabit. The dirge, the wake, is the flip side of that inflicted violence, its accompaniment. A perpetual sadness. We, meaning humans, should be better than this; we can and do imagine being better, but somehow fail to bring those images to fruition. And then, outrageously, we all too often fail to acknowledge that failure, insisting on our righteousness and on the justice (they got what they deserved) of others’ sufferings.
J. Daniel Elam has written an eloquent book about alternative strategies developed by those who face a power that they see no way to dislodge. I am going to turn to a discussion of Elam’s book in my next post. The book: World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics (Fordham University Press, 2021).