To Narrate a Life as a Measure of Its Own Living: On Reading Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes
Writing was the only way I could survive reading Ordinary Notes, a book that is as deeply personal as it is researched, as deeply affecting as it is effective. What follows are a series of reflections set against choice quotes from Christina Sharpe’s otherworldly text.
“spectacle is not repair” (36)
I picked hibiscus flowers and bright bright red southern magnolia seed pods from one of the many plantations outside Natchez, Mississippi. It’s pronounced like matches, which is something so simple they must’ve been saying it forever. I blend in on the tour, so I get their unvarnished explanation of the past: how the bloody manifestation of white rage lived peacefully behind a picket fence, how the children sewed and scampered. The pleasure of it all, which no one seemed ready to part with. “Every memorial and museum to atrocity already contains its failure,” Sharpe writes, worrying over its potential as a blueprint, but she is still thinking on this, because what other way is there to witness.
“the ‘past’ fails to stay in the past” (29)
Sharpe lets the word linger in her mouth: segregation wounds like an old word for an old time, like n—— with six letters. But it’s hard to say the past is done with us.
That the past is past is an argument, not a given, a statement of what you can still feel. We each decide what’s welcomed into the present and what collapses into history, and to shrink what counts as now is to make so much that still moves us into static. But are shudders enough, are echoes? How alive must the afterlives of slavery be for slavery to still be with us. We keep waiting to learn from that which is still learning how to be: not everything becomes a lesson the moment it passes. What remains ever-present cannot teach us yet.
“his life has been turned into black matter” (49)
To document lynchings, NAACP President Walter White would pass into whiteness to witness a viciousness that cost nothing for the smiling mobs. It must have torn him apart, but he was there: what does it mean to participate in violence? Today, lynching doesn’t require the murmuration of a crowd to become a show, everplayed back on our many screens: whenever there is another name added to the list of names, I feel drawn to watch the playback, to watch as an inconsequential rage takes hold just long enough to turn a life into black matter, a life “into chemistry” to be “held in the body of the state.” And when it doesn’t end in murder, Sharpe speaks of mass incarceration as people turned into material for the state’s “alchemic practices,” like whatever comes after social death; not every fatal wound ends the body.
At the National Memorial for Peace & Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a white woman approaches Sharpe within a sea of ceremonial graves for the victims of lynching, and apologizes, “I'm so sorry about all of this…” What does it mean to participate in violence.
“what if they had to face themselves?” (66)
Lynchings were family affairs, replete with keepsakes like the hair of victims taped to the back of hoary photographs, that brought people together across time, bonded them: “their cruelty…made them feel closer to one another.” Today, such inheritances have become secrets, harbored instead of cherished, but they can always be taken back out of the drawer. Sharpe proposes a “Legacy of Lynching Participants database,” where white people endeavor to accumulate a full accounting of all the men, women, and children who posed for those famous photos in the aftermath of torture and murder, to pull out their keepsakes and create a map or a web detailing the afterlives of violence for the perpetrators, clearing away the strata and exposing the violent roots of so many white Americans. She considers this one way to move “from guilt to grief,” where “guilt [builds] another barrier” as an emotion of separation, and grief acts as one of entanglement that you can feel across the chasm of race’s “brutal differentiation.” But she knows there will be no database, as descendants choose to remain silent, willfully hiding their lineage from the consequence of time.
Except for one cousin, all my white relatives are dead; childless, we are stumps amongst stumps, the ends of the line. We will in short order be forgotten, alongside this accounting: my grandmother was a raving bigot, my grandfather a goodhearted one, my aunt and uncle refused to go to my parents’ wedding because it was untoward—what a blessing it is to have your hatred swallowed by time. But extinction is not how white families are inclined to forget; part of privilege is choosing how you turn to dust, protecting your “hatred… learned in the context of love.”
“the danger of a single story” (94)
Many years ago, I tried to write the impossible story of my mother’s life. I sat her down for interviews: how did this little Black girl from Chicago survive growing up on a farm in western Michigan, what was it like living through Pinochet’s Chile, what were the costs of single Black motherhood, of being the only Black member of a congregation, of losing family over the wages of whiteness, on and on I went, seeking out stories of adversity and abuse. In time, in time, she’d say, and then tell me about the farm’s horse chestnut tree or the indelible shine of the Andes Mountains in the morning.
In other words, my mother wanted to tell me about beauty, an “attentiveness whenever possible to a kind of aesthetic that escaped violence, whenever possible.” In a country defined by white supremacy, I had learned blackness as a single story and had to be taught that my light skin wasn’t the only path to live a life that was more than “a catalog of violence enacted,” which is never how a life defines itself. Sharpe follows this discussion by detailing her experience of reading Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which she says helped her “apprehend how living happens and is made by those who refuse to wear someone else’s manufactured shame, and who are determined to live free precisely because everything is at stake.” This overcoming isn’t about centering black excellence “against all odds,” which is itself the answer to a racist question, but representing the complexity that’s already in every Black life.
“extended the grammar of the human” (102)
It should not be revelatory that my mother’s experience verves beyond the rare beauty of the struggle, that Black lives are more than perseverance through hardship, but part of the work of antiblackness and white supremacy is to “mire us in the same conversations, at the same junctures, in reference to our own lives” while seeking to “control, occupy, own, use, and ultimately destroy” them; those familiar conversations of ours are themselves tools of power. That “the beauty of the struggle” may be the dominant frame used to reclaim Black joy effectively abstracts both beauty and struggle, tethering beauty to adversity while aestheticizing and therefore anesthetizing pain and suffering: a beautiful painting of Emmett Till’s dead and maimed body, the beautiful crisp mornings out the window of the farmhouse where my mother was abused by her white grandfather.
My mother has never read what I have written about her, even as she says she is grateful I’ve written it. Sharpe’s mother said, “Don’t write about me,” because “she did not believe that her life could be sounded with a note of care. Such is the damage that antiblackness [and white supremacy] can wreak on the self.” Why are there so few words for beauty? Why can’t we let just ugliness be ugly? Jeff Hall, the neo-Nazi leader who was killed by his own ten-year-old son, wanted to have his story told, and so it was: the New York Times wrote “I do believe in most ways they were good parents” who deserve to be given a “human voice.” Care. Why do our mothers struggle to trust us to do the same? Do they not believe themselves to be human enough? What can I do to show my care can be an antidote to violence and not a participant?
What can I do.
“to imagine a beautiful life is possible” (165)
I have only one photograph of my mother that wasn’t also a picture of small, smiling me: she is standing by a fountain, her hair already grown down past her waist, glowing in that way caramel skin glows in old color photographs, the yellow really shining through. Her eyelids are heavy, not because she is weary, but because they are always heavy. Sultry, even. My brother at the edge of the frame, looking up at her, but this is not a photograph of them: she climbs through the film in light washed jeans, searing, demanding attention. Someone seeing the photograph might mistake this young Black woman and her heavy eyes: she is beautiful, yet struggling, or at best, striving, unable to keep up with her toddler and looking at the camera with tired eyes. This may even seem apparent to “the neutral observer,” the obvious reading, because that is the story, playing a single note that “sutures Black suffering to romance and redemption.” But as Sharpe writes in her discussion of Barthes’ analysis of a Black family photo, that obvious reading would be “his look, not a look or the look” white sight once again confused for some objective truth. Truth is, my mother did struggle. But that photograph? That was a good day.
“I owe my mother that. Regard.” (232)
My mother has always been a sad woman who smiles easily. I say this about her effortlessly, as if I had the right. What I mean to say is I cannot imagine living her life and being happy. There are silences, whole years. I know nothing regular about my mother, only spare yet remarkable moments of grief, which she’ll often play for laughs—how as a child she used to stand on the street corner of the small town and sing her heart out and be jeered at by white passersby, some of whom would throw her change. Her singular voice, the sound of Rockford, Michigan, 1959.
My mother’s life is still defined by its elisions. Hushes where others might find sorrow. I’ve never been able to ask what she thinks about when no one is looking, like “my life has been far easier than my mother’s life…and sometimes the divergence feels like betrayal.” What I mean to say is I often fill in the gaps with some joy, as it makes seeing her smile easier, like it’s not just a performance, like it’s not just for me; if some things do not bear repeating, what do we replace them with.
“Black. Still. Life.” (241)
Sharpe’s captive time is a pace that spies every detail that would otherwise go unseen, a pace that creates a new architecture that can be known only by the confined, the architecture of detail and repetition and the simple infinity of shapes, the architecture of the hold which first creates what we come to know as Black space, hypervisible and placeless but always present. Or, as Torkwase Dyson puts it in a brilliant distillation: “the shape makes the Black.” Yet this architecture is lost in the archive, reduced to base structure, or said to be someone else’s design, and Black life must be extracted from the seams. Where there is still life.
Chapter vi: preliminary entries toward a dictionary of untranslatable blackness is a series of keywords, defined by renowned Black writers (Dionne Brand, John Keene, Saidiya Hartman, Rinaldo Walcott, etc.), in search of mapping a Black philosophy through words that could not be understood without it. When, at the end, these writers come together to define life, there is a distinct split between meanings centering terror and love, between perseverance and possibility: I have trouble seeing the joints, the unspoken untranslatable junctures that underlie and tie each passage. I mourn a life of sight: what I lack of the Black gaze; what I do see.
“I can’t believe things like this still happen in our country” (272)
We live within a culture of surprise, a culture of the willful maintenance of innocence. We do not live in a naïve country, but one where racism is made to seem vestigial, a benign marker from a past where we still needed it. Everyone sees the everyday horror of being Black in the United States but, as with all vestigial ruptures, no one alive could possibly be to blame, like finding fault in the doctor for your bursting appendix. This strategy works like clockwork: from the smallest gears to the very, very big ones, “that innocence-making machine rubs out violence at the moment of its manufacture,” until it becomes nearly imperceptible. Can you believe…
So many white people at the 2020 protests seemed shocked beyond words by the brutality that brought them into the streets, a viciousness that is quite literally everyday but almost always goes overlooked as nothing but just the way it is: they followed the echoes of “our lives matter,” chanting the chants and mystifying pronouns, but with little else to say. Can you believe. When I proposed we stay after the curfew, risk tear gas and nightsticks, my friend Kyle thanked me, as if I were shielding him. I forget, momentarily, that I cannot be afraid of the police in the same way he is. I forget, momentarily, that my privilege is a privilege, is something I couldn’t trade for the world. “We do forget things that we think will never let go of us.” That I can always be invisible.
We went home safe that night, disappearing into the suburbs, away from the danger of all that Black noise.
“in their replies lie the answers to your question”(279)
Here in Ferndale, birdsong rushes for the dawn: just before four they begin their chorus, rising early in the half-light of the prefabricated space we’ve made for them; I google my hunch, find urbanization is associated with earlier dawn chorus singing activity. But it’s not the light pollution that husks their quiet. Rather, it’s the white noise congesting the urban soundscape that rouses them, makes them believe they must begin to clamor to survive; what else is song but a reminder you are alive. If the earth is a black and living thing, white noise is the concrete slab that separates our feet from the dirt, colonizes our soles.
As I write, the dawn is still hours away and I have just finished Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes. I sit on my porch, look out at Withington West, the Section 8 housing across the street. Last year, the police shot a resident who had barricaded himself in his apartment, and yet I feel safe here, sitting the night, held by the porchlight and the glow that comes from the property of whiteness, an estate I hold no matter who bore me. “I write these ordinary things to detail the everyday sonic and haptic vocabularies of living life under these brutal regimes.” Or: I do not know what to say, stunned beyond illumination by the end of the book. I gasp for words, listen for sirens; how are we ever still surprised by power? There is one line that keeps roiling through my head: “Vast imagination utterly falters when it encounters blackness.” I have had an encounter, and only saw a glimpse of myself.
In the fall of 2020, after some debate, the Ferndale Housing Commission agreed to hang a Black Lives Matter flag from the entryway of Withington West. Police presence on my street has notably increased since George Floyd was murdered. “It is these dreams that so outrage the architects of the massacre.”
Birds, like all living things, have been dis- and misplaced by the violence of civilization; there is “every possible reason to be overcome with an awful grief.” It’s now threatening dawn and the sky’s turned a dull murky blue. If “a word… might measure the distance between what is and what might be,” a book might begin to bridge it, as I wait out the lingering dark for the rest of the world to wake with me.
Christina Sharpe. Ordinary Notes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.