Christina Sharpe reflects on the complexities of Black life through a new literary form
Christina Sharpe explores the everyday complexities of Canadian Black life in her work as a professor and shares those experiences in her new form-defying book, Ordinary Notes.
Sharpe's previous book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Guardian, and a nonfiction finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
Ordinary Notes is Sharpe's latest work of nonfiction which explores the complexities of Black life and loss through a series of 248 notes which intertwines past and present realities.
Sharpe dedicates this book to her mother, and as Shelagh Rogers notes, "by combining memoir and an incisive examination of culture, society, and historical events… sets her life in the context of the wider forces that have shaped who she is."
The scholar spoke to The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers about Ordinary Notes.
The combination of public record and personal recollection gives Ordinary Notes a sort of double-barrelled power. Why did you want to put them together in one volume?
I think working from In the Wake, it was something that I guess I'd always been doing in my writing, whether it actually appeared in the work or not. I was working on another book called Black Still Life and thinking about things like memorials and monuments. There were these moments that were what I could only call "encounters" and then I decided at some point to take the encounters out of that book and put them into this book so that the book became a series of encounters with public memorials, visual art, etc.
The book is a gathering of almost 250 notes and the various meanings of the word note created the sections of the book that divides it into sections. What is it about the word note?
I think that the word "note" gives us the kind of sonic, textual, haptic things about memory. Things about encounter, about attending to and listening to. It was a logic through which I could think about Black life. The title also really comes from something that I noted from Toni Morrison's Beloved. It really comes from that scene in Beloved with Paul D on the chain gang in Alfred, Georgia and those notes given in the morning and in the evening to end the kind of violence of the white men with the rifles who guard them. I wanted to think about how his ordinary notes don't stop the violence, but they do turn it in another direction and they do provide the means by which the men come to trust each other. So I felt like "note" spoke to memory, it spoke to a kind of experience that could bind people together and provide some other sense of being in the world.
You dedicate your book to your mother, Ida Wright Sharpe and you write so movingly about your relationship with her. You mentioned in particular, "my mother gifted me a love of beauty, a love of words." What was she like?
My mother wanted to be an artist, but she went to West Philadelphia Catholic Girls High School in the 1940s and she was told you can't be an artist. But she maintained that she lived the life of an artist in the ways that she could. She always made things. She made all of our Christmas tree ornaments, and then she sold ornaments to people who saw them. She made little favours for birthday parties. She made our clothing when we were children. She took weaving lessons. She made all kinds of applique work. She was a deeply private person with a great love of music, dance and literature. She wrote some poems that she shared with me when I was in my late teens and early 20s and she was a lovely person.
One of the notes, one of your notes I found most chilling, was your description of taking part in a protest against the police murder of a young Black man in Baltimore. And you described the protesters chanting no justice, no peace. And then they encounter a group of white baseball fans who chant in response, "We don't care. We don't care." What was that experience like for you?
I should say I wasn't part of that protest. I was simply reading about it. What it made really clear to me is the disaggregated nature of the pronoun "we." You could have a group of Black people gathered in Baltimore to protest the murder of Freddie Gray and then you could encounter a group of white people who say quite explicitly, "we don't care." So when we imagine who the "we" is who cares about ending white supremacy or ending anti-Blackness, we should always be aware of the groups who say quite explicitly and implicitly that they don't care.
How do you move from that?
That's a key question. I think it depends on who the "you" is. I think if you're the "you" who is holding Freddie Gray close, you move from that with the knowledge that you are always going to encounter those groups of people explicitly and implicitly who don't care and you still keep trying to make a different set of relations and a different world. If you find yourself with the group of people who say we don't care then I imagine you have a lot of work to do.
What did you intend with the use of ordinary in your title?
I think that the ordinary is also extraordinary. I mean that the quotidian can be both brutal, but it can also be deeply illuminating. And it can be that which connects you to people across space and time. There's something like the ordinary extraordinariness of the ways that Black people live in the midst of so much that is pressing down on us to kind of extinguish that living. There's really so much that is a kind of everyday, quotidian ordinary beauty-making in the world.
I go back to something your mother said to you, that she wanted you to build a life that was nourishing and Black. How have you responded to that?
Well, it's not that my mother said that to me in those words, but that was what the action of that moment said to me. I think I've responded to that by continuing the work of thinking with and reading literature and visual arts made by Black people. My mother really wanted me to see the intellectual, creative work that Black people did. I had no Black teachers until I got to university. Any work that I read, any beauty that I encountered that was created by Black people, came through my mother and my home life.
I guess this is a presumptuous question, but I think I see it in your book. What gives you hope for the future?
I don't think that I traffic in the language of hope. So I could quote somebody who I think you know is deeply brilliant, Mariame Kaba, who tells us that hope is a practice and hope is a discipline. But I don't think that hope is really my language, though I quote her often saying those things. I think what gives me the sense that we are still in the midst of struggle and that people are still working is what I see around me.
The young people fighting who are land defenders, young people who are working to stop the onslaughts of climate catastrophe, fighting to end the border regimes. That gives me some sense that people know what's at stake and they are really working hard to try to make a different world. Maybe that's hope.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.