June 2023

Arts & Letters

Moving towards grief: ‘Ordinary Notes’

By Mireille Juchau

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama. © Mark Hertzberg / ZUMA Wire / Alamy Stock Photo

Black American scholar Christina Sharpe interrogates the different demands made by guilt and grief when addressing a violent national history

Kaleidoscopic, collagelike, pointillist, book-length lyric essay... When reaching to describe Christina Sharpe’s formally and politically radical Ordinary Notes, some reviewers pass right over its title. “Notes” says everything you need to know about how to read and think with this blistering book. Yes, think “with”, because Ordinary Notes is also a set of tools for responding to the ongoing violence experienced by Black Americans in the afterlife of slavery, lynching and racial apartheid. Sharpe’s third and most formally inventive work is built from 248 numbered entries on history, memory, art and literature. In between are photographs, artworks and archival materials. Some entries are pages long, others a single piercing line. Many are rightly sober, and their effect is to fall, heavy as stones in a current. With ample white space between each entry, there’s silence here too. Stone after stone, the notes make a path through the flow of history, personal and national memory, and contemporary life.

Note 25 – “Every memorial and museum to atrocity already contains its own failure” – follows a sequence on Sharpe’s visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Alabama, where steel monoliths mark 4400 Black victims of lynching. Sharpe is interested in how museums frame their exhibits, addressing some visitors but excluding others; she’s curious, too, about the ways they are amnesiac. Within the lynching memorial, a wall quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a “note on how to live in the afterlife of slavery, in the afterlife of lynching”. It’s “an invitation and an exhortation addressed specifically to Black people”. Later, seeing that hardly any communities have taken up the museum’s call to research lynching in their local area, Sharpe wonders what form of memorial might move visitors from guilt to grief. What if those who attended lynchings were identified and displayed? “What if white visitors to a memorial to the victims of lynching were met with the enlarged photographs of faces of those white people who were participant in and witness to that terror?” And what if their material gains were documented in a “Legacy of Lynching Participants Database”, exposing “their strategies of accumulation of wealth and power, evasion and disavowal, that have continued into the present”?

In Sharpe’s thinking, a note can also function as a sound, connecting Black people in situations of extremity. Note 238: when Debbie Africa, a pregnant member of the revolutionary Black liberation group MOVE 9, was jailed in 1978, her fellow inmates coughed and sang to disguise her labour, and for three days after, to drown out her newborn’s cries. Such “ordinary notes” were a strategic chorus that kept Debbie with her baby until the boy was discovered and removed. When other forms of physical connection are impossible, Sharpe suggests notes can hold a person and transmit solidarity. After the brutality of her own childhood (Note 7) – as the only Black person in a Catholic elementary school and hearing racial abuse nearly every day – such signals between allies are sustaining. Sharpe describes her early experiences with a blunt matter-of-factness. She recalls being spat on by a white child from a passing bus and how her father, who witnessed the scene, didn’t say a word: “In my memory, we were mutually shamed by it, and somehow, also mutually sympathetic to each other’s untenable position.”

In her previous work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), Sharpe proposed a poetic way to think about the ongoing effects of chattel slavery, using the idea of the slave ship’s “hold”, its “wake”, its “weather”. In the Wake became a touchstone for writers such as Alexander Chee, Ben Lerner and Min Jin Lee, and critic Parul Sehgal, who teaches it in a class called “Writing the Unspeakable”. Sharpe’s scholarly background is clear in her references and language, yet her elevated tone recalls the solemn tradition of civil rights speeches. She acknowledges a debt to writers such as Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Namwali Serpell and Dionne Brand. But the primary influence here is Claudia Rankine, who combined poetic vignettes, accounts of casual racism, film stills and photographs in her groundbreaking Citizen: An American Lyric. Note 245: “Every movement for Black liberation, every era of Black struggle, has been accompanied by its singers, its dancers, its poets, its storytellers, its musicians, its artists – its theorists of the possible world, its theorists of the imagined world. These are the tracks we work in – if we are lucky.”

Along with Rankine and other Black writers (see Clint Smith’s recent “Monuments to the Unthinkable” in The Atlantic), Sharpe looks to Germany’s reckoning with Nazism as a possible model for addressing a violent national history. Could a country so committed to confronting its genocidal past move “from personal guilt (which may be a position of distance, a position of non-implication, but may also be one of complicity) to grief (a position of relation, one of entanglement)”? The act of imagining this shift – from guilt to grief – is Sharpe at her most optimistic because she knows that even slight attitudinal changes can lead to political progress. Yet when she visits the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, she’s disturbed to see an admiring light in visitors’ faces among exhibits that function as “memorabilia, a memorialisation not of the wounded, but of the perpetrator”. In Note 47 she reproduces a passage from Holocaust survivor and writer Charlotte Delbo, in which two French women occupy the same concentration camp. Only the one wearing the yellow star is marked for death. “What words,” asks Sharpe, “can fill these spaces of brutal differentiation?”

Sharpe’s writing shadowed my days as debates over the Indigenous voice to parliament intensified. I soon realised that, far from being “apolitical” as one review concluded, her book had become a consciousness-raising tool, prompting me to notice local spaces of “brutal differentiation”. What would happen if perpetrators of violence were identified in proposed truth-telling initiatives? Could such testimonies move white Australians from guilt to grief? While working on this piece, visiting German writers asked me about the voice campaign and remarked on how little Indigenous history was signposted around Sydney. When they encountered placards proudly proclaiming the reclamation of polluted land, these invariably failed to identify the people who degraded the landscape in the first place. I thought of the Aboriginal Memorial at the National Gallery of Australia, by Djon Mundine, Ramingining artists and the Bandjalung people, with its 200 hollow log coffins. Online, its accompanying text notes the Indigenous people who “lost their lives defending their land”. Will there come a time when we can more plainly and publicly state that colonial forces waged war on the land’s rightful owners? Where are our museums of first contact or colonialism? By the end of Ordinary Notes, as 248 stones lay heavy in the current, I was acutely aware that such whitewashing isn’t just predictable – it’s a painful negation that perpetuates injustice.

While at the National Memorial in Alabama, Sharpe encounters a two-year-old Black girl singing. The child’s ordinary notes are “an antidote” to the crushing weight of history and a teary white woman who approaches Sharpe hoping to be unburdened. Here again, that space of brutal differentiation; the different demands made by guilt and grief.

In a melancholy sequence, Sharpe sketches her mother, Ida, in a Halloween costume at age five, from two sepia photos – her knowing and cautious eyes, her delicately curled hands. “It is my mother’s hands in the photograph that constitute what Roland Barthes called the punctum – that detail, ‘that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’.” Ida became a woman who insisted her children recite from Black writers every Sunday to amplify a limited school curriculum. Raised during the era of lynching, impoverished and widowed with six children, Ida was determined to infuse the everyday with beauty and meaning. Sharpe continues her mother’s legacy, through accounts of desire, solidarity, art. In between the premature deaths of relatives – one murdered by Philadelphia police – is the “reading life, the beauty-filled one”. This was “central to the liveable internal life my mother tried to carve out for us and to equip us to make for ourselves”.

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a Walkley award–winning critic and the author of three novels.

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