Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe

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The "orthography of the wake"

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe is a hard but important read about the experience of black Americans in the shadow of slavery. Dr. Sharpe is a Professor of English at Tufts University, and brings an academic mind and a poet’s pen to the wound that lives on for black Americans—and all Americans.

She uses the language and symbols of literary criticism to juxtapose art—literature, visual art and cinema — against the lived experience of contemporary blacks and the horrific experiences of blacks during and after slavery.

She calls it the "orthography of the wake" and explores the multiple meanings of wake—the path behind a (slave) ship, watching over the dead and coming to consciousness—to show how blacks were and are shaped by the violence of slavery and how it still haunts contemporary life.

“Living as I have argued we do, in the wake of slavery, in spaces where we were never meant to survive, or have been punished for surviving and for daring to claim or make spaces of something like freedom, we yet reimagine and transform spaces for and practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention), an ethics of seeing, and of being in the wake as consciousness; as a way of remembering and observance that started with the door of no return, continued in the hold of the ship and on the shore.

Her continued return to the story of the slave ship The Zong will stick with me forever. I wasn’t familiar with the specific history, which is a deficit on my part. The ship was transporting 442 enslaved Africans when the ship and crew ran out of drinking water. Rather than let the slaves die on board and risk losing a potential insurance settlement, the crew threw 130 overboard to their deaths. They jettisoned enslaved humans like cargo to make more money. Sickening.

A powerful and upsetting book. Read it.