Ordinary Allurements

Christina Sharpe’s reading lessons

Elleza Kelley

Christina Sharpe’s copies of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, from pages 302–303 of Ordinary Notes, 2023. Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Christina Sharpe. Photo: Hilary Lo.

Black writing, from W.E.B. Du Bois to John Keene, is full of rebellious paratexts rearing up from the margins and backs of books—epigraphs, footnotes, endnotes, indexes, and appendices that subvert, interject, and critique. These para­texts echo black inhabitations of space: they refuse to be subor­dinated. Epigraphs become musical notation; glossaries invoke spirits; appendices map other worlds. In Édouard Glissant’s 1989 Caribbean Discourse, a single footnote upends the entire forma­tion of the West: “The West is not in the West,” it declares from the subterranean depths of the page. “It is a project, not a place.” Across the smooth surface of the master narratives to which they are keyed, black notes disturb and disarrange.

For writer and professor Christina Sharpe, these eruptive oper­ations tell us what it is to live “life under these brutal regimes.” Her new book, Ordinary Notes, is structured as a series of 248 numbered reflections of varying lengths, collected for the reader like a handful of gems—or, as Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha describes dan­delions, “jewels for everyday” and “ordinary allurements.” Sharpe gathers many threads across these notes, moving freely among subjects and methods. Archival photographs, contemporary art­works, public memorials, and news clippings intermingle with sto­ries of Sharpe’s childhood and family, creating new arrangements for thinking about black living and dying. Sharpe’s notes are less invested in mounting a singular, unified argument than in offering lessons in attentiveness. They are a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of “beauty’s knowledge.” I am reminded of the image that concludes Brent Hayes Edwards’s essay “Evidence”: Zora Neale Hurston passing into her reader’s care an emptied “brown bag of miscellany” and “the jumble it held.” “You take this, emptied out, strewn and scattered,” Edwards writes. “What do you find in the pieces?” If Sharpe’s previous books, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, theo­rized the ongoingness of antiblack violence and its attendant grief, Ordinary Notes wonders what we do with that grief.

Above all, Sharpe asks us to become better readers, moti­vated not by extraction and violence, but by regard and tender­ness. Practices of reading form the book’s infrastructure. Many of Sharpe’s notes document her childhood love of literature, which developed under the care of her mother, Ida Wright Sharpe, to whom Ordinary Notes is dedicated. What begins as a survival tactic—sustaining Sharpe through racial violences, big and small, growing up in Wayne, Pennsylvania and attending a majority-white Catholic school—evolves into a theory of reading that dis­rupts antiblackness, which Sharpe characterized in In the Wake as the “weather,” the “totality of our environments.” “The reading life, the beauty-filled one,” she writes in Ordinary Notes, “was central to the livable internal life my mother tried to carve out for us and to equip us to make for ourselves.” Her mother’s lessons in “the read­ing life” were aesthetic lessons, reaching beyond text: “This atten­tion to a Black aesthetic made me: moved me from the windowsill to the world.” In this way, the book’s notes might function in turn as reading lessons imparted by Sharpe, illuminating the power of narrative to make and unmake worlds.

Sharpe converts the reader’s own modes of engagement, compelling us to zoom in as if on a poem, loop back as if circling a sculpture, slow down as if studying scripture.

This reading practice is key to what is perhaps the book’s most significant intervention: its form, which not only generatively extends Sharpe’s claims but also offers (and authorizes) new meth­ods for doing scholarship. Ordinary Notes is a big book full of small gestures. No note is more than a few pages long; many notes are a single sentence, each taking up its own page. This means the book, though imposing in size, is full of white space. Sharpe converts the reader’s own modes of engagement, compelling us to zoom in as if on a poem, loop back as if circling a sculpture, slow down as if studying scripture. In the seemingly excessive margins, we find a place to breathe and rest. Formal errancy has always offered writ­ers a way to conjoin theory and method in the study of black life, which is always more, and other, than academic study. Here, per­haps, as Toni Morrison writes about Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, “the structure is the argument.”

Sharpe invites us to read Ordinary Notes in this longer tradi­tion of black assemblage and assembly. When she writes, “Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw, a book of photographs and text, is filled with everything,” she is telling us something about her own book. We might also consider it kin to recent multigenre compen­dia like Arthur Jafa’s A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Teju Cole’s Blind Spot, and Morrison’s now classic The Black Book, in which word warps and wraps over image. Likewise, Sharpe’s practice of assembly in Ordinary Notes operates by what John Akomfrah calls “affective proximity,” a logic of resonance rather than temporal or thematic sequence.

The book’s loose joints and unfinished edges allow the voices of fellow writers and artists to enter like a chorus. Note 203 takes the form of call and response, reproducing several pages’ worth of replies to a question Sharpe posed on Twitter: “What book or books produced a feeling you wanted or needed to feel?” Citations weave seamlessly throughout the book but are also often treated as a note’s precious center. The book itself is the acknowledgement and the bibliography: K’eguro Macharia, Saidiya Hartman, Jessica Marie Johnson, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adrienne Kennedy, Chinua Achebe, and so many more appear by name—scraps of cloth pieced into the quilt of the story. This poly­vocal gesture is reminiscent of Hartman, who writes in the “Note on Method,” which opens her influential book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, “The italicized phrases and lines are utterances from the chorus. This story is told from inside the circle.” We get the sense that Sharpe is after a similar effect, but instead of the smoothly inlaid italics of Hartman’s prose, Sharpe’s patchworked notes allow for adjacency—a collage of voices, overlapping, exchanging, listening.

The central voice belongs to Sharpe’s mother, from whom she first learned to appreciate beauty as a response to and provisional haven from violence. In one of the book’s most stunning notes, “Note 51: Beauty is a Method,” Sharpe extends Hartman’s proposi­tion in Wayward Lives that beauty “is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical act of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given.” Beauty takes Sharpe somewhere that may seem surprising: a scene of quotidian police violence in her hometown. A white woman has called the cops on a black teenager, Chicki Carter, claiming to have seen a rifle in the outline of his rake. But the beauty Sharpe wants to show us is not the police’s invasion of the neighborhood. The beauty is this: “We gathered in our front yards, on the sidewalks, and in the road; we ran after the police cars; and we witnessed and insisted loudly that Chicki had done nothing wrong.” The beauty is care.

In a pivot that is emblematic of Sharpe’s broad sweep and deft movement between scales, this scene of communal resistance leads back to her family home: “Knowing that every day that I left the house, many of the people whom I encountered did not think me precious and showed me so, my mother gave me space to be pre­cious—as in vulnerable, as in cherished.” Her mother is also a vora­cious reader and creator of beautiful things—a purple gingham dress, Christmas ornaments, a carefully arranged garden bursting with flowers and herbs. She instilled in her daughter the value of “Attentiveness whenever possible…even if it is only the perfect arrangement of pins.”

in sharpe’s depiction of her mother’s attentiveness to arrangement, I am reminded of bell hooks’s description of her grandmother’s house, where hooks learned her first lessons in beauty:

Her house is a place where I am learning to look at things, where I am learning how to belong in space. In rooms full of objects, crowded with things, I am learning to recognize myself. She hands me a mirror, showing me how to look. The color of wine she has made in my cup, the beauty of the everyday. Surrounded by fields of tobacco, the leaves braided like hair, dried and hung, circles and circles of smoke fill the air. We string red peppers fiery hot, with thread that will not be seen. They will hang in front of a lace curtain to catch the sun. Look, she tells me, what the light does to color!

I am learning to look at things. For hooks, too, looking must be learned. There is more than one way to look at something. What are the stakes of looking? What are its ethics? Looking, Sharpe suggests, is never neutral.

Ordinary Notes is grounded by Sharpe’s practice of close read­ing photography—what some art historians call “close looking.” Photographs take up almost as much space in the book as text: photographs of memorials, sculpture, white supremacists protest­ing school integrations, Sharpe’s mother and grandmother, film stills, a worn copy of Morrison’s Beloved. More brutal images, like those of lynchings, are invoked rather than reproduced, but still they are there, a ghostly presence in the book’s white spaces.

Rather than leave “close looking” intact, I think Sharpe intends to trouble it, so we might know its hidden operations. She wants us to read the scripts, and to feel the violence, behind looking—to use senses other than our eyes. “You can trace a language of hands, and touch,” Sharpe writes of Devin Allen’s photographs, “a hand touching the Freddie Gray memorial, hands in hair, hands holding signs, hands wrapped around heads, hands touching each other.” The hands constitute what Roland Barthes calls the “punctum” of the photographs—“that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” They attune Sharpe to touch, guiding her toward an engagement with photography that privileges the hap­tic as much as the visual. In the vein of scholar Tina Campt’s call to listen to images, Sharpe avails herself of other senses, becom­ing porous to photographs so that they might touch her in turn. Hands, she suggests, are one way to see.

In place of straightforward scholarly analysis, Sharpe’s engage­ment with photography sits with, pushes against, takes the shape of, or bends through, the image. Her models for reading and writ­ing with photography seem to come less from the academy than from the ekphrastic tradition within poetry; Natasha Trethewey on E.J. Bellocq, Langston Hughes on Roy DeCarava, and Robin Coste Lewis’s To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness come to mind. Writing with photographs is not new to Sharpe—one of In the Wake’s most memorable chapters builds around a reading of a photo of a little girl, just after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, her forehead bearing the word “ship”—but in Ordinary Notes we see it in full force. Here, ekphrasis turns the note into yet another kind of paratext: an unruly caption that talks back to the image, excavating afterimages and subterranean exposures.

Sharpe converts the risk of failed address into a mode of possibility and repair.

Alongside her embodied approach to photography, Sharpe’s dialogue of text and image dramatizes the relationship between what one sees and the perspective from which one looks. Her refusal of objectivity undermines a presumption underlying so much photography, as well as so much writing about it: that there is a single “we” who reads and looks. Sharpe reveals that universal pronoun to be a ruse obscuring a problem of relation. We do not inhabit the same spaces. We do not look, feel, hear, or experience the world the same way. We are not looking at the same painting on the wall.

This line of inquiry unites the notes about historical photo­graphs and photojournalism to her writing on contemporary art. Dana Schutz’s notorious painting Open Casket, Claudia Rankine’s video essay Situation 8, and Kara Walker’s monumental sculpture A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby all fracture under the gaze of a multitudinous “we.” In each case, Sharpe demonstrates that who is looking determines what is seen. Art—and its radical avail­ability to different audiences—can be brutal. “Not everyone meets and stands before those devastating photos of Emmett Till in inno­cence, in a before-knowledge of their existence, a before of the bru­talities they reveal,” Sharpe writes of Schutz, whose 2016 painting of Till’s brutalized body ignited debate about the racial politics of artistic representation and spectatorship. In other words, to whom does the artwork belong? Whom does the reproduction of violence, or in this case, the abstraction of “unobscured violence,” serve? And what happens in circulation? On one page, a photo of Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby. On the opposite page, a spectator’s defile­ment of her, as shared on social media. “Among the things that art may do is produce and reproduce pain.”

Competing readings cleave objects in two. In a section called “Lucida,” Sharpe takes up this question of looking through a crit­ical engagement with Barthes. Here, in an inversion of the power dynamic in his book Camera Lucida, Barthes himself becomes the mute object who cannot respond. We enter by way of Sharpe’s reading of Barthes’s misreading of the black photographer James VanDerZee’s family portrait, “a misnaming and mis-seeing” that turns VanDerZee’s aunt into “mammy” and fails to grasp how Barthes’s gaze obscures its own subjectivity. Interspersed with her critique of Barthes, Sharpe reads photographs of her mother and grandmother, as well as the work of Dawoud Bey and DeCarava. These images offer a mode of “Black looking” that challenges Barthes’s theoretical overrepresentation of his interested, partial perspective as universal and objective. DeCarava’s and Bey’s Black looking “close or at a distance, does not seem to intrude. It is always tender, an invitation to tarry, interested and filled with regard.” I am learning to look at things.

In addition to cleaving objects, Ordinary Notes is filled with scenes of failed address: undelivered, unanswered, and unwrit­ten letters; letters sent without apology; apologies without regard, without tenderness, without attention; heartbreaking letters, which Sharpe will not reproduce. These verbal artifacts echo against embodied experiences of disconnection. In the graveyard of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which was conceived as a space of mourning for victims of lynch­ing, a white woman apologizes to Sharpe “about all of this…” Sharpe does not reply. The graveyard is “explicitly and unequiv­ocally addressed to Black people…it arrives as a black note only for us.” Thus, the white woman’s intrusion “feels like desecration.” Sharpe’s response to this desecration displaces the epistolary mode with the epitaphic—she turns away from the present-tense scene of failed address, directing her missive instead to the ancestors. She writes to honor our dead, inscribes protective charms and tender observations, just as Baby Suggs does in a quotation from Beloved that is displayed prominently at the National Memorial: “And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.” Sharpe’s, like Morrison’s, is a writing practice that stands guard over the living, even as it memorializes the dead.

Such a writing practice of care and attention is epitomized by Ida Wright Sharpe’s “ornate script.” Counterbalancing the affronts and intrusions of white supremacy, Sharpe’s mother and siblings pro­vide the book’s philosophical center through letters, inscriptions, lists, and other writings. Beauty as a method—Sharpe’s familial inheritance—is transmitted through memoir: “I wanted to write about silences and terror and acts that hover over generations, over centuries. I began by writing about my mother and grandmother.” If the epitaphic is one mode that subverts the phenomenon of failed address, it also operates to recuperate the epistolary. The epitaph may in fact be a kind of love letter in Ordinary Notes; after all, Sharpe calls the book “a love letter to my mother.” Elsewhere, I have suggested that “the power of the love letter is that it is written without the guarantee of a response.” Here, Sharpe converts the risk of failed address into a mode of possibility and repair.

By way of this epitaphic mode, Sharpe tries to reinscribe our unmarked or mismarked collective graves with something else. “Her name is Delisha. Her name is Tree,” she writes of two children, murdered by Philadelphia police in the 1985 MOVE bombing, whose remains were held by universities and used in anthropology courses without their mothers’ knowledge. “‘They came from people; they came from people that came from people.’ And they were loved.” The epitaph here is not a certificate of black death but a love letter, an inscription like those that passed between Sharpe, her siblings, and their mother in the title pages of the books they exchanged.

compendium. litany. Collation. Inventory. Index. Appendix. Epigraph. Epitaph. If shapes, for artist Torkwase Dyson, are the foundation of black compositional thought, Sharpe attends to the composition of text, its parts and pieces, its laboring forms. She inhabits the paratextual space, makes life in its apparently unin­habitable margins. And through this inhabitation, she rearranges how we see. Arrangement is a form of attention.

Yet, at times, I felt unmoored in this sea of notes. Sharpe leaves it to us to put the pieces together. Affective proximity demands work, work by the audience to see and hold and suture. It refuses as much as it offers. Because Sharpe works more in the tradition of the poet, novelist, or artist than the critic or scholar, Ordinary Notes generates more questions—more difficulty, more uncertainty—than conclusions. To be unmoored is perhaps the point. The struc­ture may be the argument.

For an example of this irresolution, consider the book’s frequent use of redaction: black bars over text, words, and names. What should be shown, and what should be withheld? The book does not have a clear answer. Some of these redactions seem to be pro­tective gestures, shielding the identities of people whose intimate correspondence Sharpe draws from in her notes. Redaction else­where functions to disavow or disown, as when Sharpe obscures racial epithets and the names of mass murderers. But while the perpetrators of racist violence may be redacted in Ordinary Notes, Sharpe describes their brutality in detail.

I want to think of Ordinary Notes arriving “as a black note only for us,” but I know it will also be taken up by the white women in the graveyard.

The selective application of these redactions raises a larger question about the representation of violence, an ongoing debate at the center of black studies and black cultural production. As M. NourbeSe Philip insists in Zong!, her book-length poem about a massacre aboard the eponymous slave ship, “There is no telling this story; it must be told.” Ordinary Notes asks, “How does one come to terms with a brutal imagination by engaging and representing (over and over) the materialization of that imagination?” Sharpe is rightly critical of repetitive displays of black suffering. Yet her own recounting of scenes of violence—both her personal memories and those that have become public and shared—reminds me that we still do not have a failsafe method for handling painful material. Nor have we reached consensus around the protocols and limits of black looking. Who can claim and adopt it? What marks the boundary between white gaze and black looking or black regard, if black people, too—as Sharpe shows in the book—can repro­duce violent, antiblack, or extractive perspectives? The distinction between looking, gazing, and regarding is less stable or predictable than Sharpe sometimes suggests. What are we ultimately to do with the problems Sharpe raises of recall, of description, of figura­tion, of witness? While her commitment to an intentional incom­pleteness leaves a wide berth for uncertainty and revision, some readers may want a bit more assurance, or at least clarity.

If Sharpe leaves much unresolved in Ordinary Notes, she also leaves plenty of room for our own attempts at assembly. Ultimately, as Sharpe suggests in her critique of “we,” the question of brutal­ity’s representation is always a question of audience, of whom we write to and for. I want to think of Ordinary Notes arriving “as a black note only for us,” but I know it will also be taken up by the white women in the graveyard. What kind of engagement, I won­der, will non-black readers have with this book? What will they do with our lessons, with the secrets and the intimacy? How might Sharpe’s scenes of failed address prepare us for this book’s cele­bration in “spaces of brutal differentiation”? The complexities of address pose a problem not only for museums and memorials, but for our own work in black studies, too. Recent work in the field has begun to ask these questions about the afterlife of our research and its relationship to our communities in the wake of institutional incorporation and DEI initiatives. How do we protect against cap­ture, dilution, extraction, co-optation, and violence?

There is something compelling in Sharpe’s refusal to comply with demands that black women scholars offer solutions, empower institutions, and teach anti-racism, or even to define the contours of a “proper” radical praxis. “Maybe there is just too much that I do not know,” Sharpe writes. “I can only use my own powers of obser­vation. I can only use my own belated, partial understanding. I can only extend my deep regard.” Perhaps the truth is that we just don’t know, we haven’t figured it out yet—what to show, what to hide, and how to make permanent the ordinary acts of revolution and care we practice every day in black and brown communities. We are just try­ing. Probing for new attachments that are not brutal. Trying for pro­tection without enclosure. Trying to write proper epitaphs. Trying to read, trying to breathe. Attention is also a form of arrangement.

Note 234 reads: “Care is complicated, gendered, misused. It is often mobilized to enact violence, not assuage it, yet I cannot sur­render it. I want acts and accounts of care as shared and distributed risk, as mass refusals of the unbearable life, as total rejections of the dead future.” Yet I cannot surrender it. To practice care is to keep trying, to repeat oneself in the hope that each repetition might, in the words of Fern Ramoutar, “expand our capacity for survival.”

This sense of productive incompleteness brings to mind Morrison’s Sethe, who could not bear the steep price for more than one word on her baby girl’s tombstone: Beloved. I picture Sharpe, like Sethe, carving gentle epitaphs at our people’s unmarked graves, leaving room for other futures, other afterlives. Certainly, she writes us “beloved,” but also “tender.” Tenderness is the punc­tum of the book—the soft spot that commands our attention, the aperture made in the space between black hands. It is not merely gentle disposition, but the condition of being soft, easily bruised, a potential site of pain.

One of the book’s most startling notes reproduces a letter by Rachel Zellars, written after a screening of Claudia Rankine’s video essay Situation 8 at Concordia University. Zellars asks Rankine to reconsider showing the film without preparing her audience, with­out letting black viewers know “that the film streams together, in uninterrupted fashion, the recorded police killings of all those Black men and women we know—name them—and that the film is x minutes long.” She asks Rankine to, “perhaps, consider not showing the film at all.” Zellars extends generosity and respect to Rankine, but she also shares immensely tender parts of herself. She offers, in the words of Gayl Jones, “tenderness” as “an alternative to brutality.” What a gift, what a composition of love for us. Sharpe has gathered these tender letters, with rigorous regard. They feel safe in her hands.

Elleza Kelley is an Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at Yale University.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023

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