In July 2016, I knelt on the floor amid piles of dirty laundry in my apartment in Brooklyn, sorting clothes by what goes in the dryer and what doesn’t. Nobody was around me and no one needed me, so I could feel what I felt and think my own thoughts. The murders by police of two men in two days in two cities had been all over the news—Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile near St. Paul—and the images and sounds related to those acts of brutality were all over and in my body now, too. I noticed my guts churning in a way I recognized as extraordinary grief. I had felt it in my early twenties when my brother left the apartment we shared in New York for Los Angeles. I felt it a few years later when I needed to end a relationship that was supposed to be lifelong. I had felt it when I stopped nursing my children. I had felt it in childhood. A sucking kind of nausea that twists inward, it resembles labor pains and comes in waves. Between crests, a throbbing, bobbing seasickness remains.
As I sat among the laundry, a thin line of silver shimmered around everything I was seeing. When I looked down at my left arm, the color of my skin appeared in that instant to be a smooth, rich brown. I am white, so something had happened to my perception. The emotion that accompanied this perception was sudden terror. The word blinked on like a neon sign in my mind. Terror. And in that shimmering, nauseating aura of terror, I heard this sentence: “Everyone out there thinks I belong to them.” In a flash, I saw “everyone” as if we were passing one another along Eastern Parkway in the middle of the day. White men. White women. Black men. Hasidic families. People whose first languages are not English. People who send money home to families across oceans. I saw and felt them regard me as theirs. Their employee, their confidante, their lover, their sister, their caregiver, their customer. The looks of indifference revolted me, visible interest creeped me out, warmth was suspect. Belonging is tricky. There’s the kind that welcomes or excludes, and the kind that assumes ownership—this was that one.
My arm returned to its paler tone. Terror faded. The words and feelings were mine to keep and study but not to voice. A white woman’s reckoning with the violence of whiteness—in herself, in her family and friends, and in her culture—is something most people don’t want to hear about. I share it now, after reading Christina Sharpe’s extraordinary Ordinary Notes, because it inspired me to a more precise standard of noting the ways I am constantly engaged in unraveling white supremacy’s grip on my life. This commitment guides how I read, whom I read, what I write, whom I listen to, how I listen, how I love, whom I love, where I live, who I am in my family of origin,
how I relate to what has already been and prepare for what’s to come, and how, if given the chance, I want to live and die.
Ordinary Notes records how Sharpe moves in and through this life, and past and future lives. Its first words are Sethe’s, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “and when I tell you you mine, I also mean I’m yours.” This epigraph invokes a blessed kind of belonging, wholly and freely embraced, not chosen so much as true. In the context of Sharpe and Morrison’s work, this belonging-to-one-another exists in spite of and way beyond the reach of the bizarre, cruel, and stupefying construct of whiteness. The you, me, mine, and yours of this poetry meets me as distinctly Black—as in, un-ruined by white people, untouchable and unknowable by us. It cannot be possessed, but it sure as hell can be haunted.
Sharpe’s book praises and amplifies the voices and beauty that call her forward, inward, and home. She notes the questions she is asking herself and us, the questions that hold her, and her attention, amidst everything that would try and take life from her. She writes about her mother’s care and regard and tells us about her family. The book is structured as 248 notes, organized and offered within numbered sections, several of which are titled using various definitions of the word “note.”
i. a brief record of facts; thoughts written down as an aid to memory
iv. to consider or study carefully
viii. to notice or observe with care
But then there’s this one:
iii. Can I live?
v. preliminary entries toward a dictionary of untranslatable blackness
A note may prepare the reader to behold photos, artwork, or pictures of sacred objects, such as “a purple gingham dress with purple and lilac and blue appliqué tulips” handmade for Sharpe by her mother. A note may be a line, a paragraph, or as many as four pages of text, sharing a story from her childhood, 2019, or last week.
Note 202, for instance, discusses books—Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To, Lynne Tillman’s No Lease on Life, Sarah Schulman’s Rat Bohemia, and Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories—and Sharpe’s response to reading them. “Each book held an underlying sadness, some bit of despair. / Each book also held wonder and a kind of fury. / Each book produced in me the feeling that I needed to feel.”
The next note records what happened when Sharpe tweeted: “What book or books produced a feeling you wanted or needed to feel?” The list curated from the responses offers a life’s worth of reading, studying, and becoming, a canon to replace all canons. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines a canon as “a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.”) Another note is filled with passages from these and other sacred books. Reading them all is like wandering into a lush patch of wildflowers in bloom. Throughout the book, I found myself zigzagging from Ordinary Notes to my library’s app, to request work by Saidiya Hartman (from whom came the question “Can I live?”), Dionne Brand, Gayl Jones, Bessie Head. I made a note to look up John Keene, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Cynthia Carr, Lillian Smith.
The notes offer thread upon thread to pull and follow. The endnotes—where Sharpe sources every mention of another’s work, every borrowed word or phrase, and every spark of inspiration or personal interchange of ideas that found its way into a note—are even more dense with association. The grace and discipline of Sharpe’s acknowledgments serve as a model for every one of us who write, immersed as we are in the wisdom and poetry of those who shape us—including our unfamous friends.
Some notes are made up of other people’s words. Note 186, “Elegance,” is composed entirely of the words of the poet and professor Canisia Lubrin:
Imagine: we collaborate with beauty. Imagine: we protract the drama of how we appear in the world. Imagine: enjoyment in as many ways as would satisfy the whole of us present. Contrasted with the harmful world, we are coral: in the experience of our survival is a lean, a walk, a lilt, a calamitous phrase turned inside-out, a hat tipped diagonal on the head, a perpetual riff in any major key, a procession with flowers and dried fronds down any minor road. . . .
Perspective is everything in a work that so directly confronts and contends with race. Yet the “you,” “we,” and “us” of each note or story or scene must always be discerned with care. For example, I am not part of the “we” who are coral in the passage above. Nor is my survival part of the collective “our” whose experience is “a perpetual riff in any major key.” No matter my beliefs or choices, how I live and whom I love, whiteness positions me on the side of those whose actions and inaction defile melody. Whiteness attempts to separate me and keep me apart from even the possibility of harmony—with anyone, including myself—but it does present me with a chance and a responsibility to pursue harmony anyway.
Sharpe asks: “What is required of us, now? In this long time of our undoing?”
While contending with reality and holding mainstream white culture to account for terror inflicted, enabled, and upheld, Sharpe also questions work by Black artists that replays the violence of antiblackness. In note 21, “A question of we,” Sharpe describes a scene in which Claudia Rankine, giving a talk in 2017 at Barnard, shares a film she made with her husband that splices together footage of the murders of Black people, one after another. Sharpe writes, “The film dropped into the room like a bomb. The audience gasped. Many of us looked away.”
In the face of the murders of Black people, murders that endlessly repeat, how can one presume, still, that there is an “us” and a “we” that are in something together? This register assumes that “we” are all in the world in the same way, that we experience suffering on the same plane, that we can be “repaired” in the same way, that the structures, the architectures of violence and of affect, reach us in the same ways.
This evening stays with me.
The architectures of violence fracture we; affect does not reach us in the same ways.
In note 246, Sharpe asks: “What is required of us, now? In this long time of our undoing?” Here, I find myself changing the perspectives on “us” and “our” to see what the change reveals. First, this is a Black author speaking to those she relates to as kindred and beloved, with whom she shares experiences that I cannot know. I can read the question as one for abolitionist white people to examine, for the clarity and direction that it may offer as we attempt to unravel and un-do harm. I can also read it as a challenge to white people whose collective imagination has unleashed brutality for centuries, and who collectively refuse to admit this. When I imagine Sharpe asking on behalf of those targeted relentlessly by the institutional habits of whiteness, “What is required of us, now? In this long time of our undoing?” it kind of takes my breath away.
In a 2016 Atlantic article “Lose Your Kin,” Sharpe describes whiteness as a political project, evidenced by the choice to separate the children of our nation’s forefathers as Black from white, family from property. She cites the examples of Senators James Henry Hammond (1807–1864) and Strom Thurmond (1902–2003) “both ‘fathers’ of black women, slave and free, whom they never claimed as kin.” Sharpe clarifies how the “transatlantic chattel slavery’s constitution of domestic relations made kin in one direction, and in the other, property that could be passed between and among those kin.”
Sharpe draws a line from the choice to divide kin and property to the one made by police who apprehended Dylan Roof after he murdered nine Black people at their church. The officers took him to Burger King “because he said he was tired and hungry.” In the immediate wake of this mass murder, the survivors of that massacre were expected to forgive Roof and society at large was called upon to pause and reflect on the anger of white supremacists. “‘[W]e’ are told that their anger must be understood—that ‘we’ must make room for it. This ‘we’ is across race, sex, class, gender, and geography.”
Sharpe names “this unmoral, unethical anger” as “the only anger that the state recognizes; the only anger not criminalized or met with deadly, brutal force.” And then she addresses white people who continue to wallow/wander/hide/stay complicit in the delusion of constructed kinship which tells us that “our” people are the ones whose racist ways must be considered in the context of their times, among other excuses, and empathically understood. She writes: “One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. One must be willing to be on
In note 68, Sharpe thinks about the books and artists she loved as a child. Her list includes the YA classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, about the Logans of Mississippi. A side character in that story is Jeremy, a white child born into the most notorious and violent family in town. Jeremy does not ride the bus that brings white kids to their school and terrorizes Cassie Logan and her siblings, who are Black, as they walk to their school. Jeremy walks, sometimes by himself and sometimes alongside the Logan children.
“What do I love that won’t let me rest?” Sharpe asks in note 149. I think of Jeremy. We see him struggle within his own family against the dehumanizing forces that animate his “kin” and make his home a lonely place that offers no rest or comfort for him. We find out later that Jeremy sleeps in a treehouse. His attempts at friendship with the Logan children are uneasy, as all of them have been warned by their adult family members that no friendship is possible. “Regard is a habit of care,” Sharpe says in note 181. “It is appreciation and esteem. It is the right of repair.”
Taken together, these notes, while spare and efficient, vibrate with their power. Note 177, for instance, demands a full stop: “Breathing, collective noun: a multitude of Black persons gathered; a breathing.”
Pause and be quiet; take this in. Take minutes, hours, days, the rest of your life.