The whiplash changes that mark our days have made us ripe for new forms of expression that can help us see our way through. Even as 2021 saw the Black Lives Matter movement attain global impact, Confederate and colonialist monuments come down, and institutions grapple with ways to respond appropriately to calls for equality, here we are in 2023, living with laws that censor educators from discussing systemic racism, while the number of police killings have only ticked up over time. Focus is difficult, coherence aspirational. In her extraordinary Ordinary Notes, Christina Sharpe interrogates the bewildering, often painful events of recent years, asking what is “being contested fiercely and what is being imagined differently in this time.” In this sui generis work, she devises a way to shape an articulate whole out of many parts: a document of the everyday nature of both antiblack racism and the “Black notes”—ways of living, seeing and surviving—that disarrange it.
True to its title, the book is made up of numbered notes, ranging from a single sentence to a few pages long. It is a capacious form: Sharpe’s notes include observations on her academic research, reading lists, childhood memories, media criticism, emails received, reproductions of letters to the editor, love notes, glosses on art theory, replies to Twitter prompts, and more. Similarly, the notes allow for a kaleidoscope of styles and tones; Sharpe moves between cultural criticism, literary inquiry, and memoir, with space to be detached, vulnerable, incisive, furious, intimate, confrontational, or abstract—as near or as far as she needs to be.
The versatility of the form serves the ambitious scope of subjects. One chapter offers an analysis of monuments to atrocities, including a historic plantation site in Louisiana and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, questioning the greater assumptions that animate such projects. “One is… asked to embrace a narrative that acknowledges violence only to frame it as anomalous and intermittent and not foundational and ever-present,” she affirms in one note. “Every memorial and museum to atrocity already contains its failure” declares another. Sharpe later explores “preliminary entries toward a dictionary of untranslatable blackness”: texts that consider concepts like memory, elegance and gaze “if one began from Black,” considering their meanings in Black diasporic life. Other subjects include personal and collective memory, the impact of digital records of police violence, and the lens of whiteness, which grants innocence to white people under all circumstances.
Interspersed throughout each chapter are shards of memoir: Sharpe’s childhood experiences of racism, memories of her family, and, above all, many notes dedicated to her mother. Recollections of tender details and observations on grief serve as elegy and tribute. They are also a way to piece together the “Black maternal” that Sharpe identifies as instrumental to her own survival. The work shares DNA with the book-length lyric essay, but the notes make it its own form; the space around each block of text is essential, definitive punctuation that allows its message to exist independently from all other parts. The metaphor is more a pointillist painting than braided threads.
This book is about the ways people, cultures, and institutions see and unsee. Sharpe takes up the role image plays in this tension. This includes the power relations implicit in photography and the decision to represent racist violence in its many forms (lynching, police brutality) in art and media. Equally important to the texts, then, are the images included, in lush full color, which serve as additional commentary. They include Sharpe’s photographs of the monuments she visits, images of the art of Jacob Lawrence and Kara Walker, the famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford walking through an angry white mob, a reproduction of a racist Cream of Wheat ad. These are offset, unbalanced, by images of the piercingly personal and gentle, like the photo of a little “purple gingham dress with purple and lilac and blue appliqué tulips” Sharpe’s mother sewed for her, or a photo of Sharpe’s well-used edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
These are just some of the subjects, questions, and ancillary works Sharpe raises in her notes. What they add up to collectively could take an equal number of directions. Whether it will be a sustaining sense of solidarity, an awakening to the everyday nature of white supremacist assumptions, a new way of looking at history, or resentment and resistance to change will depend on the reader and their own ways of seeing.
By Christina Sharpe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published April 25, 2023