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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue
Art Books

Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes

This book offers temperature checks, tonal shifts, and a certain privacy for her Black readers.

Christina Sharpe
Ordinary Notes
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023)

Ordinary Notes, the most recent book by Dr. Christina Sharpe, is a gift of research and self-study in which cultural criticism and Black feminist poetics allow for deep witness. Black and Indigenous writers such as Claudia Rankine and Layli Long Soldier position their literary work as feminist moderators of our social condition. As a scholar, Sharpe is known for piercing, quite intimate analysis; however, the reflective ruminations on Sharpe’s mother and the formative ephemera present in her latest book enriches our awareness that Ordinary Notes is her most vulnerable work to date.

Inherent to this project is the study of everyday racism, the obvious fumbles and self-serving blunders inadequately described as microaggressions, a culpability of the contemporary tenor writ large. The book’s arrangement into notes—fragments, jump cuts, glimmers, vignettes, blackout text—dissects this ongoingness as a blueprint for Black Americans unfreedom. Note 32: “The Language of the Whistle”—there are 248 notes in total—outlines this inheritance with unforgettable simplicity, “The language of the whistle at Angola echoes the language of the whip in chattel slavery, echoes in the language of the rifle in Alfred, Georgia, in Morrison’s Beloved. ‘All forty-six men woke to the rifle shot. All forty-six.”’ Sharpe further derides, “The ‘past’ fails to stay in the past.”

In Note 54, Sharpe confides in the personal project of keeping notes. “They are a brief record of facts.” As a writer, Sharpe’s habitual practice considers these notes with an aesthetic lean, a subtle caretaking of oneself in the world. In fact, elements from Sharpe’s other books, Monstrous Intimacies (2010) and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) are cited, much like her catalogue of notes, representing an enduring conversation with herself. Note 242: “I write these ordinary things to detail the everyday sonic and haptic vocabularies of living life under these brutal regimes.”

The search for “language” is a central theme of Ordinary Notes. Early on Sharpe comments on the audience reaction to Claudia Rankine’s film, Situation 8. The film contains graphic footage of the multiple beatings and murders of Black people in the U.S., ranging from Tamir Rice to Philando Castile. Black viewers were (and are typically) disturbed beyond measure; they left feeling frustrated to have been crudely unprepared for the onslaught of Black death. White viewers were markedly despondent and ashamed, cleaving to a certain defensiveness and a desire for attention in their moment of bearing witness. One Black viewer, scholar Rachel Zellars, chose to write about her emotional response to the film in a letter to Rankine, which appears in Ordinary Notes. After detailing her grief and the longstanding effects of the film on her, Zellars arrives at this realization: “We felt so grateful to have you with us, and at the end, sadly certain that the film was not for us. Could never be for us.” Ordinary Notes emphasizes this liminality: to resolve, or comprehend, the legacy of racism, one must face it. And to face it would be to confine oneself to the unspeakable violences and persistent hatred of living a Black life. To face this from within a Black body is doubly unbearable. Ordinary Notes attempts at constructing a language for Black people. As a Black woman and writer, I found that the book resists the normalization of our denigrated personhood and helps us navigate our way forward. To discern a sense of privacy within this grief, and to determine, as Sharpe states in In the Wake, “what, if anything survives.”

Sharpe was introduced to such language through her mother. Note 51: “This attentiveness to a Black aesthetic made me: Moved me from the windowsill to the world.” Mother, as subject in memoir can be a tricky fare. As the author of a forthcoming critical memoir, I found the most pervasive roadblock in writing about my late mother involved the liberties I had in constructing my impressions of our life together. The stakes felt cultural, if also, personal. Being a Black mother is a political position in which motherhood is contingent upon a set of calculated and devout directives meant to keep her Black child healthy and alive amid inevitable worldly neglect. Therefore, writing about a Black mother, specifically one’s own, must handle that urgency with great care.

Another central site of inquiry is the town of Wayne, Pennsylvania, where the author was raised. As a predominantly white community, Sharpe and her siblings faced an onslaught of racial discrimination and violence. Tasked with creating a mentality of departure for her children, Sharpe’s mother regularly insulated their consciousness with belief in their mother’s love and the capacity of life beyond. Readers will receive a glimpse of this parental pedagogy in Note 12, in which the author has reproduced Letters to the Editor: ‘Slips of the Tongue’, Week after Week, written by her Sharpe’s own mother in 1967 “These ‘slips of the tongue’ when heard week after week throughout the long school year can do much, too much, to erode what little faith in himself and respect for himself a child may have,” wrote the artist’s mother to local paper. Alongside this, readers will also consider the ways in which the author’s mother constructs a language for herself. Tucked into the pages of Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (which was a gift from Sharpe’s brother), the author discovers a note written by her mother. It is on the back of a form from her job at Sears, Roebuck and Co. The top of the note has yellowed but the penmanship is intact, listing books and their price, allowing us to bear witness to her moment of reprieve. The author considers: “It is through her that I first learned that beauty is a practice, that beauty is a method” and “I learned to see in my mother’s house. I learned how not to see in my mother’s house.”

Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes offers temperature checks, tonal shifts, and a certain privacy for her Black readers. In many ways, the project of the book involves a deep investment in the language making practice endowed by her mother. Lingering throughout the text is a deep knowingness that the only way to dismantle racist structures foundational to every corner of this country—from where we eat to where we lay our heads—would be to face it, to move through it. Note 43 demystifies any barriers to breaking the cycle of racism by asserting that adjacent to, or rather than a memorial for the mass murders of Black people, instead curate an exhibition in which white people had to walk among the laughing, taunting faces of lynch mobs in the museum, many of whom they call kin. “What if they had to face themselves?” While this recourse feels actionable it also feels highly improbable in consideration of “the grammar of the good,” as Sharpe describes in Note 62, the connective tissue of the white imaginary.

What does this leave us Black people with? In reading this, I found my reflection to toggle uncomfortably between three perpendicular ideas. Note 106: “You do not have to save the things that kill you.” Note 76: “I have been here before.” Note 94: “The unexpected and the ordinary.” The distinction between each of these Notes is slippery; it requires a vigilance yet to be resolved in a sensible, in fact, livable fashion. The question becomes, how must we preserve our minds? Through profound, honest reflection, Ordinary Notes reminds Black people of the timelessness of our interiority, a multi-voiced yearning that keeps us alive.


Erica N. Cardwell

Erica Cardwell is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn and Toronto.


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