The Ire Next Time

Ordinary Notes By Christina Sharpe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 392 pages. $35.

The cover of Ordinary Notes

And I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death. 

—Kendrick Lamar 

It’s more than just an ordinary pain in your heart. 

—Stevie Wonder 

WE’RE ALWAYS WOOING our catastrophes. They delight us with their constellation of delay and grace. The catastrophic slows time and lets us revel in its ugly beauty. Then we cede it to fantasy and romance in a dissociative stupor. If you remix it well, the remixes turn out like when Moodymann flips the glowing lilt in Betty Carter’s voice from ballad into arabesque and back on his song “I’d Rather Be Lonely.” He doesn’t employ the by-now-recognizable trope of disembodied sampling. Instead he remythologizes Carter’s use of the phrase this time I’ll never be lonely into this time . . . this time, repeating. Time hangs there like a pendulum inviting  its bittersweet relief. The relief is emptiness the way form is emptiness, we materialize in those gaps between grand declarations and withholding. It’s as though he’s rewriting the meaning of interval with her voice until her atonal enunciation is time itself—bent, weathered, yet endlessly exuberant with the promise of more and never, more. 

Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, a series of 248 “petits machins” that move between gutting intimacy and restrained social commentary, makes similarly ambivalent promises to itself and its ghosts—I won’t write about you, I’ll write about you forever, I resent how you left, I love remembering you as you were, as you once were you still are to me. The book is a collection or series of interrupted remixes, which return to their sources to master the ephemeral. They resemble the bent blues stutters trapped within footwork songs, which commit to their hysteria of loops until they are sculptures, pillars, then plundered by the same exegesis that brought them forth.

Ordinary Notes is operatic and its first movement interrogates memorials and the grieving they at once sanction and prohibit. Every memorial and museum to atrocity already contains its failure, one note reads. The rest of the page is intentionally left as blank as the shudder that haunts the aftermath of such an observation, both cruel and accurate. Sharpe often uses our collective scars and her own personal scars to help her reach the pitch of cruelty that mirrors the cruelty of those who inflict those injuries, which are concrete, metaphysical, and psycho-spiritual. As she traverses Alabama’s Legacy Museum, devoted to the twin legacies of slavery and mass incarceration, we witness with her how a certain degree of near reverence for trauma and catastrophe makes their continued cycle inevitable. Black pain exploited for spectacle becomes white shame and black fame or ignominy, or the only route black people see to empathy and an even sadder aim, humanization.

We tiptoe through the museum with her, looking for trapdoors and refusing escapism. We wonder where escapism fits into this steadfast account of the terrible and our collective and personal attempts at rehabilitating from terror. Ultimately, the only reprieve from this attentiveness to collective pain is focus on personal pain, which allows differentiation that in the context feels almost like triumph. If one person is wholly seen, in detail, and deemed worthy of that caring regard, all of us are. If all of us are gazed upon at the same time with the same enchanting shame and guilt, we’re all erased by the desires of the spectator. This not-so-subtle shift back and forth between seeing and being seen or surveilled does the work of interweaving personal and collective destiny in such a nonlinear fashion that after reading Sharpe’s book, these fates may never be disentangled again. What happens to you, your mother, and your brother perhaps happens in part because it was allowed to happen to everyone with no intervention for so long. When “allyship” arrived it was grandiose and alienating, also half-hearted and in the service of the very culture that perpetrated the abuses in the first place. The renovated empathy was a withheld apology turned opportunistic minstrel performance of remorse, a place white liberals could go to weep about what they believe they did to black people. Maybe afterward they go to brunch or on a cruise. 

The contrast between performed remorse and natural ruthlessness in so-called oppressors makes the oppressed hardest and unusual to ourselves and others sometimes. We grow hypercritical. We investigate routes to meaningful connection and relation that are not mediated and distorted by Western ethics. We discover casual anguish, made to look disaffected, even a little cool, like how Miles Davis plays, that singular and lethal tenderness that is always already switched and enjambed with biting rage. That range, so black and so blue it’s inflamed with no need for a spark from an outside source. It sets itself on fire then makes you watch its effigy and resurrection into cool. It does this again and again in sampled loops of black life shipwrecked somewhere between Persephone’s destiny and that of the phoenix, on display for a public that is more interested in simulacra of atonement than soul. 

The soul is hidden from the museum and the monument. It’s often dark to itself as well. We must find that at home, among ourselves. We are ritualistically displaced beyond privacy but we must retrieve the soul anyway. Maybe we have to accept being quietly supernatural to access it, Ordinary Notes insinuates. Sharpe watches her mother’s graceful hands and finds in them a gesture more resolute and monumental than every white apology. Real solace. Her mother was a clairvoyant child, employed as such. Through that example, Sharpe discovers how we take ourselves back by finding pleasure in and among ourselves and our visions. The anhedonic spaces of formal memorials threaten that imaginative autonomy. We dismiss these spaces and check the horizon for literature and mothers’ hands when the curatorial fails. Note the word “cure” in it. As if the role of the museum or curator is to cure some unruly cultural reflex with order and affect, gravitas, miraculous air-conditioning in the service of the preservation of native artifacts, stolen graves, etcetera.

Nina Simone performing "Feelings" at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux Casino, Montreux, Switzerland, 1976. Eagle Rock Entertainment.
Nina Simone performing “Feelings” at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux Casino, Montreux, Switzerland, 1976. Eagle Rock Entertainment.

The sections of Ordinary Notes that occupy domestic, private, and imaginative spaces are warmer, less cruel-to-be-kind, more tropical with their truths, and devastating because with that candor they enter the storm and not its carefully curated aftermaths. One is titled “Can I Live,” not quite sure it is asking itself or its audience. These parts of the book are vulnerable and brave and at times even unflatteringly so. They document the disorienting role of the writer in a family—to upend, to try to mend through upending, to break and reconstitute filial modes. Subject to the discrete biases of the writer’s generous but subjective memory, the notes about the family are elegiac love letters laced with a nearly imperceptible quotient of scorn. Dates of the parents’ deaths are listed and relisted as numbers of years—of suffering and near debilitation. And then Sharpe will contest her own subject position with an observation that implicates herself, her audience, our monuments and descheduled monuments, our need for monuments, our greed for them: there are those who settle all seeing there, in the wound. 

She drops this dagger and moves on, but we get locked in the wound with those jaded settlers. At one point in the text, she places Claudia Rankine in that wounded vision. She’s at a talk at Barnard watching a film produced by Rankine and her husband, John Lucas. The film makes an unjustifiable spectacle of black trauma with no trigger warning. Sharpe writes Rankine a letter that eviscerates the exercise of the film. It’s as if she’s addressing the nerve center of the black bourgeoisie that often exploits the iconography of largely working-class black precarity to satisfy white liberal guilt addictions. Artworks can function this way on a subconscious level, sometimes imperceptible to the artist, yet in spaces dominated by spectators detached from said experiences, it goes unchecked and unhealed. Sharpe’s critique was an act of brazen generosity. And it recoils onto herself and all of us with the unasked question at the center of Ordinary Notes: For whom do we keep and speak these records of despair and recovery? And another inquiry: Are we satisfied with shaming white liberals into being impressed by the jarring emotional range of black life within our work? If all of these gestures of organized and dysfunctional memory amount to more praise from the white academy than from our communities, is that enough, is that something we can feel and heal by? 

With these discreetly provocative questions, Sharpe’s notes morph into a list of inconsolable grievances. The fact that they can come into print as record is the only available consolation, a sign of the great and disappointing notion of “progress.” None of the tragedies and monoliths accounted for will be dissipated by these accounts of them, but they will be shielded from the inaccuracy of alternate accounts or the erasure of no account. I hear Billie Holiday’s voice here: You’re just a no account, / never will amount to nothin’ at all / when there is work to do and someone yells for you / you don’t heed the call. The song is about idleness, shiftlessness. The archetype its lyrics invent is Sharpe’s foil. She works so hard at bearing witness, often in the service of those she loves, that one wonders if her unwavering attention to the border between honor and disgrace negates her own needs for rest. This work is restless. Each note gropes toward an impossible, altruistic reckoning, and each one, like the museum, contains its own failure to achieve that. Sharpe works to suture mistrust of the impulse to memorialize with a personal and collective need to remember the dead and their stories, and to avenge them. We all become the fruits of our suspicions of the other, but here we see how they also sacrifice us to their causes and let us take them and ourselves subterranean, to hell and back. These notes travel through territories and crevices in the spirit, places so fractured that their only entrance code is a ruin. The notes’ unflinching seriousness makes them foreboding and alienating in moments; there will be no dalliance or lighthearted mirth in the middle of the mourning scene. And at the same time there will be a moment for Barack Obama to demonstrate why the tendency to soothe our own trouble with opportunism must be eliminated. 

Sharpe recounts Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for the politician and pastor Clementa Pinckney, following his death in a mass shooting in Charleston, and how that moment moved the mourners and onlookers with false honor. The song, she reminds us, was written by a white man looking to be absolved of his sins, which included trafficking black slaves. This book works by re-alchemizing some of our memories of our own lives so that they become more blunt, decolonized. Events and rituals that we know are questionable emerge qeasily here, so that now when we think back on Obama’s quasi-authenticity at a sacred homegoing, we don’t repeat crazy platitudes like “my president,” we aren’t abducted by silly, ornamental political posturing. Nor are we left barren. There’s a purgatory these notes exist within, an almost utopia wherein one’s interiority is enough but also insatiable. There’s no happy ending to the story of a woman who needs to understand why the sacred becomes the profane so easily, why we manipulate black life into theatrics for ill-acquainted onlookers sometimes, and in other instances yank it back bitterly and retreat to solitary brooding. The final note wants to be music, crescendo, but instead shows up as muffled scream or withheld sobbing that makes the syntax tremble. Measure by measure, the work teaches us that even the most self-aware methods can yield the feeling that testimony will always be inconclusive, often marred by disbelief in its own severity, always shocked it has had the experience that demands its brutalizing commentary. Sharpe quotes the endlessly revered Nina Simone performance of the song “Feelings” at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1976), I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like this. This looping black sample is harnessed again and again to shatter outrage with beauty and dignity. 

Notes simultaneously conjures Simone’s smoother address to sentiment, the song “Feeling Good.” When it comes on, it evinces a dark and ominous story is about to unfold, but as Simone sings, we discover that she’s using notes with blues connotations to initiate praise and complete satisfaction with the mundane and particular pleasures of the present moment. Sharpe’s final note: this is a love letter to my mother, and the suite of images that feel good which follow it like gasp and sigh of relief, take the book from “Feelings” to “Feeling Good” or from lament to surrender. You cannot rearrange anyone’s route to saying “I love you,” Sharpe’s work reminds us. You can detect when those who don’t quite know or remember what love is try to pass it off as worship or material concessions; they end up trapped in a museum or time snatched out of time, as one note deems it, totems to the unreal. Sharpe is busy backing away from other people’s delusions here, she paces herself, she dresses her wounds in these original psalms. 

Harmony Holiday is the author of Maafa (Fence Books, 2022).