By JJ Amaworo Wilson
Part memoir, part thesis, and part lyrical examination of what it means to be black in the 21st century, In The Wake is simply a great, great book. It bridges so many fields – social justice, poetry, fiction, Critical Race Theory, semiotics, semantics – yet retains complete coherence. It is beautiful, ingenious and tragic.
In the Wake is organized into four sections: The Wake, The Ship, The Hold, and The Weather. It’s barely possible to describe the numerous observations and theses contained within these chapters; suffice to say, the book begins with the tragedy of three deaths in the author’s family in the space of ten months and goes on to describe “the afterlife of slavery,” using an idea Sharpe calls “wake work.” Wake work is the work of bringing to consciousness all that blackness entails in the 21st Century.
The author excavates texts – particularly the poetry of her partner Dionne Brand – and words, too, to define the state of blackness. She looks at origins and meanings, e.g. the word wake: “the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness” and then teases out analogies that relate to her theme.
She also finds numerous parallels throughout history in the fates of black people. Slaves were commodities during the Middle Passage, and ship captains could throw them overboard to lighten the ship’s load. Now, slave ships have been replaced by refugee boats, packed like sardine cans for the profits of human traffickers. These refugees are allowed to drown in the ocean, their fates identical to the murdered African captives. If the refugees make it to European soil, they’re held in camps which bear echoes of the holding cells of the forts where future slaves were kept before their Transatlantic voyage.
Other parallels: Sharpe quotes Frantz Fanon’s line, “We revolt simply because … we can no longer breathe” and links it to Eric Garner’s final words, half a century later, as an NYPD officer chokes him to death: “I can’t breathe.”
A photograph of a little Black girl rescued from the 2010 Haiti earthquake shows a message stuck to her forehead on transparent tape: “Ship,” and the author is reminded of the history of Black people in the diaspora: the slave ships that partook of thirty-five thousand voyages over five centuries.
In the Wake is at times difficult to read – not because of the prose, which is superb, but because of the unending tragedy. Yet the book leaves the reader energized. Works of intellectual daring tend to do this. They point the way to further inquiry and further feats of the imagination. The book kept reminding me of William Faulkner’s line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun) and anyone who reads it will revel in the intelligence, the lyricism, the research, and understand that the wake work has just begun.