To read In the Wake is to read a love letter to Black people in the everywhere of this world.
“The geohistories of the Black diaspora are marked by the mathematics of racial capitalism and the oceanic journeys that have dispersed Black people all over the world is one of its many expressions.”
(Celebrating five years since the publication of Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, we asked four writers to offer a short meditation on what the book has meant to them. This week’s contributor is Jade Bentil.)
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” —Toni Morrison
“The sea can make a tree into spongy bits, it can wear away a button to a shell.
It can wash away blood and heal wounds.” —Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging
“The land remembers and the sea does, too.” —Victoria Adukwei Bulley, On Water
The first sensation I feel is water. Cool, depthless, unable to be contained, it surrounds the everywhere of the first few pages of In the Wake. After I feel it, I see it. The break in the waves as a ship charts its path through the ocean, the ripple that ship leaves in its course to elsewhere. Water is the substance of our mourning; it is the material of our graveyard. Water is the rupture in the grand narrative of history, the currents that exceed the temporalities of a Euro-Western past. In those first few pages that mark the communion between the living and the dead, water becomes the site of our beauty and our disaster, the grammar in which Christina Sharpe marks the residence time of antiblackness, the matter from which Black death and Black life are created. In the ship, in the hold and in the weather, we encounter the catastrophe of the transAtlantic slave trade and the crisis of colonialism. The text bears witness to the brutal arithmetics of capital, of insurance, of cargo and property and commodity. And there is that which exceeds the ledger and the archive: the care we craft for each other, the love that holds us and that we too are held by. “This is Black life in the wake,” Sharpe tells us. This is Black life lived within and against the architecture of catastrophe.
“Water is the substance of our mourning; it is the material of our graveyard.”
When I first encountered In the Wake, I was searching for words. Exhausted by the never-ending images of the everyday brutality enacted against Black people that are projected across television screens the world over, on the endless loop of social media, in the pages of newspapers and journals and books that reproduce the very violence they condemn, I was looking for words that might do something different in their attendance to our lives. Words that would speak to and sit with the substance of this violence but refuse the resubjection of Black life to its corporeality. It comes as no surprise, then, that when I found this care embodied within the prose that comprises In the Wake, I finished the book within a day of starting it.
To read In the Wake is to read a love letter to Black people in the everywhere of this world. Through Sharpe’s words, I attended the wakes of those lost too soon to the calculus of an antiblack world, many of whom are her loved ones. I listened to the cries and the chants that resounded from the hold, the cries and the chants that repeat into our present. I touched the film of our imaginations, the splendor and the tenderness with which the scholars and the poets and the dreamers that Sharpe is in conversation with throughout the text conceive of the many lives we live in the grip of death. To recall the words of Dionne Brand, I found myself sitting in the room with history. I mourned, I wept, I kept watch with the dead. I swam in the deepest depths of the water that surrounds In the Wake and by the final page, I found myself transformed.
Since I first read In the Wake nearly two years ago, I’ve found myself reaching for it countless times, its passages providing a balm in a world that has only produced more precarity around Black life in the past twelve months. To read Sharpe’s prose is to contend with the infrastructure of this world, one in which Black people are made most vulnerable to the “death-dealing” technologies of state power. Sharpe articulates this interminable climate within her declaration at the end of the first chapter: “we are Black peoples in the wake with no state or nation to protect us, with no citizenship bound to be respected”. To be in the wake, then, is to encounter the borderlessness of Blackness—what happens to a young Black girl in Haiti, bound for yet another ship, is connected to what happens to Black people surviving state-sanctioned deprivation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what happens to Black migrants confined within camps throughout Calais and Berlin is connected to what happens to a Black mother and her four children, suspended in a left to die boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The geohistories of the Black diaspora are marked by the mathematics of racial capitalism and the oceanic journeys that have dispersed Black people all over the world is one of its many expressions. The sea is history and it is a history that hurts. 
“To read Sharpe’s prose is to contend with the infrastructure of this world, one in which Black people are made most vulnerable to the “death-dealing” technologies of state power.”
I wondered then, in the midst of this emergency, how do we arrive at language that can narrate a story that, in its ongoingness, refuses narrative structure? How do we find the words for those who are, as Sharpe tells us, not just marked for the ship, but marked by it? And, as Black life continues to unfold within the long shadow of death, what does it mean to love our flesh?
One of the many feats of Sharpe’s work is the way she uses language to perform the very same care that she describes within her theorisation of “wake work”. The 134 pages that make up the main body of the text compose what Sharpe terms as an “ordinary note of care,” a way of thinking and being that resists the reduction of Black life to the register of an event or the frame of spectacular violence. By insisting that this care is the vernacular in which we encounter each chapter of In the Wake, Sharpe doesn’t gesture towards narrative completeness. The crisis that we’re living and dying through is not one that can be resolved on the page. To paraphrase Brand once more, we cannot “wait for narrative to do what war might.” But even as Sharpe tells us that language and form “fracture more every day”, it is within these fragments and particles and shards that “wake work” is performed:
“But even if those Africans who were in the holds, who left something of their prior selves in those rooms as a trace to be discovered, and who passed through the doors of no return did not survive the holding and the sea, they, like us, are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. This is what we know about those Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage; they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time.”
“The crisis that we’re living and dying through is not one that can be resolved on the page.”
Within rivers and seas and oceans, we encounter the graveyards of the earth and in performing “wake work”, we tend to those graveyards. There is beauty here, in all its fragility. There is desire, too. It is the same desire that was nurtured within the hold of the ship, when millions of Black people found themselves in the deepest part of the Atlantic, caught within the turbulence of the blue-black sea. It is the yearning for the end of property. It is the longing for the end of the world.
The final sentence of In the Wake is one that I revisit often, one that means so much to me that it is impossible to express fully here. Sharpe’s words flow with the cadence of poetry as she writes: “And while ‘we are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to this overwhelming force, we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.’” This is the gift of this work; the refrain of those held within the ship, the song of twelve million and more, the chorus of the living and the dead. This is loving our flesh over and against a world in which it is not loved. This is Black life in the wake.
Jade Bentil is a Black feminist historian and PhD candidate in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Her first book, Rebel Citizen, will be published by Penguin Press in 2022.
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 Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging (Toronto: Vintage Books Canada, 2002), p. 25
 Derek Walcott, The Sea is History <https://poets.org/poem/sea-history>
 Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Vintage Books), p. 103
 Dionne Brand, The Shape of Language, Graham Foundation lecture
 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2019)