Another week means another book review…and this one is a good one. Like, a really good one. A colleague I admire and respect a lot turned me onto this book, and she didn’t steer me wrong. Now on to the book review!
In The Wake: On Blackness and Being
Duke University Press © 2016
Today, I learned that Philando Castile’s killer, Jeronimo Yanez, was found not guilty of his crime. This result is yet another in an ongoing series of officers being found either not guilty or not even indicted for the continued killing of Black and Brown people; people who have done nothing wrong, but whose killing has been the violent manifestation of systemic racism. And this is the very moment that Sharpe begins her book. Not with Castile’s death, per se, but with the ongoing realities of Black death, particularly those deaths that are a result of nefarious state intervention, such as the transatlantic slave trade.
In talking about the slave trade, Sharpe introduces three different ways of thinking about the wake as a theoretical and analytical construct:
Not only are we in the wake of these ships—metaphorical, historical, and literal—but we must continue to hold wakes for the ongoing killing of Black and Brown peoples in the United States. In Chapter 3, titled “The Hold,” Sharpe reminds the reader of the ongoing killing of people of color, both present and past (leading Sharpe to discuss “the past that is not yet past”). The chapter—and really the entire book—becomes performative in the sense that the reader is overwhelmed by the necropolitical past that is not yet past Sharpe details. Sharpe also gives detailed accounts of those people who have been killed, suggesting that the act of reading these stories serves as a wake in and of itself. Furthermore, by reading this book, perhaps the reader who didn’t know about these ongoing atrocities would become more awake; here, the triad of wakefulness comes full circle.
As one can see, this book is theoretically rich (as most Duke University Press books are). The book was also, for me, both painful and cathartic. Reading the names and stories of the sheer number of people who have continued to be killed at the hands of the state, as well as the global slave trade, hurts. However, at the same time, the depth of feeling in the writing, the stories of (trans*) women of color in the text, and the way the book centers blackness throughout (citationally and otherwise) is beautiful, and provides a space of release. Indeed, I read the book in one day—something that I rarely, if ever, do (this coming from a kitten who reads quite a bit, too).
So what could postsecondary educators get from this text? The first thing is the importance of history and the past. Indeed, Sharpe suggests the past isn’t even past; it is “the past that is not yet past.” This means that the past is always already present. In other words, the past continues to show up in all we do in the present. So the need to know marginalized histories, and how these histories (re)shape our present environments, is massively important. For example, knowing the history of slavery is incredibly important to the ongoing work for university-based reparations (something Ta-Nehisi Coates has most recently talked about at a Harvard University conference this past March). The same could be said for the ongoing need to focus on current articulations of colonization and trans* oppression on college campuses. The past is not really past, but is present with us and shapes how we come to know and experience our environments as (un)just.
Second, Sharpe reminds us that details matter. We should not just stick a hashtag on a name, but should learn details about those people who are memorialized. We should not just write a hashtag and then move on, but should rest with and honor the dead at the very same time that we fight for the living. We must be specific and know what and who we are talking about as a way to stay awake to the ongoing violence of the state. Educators would do well to heed this caution, as we are often all too quick to move through (neoliberal university) life.
Lastly, In The Wake is a call to not worry about being nice, and instead, to call attention to oppression and its myriad manifestations. I will write more about this in my next book review of Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, but Sharpe invites us to be the killjoys who remind others that the past is not the past; that the ways in which our present is shaped is not an aberration or a set of isolated incidents. We must be awake, must be killjoys, must hold each other as we think deeply about how the hold of transatlantic slave ships continue to mediate the current ethos of antiblackness in the U.S. (and beyond).
This book will likely be a tough read for some, for a number of reasons. However, it is a tough read worth sticking with, and worth resting with once done. I read it a few weeks ago and I am still thinking about it. This, to me, is the sign of a good read: one that stays with you long after the back cover is closed.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.