It is never easy to talk about the things close to us, to take the works that hit us, reach us, connect with us in a place outside of language, and translate them into words, where we will always fail to capture some crucial aspect. It is this way for me with Ordinary Notes. There is a multi-dimensionality here, a Black gaze turned with care, with generosity, to the not-at-all-simple beauty of Black life. Sharpe gives us a methodology for, and a dictionary of, Black living—but it is difficult for me to call it one thing without leaving out another. This is an academic book, a distillation of great knowledge and research with a broad chorus of sources, but it is also a deeply personal one. (Sharpe refers to it, at the very end, as ‘a love letter to my mother’.) It is a formally experimental work, but it is also an intimate one. Sharpe’s gaze here is loving, tender, but she also holds herself and her subjects accountable, won’t let an observation settle easily, refuses to engage in ‘wonder… [without] depth’.
That said, I must begin somewhere, so I will try to begin, I think, with form. Ordinary Notes is built from 248 individually-numbered ‘notes’, ranging from one sentence to a few pages in length, divided into eight sections, each thematically composed around one of the many definitions of the word ‘note’. The structure brings to mind the vignette mode of books like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, or Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, though like all great formally innovative works, Ordinary Notes feels lived in, with its own patterns and idiosyncrasies. In the best writing, the form feels like a natural extension of the content—as though the content could not have taken any other form—and that is certainly the case here. The form Sharpe has chosen is rich, and she makes ample use of its richness.
A form like this—episodic, fragmented, intimate—affords many things. It allows for a tightly controlled pace that can still feel casual or epistolary, as though each ‘note’ is an epiphany that has freshly occurred to the author. As though we are simply inside her train of thought. This is both ingenious and deceptive: the precision of Sharpe’s language and thought belies the work behind it, and the writing feels natural, easy, even as it challenges us to push beyond the limits of our own thinking. Sharpe presents the progression of notes almost paratactically, so that a section that interrogates ‘gaze’ and ‘looking’ is able to move from a photo of her mother and grandmother to Mamie Till Bradley, mother of Emmett Till; to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida; to photographer Ray DeCarava; to a scene at the Montgomery, Alabama Legacy Museum; all in the space of 13 notes. And because each note feels like a complete thought, we have room to breathe between them—room that allows us to consider them both alone and in constellations of other notes. Arguments, realisations, come to us through a process of accumulation, which feels true to the way human beings process information.
With this strikingly intimate approach, we are invited into Sharpe’s project of sifting through the frustrations, the injustices, ‘the wake’ of Black life in order to better spend time with the beauty of Blackness, to explore the quiet of Black interiority that so often goes ignored or unremarked.
There is so much care here—such wisdom, such generosity. This, we learn, is a way of moving through the world that Sharpe has learned from her mother. See, for example, the conversation they have when Sharpe is in eighth grade, which is one of the many possible versions of ‘The Other Talk’ Black parents have with their children about navigating antiblack racism. ‘She asked me questions’, Sharpe writes, ‘she listened to what I said and to what I did not say… She said that she wanted, needed me to know this. She told me that she thought, from the things I had told her, that I was not unaware of what she said but she wanted me to have the knowledge I needed to make a choice. She wanted me to have choices.’ Though Sharpe, like most Black children at that age, has had some lived experience of antiblackness and its consequences, her mother sees that she may not yet have the language to name it. Until this moment, she may have been formulating observations, putting together puzzle pieces, seeing patterns her white peers pretended or chose not to see, without having this thinking reflected back at her. Now, her mother creates the space for all of this, and Sharpe carries the generous spirit of her gesture into these notes. ‘Knowing that every day that I left the house, many of the people whom I encountered did not think me precious and showed me so, my mother gave me the space to be precious—as in vulnerable, as in cherished.’ Black life and Black readers are precious in this space, in these notes.
Like her mother, Sharpe wants to offer knowledge, choices. ‘I’ve been thinking’, she writes, ‘about what beauty as a method might mean or do: what it might break open, rupture, make possible and impossible. How we might carry beauty’s knowledge with us and make new worlds.’ The beauty she is talking about here is not something simple, or flimsy, or easily won. This is a beauty that remains conscious of everything else that exists around it. ‘With beauty, something is always at stake.’
Consider, for example, the idea of beauty as an interruption. In the second note of the book, Sharpe discusses the daily calls of prisoner Hi Man (from Toni Morrison’s Beloved): his morning ‘Hiiii!’s and evening ‘Hoooo!’s act as deliberate ‘interruptions in the particular violence’ of daily life in the prison camp under the shadow of chattel slavery. These calls are ‘an interruption, not an end… [They cannot] immediately change the fact, but they do change the atmosphere.’ And this makes a difference. When the time comes for escape, during a flood that almost drowns the prisoners, ‘the trust and care established through Hi Man’s ordinary note’ allow all forty-six prisoners to hoist their collective chain from the mud and flee. ‘With that note’, Sharpe writes, drawing, here, on the musical valence of note, ‘they are held’. Everyday, intentional beauty, she suggests, has the potential to function in a similar way, ferrying us through our circumstances by changing the atmosphere, interrupting our difficulties.
With Ordinary Notes, Sharpe curates many iterations of this type of beauty: Roy DeCarava’s photography, where the Black figures ‘appear as if they are lit from within’; a reflection on hands in photographs, how they provide another way to see a person; Sharpe’s mother’s garden, with its ‘peonies and tulips and zinnias, its forsythia and mock orange’; striking handmade Christmas ornaments; photographs of her well-worn copies of Beloved and A Map to the Door of No Return; Sharpe’s own practice of ‘tak[ing] photographs of flowers, trees, the light, clouds, moss, water, many things, in order to try to insist beauty into [her] head and into the world’, a practice she calls beauty-everyday.
But the book is also about the things that threaten this beauty, and that make these restorative possibilities so urgent, so necessary. Sharpe makes space here for all of Black life, which includes the ways Black people are affected by social, structural, historical, cultural, and political antiblackness. She is deeply aware of the antiblack notes that echo across the various sectors of our lives, how the systemic operates not only in police forces and school-to-prison pipelines but also through archives, photography, literature, grad school classrooms, museums, history lessons, newspaper headlines, grammar, psyches. As a Black reader, this is one of the myriad ways that I feel seen by this book. There is a sort of cognitive dissonance I feel in moving through a world structured to preserve and cultivate antiblackness, and yet where my own sense of this antiblackness seems always to be distrusted, or trusted last, or dismissed. It’s like seeing a ghost in a room full of people, pointing it out, and then being told, definitively, by everyone else in the room, that it is not there, even as other people are clearly reacting to it. It is easy for me to feel uncentred, to let the world around me tell me I am seeing things that aren’t there, to begin to distrust my own senses or faculties of reasoning. To feel profoundly alienated by this. To spiral. Ordinary Notes is the opposite of this feeling. It says: I see it, too, and this is how we name it. This is how we can better understand the thing most people avoid looking at, that we cannot avoid because it works against instead of for us. It says: I am haunted by this thing, too, and I can teach you how to better grapple with it. It says: you, we, are not alone. I believe you.
I have found that moments of antiblackness in my own life stay with me, haunt me, until I can get some sort of critical handle on them, until I can put together the how and why and what of the things that happen to me or other Black people around me. I need to formulate a language that can hold, process, and unknot these moments, or I will not be able to loosen their grip on me. It is therefore important to me that one of the things Ordinary Notes functions as is what Sharpe calls a ‘Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness’. This is a project, she tells us, that has been in the back of her mind for years, ever since she and her friend D came across Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, which was meant to be a reference for ‘important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts’ that defy easy translation. Sharpe and D noted that ‘many of the entries that did appear would need to be rethought or unthought if one considered blackness and Black people’. She asks: ‘If one began from Black, what would an entry on civilisation, or claim, or archive or memory or life look like? How would it sound?’ Though Ordinary Notes is not specifically a dictionary, many of Sharpe’s notes function as attempts to answer this exact question. Yes—what would the world around us look like if we viewed it purely through a Black gaze, instead of through the distortion of double consciousness? How healing might it be to examine Black life through a gaze that is free of background noise? How can we assign Black logic to (what Sharpe calls, in her earlier work In the Wake) the ‘il/logic’ of antiblackness? What power is there to be claimed in naming our experiences for ourselves? The twenty-four notes following the ‘Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness’ directly explore all of this, with Sharpe quoting from Black thinkers like Dionne Brand, Rinaldo Walcott, John Keene, and Saidiya Hartman to put together entries on Grace, Refusal, Memory, Property, Spectacle, and Elegance, among other concepts.
By situating this ‘Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness’ two-thirds of the way through a book already interested in the affordances of notational form, Sharpe pushes against the possibilities a dictionary offers. Here and throughout the rest of the book, she subverts the kind of authority that might usually come with a dictionary, glossary, or encyclopaedia. Instead of assuming a depersonalised and domineering stance that seeks to standardise, that claims singularity or exclusivity, Sharpe’s authority is poetic, intimate, assured. She knows what she’s talking about, make no mistake, but she is not interested in forcing this knowledge on her reader. Her authority is a project she wants to invite us into, situated in the calm that comes from trusting one’s own sense of the world. We see this in the careful, matter-of-fact presentation of her thinking—and especially in the moments when she allows us to see her doubling back, working out the best way to conceptualise something. Of the famous 1957 photo of Elizabeth Eckford desegregating Little Rock Central High School, she initially says this: ‘When I saw it, I felt that I knew what it was to be the girl at the center of it, so alone and surrounded by hate. I knew her fear.’ And then, a page later: ‘Of course, I didn’t know her fear. I knew my own. My fear was next to hers.’ Sharpe lets us inside this crucial distinction. She does not subjugate in her thinking, and she also does not let herself be subjugated. She places her knowledge not above the knowledge of others but next to it, concerned, always, with truth and clarity. Hers is a Black gaze settled into itself, as self-possessed as it is tender. As a Black reader, I am empowered by this. Centred by her care, her generosity.
To review this book—to ‘gloss’ it, as it were—is in some ways a meta-task. The job of most notational forms (one of the main traditions Sharpe is writing into and against) is to interpret, to summarise and package knowledge of a complex world for the purposes of reference. Though Ordinary Notes observes, interprets, and summarises, though it invites the reader to return to it, as one does to a reference book, it is writing both into and against a notational tradition. There is something else here—a breath, a pulse, an infusion of life. Sharpe is present here, as is her mother. This glossary form, typically used to summarise or translate meaning, is mobilised here to create it, to search for it. A review of Ordinary Notes would be remiss if it did not work to bring the text’s untranslatable life and beauty to its reader—if it did not try to push the limits and affordances of its own form. I want to close, then, by stepping, briefly, out of the authoritative mode of critical redescription that comes with my position as reviewer. I have collected some of Sharpe’s untranslatable insights in a glossary of my own, which I hope can showcase the breadth of her thinking, offer it to you untranslated, make space for it to breathe. Earlier, I spoke of Sharpe’s attention to the whole of Black life—the frustrating and brutal as well as the tender and beautiful; how each can only be understood in the context of the other—and, as we close, I would like the glossary to return us to this attention.
On a ‘Black gaze’.
‘[We, Black people], are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to overwhelming force though not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force.’ (Emphasis mine.)
On how ‘violence against us is so often not understood to be violence’.
So often, ‘Black suffering and the unremitting violence against Black people are (made) invisible and inaudible to many eyes and ears. That taped beating of Rodney King that was supposedly incontrovertible evidence of police brutality against him was manipulated in order to make King the aggressor.’
‘We are forced to encounter anew both the violence and its refusal as violence.’
‘Daily and with deliberation, newspapers constitute whiteness as innocence, in ways that hide and forgive their own interests in the preservation and distribution of white supremacy.’
‘The grammar of “mistakes were made” is one in which terrible acts are committed and yet no one is assigned responsibility for them.’
On how ‘spectacle is not repair’.
‘This particular brutality’ of Black death and police violence ‘has been shown repeatedly. It circulates with regularity. How does one inhabit the “never again” and ask that a population “come to terms with” such ongoing terror and quotidian atrocity? How does one come to terms with a brutal imagination by engaging and representing (over and over again) the materialization of that imagination?’
On ‘cultures of surprise’.
‘The machinery of whiteness constantly deploys violence—and in a mirror-register, constantly manufactures wonder, surprise, and innocence in relation to that violence.’
‘To speak of a culture of surprise from the position of the oppressed might be to recognize that one might have to forget, or at least perform forgetting, in order to survive. This forgetting is not naiveté.’
‘[T]he knowledge that in every moment not everything could be claimed by them, but neither could everything be claimed from them.’
On ‘Sunday Teas’.
‘My mother would bake a cake, usually a pound cake or a two-spice Bundt cake, and she would make a pot of cambric tea… Each of us would memorize a short piece… by a Black writer whom we would not have encountered in our majority-white, private, public, and Catholic suburban schools.’ (These included Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Frederick Douglass).
‘The feeling of those Sundays remains in me….They were like time snatched out of time. The reading life, the beauty-filled one, was central to the livable internal life my mother tried to carve out for us and to equip us to make for ourselves.’
‘My mother made joy. She worked hard at it.’