There was no way to make light of this daunting book and its effects on me, no matter how much I thought I knew it.
“I would learn how life could “texture my reading practices.”
(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 Tiana Reid. You can read the first meditation, by Jade Bentil, here, the second meditation, by Imani Wadud, here, and the third meditation, by Troizel Carr, here.)
“Though Not Absolutely”
A year ago in March, my dad, who had had cancer for just a few years, told me over the phone that the doctors said he had three months to live. But doctors are not God, he explained, as I began to get hysterical, isolating alone in my NYC apartment.
My dad was right; doctors don’t know everything. They said three months, and he would die well within two.
But between that time, I drove 11 hours across the closed Canadian border, pleaded to the immigration offer as I shuffled through an overflowing manila of papers, quarantined for two weeks where I spent hours on the phone discussing do-not-resuscitate orders with doctors, trying to quell the anxieties of my eight brothers and sisters, the youngest who was nine years old. There was also the COVID-19 pandemic, that global catastrophe mirroring our familial grief. When my dad finally came home to my auntie’s house, I felt like the only one who believed he was coming home to die. I mean, I was the only non-believer. I was the only one under 70 caring for him. I was the only one without diabetes. We were afraid to have personal support workers coming in and out of the house. My auntie, a former personal support worker, knew the risks well.
And so, we did almost everything ourselves. Extraordinarily quickly, I learned everything about palliative care: how to fight with the hospital, how to administer opioids every three hours, how to drain a catheter, how to dip those little mouth sponges into water, how to read my father’s moans, how to make sure an oxygen tank doesn’t explode, how to stay awake, how to plan a ten-person-max funeral, how to pay for a funeral, how to not yet pay for the tombstone, how to be the one asked the problems at the gravesite.
Two weeks after my dad died, so would George Floyd. Soon, everyone would be shining their mourning out on the streets.
“I was the only one under 70 caring for him.”
I will never forget the first sentence of In the Wake: “I wasn’t there when my sister died” (Sharpe 1). Sometimes we are not there, but we are also there. For the “deathly repetition” (Sharpe 2). For the “still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery” (Sharpe 2). For the familial silences, for the diagnoses, for the etymological discoveries, for the lost dreams, for the swollen solitudes, for differential medical care, for the pared-down nine-night. For the “cumulative deaths” (7). For the “hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work” (10). For the “vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying, to ease their way, and also to the needs of the living” (10).
And even though I was there, I was also not there. Or: “The disaster and the writing of disaster are never present, are always present” (Sharpe 5). Or: Grief had me fucked up. Or: I was not in my right mind to be able to “think care in the wake” (Sharpe 5).
But I would settle, I would begin reading again. I would pick up the phone. I would learn, a little more tenderly, how life could “texture my reading practices, my ways of being in and of the world, my relations with and to others” (Sharpe 5).
I would wrestle with writing the self against the self. Sharpe moves nimbly from personal to social and back again, writing: “I include the personal here to connect the social forces on a specific, particular family’s being in the wake to those of all Black people in the wake; to mourn and to illustrate the ways our individual lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery” (8).
In a sudden whirlwind, when the actuality of uprising was actual, I could not stop extrapolating from the vicious command of death. Everything was suddenly everywhere. It had always been there, that living with harm or the threat of harm. On a sub-personal level, attention had to be given to conscription. With aunts, uncles, half-brothers, ex-wives, non-citizens, illegitimate children, not even the strictest example of a nuclear household made me yearn further for other thunderous attachments, for the black queer escape hatch.
“I could not stop extrapolating from the vicious command of death.”
When I was asked, at the end of last year, to write a “short meditation” on Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, I envisioned the process would be relatively straightforward, just yet another thing to tick off my to-do list. I knew this book well, and have a grasp on how it has left a mark on and beyond black studies. But I was in the realm of knowledge production rather than the not-knowing and not-telling that In the Wake demands.
There was no way to make light of the daunting book and its effects on me, no matter how much I thought I knew it. Instead, I sat with this response for months, stretching it out as grief bends and morphs. (I’m normally fairly prompt, I swear.) There is no way out of the burden, at least for now. In preparation to teach, I reread the foreword to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and knew I finally had a provisional—not eschatological—end. There, Toni Morrison writes about her father, to whom she dedicates the book:
He had a flattering view of me as someone interesting, capably, witty, smart, high-spirited. I did not share that view of myself, and wondered why he held it. But it was the death of that girl—the one who lived in his head—that I mourned when he died. Even more than I mourned him, I suffered the loss of the person he thought I was.
Of course. It is really she, whoever she was—and not my dad—who is never coming back.
A version of this response was given as a talk on a March 18, 2021 panel organized by the Care Committee, while GWC-UAW Local 2100 was on strike.
Tiana Reid is a writer and scholar from Toronto. She is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she is currently completing her dissertation. Her work has been published in American Quarterly, Bookforum, The New Inquiry, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and Women & Performance (forthcoming).
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