Deliberate Reading: Sharpe, King, Jackson

  • Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. NYU P, 2020.
  • King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.

A few years ago I tried to keep alive a blog series titled “Reading Randomly”—a series meant to track a course of reading that flittered from shelf to shelf of my private library, picking texts for what felt like arbitrary reasons. Some colloquial sense of randomness still motivates a great deal of my reading this summer, but these days I am more focused and deliberate. Especially when it comes to the critical, theoretical, and philosophical texts I choose.

I haven’t done enough homework to offer any interesting commentary on this reading. I’m still learning. I’m still reading King and Jackson’s books. And am reading Saidiya Hartman and Tressie McMillan Cottom. Will be reading Fred Moten. And other Black writers and theorists.

In lieu of commentary, below I curate a themed selection of passages from the three texts listed above.

I. Figures that Locate Black (& Indigenous) Life

Wake: the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming or moved, in water; it is the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow. (Sharpe 3)

Wake; the state of wakefulness; consciousness. (Sharpe 4)

Wake: a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances including eating and drinking. (Sharpe 10)

Wake: grief, celebration, memory, and those among the living who, through ritual, mourn their passing and celebrate their life in particular the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the dead person from death to burial and the drinking, feasting, and other observances incidental to this. (Sharpe 11).

Materially and conceptually, the shoal—as simultaneously water and land—presents a site of conceptual difficulty. The shoal represents a process, formation, and space that exists beyond binary thinking. Chapters in the book attend to where Black and Indigenous speech and grammar share the same tongue; where Black and Indigenous resistance disrupt the master codes and cartographic representations of Man on an eighteenth-century map; where Black porous bodies tell histories of Black and Indigenous survival in “uninhabitable zones,” where Black and Indigenous erotics force an unmooring of the self; and where decolonize aesthetic practices sculpt new epistemologies and sensibilities that shape the contours of humanness in more expansive ways. The shoal offers an analytical site where multiple things can be perceived and experienced simultaneously.

King 28–29, emphasis added

II. The Human (and Nonhuman)

. . . what remains uninterrogated about Columbus is his role in inaugurating the modern notion of the human and affixing it to a “European self.” This European self knows itself and continually performs its existence through the dehumanization of Indigenous and Black people. This aspect of conquest, a violent and repetitive process of making the modern human through extinguishing Black and Indigenous life, is disavowed and willfully forgotten. One legacy of the Columbian rupture was the creation of a Christian humanism that would transmute into various forms of secular humanism, which, in turn, would maintain their parasitic relationship to Indigenous and Black life. (King 39; cf. 53–54)

. . . I argue that prior scholarship has fundamentally misrecognized the logic behind the confluence of animality and racialization. I reinterpret Enlightenment thought not as black “exclusion” or “denied humanity” but rather as the violent imposition and appropriation—inclusion and recognition—of black(need) humanity in the interest of plasticizing that very humanity, whereby “the animal” is one but not the only form blackness is thought to encompass. Plasticity is a mode of transmogrification whereby the fleshy being of blackness is experimented with as if it were infinitely malleable lexical and biological matter, such that blackness is produced as sub/super/human at once, a form where form shall not hold: potentially “everything and nothing” at the register of ontology.

Jackson 3


. . . all of the thinkers above [Hume, Kant, Hegel, Jefferson] identify black people as human (however attenuated and qualified); thus, assimilation into the category of “universal humanity” should not be equated with black freedom. Assimilation into “universal humanity” is precisely this tradition’s modus operandi. But what are the methods? And what are the costs? (Jackson 27)

. . . if the following assertion by Achille Mbembe is correct, “the obsession with hierarchy . . . provides the constant impetus to count, judge, classify, and eliminate, both persons and things” in the name of “humanizing” the colonized, I ask, how can we confidently distinguish humanization from animalization (Mbembe 192)? [Jackson 28]

What happens when we look at and listen to these and other Black girls across time?

But what is a moral debt? How is it paid?

What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?

Sharpe 51, 60, 117


The ceremonial defacing of Columbus [in 2015] exists within the Black tradition of destruction of property as a feature of abolition and fugitively. (King 43)

In style and content Turner’s painting [Slave Ship: Slavers Throwing Overboard Dead and Dying—Typhon Coming On (1840)] makes visible the questions at the center of the Zong—property, insurance, resistance, and the question of ballast. (Sharpe 36)

The decision of the court [in 1783] was achieved through an act of lexico-legal transubstantiation that declared that “the case [of the Zong] was a simple one of maritime insurance,” that is, a case of property loss and not murder. (Sharpe 37)

Recall, too, that captive Africans were brought out of the hold, weather permitting, to put fresh air into their lungs and to be exercised. (Of course, this was about their value as cargo and not about the health of the captive Africans for themselves. This is being, property, for the other.) (Sharpe 112)

The enslaved bifurcated existence as both an object of property and legal person endowed with limited rights, protections, and criminal culpability produced a context where consent, reform, and protection extended the slave’s animalized status rather than ameliorated objectification. From this perspective, emancipation is less of a decisive event than a reorganization of a structure of violence, an ambivalent legacy, with gains and losses, where inclusion could arguably function as an intensification of racial subjection.

Jackson 28
Body / Matter – Discourse

. . . at the registers of both sign and matter, anti blackness produces differential bicultural effects of both gender and sex. Such a frame raises the stakes of recent feminist materialism’s inquiry into both the inter(intra)actional relations of discursivity and materiality as well as the gendered politics of hylomorphism, or the form–matter distinction. Thus, antilock formulations of gender and sexuality are actually essential rather than subsidiary to the metaphysical figuration of matter, objects, and animals that recent critical theory hopes to dislodge. (Jackson 9)

. . . the task before us is realizing being in a manner that does not privilege the very normatively cohered by notions of abject animality and the discursive–material plasticity of black(ened) flesh. (Jackson 19)

. . . antilock animalization is not merely a symptom of speciesism; it is a relatively distinctive modality of semio-material violence that can be leveraged against humans or animals (Singer 6, 18, 83). [Jackson 23]

Slavery, then, simultaneously exhausted the lungs and bodies of the enslaved even as it was imagined and operationalized as that which kept breath in and vitalized the Black Body. We, now, are living in the wake of such pseudoscience, living the time when our labor is no longer necessary but our flesh, our bodies, are still the stuff out of which “democracy” is produced.

What is the word for keeping and putting breath back in the body?

Sharpe 112, 113

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