Christina Sharpe's form-defying memoir Ordinary Notes explores the Black experience — read an excerpt now
Ordinary Notes is shortlisted for the $75,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Ordinary Notes is Christina Sharpe's latest work of nonfiction which explores the complexities of Black life and loss through a series of 248 notes which intertwine past and present realities. Through her literary form, Sharpe writes of the influence of her mother, Ida Wright Sharpe, and combines multiple voices on the many ways to experience Blackness.
Sharpe is a Toronto-based writer, professor and Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University. Her previous book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, was named one of the best books of 2016 by The Guardian, and a nonfiction finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
Ordinary Notes is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $75,000 prize is awarded annually to the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced at the Writers' Trust awards gala on Nov. 21, 2023.
You can read an excerpt of Ordinary Notes below.
I've been thinking 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.
We lived in a town that used and hated and feared its Black population. I grew up in Wayne, Pennsylvania, at a four-way intersection: rich white folks in three directions and a small Black neighborhood in the other. One bright, sunny summer day when I was eight or nine or ten years old, police from at least two townships, but I think three, descended on and laid siege to my neighborhood. Multiple police cars blocked our streets because a white woman had reported that she saw a Black man driving a station wagon through the centre of Wayne with a shotgun visible in the back. The Black man was named Chicki Carter—and he was really a boy, seventeen or eighteen years old. He was a friend of my brother Stephen. The rifle was a rake, part of the set of tools that Chicki used for the yardwork he was doing that summer in order to earn money. We gathered in our front yards, on the sidewalks, and in the road; we ran after the police cars; and we witnessed and insisted loudly that Chicki had done nothing wrong. That day, at least, although there was harm done, it was not immediately fatal harm.
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 space to be precious — as in vulnerable, as in cherished.
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 space to be precious—as in vulnerable, as in cherished. It is through her that I first learned that beauty is a practice, that beauty is a method, and that a vessel is also "a person into whom some quality (such as grace) is infused." Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America was my mother's book. My brother Stephen gave it to her. There is an inscription in it, as there is in every book that we gave each other: Happy Birthday, To Mommy, Love Stephen, 3/2/70.
In the pages of the book is a list on a worn slip of paper. The top of the list is faded from the sun and disintegrating. The list is in my mother's fast cursive—the writing she used when she was making notes to and for herself. My mother's handwriting for the world was meticulous (as in the note to me in the first edition of Beloved that she gave me on my twenty-third birthday). In rebellion against the nuns at West Catholic Girls' who tried to control every aspect of her school life, my mother had created her own beautifully ornate script. This particular list is written on the back of a form that she recycled from her job in human resources at Sears, Roebuck and Co., a sheet of light-blue paper that she tore into strips to use as bookmarks: a lifelong habit instilled in a child of the Depression — use everything, waste nothing.
The bookmark marks the beginning of the chapter Esther from Jean Toomer's Cane. I was a vessel for all of my mother's ambitions for me — ambitions that found their own shapes. My mother made me a purple gingham dress with purple and lilac and blue appliqué tulips. She tried, over many summers, to teach me how to sew: needlepoint, appliqué, cross-stitch, slip stitch. She failed. We failed together. She had a beautiful old pedal-operated Singer sewing machine and when you opened the shallow drawers that ran along the top you found that they were filled with brightly colored and differently weighted needlepoint yarn. I used to love to look at them. I would arrange and disarrange them, stack her thimbles, disturb her order.
I was a vessel for all of my mother's ambitions for me — ambitions that found their own shapes.
When she was dying, my mother still made Christmas ornaments by hand. Unpacking after a move, it was a shock to re-encounter the red felt hearts with the straight pins holding them together, the black felt globe with its own arrangement of pins — the ordinary flat-headed pins, the round red and white and brown heads. My mother's love of symmetry: even the bent pins have a place. It was a shock to encounter them again — the way that beauty shocks. But more. What is beauty made of? Attentiveness whenever possible to a kind of aesthetic that escaped violence whenever possible — even if it is only the perfect arrangement of pins.
I continue to think about beauty and its knowledges. I learned to see in my mother's house. I learned how not to see in my mother's house. How to limit my sight to the things that could be controlled.
I learned to see in discrete angles, planes, plots. If the ceiling was falling down and you couldn't do anything about it, what you could do was grow and arrange peonies and tulips and zinnias; cut forsythia and mock orange to bring inside.
My mother gifted me a love of beauty, a love of words.
My mother gifted me a love of beauty, a love of words. She gave me every Black book that she could find and, in her practice, birthdays always included gifts for the body, gifts for the mind, and gifts for the soul. The mind and the soul came together in books: novels, poetry, short stories, history, art. One of those books was Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters in which Bambara, in the dedication, thanks her mother, "who in 1948, having come upon me daydreaming in the middle of the kitchen floor, mopped around me." In that dedication, I saw something that my mother would do; I saw something that she had done.
My mother gave me space to dream. For whole days at a time, she left me with and to words, curled up in a living room windowsill, uninterrupted in my reading and imagining other worlds.
My mother gave me space to dream.
That window was my loophole of retreat — two feet deep, three feet wide, four feet high — my small public/private place from which I began to imagine myself into another world. The house was an old farmhouse, built in 1804, and there were no right angles in it — everything was on a slope. The windowsill I sat in looked out onto the backyard. In summer that meant cherries and quince, crabapple, greengage plum, four peony bushes, a huge weeping willow that had been struck by lightning, and beyond that the road called Radnor Street Road. There was also a vegetable garden where we grew tomatoes, corn, collard and mustard greens, turnips, kale, carrots, several varieties of lettuce, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, sweet and hot peppers and more. In the winter, you could see the house behind the fruit trees where Chico and Joey lived. Sometimes the house was cold, and then my mother's stacks of newspapers became fireplace logs. And though this was a sign that there was no money for oil, there was an art to making my mother's neat paper logs: roll the paper, tuck one edge in, roll a little more, tuck the other edge. That way they wouldn't come undone. That way we wouldn't come undone.
Beauty is a method:
reading in the windowsill
running after the police
a list on a slip of paper in a book
the arrangement of pins in cloth
the ability to make firewood out of newspaper
This attentiveness to a Black aesthetic made me: moved me from the windowsill to the world.
Excerpted from Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe. Copyright ©2023 Christina Sharpe. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.