An early scene of Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust features a kaleidoscope. Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a photographer hired to chronicle an African American family’s 1902 “migration” to the mainland from the Sea Islands off the Georgia coast, visibly revels in the kaleidoscope’s new technology. Exuberantly, he tells Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), Trula (Trula Hoosier) and Yellow Mary (Barbara O. Jones) the word’s etymology: “Kalos, beautiful; eidos, form, and skopein, to see.” He continues,
“If an object is placed between two mirrors, inclined at right angles, an image is formed in each mirror. Then, these mirror images are in turn reflected in the other mirrors, forming the appearance of four symmetrically shaped objects. …It’s beauty, simplicity, and science, all rolled into one small tube.” [transcribed from the DVD]
Beauty, simplicity, and science.
The technical workings of a kaleidoscope aptly describe the entire structuring aesthetic of Daughters, a film that travels complexly through memories and realities of the Peazant family’s African past, Jim Crow present, and African-American future. Just as the objects placed between mirrors in a kaleidoscope roll about in the tube such that their variously reflected juxtapositions create compelling and constantly mutating patterns, so Dash posits, jostles, resituates, and blurs familiar cinematic languages of American Black experience to create true but startling images. Facts, visions, rituals, hopes, and memories imbricate through simple cinematic choices. The effect is stunning.
This same kaleidoscopic aesthetic structures Christina Sharpe’s recent text, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke, 2016). Slim but elegant and poignant, In the Wake, like Daughters, elicits startling ways of hearing and feeling truths about the Atlantic slave-trade and U.S. chattel-slave economy, traumas that are not simply past and not merely present but complexly both, such that their wake will also complexly—frustratingly, despairingly—continue to shape our national and global futures. Through a carefully crafted repetition of words, images, and episodes, Sharpe pulls readers into the turbulence of her book’s kaleidoscopic roll. Like the words, bodies, photos and events to which she attends, we are rolled round and round, and with each twist of her text, Sharpe throws them and us into a new pattern.
Wake. Wake is the trail of water behind a ship; wake is the marked trajectory of a gun’s recoil; wake is the state of being conscious and aware; wake is the event held before a funeral in celebration of the dead person’s life. This single word-object becomes, in Sharpe’s able hands, a thousand interconnected patterns. And she adds other word-objects to wake’s semantic fullness: ship, hold, and weather–these are the chapters that form the Gestalt and largest objects of her kaleidoscope. “Defend the dead,” “former mother,” “what is the look in her eyes? What do I do with it?”, “partus sequitur ventrem“–these are some of the phrases, names, and events that form the smaller shards of colored glass that roll through Sharpe’s text. You can imagine how simple word-objects can take on breathtaking complexity through Sharpe’s use of a kaleidoscopic technology of juxtaposition, reflection, and rolling repetition.
So much needs to be said about this book, but I start here, with a single observation about aesthetics, primarily because Sharpe herself draws attention to a different and more familiar aesthetic. Halfway through her last chapter (on weather), Sharpe evokes the damage wrought by repetition within contemporary media culture. She is discussing Black annotation and Black redaction as two (further) modalities of “wake work” (113), and yet her passage swerves sharply at the end to announce a clear ethical charge to us:
“We have been reminded by [Sadiya] Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it, across or within communities, lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy. Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” (116, bold added)
The powerful success of Sharpe’s book lies in the fact that its form resists this mass culture reification by offering up an affective pedagogy that pulls readers into the wake of the problem (into its currents and vessels and prisons and atmospheres). Readers are both buoyed and bedraggled by the roll and tumble of her text so that by the time we reach this passage we can hear the anguish and profound challenge of the questions she raises for us here. Her own repetitions are decidedly not reifications, they are not the profit-driven means of anchoring and perpetuating colonial traumas but instead move more like a natural rhythm. They toss us into the churning roll of the “beauty simplicity and science” of a kaleidoscopic aesthetic.
Because Julie Dash compares filmmaking to jazz, inevitably Ralph Ellison’s use of jazz motifs in Invisible Man came to mind as I was reading In the Wake. But what the form of In the Wake really reminds me of is the fourth part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2004 magnum opus, 2666 (“The Part about the Crimes”). For some 300 pages, Bolaño drags his reader through relentless, agonizingly specific, and detailed descriptions of the murders of 112 women and girls in Santa Teresa, Mexico between 1993 and 1997. Loosely based on the disappeared girls in Ciudad Juárez (where some 340 females were murdered between 1993 and 2003), reading or listening to this part of 2666 is a horrifying fall into helplessness. The pattern of death is interrupted–and therefore spared from reductionism or reification–by the meticulous detail provided by the narrator’s descriptions: The body was wearing this and such, it was positioned in this way, it was found at this hour by these people in this location; the victim had been raped this way, and that way (at one point the narrator wanders into the police lingo for the different number of ways a girl can be raped); the cause of death was this, or maybe that; the girl was identified (or not); the girl had lived at home/run away/worked at a maquiladora/been a prostitute; the girl’s boyfriend/father/stepfather was taken in for questioning; the case was soon shelved as unsolved. The singularities clinging to the repetition are the essence of its grotesque horror, which in the end has less to do with the deaths and more to do with the fungus of impotence and indifference that grows up around them and cheapens a reader’s sense of her own worth, decency, or even agency.
Sharpe’s book, too, leaves us with soggy complicity. But it’s good to be woke (or at least prodded to be so).