The Woman Shaping a Generation of Black Thought

Sharpe gave me a tour of the artwork in her home, much of which is the byproduct of a collaboration. She is an art critic and has contributed to the monographs of some of the most important artists of our time, including Leigh, Jafa, Dawoud Bey, Alison Saar, Jennifer Packer, Martine Syms and Theaster Gates. There was a drawing by Saar and a painting by Cauleen Smith. A framed print called “Vanishing Act,” by the artist Kara Walker, caught my eye. In her first book, “Monstrous Intimacies,” Sharpe writes extensively on Walker’s work to reveal how society is programmed to default to racist narratives. Sharpe and Walker are connected through their mutual desire to understand the “disfiguration of blackness and whiteness” and the consequences of denying our shared complicity in the way the past still shapes the present.

In Walker’s print, a woman kneels before a rapt audience, devouring a small child. The title refers to a sleight of hand, a trick performed by a magician, but the vanishing in this image involves cannibalism. The setting — a stage — and their dated clothing — petticoats and stockings — recall minstrelsy. The hands of both figures, even the person being eaten, are relaxed, complicating the relationship between exploiter and exploited. The work in Sharpe’s office, like many of Walker’s famous prints and sculptures, is devoid of color. One could make assumptions about the figures and their respective races, but the only clues are drawn from historical characterizations of Black people (the older woman is wearing a head scarf). Over the last two decades, Walker has been attacked by critics for reproducing racist tropes, but that outrage is misdirected. It is the presuppositions that viewers bring to the work that are so repellent, not the figures themselves. In “Vanishing Act,” it is impossible to tell who is the victor and who is the victim. Only their acceptance of what they’re doing, and perhaps the pleasure they’re taking in doing it, is truly legible.

The more time I spend with Sharpe’s work, the more it inflects my ways of seeing the world. According to Sharpe, Blackness is anagrammatical, meaning that the structures that order language, thought and society become disordered — if not destroyed entirely — when they encounter Blackness. “Her work has shown that we, as Black people, are the foils of humanity,” Frank B. Wilderson III, author of “Afropessimism,” told me. “If humanity defines itself against us, what does it mean for us to live every day as the anti-human?”

In my daily life, I’ve been interrogating headlines, interactions, film, TV and visual art with a radar attuned to the frequency of Sharpe. The Kansas City Police not immediately taking Andrew Lester into custody after he shot Ralph Yarl in the head for ringing his doorbell — the wake; watching Justin Jones and Jim Pearson get pushed out of the Tennessee House of Representatives — the hold; Angel Reese, a Division 1 college basketball player for Louisiana State University, being villainized in the media for her behavior on the court, yet still pulling down 10 rebounds, carrying her team to victory in full lashes and polished nails — the hold, the ship and wake work; companies using artificial intelligence to create Black music and Black models for free labor — the ship, the hold and the wake.

In 1948, Sharpe’s parents, Ida Wright Sharpe and Van Buren Sharpe Jr., moved from West Philadelphia to Wayne, Pa. “They wanted what they both imagined and knew that they did not have,” she writes. A home big enough for the family that would eventually grow to six children, a yard, access to good schools and proverbial opportunities. Her mother worked in a department store and her father was a mail sorter and chef. Sharpe was born in 1965. Her eldest sibling was almost 22 years her senior, and by the time her sibling who was closest in age went to college, she was 11. It was lonely. “I mostly felt like an only child,” she said.

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