Issue #105 Beauty Is a Method

Beauty Is a Method

Christina Sharpe

Issue #105
December 2019

Beauty is not a luxury, rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical act of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque, and the love of too much.
—Saidiya Hartman

Words set things in motion. I’ve seen them doing it. Words set up atmospheres, electrical fields, charges. I’ve felt them doing it. Words conjure. I try not to be careless about what I utter, write, sing. I’m careful about what I give voice to.
—Toni Cade Bambara

a container (such as a cask, bottle, kettle, cup, or bowl) for holding something
a person into whom some quality (such as grace) is infused
a watercraft bigger than a rowboat; especially: ship
a tube or canal (such as an artery) in which a body fluid is contained and conveyed or circulated
a conducting tube in the xylem of a vascular plant formed by the fusion and loss of end walls of a series of cell
More than flesh, a body—your “beat and beating heart.”

I’ve been revisiting 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.

With all of the work that my parents did to try to enter and stay in the middle-class, precarity and more than precarity remained. That precarity looked and felt like winters without heat because there was no money for oil; holes in ceilings, walls, and floors from water damage that we could not afford to repair; the fears and reality of electricity and other utilities being cut due to nonpayment; fear of a lien being placed on the house because there was no, or not enough, money to pay property taxes. But through all of that and more, my mother tried to make a small path through the wake. She brought beauty into that house in every way that she could; she worked at joy, and she made livable moments, spaces, and places in the midst of all that was unlivable there, in the town we lived in; in the schools we attended; in the violence we saw and felt inside the home while my father was living and outside it in the larger white world before, during, and after his death. Though she was not part of any organized black movements, except in how one’s life and mind are organized by and positioned to apprehend the world through the optic of the door and antiblackness, my mother was politically and socially astute. She was attuned not only to our individual circumstances but also to those circumstances as they were an indication of, and how they related to, the larger antiblack world that structured all of our lives.

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 center 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, while there was harm done, it was not immediately fatal harm.

Knowing that every day that I left the house many of the people that 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 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 is 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 instead 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 list:

Before the Mayflower ($3.95)
Malcolm X: The Man and His Time ($5.95)
*The Negro Handbook ($8.95)
A Pictorial History of the Negro in America ($4.95)
What Manner of Man ($4.95)
This Child’s Gonna Live ($4.95)
*Contemporary Art in Africa ($7.25)
Black Political Power in America ($6.95)
Black Power U.S.A ($5.95)
The White Problem ($6.95)
Confrontation: Black and White ($6.95)
To Be Young Gifted and Black (Lorraine Hansberry) ($6.95)
Black in White America ($5.95)

The bookmark marks the beginning of “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 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.

When she was dying, my mother still made Christmas ornaments by hand. It was a shock on re-encountering the red felt hearts with the straight pins holding them together, the black, felt globe with its own arrangement of pinsthe ordinary flat-headed pins, the round red and white and brown heads. My mother’s 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. She gave me every black book that was published—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.

Some books I read in that windowsill: The Collected Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar; The People Could Fly; Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America; Jane Eyre; Bright April; The Life of Ida B. Wells: The Woman Who Killed Judge Lynch; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Little Women; Song of Solomon; The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

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.

Literature, Aesthetics
Racism, Blackness, Beauty, Memory
Return to Issue #105

Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of Brick: A Literary Journal.

Christina Sharpe is Professor at York University, Toronto in the Department of Humanities and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. She is the author of two books, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) and Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (2010), both published by Duke University Press. She is currently working on a monograph: Black. Still. Life.


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