By Mackala Lacy
Last month, my alma mater, the University of California, Irvine, hosted the African Black Coalition Conference, a large scale event dedicated to the education and community building of Black students within California universities, state schools, and community colleges. The annual conference is held at a different UC campus each year and is unique to the host’s vision. Irvine’s 2015 theme was entitled, “Educating Minds, Revisiting Society”, and was structured to present workshops calling its participants to consider “Where We’ve Been”, “Where We Are”, and “Where We’re Going”. I was fortunate enough to be asked to return to present a few workshops for the conference, and in turn was given the opportunity to join the various lectures and exhibitions.
One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Christina Sharpe, who presented a discussion titled “Black Life, Annotated” composed of four parts, “Defend the Dead”, “The Transatlantic, How a Girl Became a Ship”, “Anagrammatical Blackness”, and “Aspiration”. There was not a single part of this discussion that was not writhing with life/death, but it was in her closing section that held me. Aspiration, for Sharpe, was an expression of “bringing breath back into the body”, a departure from traditional idealizations of achievement or a sort of upward mobility. She encouraged the room to take up practices of self and communal care, naming this “Wake Work”.
Wake work, and all of the water it carries, has haunted me since this conference. I understand it as the healing and care of Black bodies in the wake of the ship, in the survival (if we can call it that) of the Middle Passage. Sharpe called the room to defend the Dead; the Living Dead and the Dead who walk without a material body. As I begin my own practice as a healer, I have stopped to meditate on this defense- if there is a possibility of restoration after the slave ship, and if so, what does it look like? How many bones can it mend and how many miles of flesh can it suture? How does it extract the blood from the water and restart the heart, or reverse the atrophy of organs? Can those who have been permanently marked by the Middle Passage, those suffering under the condition of Blackness, ever breath again?
A corpse cannot ever “breathe” as we understand it, but it can (somehow) aspire. This is a critical notation which marks the particular position of those living under a very real threat of imminent death. The violence perpetrated against Black flesh wears it to exhaustion. To heart failure. To premature labor. To depression. To amnesia. To death. The insistence to call breath back into the body is not an imagining or fantasizing of a returning to life, but a method of finding a sustainability in the stumbling gait of the waterlogged corpse. It is a return to the original site of violence and allowing oneself to be baptized, to wade in the water. To survive.
What are the stakes of disregarding this work? What do the Dead have to lose? By taking care of ourselves, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually we are then better prepared and able to enrich and defend our communities. As those subjected to a constant and gratuitous violence, it is absolutely necessary for Black folks to incorporate a methodology of daily self care for both the psychic and physical realm. One must find a practice of healing to use during immediate moments of violence, a practice to wash the blood drawn from the day, and a long term practice to sustain the body for “life”. There must be a practice for both pain and joy. To consider our flesh of value worth effort, to love and care for Black flesh, is a revolutionary act. Wake Work is revolutionary. To deny ourselves care is to deny a Divine responsibility. To exist as Black flesh, singularly and as a community, care is nonnegotiable.
Sharpe poses a very real demand. Self care is personal and its possibilities are endless and fluid. In immediate moments of stress one can utilize a conscious pattern of breath or a mantra to regain focus and reduce anxiety. At the end of each day, sit in silence for 15 minutes or take warm bath with oils. Begin a physical practice such as yoga, running, or dance and attempt to incorporate as many fruits and vegetables in your diet as possible. Surround yourself with people who are willing to love and support you. Start your morning with an intention, go to bed and reflect on your day. Take time to be alone and also take time to commune with your loved ones, living and dead, named and unknown. Make time for your hobbies and passions. Whatever feeds your soul is what must be done.
It should be noted there is no end goal or answer presented here. I do not work to color the waters with a hope that in our baptism we will wash off the mark. But a dedication to self and communal care is an honoring of ourselves. Wake Work is both a mourning and a celebration with very material and psychic results. With consistent reminders of our existence in the ship’s wake, I ask that we strive to actualize Wake Work, whatever the manifestation, and to aspire, because we cannot, in fact, breathe.