Writer Christina Sharpe visits Pomona Art Museum to discuss dangers of circulating racist history

A museum wall with two rectangular posters and a line of text above that reads "Longing on a Large Scale." Two benches are placed in front of the wall, with multicolored pillows on top of them.
Writer and theorist Christina Sharpe advocated for more considerate museum curation in her talk Oct. 24. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Esteemed scholar and writer Christina Sharpe kept her audience on their toes at the Pomona College Museum of Art last week, closing the gap between theory and personal experience with striking imagery and prose.

Sharpe, author of “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects” and “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” visited the museum Oct. 24 to give a lecture about similar themes in her current book project, “Black. Still. Life.,” which explores the importance of care in museum and memorial curation.

Sharpe invited the audience to play with the title of her next book, stating that it could be read as Black Still Life, Black Life Still, Life Still Black and so on.

My project attends to the myriads of ways that black life under pressure is still being lived,” Sharpe said. “It’s concerned with stillness in all of its noun and verb meanings.”

Sharpe shared an excerpt of her project which explored memorials of slavery like the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery and how they interact with our current era. 

“How do you attend to lynching when actual lynching is ongoing?” she asked the audience. “How can you move on from something that has actually not stopped happening?”

Discussing the ways in which memorials fail to enact care for their viewers by circulating or reproducing potentially traumatizing images, Sharpe extended that often missing regard to her listeners.

As she spoke of the colorized triptych of a lynching which adorns the outside of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, Sharpe chose not to share an image of the triptych with the audience.

Sharpe cautioned against the repercussions of visitors taking pictures outside the museum, and the harm it can inflict if introduced to a greater audience through reproduction and circulation.

“That image, which is one of violence and pleasure for the lynchers and the gathering crowd of thousands that witnessed the lynching of Henry Smith, circulates yet again,” she said. “I want to think about what it might mean … that this image circulates and becomes part of … a post to Instagram or Facebook to let others know ‘I was there’ — with a historical lynching photograph proscribed.”

The use of language to discuss the violence done against black people without reproducing it in the text is typical of Sharpe’s writing, which she acknowledged is part of her interest in playing with words to create a full picture. 

I’m interested in the multiple meanings of a word and what happens when you try to hold that space open and think through all of them,” she said. “I have this terrible habit where I [write] ‘with/and’ because that is how I think. I’m not always satisfied with just saying ‘with’ when I actually mean ‘with/and’ … I’m always trying to capture enough meaning.”

When asked who inspires her writing, Sharpe noted Toni Morrison as well as young people in particular doing freedom-expanding work across the world. 

“I’m inspired by all people who try to make space for black people to breathe,” she said.

At the event’s close, students waited to take pictures with Sharpe and have their books signed. Some expressed that the event ended too soon.

Roberto Sirvent, a visiting assistant Pomona College politics professor, agreed.

“There was a part during the lecture where she said, ‘How am I doing on time? Should I keep going?’ All of us in the room had the exact same thought: ‘Please don’t stop. Please.’”

Sirvent explained that he found Sharpe’s presence at Pomona significant because she could help students understand the concept of the afterlives of slavery, and how they manifest even in archiving slavery’s history. 

“In short, [the theory is that] slavery is not some event of the past … that ended with so-called emancipation,” Sirvent said. “Rather, slavery and anti-blackness is a structuring force in the U.S. and the contemporary world … Sharpe helps us theorize [that by] revealing the violence behind the disciplines [of history].”

Tadius Frank PO ’23 walked away from the event knowing more than when he came in, saying that Sharpe’s talk was “an insightful awakening on how accounts of slavery have been tainted by racist historians.” 

Adia Clarke PZ ’23 was particularly struck by Sharpe’s ability to share difficult truths.

“[What] she writes was intended to make us feel uncomfortable,” she said. “[It makes] us question the role we are playing in the wake of slavery.”


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