with Kevin Quashie, associate professor of Afro-American
his book, The Sovereignty of Quiet:
Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, published this
year by Rutgers University Press, Kevin Quashie, [title],
explores the concept of quiet as a different kind of expressiveness,
one that reflects one’s deep interior life and shapes the
outward, public persona. African American culture is often
considered expressive, dramatic, and even defiant, notes
Quashie. Quiet is a metaphor for the inner life, and as
such, enables a more nuanced understanding of black culture.
Quashie will discuss The
Sovereignty of Quiet on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 4:30 p.m. in Neilson
Browsing Room. He recently responded to questions about
do you define your concept of Quiet?
I try to make a distinction between the way that we commonly
use the term “silence”—which is often imagined as something
that is withheld or as absence--and the idea of Quiet, which
I think of as a quality of being, as a manner of expression.
Quiet can describe something that is vibrant—for example,
one can say that a song or a novel is quiet. Quiet is
a certain quality of being and it is this quality of
being I am interested in. I know that silence can be
expressive too—one can communicate something by not speaking,
or by withholding. But, for me, the difference is the
way that Quiet seems to represent a kind of inwardness,
the vast feelings and thoughts and desires of one’s inner
life; the expressiveness of Quiet is not about suppression
or reservation…it is an expressiveness that is interior.
I think that these ideas about
Quiet reflect a particular dynamic of the way that race is
tethered to publicness—race
is a concept that is formed and contested in public discourse.
But it also reflects the way that publicness is such
an important feature of American culture as a whole.
Part of it has to do with the significance of publicness
(public spaces but also the way that notions of publicness
are key to what it means to be a free citizen).
did you come to embark on scholarly treatment of the topic
KQ: I think I have been interested
in Quiet for much of my conscious life, though I certainly
always think of the term as I do now. I am inclined to
be shy, to be observant, I like to study moments, people,
and situations quietly. But I also know how to be social,
I know how to overcome or compensate for shyness. Indeed,
it has been important for me to do this, since there
are ways that quiet can be misread (in general, but also
specifically in terms of race and gender, for example).
So the interest is very personal, almost psychological.
Even as the book is not memoiristic, its shape is deeply
personal: I am a child of quiet.
But there is another
formative moment—when I started reading work by black
women writers (and other women of color) in the early
1990s. I was struck by the fact that in many of these
works, race and its social meanings were important but
not necessarily paramount, that the representations of
black life was not over-determined by racial discourse.
The lives of black people, in the imaginations of these
writers, were broad and multiple and complicated. So
I started to think about what it meant to think about
black life through some other framework, not one that
ignores the enduring significance of race and racism,
but one that imagines that there is an expansiveness
to the humanity of a black person. I have been thinking
about this idea for a long time, and in a variety of
ways, some of them casual, some of them deliberate. And
though I played around with other terms that might serve
as a metaphor to help me organize my thinking, none of
them ever seemed as capable as Quiet, a term which locked
itself into my consciousness sometime in 2002.
might we in society learn
from the examples in your book of Quiet's magnitude?
I think that we can become a little more aware of the ways
that we tend to understand or interpret blackness, interpretations
that are pretty unconscious and that are made within black
culture but also from outside of it. For example, resistance:
resistance is so readily identified with black culture—it
is a commonsense notion that black culture is expressive,
dramatic, even defiant…characterizations that all point toward
the notion of resistance. Resistance is such a powerful idiom
in how we think about black culture, that it is a nearly
And while I am not arguing against
resistance (I mean, organized and informal acts of resistance
have been legendarily important to American history,
never mind to black people’s experience), I do think
that the prevalence of understanding black culture through
the framework of resistance actually keeps us from being
able to see/notice black humanity; it is as if black
people have no inner life, as if their being only conjures
up a social narrative of racism and the resistance of
racism, violence and the triumph over violence.
I don’t think that we have to give up appreciating the
ways that resistance (and its related terms) play a vital
part in black American history, but I also think that
we can be careful about the ways that resistance serves
as such a dominant catch-all for thinking about blackness.
Sometimes it feels that for all of the ways that our
thinking about blackness has changed, that the equivalence
between blackness and resistance is not one of them.
role does Quiet, as a paradigm, play in your life? Have you
used Quiet or related concepts to engender an outcome? The
KQ: Ah, I was intentional about
not making any personal or biographical references in the
book; my life is not interesting enough to be useful in this
way. But more than this: I was trying to avoid the idea that
Quiet might be connected with behavior—as
if it were a synonym of silence, a kind of inaction or
a less-expressive and less-attractive action; I wanted
Quiet to stand as a concept, a habit of being, a metaphor
for the wildness and wideness of one’s inner life.
of course, Quiet, in all kinds of forms, is deeply important
to my life, to how I think about my life and how I think
about what kind of human being I am, am becoming, want
to become. There are ways that my racial identity (not
alone but in concert with gender and other identities)—the
way race seems to shape how people interact with me—is
in conflict with what I might call my Quiet. That is,
I spend a lot of time thinking about and through my inner
sensibilities, which organizes much of how I live and
try to live; and yet, this self-concept is often different
from the ways that ideas of race seem to shape some of
my social experiences.
Here’s one specific way that a
notion of Quiet has been useful to my life: being aware
of the power of publicness in our society has allowed
me to build, consciously, an ambivalent relationship
to publicness, to try to find ways to manage the impact
of publicness in my life. And I don’t just mean professionally—managing
public contexts or expectations—but personally, too.
I am always looking for the intimate aspect of any public
situation, since I think that the intimacy helps me to
be more honest, more free, more capable in whatever interaction.
This has informed my teaching in the classroom, for example.