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Research & Inquiry September 19, 2012

Kevin Quashie on “The Sovereignty of Quiet”

In his book, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, published this year by Rutgers University Press, Kevin Quashie, associate professor of Afro-American studies, 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 the book.

Gate: How do you define your concept of Quiet?

Kevin Quashie: 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).

Gate: How did you come to embark on scholarly treatment of the topic of Quiet?

KQ: I think I have been interested in Quiet for much of my conscious life, though I certainly didn’t 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.

Gate: What might we in society learn from the examples in your book of Quiet’s magnitude?

KQ: 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 unconscious assumption.

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.

Again, 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.

Gate: What role does Quiet, as a paradigm, play in your life? Have you used Quiet or related concepts to engender an outcome? The result?

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.

But, 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.