Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Ethic of Quiet: Beyond the Black Public Self

[By Goyland Williams]

It is 1968. Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman stand poised during the Olympic medal ceremony in Mexico City. Both Smith and Carlos’ heads are bowed-as if in deep prayer, their clinched fists are raised high, and their black bodies are on display for all the world to see. And while this public protest may be read as both intimate and resistant, it is the latter that is received as the dominant read of black culture. Beyond the boundaries of public expressiveness, the concept of quiet may also inform and articulate the depths of one’s humanity. So begins Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture.

Black culture is largely defined as resistant, loud, and dramatic. In a word, expressive. And while resistance may be the dominant expectation we have of blackness, Quashie makes the case for an Ethic of Quiet- an ethic that expands and transcends the boundaries and limits of blackness.  For what is at stake in Quashie’s strong read, is a case against “the limits of blackness as a concept” but more so, an invitation to consider and value the “inner life”.

Several literary works immediately come to mind when I think about the idea of quiet, not as passive and apolitical, but understood as the very source for human action. Most poignantly, is an example from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. After Jody slaps Janie for burning dinner, Janie “stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was” (67). While this may not seem like an act of resistance or agency, it is a space where Janie finds herself in a moment of stillness that is filled with change. In her moments of waiting, she discovers that “she has a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about” (68).  Quashie cautions against a reading of Janie as merely being acted upon, but as a sovereign agent whose waiting is active, reflective, and powerful.

Moving beyond  narratives of blackness as solely resistant is a worthy pursuit in and of itself. Because in those narratives, a dominant read emerges as the essence of blackness. To consider the inner life is not only an alternative read, but a more holistic approach to the black public self. 

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