Breath, Silence, Quiet: Some Thoughts on Black Culture Now
Kevin Quashie, a professor of Africana studies at Smith College, discussed issues of the idea of blackness and social perceptions of that identity in a Hamilton lecture on Oct. 13, and ultimately concluded that the idea of blackness is rooted in social and historical prejudices, especially those relating to resistance and belligerency.
Quashie has written two books on the subject: Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture and Black Women, Identity, and Culture Theory: (un)becoming the Subject. This lecture was the second installation of the Days-Massolo Center’s semester-long series on media and movements.
Quashie began by showing how the idea of blackness has been overtaken by public discussion, sometimes leaving little room for interpretation by individuals. For example, blackness has always come into conversations relating to education, the justice system, neighborhoods, and public spaces. Further, Quashie noted, race would be a discussion in the democratic debate later that evening. This public discourse on race leads to an idea of blackness, which “doesn’t have any fidelity to any one person.” This is incredibly problematic, as it forces black people to either fit a mold that society shapes and changes over time, or to be marked as “different” or “other.” Quashie described this phenomenon with the metaphor of the idea of blackness being a dress. Some days, it fits and you are proud to wear it. Other days, “it’s foisted on you” and it doesn’t fit quite right.
This cultural idea of blackness, Quashie explained, is that black people are “expressive, dramatic, loud, defiant [and] resistant.” This cultural conception is “dangerous,” he claimed, because it creates a symbol of blackness that is “largely irrelevant to any specific person that is black.” Furthermore, this way of thinking is dehumanizing and racist, as it assumes and perpetuates ideas that are unsupported and unsubstantiated, ultimately condensing millions of people’s personalities and identities into one false caricature.
The last of the symbolic features, resistance, is perhaps the most important to how black people are portrayed in mainstream media and conversation. Quashie argued that, for example, we now see simple images such as hoodies as symbols of resistance just as we often view pictures of scarred backs of slaves as symbols of resistance. While these may be fair perspectives, this way of thinking causes us to lose sight of the humanity of the people behind the symbols. We “forget the humanity” of Trayvon Martin and the humanity of slaves because we are too focused on this caricaturized picture of what their lives meant.
In concluding, Quashie posed a question to the audience: how would a concept of “quiet” change what we think of black culture? Quashie believes that “Quiet,” the “quality of being inward,” is inevitable in society. If this were the case, he argues, the idea of blackness would not be “shaped by publicness” but rather would be shaped by the “inner reservoir of thoughts, fears, desires” of every individual.
In other words, if we permitted ourselves to change the way we view blackness from something that is public discourse to something that is truly only defined by every individual, as we tend to view whiteness, we’d be allowing ourselves to live in a less racially-charged and racially divided society.