Models Monday: Sovereignty

I recently finished reading Kevin Quashie’s wonderful, engaging, and provocative book, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. The work challenges the presumption that publicness and resistance are the sole categories for conceptualizing black life. Quashie offers “quiet” as a concept for expanding the terms of how black humanity is lived. Resistance, according to Quashie, requires that black people live in response to the gaze and the concerns of the public world. He writes:

So much of the discourse of racial blackness imagines black people as public subjects with identities formed and articulated and resisted in public. Such blackness is dramatic, symbolic, never for its own vagary, always representative and engaged with how it is imagined publicly. These characterizations are the legacy of racism and they become the common way we understand and represent blackness; literally they become a lingua franca. (Location 92 in Kindle)

Quiet, however, enlivens black humanity:

The idea of quiet, then, can shift attention to what is interior. This shift can feel like a kind of heresy if the interior is thought of as apolitical or inexpressive, which it is not: one’s inner life is raucous and full of expression, especially if we distinguish the term “expressive” from the notion of the public. Indeed the interior could be understood as the source of human action–that anything we do is shaped by the range of desires and capacities of our inner life. (Location 97 in Kindle)

Quashie does not minimize the value of resistance and the important work that has emerged from this concept and the work still to come, but he contends that there is more to life than this. As he notes:

After all, all living is political–every human action means something–but all living is not in protest; to assume such is to disregard the richness of life. (Emphasis mine; Location 107 in Kindle)

The Sovereignty of Quiet is a wonderful read. Quashie’s close reading of texts illustrates the possibility for “the richness of life” to reference nonmaterial aspects and dimensions of being. As an example, Quashie cites this very compelling moment in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha where the title character reflects on participants in public life who prize such recognition over their interiority. Brooks writes:

How people could parade themselves on a stage like that, exhibit their precious private identities; shake themselves about; be very foolish for a thousand eyes.

She was going to keep herself to herself. She did not want fame. She did not want to be a “star.”

To create–a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone: great. But not for her.

What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other.

She would polish and hone that. (Quoted in Quashie Location 660 in Kindle)

Brooks’s insight and presentation of someone who has another idea about what counts as a worthwhile way of being in the world is dazzling in its ostensible simplicity. She offers a set of goals that are widely achievable. As Toni Morrison says about “in sight” in Paradise, achieving what Maud Martha wants from life and what she wants to give “is free and available to anyone who wants to develop it.” Quashie contends that Maud Martha’s work of polishing and honing herself reflects a valuable sense of self-regard. In commenting on Maud Martha, Quashie offers an insightful way of regarding the significance of her desire to “donate” a “good” version of herself:

For sure, donate implies simplicity and inferiority, especially when one considers that Maud Martha only wants to be “good,” and not “great.” But donate also implies a gift, as in a gesture of good will that Maud Martha chooses to make. For her to donate her goodness is a profound act; it suggests that she has something to give to the world, a gift so unique and needed that it cannot be purchased–it has to be granted by an act of generosity. (Location 664 in Kindle)

Maud Martha is a very interesting woman. You wonder how she came to be that way; how she came to regard her way of being in the world as meaningful; how she became sovereign. From what Quashie posits about quiet and the cultivation of a private world, these components are essential for being human and being free.

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