A Genealogical Transgression of Quiet

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

His caramel-colored, light-brown skin and six-foot, one-inch frame stood tall as he stood on the steps of the United States Capitol. On the 20 January 2008, Barack Obama stood with his left hand on a bible and his right hand raised as the presidential Oath of Office was administered by Chief Justice John Roberts. Some people might not be aware of the imagery that this symbol portrays. The very day that President Barack Obama took the Oath of Office to signify his coming into presidency, exemplifies the climax to a journey that began over forty-six years ago. At the opposite end of the National Mall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presented his “I Have a Dream” speech about racial equality for the future, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

While the symbolism of President Barack Obama standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is a landmark in history that is a victory for the African American community, it took away from the other “main line succession in African American leadership” (NPR). Certain leaders during the Civil Rights Movement expressed more of an essence of quiet in their fight for more rights for the African American community. Leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, embodied an aesthetic that greatly reflected on the black power movement. With the visualization of the symbolic mirroring portrayals of Martin Luther King as the quintessential front-runner of a movement that fought to end segregation and provide equality for the African American community and Barack Obama as the pivotal peak in achieving the rights that African Americans and their ancestors fought so hard for all those years ago, the presence of quiet in black culture is slightly suppressed. The fact that most people in the United States look to Martin Luther King, Jr. as the sole leader of the Civil Rights movement, says something about the way people define quiet in its role throughout African American history in the United States. This results due to “a consequence of this historical significance of public expressiveness, resistance becomes the dominant idiom for reading and describing black culture” (Quashie 331). The non-violence forms of resistance, over time, became the new defining activism that defined quiet for the African American community.

Analyzing the era of the Civil Rights Movement and reflecting on the variations of expressive quietness will help to understand that the Black Lives Movement currently occurring. The Black Lives Matter movement is lacking in its true essence of black power and its ability to exude quiet. The symbol of black power is so quintessential to the embodiment of quiet.

This seems to indicate a greater historical and lexical flexibility in the meaning of quiet, and to suggest the relative limitation of quietude. Furthermore, “quiet” appeals to me because it is more colloquial. In choosing a word to engage as a metaphor for the expressiveness of the interior, I wanted a term that was accessible and that had enough connotative flexibility to take on one more meaning. (Quashie 330)

Kevin Quashie, an educational scholar, is known for his definitive stance on the true meaning of quiet and its position within black culture. The movement of today’s society can learn a lot from the movement of the twentieth century. Prominent people – such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X – are prime examples that are commonly known to demonstrate the interlude of quiet and contrast with the lack of quiet in today’s African American community. There is a legacy to behold in the way that quiet evolves and quiet has been placed on the back burner to the stereotypical passive resistance of some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s much more intentional proceedings. Taking the words straight from Quashie, quiet can be understand with a sense of clarity:

Quiet, then, is the expressiveness of this interior, an inexpressible expressiveness that can appear publicly, have and affect social and political meaning, and challenge or counter social discourse, though none of this is its aim or essence. That is, since the interior is not essentially resistant, then quiet is an expressiveness that is not consumed with intentionality. It is in this regard that the distinction between quiet and silence is more clear: silence, in a purely denotative sense, implies something that is suppressed or repressed, an interiority that is about withholding, something hidden or absent; quiet, more simply, is presence. (One can, for example, describe a sound or prose as quiet.) It is true that silence can be expressive, but its expression is often based on refusal or protest, not the abundance of the interior described above. The expressiveness of silence is often aware of an audience, a watcher or listener whose presence is the reason for the withholding. This is a key difference between the two terms because in its inwardness, the aesthetic of quiet watcher-less. Finally, quiet is not necessarily or essentially stillness; in fact quiet, as the expressiveness of inner life, can encompass and represent wild motion. (Quashie 334)

With a clear understanding of quiet, the interrogative lens to reevaluate quiet in a modernized context can be explored. One important key factor to remember is the connection that people within the African American community embrace. During the era of the Civil Rights Movement, people were close. There was a sense of unity that bonded people together. Skin color didn’t matter because all were discriminated against and disrespected. Today, people are more distant from one another. There is an internal violence within the African American community. Black on black crime is a problematic issue that must be dealt with in order to seek change in the way other races treat people who are racially black.

The imbalance of power between the two groups meant that their understanding and interpretation of each other’s motivations were often vastly different. So, while an owner might see a slave’s suicide as a form of revenge, the slave saw it as an honourable way of escaping unendurable suffering. Abortion and infanticide were not murder but a gesture of mercy, a way of sparing a beloved child from the horrors to come. Running away was also seen through a very different lens. (Stuart 217-218)

Trying to escape a life of enslavement through death is a graphic illustration of quiet. There is a more personal and inward understanding that death was equivalent to the desired notion of freedom. Following the Civil War when slaves finally garnered their freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the African American community continued to experience a life of cruelty that forced them into an atmosphere of silence. Silence because there was still an instilled fear. Yet, the African American community did not allow fear to hold them back from embracing their pride in their skin complexions, cultures, and heritage. There was unison throughout to hold them together to quietly speak to one another that they were strong, determined, and united. After the Civil Rights Movement, so much had drastically changed for the fate of the African American population. From being enslaved, to achieving, what seemed like, full equality, people began to break away. There was no longer this united front to push further. A break in the generational advancement of quiet has disrupted, not only the legacy of quiet, but also the true meaning of quiet in black culture.

Teeth showing in a smile so wide it almost distorts her face, Michelle Obama embodies the elegant and eloquent essence of black womanhood in America as she stands as First Lady of the White House. Her presence is not appropriately conversed as an embodiment of quiet. Without realizing or speaking on it, Michelle Obama represents a strong, loyal, intelligent African American woman who can stand independently while also having a complete family. The Obama family, indirectly, acts as a model of African Americanism for white America. While Michelle Obama is not a direct advocate for the Black Lives Matter campaign her position of power resembles that of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Virginia Durr was struck by Mrs. Parks’s appearance as she walked out of the jail, “‘It was terrible to see her coming down through the bars, because…she was an exceedingly fine-looking woman and very neatly dressed and such a lady in every way – so genteel and so extremely well-mannered and quiet. It was just awful to see her being led down by a matron’” (Theoharis 75). Mrs. Parks did not purposely decide to get arrested when she refused to move for a white man on a bus. No, she was simply standing her ground for her own, personal, self. She was tired. Tired in a double entendre type of manner: tired after a long hard day of work and tired of consistently having to battle the oppression of the white man. Mrs. Parks interiorly embraces quiet. Mrs. Parks always kept herself together despite what others may have thought. Not knowing that on that day she would be asked to move for a white man, nor knowing she would refuse and get arrested, Mrs. Parks was just simply being Mrs. Parks – a black woman. She was dressed in her usual, mundane attire than represented who she was. When she was seen leaving the jail, the public chose to idolize her, but she had not asked to be idolized. In order to garner respect from her male and female peers, she deliberately respected herself. Being aware that hair could turn into a sexuality problem, she chose to wear her hair under a hat and pulled back by a hair pin. Her she did this for own self. She valued and respected herself, and realized that there was only one way in which others could do the same. She wanted to maintain a sense of privacy being “aware of the racial politics of hair and appearance, Parks kept her hair long in an act of love and affection (even after Raymond died) but tucked away in a series of braids and buns–maintaining a clear division between her public presentation and her private person” (Theoharis 14). Michelle Obama, for her own personal reasons, chooses to relax her hair in a way that complements the European normativity of hair styles. However, her presence, like that of Rosa Parks, consumes a quiet quality. There is no doubt that Michelle Obama embraces her African Americanness; though she does not publicly announce it, it was clear when she took the stage in April 2015 to deliver a supremely inspiring speech at the Black Girls Rock Awards. Quietly, she not only demonstrated the need to look at black women, but to also better integrate black women into society.

When asked what gave her the strength and commitment to refuse segregation, (Rosa) Parks credited her mother and grandfather “for giving me the spirit of freedom… that I should not feel because of my race or color, inferior to any person. That I should do my very best to be a respectable person, to respect myself, to expect respect from others, and to learn what I possibly could for self improvement.” (Theoharis 1)

Her reason for her strength and commitment to refuse segregation is devoted to her mother and grandfather. This is a personal and internal motive. Today, people are more selfish and do not applicate credit where credit is due. Appreciation appears to be of little importance to a lot of people, and perhaps that is society’s fault. Nonetheless, a part of the reason why the essence of quiet has been void in the current status of black civil rights is because people have lost touch with their inner passions and motivations.

Store owners look out to see who all has made an appearance for the big sales. Flabbergasted, they look out to see a much smaller crowd than ever before. Meanwhile, many of African American families are at home, protesting Black Friday. Surprisingly, those who chose to stand as a united front and not shop at these white-owned businesses engage in a motion of quiet. They are demonstrating their pride for the African American community and the importance of supporting not white-owned businesses, but instead black-owned businesses. With all the chaos going on in the world, the first step towards continuing the historical legacy of quiet within the African American community has gone unnoticed. Michelle Obama demonstrated a more personal and individual expression of quiet in speaking and appearing at the Black Girls Rock Awards. Boycotting Black Friday, demonstrates an internal hunger for black pride. Not recognizing when quiet is being expressed is clearly explained by Quashie:

Part of what hinders our capacity to see this quality in their gestures is a general concept of blackness that privileges public expressiveness and resistance. More specifically, black culture is mostly overidentified with an idea of expressiveness that is geared toward a social audience and that has political aim; such expressiveness is the essence of black resistance. In fact the idea that black culture is both expressive and resistant is now so common that neither seems insightful nor requires justification. Of course, central to this thinking is the assumption that all expressiveness is necessarily public. (Quashie 329-330)

By staying at home and boycotting the rambunctious crowds of people at stores trying to score deals, African Americans were quietly supporting black businesses. No public display was demonstrated. Instead families sat home, spending valuable time with their families or attempting to purchase items from black businesses. Due to the fact that quiet is misunderstood in African American culture, it is not hard to conceptualize why people today are ignoring the vital signs of quiet. Quiet is not dependent upon generating societal changes or addressing to a greater audience at large. Noting the one event organized by the Black Lives Matter movement, one can assume that there is hope for further progression of quiet. Bringing an awareness to the principle of quiet will possibly help the African American community come together and show more empathy for the treatment of themselves and others in white hegemonic society.

In this new coming of age world, people are finally beginning to stop living in the past. While it is important to take notes from the past, one should not dwell or be satisfied with what others have done to help advance the community. Observing the ways of the present, one becomes conscious that:

“…we have not been content to live merely on past accomplishments. He who lives only in the past has a doubtful present and an unattainable future.” Laziness resonates throughout the black community. A lazy quietness. While today’s generation is about waiting for a leader, “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (King)

Sadly, and still today, the African American community is being oppressed by white society. The disconnect between members of the African American community and the failure to remain loyal to the ancestors that fought for the current liberty and freedoms, is what has led to the current disastrous situation. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foresaw the state of Black America. His sermons and speeches were not only relevant for the time period he breathed in, but also to all time periods following after his untimely death. Now, people in the black communities within the United States are beginning to take action against the increasingly in your face prejudices of white society. However, people are naïve as to the hard work it takes to not only embrace both inner and outer quiet. Author Jeanne Theoharis alludes to the realness of the naivety of modernized African Americans, “Most Americans now look back in the glow of that new truth, assuming they too would have remained seated, written letters to the local paper, risked their jobs to print thirty-five thousand leaflets, or spoken out in favor of boycotting the buses” (126). It is next to impossible imagining how one would respond when asked to give up a seat to a white person, or risk losing their jobs to print flyer promoting their cause, or speak out in favor of boycotting necessary means of transportation. People are always willing to fight for a cause until it disrupts the natural order of their personal lives. In order to engage in protest as a united front with the community, they must first incorporate respect for their African American heritage and a desire to seek change in their own lives and the lives of their children.

Strategy is key during any movement. Mrs. Rosa Parks was not deliberately selected to sit on the bus and refuse to move for a white man and then jailed and casted as the female matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement. She was simply in right place at the right time, and Black America took it upon themselves to cast her as their heroine. Yet, what is not widely known is the fact that Mrs. Parks and her family were suffering and living in poverty. Mrs. Parks put aside the ailments affecting her family in order to help the greater good. While Mrs. Parks, herself, needed help, she was willing to sacrifice her own well-being and be generous with her time and the little money she owned to further the black community because she saw potential benefits for the future of Black America. Mrs. Parks encompassed the epitome of quiet in being selfless. She put aside her own necessities because she truly supported the black community and its future beyond herself:

While the physical violence the boycotters and leaders endured is an integral part of civils rights history, this economic catastrophe–the sacrifice Rosa’s bus stand entailed for her family and, more broadly, the economic retaliation against civils rights activists–is not as widely recognized. Indeed Parks’s sacrifice–the toll her bus stand took on her and her family–barely gathers a mention in the triumphal story of her journey from Montgomery to the Capitol rotunda. Learning to live with such economic insecurity was excruciating, particularly the paradox for Parks of being “famous” and yet having no money. Additionally, the phone rang constantly with hateful messages…Sometimes she was verbally accosted on the street. The fear of white violence was ever present. (Theoharis 116)

Mrs. Parks is a woman to be idolized for her selflessness. Not many people are willing to devote everything they have, including their well-being, to help others. Nowadays, people are more apprehensive to donating money to people in need. With that being noted, the fate of the black community is at risk if people are not will to donate money to supporting their community in and need, knowing that it could possibly benefit the future of their children and grandchildren.

Quiet is not imperative to African American culture today as it once was. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about the coming together in unison as the future for America, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” African Americans in past centuries were able to make improvements in their place in society because they were determined to give their black youth a better future. They did what they could for the greater good of the black community. Now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, African Americans must realize that “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” (King). While Dr. Martin Luther King made this comment in a speech he delivered referring to black men and women and white men and women, here this same comment applies to the relationship between the black body. In expressing inner quiet, the black community must stop fighting one another, and focus on what matters to them as individuals. Change cannot happen if the individual does not love his/her own self. It is imperative that the black body is respected and valued by the black community above all else and that this underlying action of quiet is expressed in a matter that is found meaning, not to the public, but to the individual and the community by which that individual is a member of. Quiet, has digressed over the years, but with people alluding to its original foundation, like the way Kevin Quashie does in his work, quiet can reestablish as an expressive method of black love and black power in modern day society.

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