Kevin Quashie: Perhaps the simplest way of saying it is that I often say to students that “one” is the philosophical pronoun. It’s the pronoun through which philosophers imagine and conceptualize ideas. And if we imagine that every human being lives in the world, or could live in the world, through that pronoun case “one,” then I think it offers something that goes beyond the problems and maybe even the fallacy of individuality that the pronoun “I” offers. So I love the idea of “one,” even as — and I agree with philosopher Hortense Spillers who says that the idea of a one, the idea of oneness, or the pronoun case “one” in Black culture is hard to achieve because of the ways in which Blackness is so readily conceptualized as something that’s collective, that’s something that’s public, that we have a hard time imagining a case of “one” when we’re thinking about Blackness.
Amanda Anderson: So much of the book is taken up with richly textured readings of poems and first-person essays. I’m wondering if you could perhaps share one of the literary examples that you focus on in the book and talk us through it a little bit.
Kevin Quashie: I’d be happy to do that. I realize now, too, as I was responding to the question about “one,” I might just add — which is relevant to the poem I will read — that part of what I love about the idea of “one” is the right to complexity, and opacity, and ambivalence. All of those things that constitute what we might say is the right of the human. Well, this is the poem — one of the poems that open, the poem that opens the book. It's Lucille Clifton’s “Reply.” It's an untitled poem as Clifton's poems are often untitled, though it is often referenced by the first line. It's from her 1991 collection Quilting [BOA Editions].
The poem opens with an excerpt, an epigraph, or a paratext of a quotation from a letter that was sent to W.E.B. Du Bois. And so I'll read the poem as it exists on the page, though the listener should know that the block that I will start with, the quotation, is a block of text, almost a rectangular block of text, and then the rest of the poem is a singular stream down the page. That’s important for beholding the visual aesthetics of the poem.
“From a letter written to Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois by Alvin Borgquest of Clark University in Massachusetts and dated April 3rd, 1905.” Quote: “We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects. 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears …” End quote.
This poem, this poem — one of the reasons I wanted to start the project with this poem is there is an elegant simplicity here, and yet there’s also a gesture towards a totality that cannot be captured in the poem. I read that gesture, especially in the last three “they do / they do / they do,” as if we are being invited to then imagine what is not yet rendered through verbs on the page: other kinds of doings that surpass, that dance off the end of the page of the poem.
I also love the repetition in this poem, not just the repetition of the pronouns — first, “he” and “she,” and then “they,” “they,” “they” — but also the alliteration and assonance that may make us aware then that this is not a random catalog — “flee,” and “bleed,” and “weep” — all of a sudden you hear the resonance of the connection between those words — “moan” and “mourn.” And of course, the pleasure for me in the long “U” of “do,” “do,” “do.” The incredible rhythm in this poem — “he do / she do” [marks each syllable, each beat with a tap] — that two-beat rhythm that is sustained so beautifully and yet is modified as it goes along because what we’re being offered are different verbs, some of them intransitive verbs, all of which are pointing towards different experiences of being in a world of ordinariness, and joy, and harm.
The last thing I will say about this poem — though I could say much more — is I also love that the orientation of the speaker doesn’t turn necessarily to respond. It doesn’t say “we do.” That is, the speaker doesn't imagine themselves — herself, if we presume that the persona in the poem is an approximation of the poet — the speaker doesn’t say “we” as if to orient a world that’s organized against the terrible question. The speaker is engaged in watching this world of wondrous doing as if we are being invited into a scene that’s somehow different from the expectation of reply that’s set up by the terrible question. There’s something about the speaker's — almost a display, almost as if the speaker is an emcee watching this wondrousness and pointing it out. There’s something about that.
And maybe the recouping of the word, that third-person pronoun ”they” — recouping it so that it no longer has maybe some of the barbed quality of objectifying that it can have. Maybe it's a different kind of objectification that’s being rendered, an invitation to look differently and maybe to look better at the wondrousness of this group. I love this poem.
Amanda Anderson: Well, that was a beautiful discussion of the poem. And it's interesting to hear you talk about the ways in which that reply enacts a kind of refutation, but cannot be put into the category of formal refutation, and that connects up to something else I just wanted to draw you out on. At one point during one of your readings of an essay you write, “I find inspiration in the way that the first-person essay tries to dispense with argument and tarries instead in the study of a moment” [p.105]. What’s important to you about moving away from argument as a mode?
Kevin Quashie: I think if I'm going to take seriously the idea that a concept of the “one” is a concept that’s available to every human being, then I perhaps take seriously my sense of the humility, as well as the ferocity of what I, Kevin, am trying to do, which is I'm just trying to pursue and understand a way of being in the world from the standpoint of the things I encounter and experience and how those encounters and experience allows me then to project beyond myself.
So that important in the project is my thinking about relation, and relation not as a practice that instantiates us to be oriented to the other, but that demands of us that we be prepared for the encounter with the other. That is, there is something — I’m going to use a word that I don’t often like — there’s something of a kind of invitation to self-reflection — who am I, how am I, and how ready am I to meet the world out there? — such that in reflection is an invitation to surrender.
A young junior scholar pointed out to me that it was rare in my writing that I used the phrase “I argue,” and in fact, I don’t think I use that phrase. Maybe a part of it is a little bit of personal obstinacy: I don’t feel I’m arguing. I'm not interested in arguing anything about what I understand about reading, engaging texts. I’m interested in trying to pursue a line of thought and really moving with thinkers and artists who enable that line of thinking as best as possible, and for me to see where it takes me.