Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Being
Duke University Press, 2021
Reviewed by Daisy Guzman
In Black Aliveness, or A Poetics of Being, Kevin Quashie imagines a Black world in which one can reimagine Black being as it is rather than only as it exists in the shadow of antiblack violence. Within Black Studies and Black life, death is the focal point of theory and social movements. Quashie uses poetry and layered readings of Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Evie Shockley, among others, to show how their philosophical and creative thinking constitutes worldmaking. Using both fiction and poetry to articulate Black living through creative methods, Black Aliveness becomes another register of Black thought that is parallel to Black Death. Guiding readers into rethinking their approach to Sharpe’s wake work and how we discuss the notions of Black life, Quashie thinks through how aliveness determines the complexity of liveness as a quality, a notion, and as an aesthetic in a world that is constructed on the foundation of antiblack discourse. Quashie challenges readers familiar with Black literature, Black poetry, and the work of Black women to reimagine a Black world that grapples with being alive rather than operating in a cycle of death and despair.
This project is not an argument against Black pessimism but a framework that acknowledges the work and moves in spaces of joy to imagine a Black world. Quashie challenges readers to reframe how we read and engage in language through the creative worldmaking of Black texts, in particular Black feminist texts. Reading, as we see in the articulation of Quashie’s poetry selection, is a method and a form of active care work. How we read Black literature still somehow subconsciously is framed in a world that still centers the white gaze and the silencing of Black voices. He speaks back to what Toni Morrison said about Black fiction: fictional literature can tell us who we are and the complexity of our being. The Black text is not just for the Black reader; Rather, the labor of reading as a Black person is to engage language and the ways that we as Black people reckon with speaking of Black life, Black being, and Black aesthetic that surpasses the limits on the Black subject in literature. Quashie continues to ask for a method of active reading that leans into the complexity of the Black subject in a Black world. We are more than black things in an antiblack world.
Each chapter provides literary examples of self-regard and aliveness in text. Chapter One, “Aliveness and Relation,” articulates aliveness as the force of and in being, akin to the mode of existence. Aliveness is an experience seen in the language we use to create a sense of relation. As Quashie engages with Martin Buber’s I and Thou alongside Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, aliveness becomes an inevitable tool for navigating the Black world. In the work of Black women, we as Black people see evidence of our aliveness and the potential to become something that did not exist before. Quashie articulates aliveness as a type of poetic that is not shaped by socio-political power dynamics but by relationality. While providing citations and well-articulated references to the theoretical frameworks of the social sciences, he brings us into a deeper understanding of the grammar and purpose of language in the work of Black feminist writers. Although rarely seen as theorists with a capital “T,” Black women have shaped and guided us on how we understand relations in a Black world. Relation is really an invitation to an exchange of vulnerability within a community. Yet relations within and outside of this particular constructed community exchange just “is.”
In Chapter Two, “Aliveness and Oneness,” Quashie’s articulation of oneness plays with language in a way that challenges the definition of one as a pronoun and one that is synonymous with individuality through the pronouns in the poetry of Lorde, Clifton, and work of Black women across disciplines. Black women engage in a form of belonging and reclaiming of space through their use of I and one to declare themselves and shape a black female relationality. In this chapter, his politics of citation are grounded in the sense of Black being as belonging and a type of blackness that is regarded as a collective experience. Some of the well-known moments of declaration of aliveness, of survival, and first-person include Clifton’s “Won’t you celebrate with me,” Jordan’s book title All the women are white, all the men are Black, some of us are Brave, and Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” These texts are some of the works mentioned in the chapters that have the audacity to declare their presence, voice, and being.
Chapter Three, “Aliveness and Aesthetics,” approaches the stanza and structures of poems as forms of conjuring. The spaces and use of repetition create a world that can be felt like a type of spatial practice. Quashie’s readings pay particular attention to the self in personal essays and the first-person speaker in poetry that declares and validates experiences. The way these women write has an intimacy and fullness that Quashie does not want us to take for granted. He also turns his attention to how we read, and who is reading vs. who is the subject is made clear. In order to understand the openness of the writer, it is essential that the reader enters the space just as open to this world that aims to shift traditional ways of knowing.
Quashie continues to work through the function of the personal essay in Chapter Four, “Aliveness and Two Essays.” He states that amongst the different genres, there is a particular essence in essay writing that inhabits a raw sense of aliveness, framing “The black essay as a textuality, a materiality, of black being and becoming.” In thinking of aliveness through personal essays, Quashie presents examples of the speaker’s oneness. In these essays, these speakers must grapple with the discovery of their own voices. Using various examples of short essays, Quashie shows how essay writing is a practice of aliveness. As in poetry and novels, the personal essay also ignites a sense of curiosity and asks questions that require a sense of care and grace.
Quashie underscores the significance and overall impact of creating these worlds. In Chapter 5, “Aliveness and Ethics,” he presents moments in literature in which how to be is the essential question that guides the speaker. Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) is a prime example of the unresolved and unresolvable methods of ethics. The shape, style, and the use of grammar in Black women’s writing create an aesthetic that invokes a deep relationality. He closes this chapter by returning to the poetry of the first chapter as if challenging the reader to re-read with a new perspective.
Quashie insists on Black aliveness as a rich and dimensional interiority of being. Aliveness can serve as a guide for reading and writing across disciplines. To think of the quotidian lives of Black people, how do we move away from centering the struggle of the antiblack world? We do this work by reading and re-reading, by playing with the grammar of being. This is how we center the lives of Black people beyond the wake, to think about a future that is more than methods of survival. In thinking of this sentiment, I imagine a world where Black people are seen as already indigenous instead of foreign, displaced, and dispossessed. Through an Afro-Indigenous lens, the notion of belonging and aliveness is an experience of being in relation to the land. Black aliveness through the Afro-Indigenous lens requires a nuanced reading/listening of performance, personal testimonies, and oral histories; even the pauses in the oral histories are moments of reflection. Kevin Quashie’s book provides a blueprint for alternative methods of reading and studying Black life, Black worldmaking, and Black relationality.