Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jayna Brown reviews Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being

Kevin Quashie. Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2021. 248 pp.

Review by Jayna Brown

15 April 2021

With warmth, wonder, and grace, Kevin Quashie communes with black women’s writing—poems, novels, and essays by such authors as Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Hortense Spillers, Lucille Clifton, Barbara Smith, Jamaica Kincaid, Dionne Brand, and June Jordan. Quashie is not writing about these writers but writing with them. His granular close readings abide with them and form a poem in themselves, or an exquisite essay, as his narrative form demonstrates his theory of black worldmaking. Quashie’s intellectual breadth and generosity are also evident in his prodigious endnotes, which furnish a third of the book. These notes provide a sense of the broad and deep theoretical dialogues he is a part of and make even more pointed his intentional centering of the black female subject. Black women writers’ works—some familiar, some not as often read—are the generative source through which we can affirm a black aliveness, a poetics of being.

Quashie insists on black aliveness as a rich and dimensional interiority. In his reading of Clifton’s “reply,” which echoes throughout the first half of the book, his call is to “[encounter] black being as it is, in its beingness, in its terribleness and wonder and particularity” (p. 5). Quashie recognizes contemporary black pessimism for its attention to slavery and coloniality and their persistent afterlives, as is so starkly evidenced by the racial violence of our current moment. But for Quashie “antiblackness is part of blackness but not all of how or what blackness is” (p. 5). Quoting Christina Sharpe, Quashie reminds us that “we did not simply or only love in subjection and as the subjected” (quoted on p. 8). His “argument for aliveness is not a sharp detour” from contemporary black pessimism but gently refuses to be bound by its proscription (p. 13). He writes: “Today there is no reconciling the facts of our lives, which seem tethered to death, and the case of black aliveness. Both have to be true at the same time” (p. 13).

Being, for Quashie, is always a verb and is always relational. It is about becoming and becoming with. His ontological assertion is not founded in the concepts of possession or dominance; selfhood is not produced through a binary and antagonistic dialectic. “Ontological dilemma is not in regard to not-being or being-against, the ontological dilemma as such exists is being,” he writes (p. 11). To be is not to close off, seal up, for “one comes into being through open relation” (p. 21). Being is, as Quashie calls it, intersubjective. But it is also not subordinate to a collective self. Quashie insists on our heterogeneity––that to have a politics, which is to say an ethics, does not require subsuming our own first personness.

I found great relief in Quashie’s formulation of the concept of “oneness,” which he insists is “not akin to individualism” (p. 53). I have long had anxiety over how to consider self, interiority, and volition in ways that refuse the liberal humanist tenets of possessive individualism. How to consider the self-organizing unit that is my body, mind, and affective experience?

In the early 1990s, reading Lacanian feminists Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Toril Moi, and the like, we learned that I was a phallic symbol for patriarchal domination, the imposition of the Law of the Father with the power to delimit the ontoepistemological horizon for us all. As a young black Marxist, I then learned to understand I as the symbol of acquisitive domination. I have been recently drawn to some new materialism, with its mandate to decenter the human, the ultimate I of the planet, which is destroying everything through its anthropocentric hierarchical approaches to the rest of the world, organic and inorganic. Individuation, the claiming of a self, has therefore remained for me a fraught enterprise.

Quashie’s book has shifted decades of denial, distancing, and suppression for me, not by rescuing the I, but by giving me one, the becoming, the relational. In a powerful reading of Morrison’s Sula, Quashie brings the term subjunctive into being. We make what is possible through embodied knowledges (not to be confused with experience, which in some hands has had a trivializing effect by buttressing the racist idea that we are defined by our bodies and immediate needs, drives, and emotions and lack the facility for abstract thinking, reason, or conjecture). “You are poiesis being brought and bringing oneself into being,” Quashie writes. “This oneness is subjunctive inhabitance” (p. 44).

In dealing with my ontological anxieties, I have dreamed of dissolution, a release into the elements of the universe of which we are all made. But even if we mingle with the stars we are still left with particles and forms of relation between these particles. What an aha! moment for me, reading Quashie: “Relation is not a dissolving into the other but a capacity to become more and more through the relation” (p. 44.) How freeing and wonderful. To relate, to mingle, is not a dissolve but a proliferation.