Black People Work So Hard to Speak Out That We Forget How to Embrace Quietness
Tope Folarin's "A Particular Kind of Black Man" helps us navigate the difference between being silenced and not being forced to speak
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To be Black in America is to be many things.
We live in a moment where this is nearly a given. From novels like Luster to variety shows like Random Acts of Flyness, it’s increasingly clear that describing Blackness is like holding water in cupped hands—it’s something fluid that will seep through your grasp. And yet, there is one trait that tends to linger. So often, to be Black in America is to be defined by speech. This means refusing to be silenced, to vocally claim the right to be Black and exist freely.
There is an almost heroic beauty in thinking about Blackness this way. A nation within a nation forged through speaking truth to power. However, this uplifting refrain leaves much unsaid. While speech is essential for obtaining social justice, coupling Black identity to expression also forecloses other ways of being. Blackness becomes a lived experience always oriented outwards and locked into a prescribed register of defiance. The possibility for another type of justice—the freedom to not have to speak—is muted.
For Black men in particular, this dissonance takes on a unique tone. From the outset, men are already socialized to be aggressive in their voice, to never accept being silenced. Black masculinity is written with this grammar in mind, and when left unexamined, it reproduces itself in further acts of silencing. It dominates discursive space, often at the direct expense of Black women and non-binary folks. And this is notwithstanding the reflexive harm. An identity propelled by expression leaves little room for introspection. You’re seldom encouraged to be quiet.
One of the foremost thinkers of quietness is Brown University professor Kevin Quashie, who in 2012, published The Sovereignty of Quiet. Noting the limits of fastening Black identity to a performance in the public sphere, Quashie’s work seeks to forgo racialized and gendered expectations of expression. Instead, he asks: what about quietness? Not silence—as silence implies “repression,” “withholding,” an “act of concealment”—but rather quietness, because this is when the mind lies in repose. It’s in quietness that we can breathe and privately sift through our thoughts and emotions—a key piece in what it means to be human. And so by reducing Blackness to oral expression, we fail to grasp the full expanse of the Black self. In his smooth and succinct writing, Quashie implodes our idea of Blackness and in turn, Black male identity. The focus shifts inward, and we’re brought to wonder: what does it mean to be a Black man and quiet?
Tope Folarin’s A Particular Kind of Black Man offers an answer to this question. Published in 2019, Folarin’s debut novel is about Tunde Akinola and his upbringing as a first-generation Nigerian American. The story follows Tunde and his family as they move from city to city in the Southwestern United States, eagerly grasping for some semblance of their American Dream. The promise of possibility hums throughout the book. Tunde’s father starts a modest, but successful, ice cream truck business. Tunde and his brother, Tayo, grow enamored with the best of ‘90s hip-hop and R&B. Tunde attends Morehouse College and falls in love. However, the dream quickly dissolves into an illusion. Tunde’s mother is overwhelmed by schizophrenia in the face of a lonely reality that could never match her hopes for America. She returns to Nigeria, swiftly replaced by a distant stepmother. Tunde’s father can neither sustain his ice cream truck business nor hold down a steady job. As Tayo later reminds Tunde, “we eventually moved to Texas because Dad was convinced that, as he put it, he would never be anything more than a n*gger in Utah.”
Then there is Tunde himself. “I am black, I can’t change that,” he bluntly acknowledges, “but I had no idea of how to be a black American.” And as he grows up, Tunde is not given the space to investigate nor inhabit his own notion of Blackness. Instead, he is forced to become “his [father’s] idea of the perfect black man.” Tunde remembers:
Following [my father’s] lead, I created a template for the kind of black man I wanted to be. I studied the way that Sidney Poitier held his head when he spoke. Tall, erect, proud. I studied Hakeem Olajuwon’s walk, loping and graceful. I studied Bryant Gumbel—he always seemed so poised during interviews, and sometimes after I finished watching him on TV I’d run to the bathroom and practice asking questions as if I were him.
Here lies the tragic topos in A Particular Kind of Black Man. Tunde’s earnest emulation of figures like Sidney Poitier and Bryant Gumbel—actors, performers—is not incidental. It is Folarin’s potent critique of respectability politics and how it intersects with expression. Tunde has been marshaled into performing a constricting standard of Blackness: one defined by its palatability to white America.
It might feel easy to fault Tunde’s father for setting these expectations. However, he is also a character clearly deceived by the American charade, who wields speech as a necessary defense mechanism. Tunde’s father presses upon his children, “People can say anything they want about the way you look, about your skin. But if you learn to speak better than them, there is nothing they can do.” He so desperately wants the country’s promise to be true, where hard work and being the “perfect black man” will preserve his son. This move brings to light the transactional demands placed on immigrant communities, which so commonly masquerade as innocuous aspirations. To succeed in America, you must assimilate, even when the cost is your own sense of self. Folarin thereby locates the kaleidoscopic pressures faced by Tunde. He has been handed society’s script to a tripartite role—Black, American, man—and is expected to perform the part. The problem is: he’s been given no freedom to improvise his lines.
As the novel progresses, Tunde gradually struggles with the fact he’s become a man who does not believe in the self he has created, but must still perform as that person. Time and time again, his ingrained tendency to dissemble has left him unable to access a stable sense of identity. And as a result, Tunde at first unsurely, then undoubtedly, experiences a series of mental episodes. This psychological unraveling is deftly transmitted through the novel’s form. The narrative cadence shuttles between the first, second, and third person. Scenes are peppered with fugue-like recollections and ambiguous double memories. Folarin slips seamlessly between the past and present tense, leaving us occasionally unsure about what events have actually transpired. Yet, one certainty emerges from this formal fray: Tunde yearns to double back and create an ego detached from society’s expectations for a particular kind of Black man. As the sociologist Erving Goffman famously claimed, “A back region or backstage may be . . . where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course . . . Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines.” Folarin thus exposes us to a psyche without this backstage.
Or at least at first glance, there seems to be no backstage. A Particular Kind of Black Man is pocketed by chapters where Tunde phones his grandmother in Nigeria. Transcribed in lilting italics, their exchanges reveal a familiar back-and-forth, while also inadvertently brushing upon the profound. “All I’m saying is how can I know you are real when I never see you?” Tunde questions. As his grandmother lovingly prods her grandson with further inquiries about his life, Tunde slowly unmasks and reveals his feelings of dissolution and double memories. To this she responds, “Has it occurred to you that these other memories are showing you something important about your life? . . . Before you discard them or assume you are sick, why don’t you allow them to speak to you?”
With Folarin’s hypnotic prose, it is sometimes unclear whether Tunde’s grandmother actually exists. However, this surreal vagueness is vital. Even if he might be speaking to himself, Tunde is granted the space to speak inwardly during these conversations. Here, there is no need to project someone he is not. He is working through repressed emotions and bubbling questions that naturally arise when contemplating the self. There is no exaggerated performance, no anxious proclamations, but rather an honest interrogation of subjectivity. In such moments, A Particular Kind of Black Man speaks for itself; sotto voce. Folarin’s deployment of italics is akin to a fermata in a symphony; a pause where we’re meant to parse meaning from the quietness. There are other moments in the story where quietness briefly reigns. Yet it’s these phone conversations and their hushed tenor that best limn Tunde’s interior. This alone is not enough to preserve him wholly. We only sense some sort of resolution in Tunde’s character at the novel’s end when he travels to Nigeria and reunites with his mother. But, the whispered interludes with his grandmother—or his own subconscious—at least provide a reprieve from the totalizing pressure to be a particular kind of Black man. It offers a quiet retreat backstage.
And in effect, we see the novel’s stakes. Folarin vividly illustrates the psychological ramifications of an identity rooted in constant expression. Societal and interpersonal pressures have conscribed Tunde into a public-facing performance without giving him the chance to wander within and explore who else he might be. The novel presents an example—albeit staccato—on the emergent possibilities for Black men if encouraged to be quiet. Rather than resting Black masculinity on an expressive caricature, it pulls back the curtain onto a potential life away from the stage, a life of discreet humanity. “An aesthetic of quiet is not incompatible with black culture,” Quashie attests, “but to notice and understand it requires a shift in how we read, what we look for, and what we expect, even what we remain open to.” Literature is a site of redefinition where bordered expectations become porous, and ideas of the self are subject to change. However, these changes can only occur once we learn to hear what is said both loudly and softly.
This is an urgent project not solely for Black men’s sake. In her New York Times review of the novel, Elaine Castillo remarks on how, “The dilemmas of diaspora as they intersect with masculinity have corrosive effects on not just selfhood but intimacy.” The compulsion to speak hinders Black men’s capacity to engage truthfully with the self but also with others. And although Blackness is not a monolith, Black folks are still in community. A Particular Kind of Black Man offers glimpses into how else Black men can be for themselves and in turn, for those around them. Neither a feminine nor masculine aesthetic, quietness is a balm; a capacious ethos suitable for releasing the constrictive pressures of Black masculinity. It’s a challenge that must be taken up because not all that one is, will be found outside.