The present essay grows out of an engagement with a single line from Amiri Baraka’s 1964 book, The Dead Lecturer. In the poem “Rhythm and Blues,” Baraka writes, “The people of my life / caressed with a silence that only they understand.” The line appears amid a long improvisation on the iconography of black vernacular life. In the middle of this cacophony of frantic chant and scream, Baraka posits silence, and not speech, as the condition of black cultural distinctiveness. In doing so, he presents a vision of black vernacular culture that does not privilege orality and expression but instead deems silence to be essential in the construction of a black commonplace. Baraka posits three interrelated forms of black silence: the silence of oppression, the silence of resistance, and the silence of social optimism. In the perceived absence of expression, the poems from The Dead Lecturer communicate a history of systematic violence, of fugitive withholding, and of communal goodwill. To borrow a phrase from poet and critic Fred Moten, they articulate “an intimacy given most emphatically, and erotically, in a moment of something that, for lack of a better word, we call ‘silence.’”

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