Every so often, you come across a passage that makes you thump the arm of your reading chair and yell “EXACTLY!” Below, Eli shares 10 quotes he’s found particularly significant.
“A question–from other black writers and readers and a voice inside me now began to hover over my work–Why do white people like what I write? The question would eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did. Either way, there was a lesson in this: God might not save me, but neither would defiance. How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you? What does the story you tell matter, if the world is set upon hearing a different one?”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Eli says: This question is central to so much of TNC’s work and a big part of why I think his tone is so important in his writing – he gives the sense that he knows people are reading, but not necessarily understanding his writing.
“Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that this pronouncement ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind.”
— Rene Descartes, Meditations, Objections, and Replies
Eli says: Cogito ergo sum is so familiar now that it seems simplistic, but Descartes was a true visionary for codifying this idea in words, and in the context of blackness/otherness and the American history of who is considered “human,” this statement has new gravity.
— Langston Hughes, The Panther and the Lash
Eli says: Self-explanatory – Hughes at his most radical, economical, lyrical.
— Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
Eli says: This quotation from Fanon is eerie to consider in light of Matt Taibbi’s new book, I Can’t Breathe, and the tragedy it details: the strangulation of Eric Garner.
Eli says: Just one example of the strength and depth of Rilke’s poetry – even in translation we are treated to rhyme, rhythm, and macabre meditation.
Eli says: One of my favorite passages from one of my favorite poems – Seamus Heaney [the translator] does a wonderful job of maintaining the rhythm and alliteration of the Old English verse, while lending the language a modern, familiar flare.
“As you see it it is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare-history, time-as-coffin; but where the water was rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It’s coming, my brother. . . . Though you murder the world, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it: The world will burn green, sperm build again.”
— John Gardner, Grendel
Eli says: Like Gardner’s entire novel, Grendel, this passage is a beautiful and strange piece of writing that sticks in the mind and reveals as much as it conceals.
“‘In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them–‘
‘You beat them.’ For a moment she was not afraid of his understanding.
‘No, you don’t understand. I destroy them.'”
Eli says: Card borrows and streamlines an idea from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and puts it into terms that a child can understand on a profound, visceral level.
“Don’t tell them ‘no.’ Don’t let them see you mad. Just say ‘yes, sir.’ Then go ‘head and do what you want to do. Might have to take a whippin’ for it later on, but if you want it bad enough, the whippin’ won’t matter much.”
— Octavia Butler, Kindred
Eli says: An attitude that is necessary and applicable in so many avenues of life.
“The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
— Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Eli says: A beautiful, profane portrait of divine femininity that isn’t constrained to the classically “feminine.”