Archive | Class RSS for this section

Radio de Acción: Violent Circuits, Contentious Voices: Caribbean Radio Histories

2386681295_604e7f56fa_b

Radio Accion2

This month Sounding Out! inaugurates a four-part series slated to appear on the Thursday stream into May entitled “Radio de Acción”: Broadcasting in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Cornell Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature Tom McEnaney.

Tom has been a key contributor to SO! over the years — check out his articles on Orson Welles and Twin Peaks, two excellent and vivid pieces I wish I could’ve written. We’re excited to have Tom as our guide to the many frequencies of Latin American and Caribbean radio, helping us “tune North American antennas South for a while,” as he proposes in his series introduction below. Gather round, dear listeners, I think the transmission’s about to start …

– SCMS/ASA Special Editor Neil Verma

It’s difficult to keep the radius of radio within national boundaries. Or so it has often seemed in the Americas. The first Argentine broadcast, on August 27, 1920, transmitted a performance of Wagner’s Parisfal that accidentally reached ships in Brazil. Border radio in Spanish and English has bled across the frontiers between Mexico and the United States since at least the early 1930s. And if listeners from Alabama to Washington State tuned their shortwave receivers right in the early 1960s, they would have heard the exiled civil rights activists Robert F. and Mabel Williams’ famous tag line: “You are tuned to Radio Free Dixie, from Havana, Cuba, where integration is an accomplished fact.”

In Spanish, “radio” can mean the sonic broadcasting it denotes in English, but also radium, the spoke of a wheel, a radius (and the bone of the same name), an orbit, or a sphere of influence. Our series title, Radio de Acción, plays on an inter-linguistic pun, which takes the “radius of action” or “area of operations” the phrase connotes in Spanish, and thinks of radio broadcasting as changing the cultural, historical and political fields it engages through particular types of “radio action.”

Acknowledging language’s role in widening or narrowing that radius, the four posts in this special series help tune our ears to a diversity of voices from Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the next few months Radio de Acción will explore the multilingual history of radio in the Caribbean, an Aymara / Spanish talk show in Bolivia, a Cuban-born writer’s radio dramas produced in German, and the Spanish / English radio program Radio Ambulante, which its creators describe as “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational.” Featuring posts from Alejandra Bronfman, Karl Swinehart, and Carolina Guerrero, our series sets out to turn North American antennas South for a while.

I’m especially excited to begin the series by welcoming University of British Columbia History Professor, Alejandra Bronfman, whose extraordinary story of radio in the Caribbean below serves as an ideal overture to Radio de Acción. Don’t move that dial.—

– TM

The most striking example of radio’s power in the political dramas of the Caribbean took place in Havana, Cuba in March of 1957. A group of student activists opposed to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime attempted to assassinate him and simultaneously occupied one of Havana’s most popular stations, Radio Reloj. Locking out the broadcasters, who usually spent the day reading the news and announcing the time every minute on the minute, the activists declared Batista’s death, and their victory. It may be that their plan depended precisely on the uncertainty they created. Whether Batista was actually dead mattered less than the reaction they hoped to incite with their declaration. Batista did not die that day; the students’ plot was foiled; and the attempt ended in death for most of the assailants. However, the failure was only temporary—another group of radio rebels would overthrow Batista less than two years later—and the 1957 takeover cemented radio’s undisputed role as bearer of truth and center of power.

In this post I consider radio’s relationship to violence in connection to its creation of truth, mendacity and illusion. Radio publics in the Caribbean emerged amidst conflict, and, as the 2000 assassination of the Haitian broadcaster Jean Dominique suggests, there is still much at stake in their existence as arbiters of political practice and cultural affiliation.

In the earliest years, radio competed for attention in Caribbean soundscapes full of talk and music rooted in the legacies of slavery. In Haiti, a US occupation (1915-1934) coincided with the development of wireless technology by the US military. Military officials understood the potential of wireless for communication among ships. When US marines landed in Port-au-Prince in 1915, they immediately landed a radio set as well. Although wireless linked the marines to their passing ships, it was not yet a cultural medium sustaining a connection to familiar songs and voices. Haiti was a confusing, disorienting place for many of them: some were disappointed to have been sent there rather than the European front of WWI, others raised in the American South were appalled at the power and status of Haitians of African descent. As remembered by one marine, the sound of Haiti could terrify: “No movies, no radio, none of the features of civilized life to which he was accustomed… Drums boomed continuously. …the drums seemed to him to be the voice of the evil one, always booming in his ears, threatening him, tempting him.”

John Huston Craige, "Black Bagdad" (New York: Minton, Balch and Co, 1933)

John Huston Craige, “Black Bagdad” (New York: Minton, Balch and Co, 1933)

Most confusing of all was the language. 90% of Haitians spoke Kreyol, which is not French, and not like anything the marines had probably heard before. Documents of the occupation record their efforts to turn what they heard as noise into comprehensible signals. They understood how crucial it would be to obtain information from market women, whose perambulations through the countryside, in weekly walks from their villages to market towns, allowed them to gather news and gossip. If they could convince these women to become informants, and then use radio to relay crucial knowledge between strategic points–the terrain was difficult, with paths rather than roads and frequent rain and flash flooding made travel unpredictable—they might somehow begin to locate and crush insurgencies. The installation of radios signaled the Marines’ efforts to exercise control and insert themselves into these circuits of talk and rumor. But results were paltry. Documents from the early phase of the occupation speak to unreliable technology, lack of knowledge about how to use it, its burdensome heft (radio sets had to be hauled by donkeys through the dense forests), and frequent sabotage.

IMG_1531

"Messages relayed to and from Cap Haitien via Ouanaminthe", Entry 173 Chief of the Gendarmerie D' Haiti, General Correspondence 1919-1920, Operations against hostile bandits, RD 127, United States National Archives

“Messages relayed to and from Cap Haitien via Ouanaminthe”, Entry 173 Chief of the Gendarmerie D’ Haiti, General Correspondence 1919-1920, Operations against hostile bandits, RD 127, United States National Archives

They also speak to desperation and macabre inventiveness in the face of fear. Some Marines discovered that they could try getting the ‘truth’ out of Haitians in novel ways. They applied wires from radio sets to Haitian people’s bodies, and shot electric current through them during interrogation sessions, hoping to use their “new media” to simultaneously terrorize bodies and extract information from them. Electrotorture enacted, literally, the relationship between technology, the production of knowledge and imperial violence.

"Rádio que Che transmitia programas revolucionários enquanto estava entocado na montanha" by Flickr user Marco Gomes, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Rádio que Che transmitia programas revolucionários enquanto estava entocado na montanha” by Flickr user Marco Gomes, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The histories of radio played out in different registers elsewhere in the Caribbean. While Haiti eventually acquired a broadcasting station in 1926, there was no local radio in Jamaica until 1939.. British colonial officials, distracted by their bloated empire and feeling the economic pinch in any case, had no appetite for building a local station, though Kingston’s residents frequently called for one. While wealthy residents of Jamaica who could afford shortwave receivers had the world at their fingertips—the BBC, US programs, music from Cuba’s powerful stations—the majority of Jamaicans listened instead to their own voices in songs and popular theater, mostly in Jamaican patois.

As the British Empire relegated Jamaica to the margins, capital, people, and many sounds came from the US. Indeed, strapped British officials conscripted amateur radio operators and their US-bought equipment for state purposes. When passing British ships needed to test communications, they asked amateurs to donate their time and expertise. The most prominent of those, the New Yorker John Grinan, achieved some fame in the ham radio world for his experiments with shortwave radio. A participant in the first exchange of transatlantic signals, and one of the operators who helped relay Tom Heeney’s 1928 boxing match against Gene Tunney between New York and New Zealand (via Jamaica), Grinan lent his technological expertise to the British. When striking Jamaican workers cut telephone and telegraph lines amidst labor unrest in the summer of 1938 colonial officials, lacking access to wireless equipment, asked amateur operators like Grinan to police the rebellion, relaying whatever information they could from their rural stations to Kingston.

In the aftermath, colonial officials hoped the new radio station, created with equipment donated by Grinan, would provide a means of calming the unruly masses through educational broadcasting. But the new station’s programming was so dull, and receivers were so expensive and so unreliable, that few listened. It was only in the late 1950s, through the contributions of people like the actress, writer, and radio personality Louise Bennett that the sounds of patois eased radio’s participation into voluble soundscapes long populated by sound systems, music and talk.

As Bennett joked and chided in patois and local musicians like Bob Marley finally got air time, their performances rescued radio from its elitist roots and people finally tuned in.

By that time in Cuba, both the government and its opposition knew that controlling radio meant wielding power, or at least creating the illusion of that power. Cuba’s commercial ties to the US meant that it took part in its neighbor’s vociferous radio culture. Ads, radios, programs and music crisscrossed the Atlantic and shaped transnational listening. By the 1930s, a large radio public tuned in regularly to radionovelas, music and news available throughout the day. So it seemed to make perfect sense when governments claimed airspace to propagate messages and dissenters tampered with communications networks or deployed underground broadcasts—often from outside of Cuba—to convey their discontent. It was this radio world in which students decided that in order to topple a dictator you needed to occupy a radio station.

General Electric Ad. "Before going to sleep, Pepito and Bebita listen to a story transmitted by their grandfather, from New York or Chicago." "Carteles," January 1923.

“Before going to sleep, Pepito and Bebita listen to a story transmitted by their grandfather, from New York or Chicago.” “Carteles,” January 1923.

Understanding Caribbean radio as a regional history—defined more by circuits and soundwaves than national borders—brings new dimensions to bear on radio histories more generally. Spanning the Caribbean allows me to think about how various listening publics came to be and the contingent nature of those publics. Imperial politics, machines—as instruments of curiosity, desire and violence—and voices converged and diverged in distinct ways to conjure particular publics in particular moments. In order to overcome disturbing origins, radio needed to take part in pre-existing publics. In Jamaica, the inclusion of programs in patois resuscitated a feeble medium. The voices of people like Louise Bennett rendered radio a welcome attraction rather than a patronizing nuisance. In Haiti, radio publics also grew as Kreyol radio plays replaced US-sanctioned programming. Francois Duvalier understood that he could use radio to appeal to many people, drawing them in with celebrations of Haiti’s African roots and Kreyol language. When he became dictator soon after, the publics were already captive. On the other hand, Cuba did not have such a stark linguistic divide. So as soon as radio blanketed the country it could take part in fuelling political rifts. Listening in Cuba meant choosing sides, as all sides spoke through the radio. As the oppositional 1950s turned into the revolutionary 60’s, the battle of voices—the Voice of America, the Voice of Martí, the Voice of Fidel, continued. Understanding the region as a transfer point for empire and capital places the Caribbean at the center of many aspects of the history of communications technologies. It also colors that history with troubling tones whose listeners are long overdue.

Alejandra Bronfman is Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches courses on Caribbean and Latin American history, historical theory and practice, race in the Americas, and media histories. She is currently working on two projects: A Voice in a Box: Media, Empire and Affiliation in the Caribbean, which records the unwritten histories of sonic technologies in the early twentieth century, and Biography of a Sonic Archive, which draws from the extensive career of Laura Boulton to interrogate the use of recordings in the making of a sonic, exotic Caribbean. http://alejandrabronfman.wordpress.com/

Featured image: “Cuba 1619 – 10th Anniversary of Radio Havana Cuba” by Flickr user Joseph Morris, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Decolonizing the Radio: Africa Abroad in the Age of Independence– Samantha Pinto

“Everyone I listen to, fake patois…”– Osvaldo Oyola

Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the “Good Neighbor”– Tom McEnaney

(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin

"Smithfield Horse Fair, Dublin" by Flickr user Admanchester, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note:  This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

We kicked things off last week with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively),  and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.  Today, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe takes readers on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford

Since 2010, as part of my PhD research, I have conducted over two dozen sound walks through the Smithfield Square and its environs, in Dublin’s North Inner city; with teenagers, by myself and through organising deep listening group walks as part of World Listening Day. These walks were designed to encourage the participating walkers to listen intently to this space and compare it to other spaces on the north side of Dublin city. The walks were also designed to examine the changing use and design of the Smithfield space over the past four years. This essay is drawn from the findings of this research, which explored the co-production of space and soundscapes with 84 teenagers (43 girls and 41 boys) from Dublin, Ireland. I include some of their observations of Smithfield Square here.

The Smithfield Square’s redesign began in 1996 as part of an urban regeneration project, and was completed in May of 2013. Smithfield is a traditional working class area, historically connected to wholesale markets, and in recent years it has gone through many iterations. In a push towards gentrification, the Smithfield Square space was ripped up, rebuilt, re-imagined and ripped up again because each iteration of its design proved unattractive to potential visitors/users of this space. According to the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (1991), Dublin City Council considered these users were tourists and new middle class urbanites, not the locals.

Large-scale apartment complexes with business premises on the ground floor, tourist facilities, and an art house cinema were situated alongside smaller, older social housing, flat complexes and wholesale markets within the area. This reshaping of architecture impacts the diffusion of sound in space. It changes what Brandon LaBelle (2010) calls the acoustic territories that demarcate space where sound is no longer attributable to specific spaces or communities. Additionally, since the early 1990s, sounds within Smithfield began to change with the removal or downsizing of certain productive practices, such as the fish and fruit markets. This reduced the kind of traffic, both pedestrian and commercial, which would have moved and sounded through the area. The Smithfield Horse Fair disrupts the area’s soundscape and opens up the possibilities of the space of Smithfield Square for the broader community.

The design of the square, its restaurants, boutique shops and cafes, suggest that the soundscape designed for this space was meant to be a quiet and calm, recreating in the square what Karin Bijsterveld has defined in Mechanical Sound (2008) as the quiet of the middle classes. The sounds produced by the fair are then seen as counter to the types of sensory experiences that, Monica Montserrat Degen argues in her book Sensing Cities: Regenerating Public Life in Barcelona and Manchester (2008), are acceptable to the middle classes, who purchase a type of sensory/sonic experience. However, the soundwalks I describe contest what “quiet” means in the context of the square.

Listening to the Square

The Smithfield square in 2009. All pictures in this post come courtesy of the author, who holds the rights.

The Smithfield square in 2009. All pictures in this post come courtesy of the author, who holds the rights.

The Smithfield Square in 2009

The Smithfield Square in 2009

In 2009 the Smithfield Square, which is laid with thousands of cobblestones, had placed around one side twelve 26.5 metre gas lighting masts, at one end of the square two lines of trees were planted with seating placed among them, and at the other end some large concrete plant pots. The seating located within the trees, attracted groups of homeless people and addicts. As a result, the dominant soundscape during the day was the sounds of men and women shouting obscenities at each other, with the susurration of trees rarely heard over this dominant sound. One of my teenage participants noted, “you always hear people screaming in the background” (Participant 2).

The Smithfield square in 2009

The Smithfield square in 2009

Aside from the shouting voices and loud reflections from singular sound sources within the Square such as the clatter of suitcase wheels across the cobblestones, seagulls screeching overhead, the beeping of trucks reversing and even the sounds of people talking at a distance, the teenagers who participated in the soundwalks defined the space as silent. Their use of the word silent did not mean the absence of sound, but rather an absence of activities, life, general sounds of community, consumption and production.

One sound that dominates the soundscape of Smithfield and its surroundings is the sound of the Luas tramline. The Luas line sits at one end of the Square and the sounds produced are distinctive: there is the whoosh as it passes, the ding a ling of its bells and the sounds of the doors opening and closing. The sound of the Luas echoes around the area from 6 in the morning till midnight. The sounds have become synonymous with that part of the city. The teenage participants defined these sounds as rhythmic, musical, “like a ballet.” For the teenager participants, the sounds of the Luas has been the only constant sound within Smithfield.


Public housing areas surrounding Smithfield

Public housing areas surrounding Smithfield

The sounds of children and teenagers were absent, even with the vast housing areas that surround Smithfield Square—some dating back to the 1940s. Within five minutes of the square are two primary schools and one all-boy’s secondary school. During the day, I would hear the children playing in the school grounds, and in flat complexes close to the Smithfield Square. Each of these spaces were gated and enclosed. Most of the teenage participants lived within such housing areas, and would often refer to the level of noise made by the children within their immediate housing areas. Yet, none of the teenagers, and no young children, used the Smithfield Square for “hanging out” or playing.

A primary school in Smithfield. The play area is on the school roof

A primary school in Smithfield. The play area is on the school roof

The teenagers argued that the Smithfield Square had no point; it was too wide open and too quiet.

Group 11b: Although, there probably was sound for somebody who listened to it but because we were all coming down from the city, the space seemed to be nothing… it just seemed real quiet, empty.

Because of that, the teenagers felt they could not group together to chat. For them, it would be like situating themselves in the middle of a stage. Their sounds were amplified or reverberated, ironically creating a feeling of being surveilled. They felt more comfortable and safer in confined areas, such as street corners, laneways, and the archways of large buildings. Within these smaller spaces, the sounds produced have closer reflections. Teenagers often surround themselves with sounds by shouting, playing music, etc., creating what Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter in Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? (2009) call a sonic bubble. These “territorial bubbles appear as if by magic around a group of individuals if they begin to interact, and the group quickly acquires rights to the arena” (2009:34) thus creating a temporal space. They did not feel they could do so in such an open area.

Smithfield Square by the summer of 2010

Smithfield Square by the summer of 2010

The Smithfield Square in 2011

The Smithfield Square in 2011

Because of the poor planning and design of the Smithfield area, there are vast empty spaces surrounded by fencing or construction hoarding, numerous derelict buildings, and closed-down shops and restaurants. The Smithfield Square is no different, with numerous buildings left empty as a result of foreclosures or bankruptcy. The silence in this space is indicative of the loss of the social and economic processes. The vast square then takes on another level of silence, the loss of productive meaning, the presence of poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

On one walk with the teenagers I noted that they would group together in the square, even when they were told to walk around and record sounds within the space independently. Later, they said there were no sounds to record, so they just walked towards the closest sound source, a small shopping market in the square. I had noted numerous individual sounds, but they would have required standing in the middle of the square to record them.  During focus group sessions after the soundwalks, the teenagers defined positive soundscapes as places with numerous loud sounds, the voices of hundreds within busy shopping streets, music coming from stores and traffic in the distance. These sounds defined a city, and made the teenagers feel safe and enclosed. Smithfield contained none of these kinds of sounds.

Soundwalking the Smithfield Horse Fair

Displaying horse carriages

Displaying horse carriages

There are a few events held regularly within the square since it re-opened in 2013. Some of these events are part of the Dublin City Council’s efforts to invigorate the space, such as food and art markets, as well as fairs for various seasons and holidays. One of the few public events that take place in Smithfield Square is the Smithfield Horse Fair, which happens on the first Sunday of every month. Having walked through this space repeatedly over a period of 3 years, it was only when I attended the horse fair that the space came alive, it had a purpose.

The horse fair has been a contentious event for both locals and city managers for the past two decades, with the horse dealers arguing that there is either a historical precedence for the horse fair or with the Dublin city councillors arguing that the land was historically used for the selling of cattle for market. The appearance within the Smithfield Square once a month of the horse fair brings with it a vast and lively, and sometimes, as defined by the media and Dublin City Council, a threatening soundscape/environment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijaMkkjGNag

Some sounds defined as threatening are the loud whinnying of horses as they are jostled around the fair. The media has also reported, on several occasions, large-scale fights, which have broken out during the fair, leading to the presence of riot police. This eventually led to the gating of the fair and an extreme police presence as if these measures might reduce such sounds through the threat of arrest. For those living in the new apartment complexes, the sounds produced at the fair are amplified because of the design of the space, and possibly sound more threatening as a result.

During one walk of the Smithfield horse fair that I did in April 2013, some of the audible sounds were horses neighing and whinnying in panic, horse shoes on the cobblestones, traders shouting out their wares of horse paraphernalia, seats, stirrups etc., the voices of old men, which was the dominant background sound, and the sounds of traditional Irish music.


Outside of the gated fair were the sounds of large groups of teenagers, shouting and calling to each other. The space was alive with sound; the voices of teenagers merged with, or were lost within, the chaos of other sounds, becoming part of a larger soundscape. Because the space was busy with people, activities, music and even security there was a reason to use the square, even if you were not actively taking part in the event. The fair created a space for teenagers to engage with, and perhaps feel safe within the boundaries of its soundscape. Suddenly the square was as busy and as loud as the city centre.

Security at the horse fair

Security at the horse fair

Smith hammering horse shoes at the horse fair

Smith hammering horse shoes at the horse fair

While walking through this soundscape, I encountered different kinds of soundmarks. For example, the banging of horseshoes was quite distinctive because it is, as Schafer would define, an archetypal sound, one that no longer belongs in the city. It felt like hearing a sound from the past. Yet this kind of sound creates a kind of historic continuity with the past (Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, 2000). When discussing the cobblestones within Smithfield Square, most of the young female participants stated that it was not so much the look of the cobblestones that gave the space a sense of history but rather the sounds made when something moved over them. The lack of people and activities within the square meant that these sounds were rarely activated. The soundscape of the fair on those days transformed Smithfield, lifting it out of its everyday silences, which seemed to invite young people to participate. It was reactivated with life.

What was noticeable about the two fairs I visited was that by the second event in 2013, there were far fewer horses than at previous fairs. There were about 8 or 10 horses being paraded around the space by what looked like homeless people or addicts. There seemed to be no real horse-trading; the soundscape lacked the sounds of horses. Instead, the space had become a gathering space, with groups of tourists wandering around taking pictures of anything and everything.

Teenage boys outside the gates of the horse fair 2013

Teenage boys outside the gates of the horse fair 2013

Teenage girls at the fair

Teenage girls at the fair

Conclusion

This fair does not fit within the cultural ethos of regenerated urban spaces like Smithfield, where culture is defined as a consumerist process or part of the arts. However, the space takes on new potentialities as a result of the presence of people, sounds and activities, allowing the teenagers to view the possibilities of spatial use. Sounds can distinguish a space, as identified during the Smithfield horse fair. These sounds also remove focus from teenagers’ voices audible within the space, and transfer it to other sounds. The space was no longer a large fishbowl viewable from any angle; instead it had become a busy vibrant immersive soundscape.

Featured Image: “Smithfield Horse Fair, Dublin” by Flickr user Admanchester, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Linda O Keeffe is secretary to the Irish Sound Science and Technology Association and editor of the Interference Journal. Her practice is concerned with an exploration, both academic and creative, of the ways in which sound alters our experience of different spaces. Her art training was within the sculpture department of IADT under the tutelage of Finola Jones. She completed a Masters in Virtual Reality in NCAD with Kevin Atherton, and just finished a PhD in sociology in NUIM. Her research examined the urban of Dublin city soundscape as socially and technologically co-constructed. She has composed for dance, theatre, quartets, and new instrument performers, installed sound installations for commissions in Ireland, China and Holland, and has had radio works performed both nationally and internationally. In 2008 she was mentored under Eric Leonardson in Chicago, a sound artist and performer. More recently, she was commissioned by Resonance FM to create a work for radio for the 2013 Derry city of culture event. Current projects include a solo exhibition in November 2014 for the Limerick Sculpture Centre, which will be a creative realization of her PhD research. You can find her at www.lindaokeeffe.com.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

“Heard Any Good Games Lately?: Listening to the Sportscape”-Kaj Ahlsved

“Park Sounds: A Kansas City Soundwalk for Fall”-Liana Silva-Ford

“Sounding Out! Podcast Episode #7: Celebrate World Listening Day with the World Listening Project”

 

Or Does it Explode?: Sounding Out the U.S. Metropolis in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun

""VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama" by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sounds of the City forumEditor’s Note: Cars. Trains. Festivals. Music. Noise. Sound. The concept of the city is inherently aural. Cities are always thought of in opposition to quiet, to stillness. However, representing cities as noisy is not without its problems; in fact, one thing we have tried to do here at Sounding Out! is question what ideas of quiet and noise carry with them. They are social constructions, like race and gender. We cannot talk about urban sounds in a vacuum.

Cities are an essential part of the scholarly work I do; cities are also an intrinsic part of who I am. So when I started thinking about what I wanted February Forum #3 to be about, I felt it was time to edit a series on city sounds. This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively), guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe  will take readers on a soundwalk of the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal. The forum will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?

I’ll be kicking things off in the forum with a critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Take your headphones off and listen up because you might miss your train…—Liana M. Silva-Ford, Managing Editor

Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun starts with the Younger family waking up and getting ready for work. Ruth Younger wakes her son, Travis Younger, to get ready for school. Her husband, Walter Lee Younger, is as reluctant to get up as his son does. After a brief tense exchange with his wife, Walter Lee turns to the paper:

WALTER (…vaguely reads the front page) Set off another bomb yesterday.

RUTH (Maximum indifference) Did they? (Hansberry 26)

With those two lines, seemingly thrown in amid a marital spat, Hansberry evokes the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: the aural image, in italics, Or does it explode? Inserting this poem as an epilogue, together with these lines in Act I, Scene 1, foreshadow the race riots of the 50s and 60s. However, these lines could easily fall out of earshot of the audience, or get swallowed up in the tension between Ruth and Walter Lee. In fact, the power of Hansberry’s play lies not just in her focus on the complexities of African Americans’ lives in then-contemporary Chicago, but that much of the action happens off stage, outside of the apartment. The audience must pay close attention to actually hear the story of urban racial violence. Sonic cues become an alternative to talking directly about the racialization of space.

"RaisinInTheSun" by Wikipedia user GrahamHardy, fair use under copyright law

“RaisinInTheSun” by Wikipedia user GrahamHardy, fair use under copyright law

Broadway audiences will soon get the chance to relive those opening lines when A Raisin in the Sun comes back to theaters later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Caroll. Contemporary audiences will encounter the Younger family’s struggles in the Southside of Chicago. In the play, Lena (Mama) Younger receives a life insurance check after the death of her husband, which lays bare the aspirations and desires of the characters: Lena wants a new home for the family, Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and Walter Lee wants to open up a business. Lena decides to use the money for a down payment of a home in a working-class neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (This neighborhood later inspired the 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park.) The only problem is that the neighborhood houses only whites. However, Broadway (and Hollywood for that matter) frequently stages revivals; why is A Raisin in the Sun still relevant?

Robert Nemiroff, in the Introduction to the 1994 Vintage Books edition of the play, recognizes that part of the allure of Raisin is that race relations are just as strained as they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to Nemiroff the play also holds sway because it holds a mirror up to very human emotions that go beyond race (13-14). James Baldwin, on the other hand, believes its staying power lies in how it showcased the raw fear African Americans felt (and still feel) in a racist society. He mentions in his Introduction to Hansberry’s autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black titled “Sweet Lorraine“,

In Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter, and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (xii)

Baldwin values the context that African American theatergoers brought to the play. For them, the play would already have a soundtrack of terror to go along with it, a soundtrack that African Americans knew by heart. White audiences, on the other hand, would not; they more than likely had to rely on what was on stage. Instead of staging the racial violence on Chicago’s streets, Hansberry renders audible the contours of racialized urban spaces through the people who become the focus of that violence.

"Chicago community areas map" by Wikimedia user Peterfitzgerald, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Chicago community areas map” by Wikimedia user Peterfitzgerald, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hansberry’s play was inspired by her family’s own situation in moving to Woodlawn in Chicago, which was for the most part white and middle class until the 1950s when racially restrictive zoning ordinances were struck done. In this neighborhood they faced violence and anger from their white neighbors, and were ultimately mandated to vacate the area. Carl Hansberry, father of the playwright, would take this case to the Supreme Court, which later overruled the injunction. George Lipsitz discusses the sociohistorical context surrounding A Raisin in the Sun in his book How Racism Takes Place (2011). He focuses on racialized spaces, and Chicago in Hansberry’s play is a prime example of that. Lipsitz points out, “[m]ore than any other single work of expressive culture, it called (and still calls) public attention to the indignities and oppressions of racialized space in the United States at mid-century” (Loc. 2747). For Lipsitz, A Raisin in the Sun didn’t just represent how race operated in urban spaces but took a stand against it. He states, “Hansberry’s play staged a symbolic rebuke of the white spatial imaginary” (Loc. 2883). In my reading of the textual references to talking, coupled with Hansberry’s choice to stage the play inside the apartment at all times, they call audiences to not just look but listen to how spatialized racism affected African Americans.

It is important to point out the sounds that theater-going audiences in the 1950s, many white and middle/upper-class, would not have heard in the play. A Raisin in the Sun evokes bombings (as seen in the quotation that started this piece), protests, and racial slurs. Although these sounds would be evocative and almost expected in a play about race and urban space in the 1950s, Hansberry stays away from those sounds. The only sounds Hansberry inserts in the stage directions are the sounds of music, children playing on the street, doorbells, and an alarm. In fact, the alarm clock opens the screenplay: “An alarm clock sounds from within the bedroom at right, and presently RUTH enters from that room and closes the door behind her” (24). The presence of alarms, in addition to the ring of the doorbell, is indicative of the busy city life: apartment buildings need bells to announce the arrival of someone downstairs, and alarms coax workers to get up. However, they are the only sonic indicators that Hansberry points out in her play. These sounds makes the apartment seem common, homely; they do not give way to what is happening in Southside Chicago—or in the United States, for that matter—at the moment.

The indications of the urban violence and racism outside of the Younger’s apartment door are in the interactions between the characters. However, it is not just in the events they describe but also in their speech. In that sense, when Hansberry inserts rhetorical cues such as “talking” and “listening,” they do not just refer to plot lines but also as a call for audience members to listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) in the play. For example, Hansberry introduces the three main characters in terms of their diction, their voices. Although this is to be expected in a playwright’s directions to the director, it is also an indication of the importance of speech in this play. Hansberry describes Walter Lee as “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits–and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.” Walter constantly vocalizes frustrations about being a black man in America—particularly his frustrations that his family second-guesses his aspirations. His voice carries the stern accusation against racism, but he seems unsure.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 3" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 3″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beneatha and Lena also seem wary in their tone. When Hansberry describes Beneatha, she mentions

her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside. (35)

Beneatha’s voice shows a confluence of speech patterns, but also a struggle. The description brings to mind respectability politics, which judge others based on their appearance or their speech patterns. When it comes to Lena, Hansberry describes her as such: “Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.” (39). As with Beneatha, Mama’s voice signals a tension: carelessness versus precision. Her softness makes way for the hard truth often in the play. The tension in their voices point to the stress of experiencing racialized urban space. Walter Lee’s experience of racialized space comes from the point of view of a chauffeur for a white businessman, Lena experiences it as a Southern migrant (also, someone who fled the racial violence of the South only to find it again in the North), and Beneatha sees it in her interactions with black men: George Hutchinson, the upper class African American and Joseph Asagai, the international student from Nigeria.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959 4" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959 4″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The characters also reference talking in their dialogue. There always seems to be someone who does not want to listen or who feels they are not being heard. For example, when Walter Lee asks Lena about the insurance check that’s supposed to arrive, Lena chastises him: “Now don’t you start, child. It’s too early in the morning to be talking about money. It ain’t Christian” (Hansberry 41). Mama prevents Walter Lee from starting another conversation about his business ideas. In another scene, Walter Lee is annoyed that Ruth dislikes his late-night chat sessions with his buddies in their living room: “the things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?”  (27). Later in the play, after Lena finds out Ruth put a down payment for an abortion, she tells Walter, “Son—I think you ought to talk to your wife…” to which he responds, “I can talk to her later.” I read these thwarted efforts to speak and be heard, as vocal metaphors for how African Americans were being ostracized and ghettoized in cities, especially when I consider that the play is set in Chicago.

However, the most pressing example of how talking is representative of racial relations in urban spaces is the visit of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although violence had become an unsanctioned form of policing African Americans in urban space, in the play Hansberry opts instead to represent that violence through the presence—and the voice—of Karl Lindner. Initially, Lindner has the attention of Ruth and Walter Younger, and they listen to him talk about the virtues of Clybourne Parks’ neighbors. He gains their sympathy by invoking their sense of equality: “we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem” (117). However, Lindner soon reveals his intentions: he comes bearing an offer to buy the house back from the Youngers to keep them from moving to the neighborhood. The Youngers show shock, to which Lindner replies, “I hope you’ll hear me all the way through” (118). His request is the request of the privileged though, and tries to make it seem like the Youngers are being unreasonable. In Lindner the audience hears the threat of white supremacy.

"A Raisin in the Sun 1959" in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“A Raisin in the Sun 1959″ in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry focuses on rendering the city audible through the characters. Listening brings a deeper engagement with what is happening in the lives of the characters. Talking marks the bodies of the characters as sites of struggle, as microcosms for what is happening in Chicago in the 1950s—and what would happen later, as Lipsitz discusses in his book. In depictions of the city as noisy, it is often forgotten that part of that noise comes from human bodies, from people. Hansberry breaks through that noise by toning down the hum of the city on stage and focusing on making her audience listen to people. Perhaps a revival of A Raisin in the Sun can make a different generation of Americans tune in to how urban space continues to be racialized today.


Featured image: “VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama” by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

“I’m on my New York s**t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City -Liana Silva

“Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the ‘Noise’ of Texts”-Christina Sharpe

“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso

Sounding Out! Podcast #24: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History

montano1


CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History

SUBSCRIBE TO THE SERIES VIA ITUNES

ADD OUR PODCASTS TO YOUR STITCHER FAVORITES PLAYLIST

Listen in as Kevin Cabrera, Nancy Charco, Monica Gonzalez, Jesus Lopez, Javier Morales, Marcus Medina Mendoza, Cynthia Zul, Jasmine Soto, Pablo Montoya, Alex Mendoza, Marilynn Montaño, Robert Salas, and Isabel Marin guide us through the soundscapes of Raitt Street, their neighborhood in Santa Ana. If you are interested in learning more about the Raitt Street Chronicles please listen to this interview with Manny Escamilla, the archivist for the Santa Ana History Room at the Santa Ana Public Library. Also, check out the Raitt Street Chronicles website where you can find narrated photojournals by the authors of this podcast.

This podcast was made possible through different individuals and institutions dedicated to the histories of Santa Ana. The Santa Ana Public Library partnered with Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center and the Studio for Southern California History to train teens to collect oral histories from the Townsend/Raitt neighborhood. Project mentors trained youth participants to collect, archive, and share the underreported stories of survival from one the nation’s most at-risk communities. Over the course of 12 months the participants recorded video interviews with survivors of violence. Community impactful projects like this are made possible through the generous support of foundations, corporate sponsorships, and the generosity of individuals who believe in the mission and purpose of such collaborative efforts.  This collaboration with Santa Ana Public Library has been fortunate to receive support from a Cal Humanities 2013 Community Stories grant, but additional funding and in-kind support is needed to realize this project, as well as other projects in the works, to their fullest and most positive impactful outcomes.

-

Manuel “Manny” Escamilla – Is the archivist for the Santa Ana History Room at the Santa Ana Public Library. He received an AA from Santa Ana College in 2006, a BA in History from UC Berkeley in 2008, and is in the first year of his MLIS at UCLA as an Inland Empire LEADS fellow.  He has interned the Emma Goldman Papers at UC Berkeley, the Special Collections Department at UCI, and the Chicano Research Center at UCLA. With the aid of a 2008 McNair Scholarship, Manny organized an independent research project at the U.K. National Archives in London.  As the archivist for the Santa Ana History Room he has concentrated on increasing the archives collection of historically underrepresented minorities and creating innovative youth outreach programming for the ‘Teen Community Historians.’ As a 2010 Eureka fellow he completed the “Our Lives Our History” project that helped youth volunteers collect 35 oral history interviews of recent immigrants from various states of Mexico. He is currently the Project Director for ‘The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivors’ Oral History’ and the upcoming ‘Santa Ana Civic Archive: Connecting Future Leaders to their Community’s Civic Past.’ Additionally he serves as the Programming Chair for UCLA’s Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists and is an active member of OC REFORMA.

Since earning her PhD in History from the University of Southern California (USC) in 2002, Sharon Sekhon has explored the integration of critical local history into public discourse. Over 2003 – 2005, Sekhon was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC. There, she worked with faculty in developing discipline-driven, multimedia scholarship and curricula. She was the Principal Investigator for the Holiday Bowl History Project, a place-based, cross institutional  online oral history project on the Holiday Bowl bowling alley in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sekhon founded the history  organization the Studio for Southern California History (Studio) in 2006. The Studio uses participatory methods to create conversations about our shared spaces across Southern California. The Studio’s work is showcased on the LA History Archive at www.lahistoryarchive.org. In addition, Sekhon has taught in the Department of American Studies at California State University Fullerton since 1999.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out! Podcast #20: The Sound of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City– Andrea Medrado

Sounding Out! Podcast #9: Listening to São Paulo, Brazil– Leonardo Cardoso

Sounding Out! Podcast #6:  Spaces of Listening/The Record Shop– Aaron Trammell

%d bloggers like this: