Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)
Cinco de Mayo. ‘Tis the season when many Americans don sombreros, order their frozen margaritas, and, God help us, speak “Spanish.” We are well used to hyper Anglicized renditions of “amigo,” “adios,” and happy hour specials brought on by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo. The holiday celebrates a significant event in Mexico’s history – the battle of Puebla and victory over France in 1862 – through narrowing ideas about language, culture, and tequila. That said, let’s not just blame Cinco de Mayo for the disconcerting use of Spanish. Unfortunately, the incessant use of phrases such as “ay caramba” and “no problemo” are heard much, much earlier in contemporary children’s books.
The New York Times recently published the startling figure that just 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about African American children. Within these few 93 texts, African American children all-too-often read about themselves within the past tense, in reference to slavery and civil rights legacies. Children of color are left to identify with the adventures and imaginative stories of white characters amid white settings. Aptly characterized as an, “apartheid of children’s literature,” two moving first-person accounts from Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers detail the significance of incorporating more characters of color for all readers. One major effect of this dearth of representation, according to Christopher Myers,
…is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.
Just as significant, is the number of children’s books about Latino children from the 2013’s trove of 3,200 books: 53. That’s 5-3. As a reminder, the United States Census tallied 53 million Latinos in the United States, representing the nation’s youngest demographic (children!).
However, perhaps worse than the actual lack is the rise of stereotypic in-your-face representations of race within children’s books – award-winning ones, actually – and their role in teaching children troubling ideas about race, language, and “difference.”
My name is Skippito Friskito. (clap-clap)
I fear not a single bandito. (clap-clap)
My manners are mellow,
I’m sweet like the Jell-O,
I get the job done, yes indeed-o.
Case in point: Skippyjon Jones, a Siamese cat that pretends to be a Chihuahua superhero. Skippyjon speaks English, but his super hero alter ego speaks in Mock Spanish in his recurring and imaginative quests. Speaking “Spanish” in hyperanglized fashion recasts Skippyjon from an English-speaking (white) cat to a Spanish-accented (brown) dog. His auditory performance of Mexicanness, what Reina Prado considers “sonic brownface,” reeks of white privilege as he code-switches from cat/white/English to dog/brown/”Spanish.” What’s worse, as a children’s book, directed at those between the impressionable ages of 4-8, Skippyjon encourages both adult readers and young readers to read out loud and perform sonic brownface. Listening to the book’s trite word choice (amigos, adios, frijoles), fake Spanish (indeed-o, mask-ito) and embellished accents (“ees” for is) trains the ear on how to speak “Mexican,” presumably, of course, for the listening amusement of non-Mexicans.
“I am El Skippito, the great sword fighter,” said Skippyjon Jones.
Apparently, these tried and true tactics sell quite well. This award-winning children’s book character, by Judy Schachner, has spawned into a lucrative empire that includes fourteen books, a coordinating plush toy figure, online webisodes of the books’ stories, CDs of Schachner reading out loud, the obligatory Ipad app, a starring role in the department store Kohl’s “We Care” charity campaign in 2012, and get this, a children’s musical. Of course, Skippyjon is not really recognized as a book series about Latinos (like fellow television darlings, Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny, or Dragon Tales) yet it taps into every flinching stereotype we know of, and should avoid, about Mexicans. Equating Mexicans and Mexican tales to the canine of a Chihuahua is hardly new but it does not make it less problematic.
For instance, in the inaugural self-titled Skippyjon Jones book, the cat’s adventures take place “far, far away in old Mexico.” Much like the perpetual placement of African Americans in the past tense within children’s books, situating Mexico in the imaginative past reinforces perceptions of all-things-Mexican as distant, foreign, and old. Skippyjon and his chimichangos – his sidekicks (good guys) –set out to save their rice and beans from Alfredo Buzzito and Bumblebeeto Bandito (bad guys). Zorro-esque masks, swords, fiestas followed by siestas, fellow Chihuahuas, piñatas, plenty of cacti, and lots of clap-clap cues frame the rice-and-bean rescue. His adventures, book after book, via a Skippito brown identity sends a disquieting message about power and privilege. Skippito, even when masked, still plays the role of Great White Hero to the masses of “Mexican” dogs.
Then all of the Chimichangos went crazy loco.
Several of Schachner’s Skippyjon books have received notable accolades including, for instance, the 2004 E.B. White Read Aloud Award and a spot on the coveted “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” by the National Education Association in 2007. The former comes with an adorning gold seal on future editions of honored books. A sampling of the series’ laudatory press, from the E.B White Read Aloud press release, “Peppered with Spanish expressions and full of energized fun, SkippyJon Jones is not only entertaining for the listener, it’s also enjoyable for the reader.” And from the author’s webpage: “Each of my adventures are ay caramba, mucho fun but they’re educational too!” The insinuation that the Skippyjon Empire teaches Spanish not only ignores the richness of Spanish but it also feeds popular ideals that Spanish is an “easy” and “fun” language to learn.
Schachner’s recurrent use of “Spanish,” in particular, not only structures the silly narrative adventures of Skippyjon as he imagines himself to be Skippito but the racialized language play has also become the hallmark element of Skippyjon. Written and read out loud by parents and teachers, some of Skippyjon’s signature phrases include “Holy Guacamole!” and “Holy Frijoles!” – textbook examples of Jane Hill’s renowned writings on Mock Spanish (or fake, incoherent Spanish uttered and deemed “funny” by non-native Spanish speakers). Because we already hold native Spanish-speakers (U.S. Latinos) with such little regard in the first place, Mock Spanish done for laughs, as argued by Hill, comes quite easily. Carmen Martínez-Roldán takes the Skippyjon Jones series to task in necessary detail; see her analysis of Mock Spanish in the equally troubling, Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse. Her emphasis on the cultural representations of Mexicans vis-a-vis language in children’s books supports my tirade against this cat/dog. Martínez-Roldán found that several teachers, particularly those from the Southwest, expressed a sense of inexplicable uneasiness to these books. Amazon ratings are (painfully) positive for Skippyjon, yet, according to Martínez-Roldán, those who expressed low ratings were “accompanied by lengthy explanations, mostly related to misrepresentations of Mexicans and the poor use of Spanish.” Her research calls for more diversity within children’s literature but, central to this essay, reminds us that U.S. Latinos hold both a personal and political relationship to Spanish.
Anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli explains how Spanish, when overheard in designated public spaces (think: Cinco de Mayo or Mexican restaurants) is safely “ethnified,” yet Spanish is regarded as out of place or “racialized” when heard as bilingual announcements at local grocery stores or school sites. When heard by monolingual English speakers outside of its designated spaces in the U.S., Spanish carries “racialized” connotations such as “impoliteness” and “danger.” The insistence many American employers place on speaking English and prohibiting non-English language conversations at workplaces, for instance, speaks to the public boundaries imposed on Spanish and Spanish-speakers. (Yes, Whole Foods. I am looking at you.)
Jane Hill’s provocative argument, built from Uricuolli’s writings, examines Whites’ use of Spanish (Mock Spanish). Unlike Latinos, who learn early on to self-monitor where and how they speak English and Spanish, non-native speakers of Spanish do not carry this same burden, according to Hill. In fact, they have the privilege of speaking grammatically incorrect Spanish, in hyper Anglicized Spanish, or mockingly (by adding a stupid “o” or prefacing a phrasing with “el”) without surveillance.
Then, using his very best Spanish accent, he said, “My ears are too beeg for my head.
My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat… I AM A CHIHUAHUA!”
In addition to overplayed colloquial expressions, Schachner demarcates a racial line with “visual accents” (“beeg” for big) (see Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Priscilla Peña Ovalle and Sara V. Hinojos). In line with Uricuolli’s ideas, even Skippito’s English is accented and marked while in “Mexican” character. Readers stammer through “ees” and “beeg” in an effort, as prepped, to use their “very best Spanish accent.” The practice teaches children that accents are performative and easy to take on and off rather than hear accents as indicative of someone’s larger family histories of migration and culture.
For children unfamiliar with Mexicans and Latinos, these books cast Spanish with archaic imageries of Mexican bandits and modern-day Frito Banditos. Spanish is not used as a language to communicate given its incoherence. Instead, Schachner uses Spanish to laugh at Skippito and by extension, Mexicans and Latinos in the U.S.; its runaway success is indicative of how “funny” Spanish and Mexicans continue to be to White and/or monolingual English speakers.
For Latinos, these books plant early attitudes about their own language differences. For children positioned as the family translator or struggling to maintain a bilingual, bicultural existence, these books teach children to shun their accent and those of their families. These books are clearly not for my two kids, whose young ears are already familiar with their grandmother’s Spanish-accented English and their own mother’s English-accented Spanish.
“Vamos, Skippito- or it is you the Bandito will eato!”
Reading children’s books out loud and listening to race through scripted accents sends troubling messages about “difference” at an early age. Educators have long argued that children’s books serve as both mirrors and maps to affirm and inspire readers’ identities, experiences, and future motivations. True. But I would also argue that the woeful absence of more diverse children’s tales mirrors a number of campaigns directed at working-class, communities of color; namely, our nation’s shaky commitment to universal preschool, lack of public support for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp programs, and outdated approaches to parental leaves (six measly weeks). In particular, Skippyjon Jones is a kid’s rendition of grownup racial and language politics, a pint-size version of NAFTA and English-only propositions presented for five-year old audiences. These policies, like the woeful crop of contemporary books, do little to provide a map for the livelihoods of children of color. Instead, Skippyjon’s use of language, a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzalez normalizes English, white characters (even in brown drag), and helps keep Cinco de Mayo antics alive.
NOTE: On 5-8-14, the author added a passage to this article to reflect the relationship of her work to Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán’s “The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones” published in The Journal of Children’s Literature (2013).
Featured Image by Flickr user The Long Beach Public Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dolores Inés Casillas is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language. Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy will be published this fall by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series.
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Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent-reina alejandra prado saldivar
Last month, T.M. Luhrmann compared the experience of reading a written book versus listening to books in the New York Times article “Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling.” Lurhmann points out how audiobook sales jumped 20% in 2012, whereas total industry book sales went down 1%. From the looks of it, books have benefited from audiobook sales, but in literary studies, print remains the primary vehicle for analysis. Might listening to an audiobook actually change how we critically read a text?
As I listened to Junot Díaz narrate This Is How You Lose Her (2012), the first book Díaz has read as an audiobook and the first book of short stories the author has published since 1996’s Drown, I wondered how his reading influenced how I interpreted the text. Díaz’s reading sounds less like regular speech and more like a performance, with its own cadence and rhythm:
This post approaches the audiobook as a text in itself, coming from a sound studies perspective. I attempt to conceptualize the idea of “close listening” as a methodology akin to “close reading” in literary studies. I listen for how Diaz reads the text but more specifically how the reading itself becomes a way of authoring the text. Ultimately, I argue that Díaz’s reading becomes a re-authoring the text—re-writing the text sonically. On a broader level, I hope to add to the conversation of what it means to read an audiobook, as Birgitte Stougaard Pederson and Ibsen Have brought up in “Conceptualising the Audiobook Experience.” Using This Is How You Lose Her, I show that reading an audiobook means engaging with the text from the angle of the ear, and that close listening can become an aural reading practice that relies not so much on the visual texts, but on aural cues from the narrator.
This Is How You Lose Her revolves around Yunior, a young Dominican immigrant who grows up in New Jersey and who ends up as a professor in Boston, and the many loves he has had or that he has encountered growing up. The stories trace his progress from a young, recently arrived Yunior, to a tenured, mature Yunior, showcasing certain relationships that influence how he relates to women—in sum, illustrating how he loses the women he loves. Throughout the short story collection, Díaz also calls attention to other relationships that may influence Yunior’s perspective, for example, his brother’s attachments with women, especially toward the end of his young life as he battled cancer, and his father’s relationship with his mistress, a Dominican woman who lived in New Jersey. At the end, Díaz illuminates how a mujeriego (womanizer) like Yunior comes to be; the short stories indicate that Yunior is as much a product of his environment as he is a seller of the merchandise.
Díaz is not a professional audiobook narrator. Although Díaz has done live readings, reading the full-length version of a book one has written is a different exercise. The Penguin Audio version of the collection is based on the actual short story collection (in other words, unabridged), so it does not contain additional stories or behind the scenes interviews. Technically, it is no different than the print version.
Listening to authors read their own work has value beyond the pleasure of hearing them read their text. Scholarly writing on audiobooks has emphasized the experience of listening to an audiobook for pleasure (like Deborah Phillips’ “Talking Books: The Encounter of Literature and Technology in the Audiobook” and James Shokoff’s “What Is An Audiobook?”), but it wasn’t until the 2011 edited collection Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies that audiobooks were considered on their own instead of as extensions of the literature they were based on. The allure of doing this scholarly exercise with the audiobook version of This Is How You Lose Her is that Díaz’s delivery of the text is uncommon at the least.
Talking about Junot Díaz’s readerly voice requires to tune into conversations about his writerly voice. In many reviews of Díaz’s books, writers discuss how Díaz deftly conveys a writer’s voice in his text, indicating that his success is that his characters have a very clear voice—or at least Yunior does. Michiko Kakutani, for example, points out how “Junot Díaz has one of the most distinctive and magnetic voices in contemporary fiction: limber, streetwise, caffeinated and wonderfully eclectic, capable of conjuring for the reader everything from the sorrows of Dominican history to the banalities of life in New Jersey.” Although this quotation is in reference to Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it describes Díaz’s writing in terms of his voice instead of, for instance, in terms of his use of metaphors or choice of subject.
Richard Wolinsky, in his Guernica interview with Díaz, sees an overlap between Yunior and Díaz: “He’s [Yunior] got a very distinct voice, and it’s a voice that’s informed by [Diaz’s] own reading, particularly science fiction and fantasy.” Although Díaz has pointed out that Yunior is loosely based on events that have happened to him, Wolinsky “hears” Díaz in his main character. The tone and the language Yunior uses is read as a reflection of Díaz.
Conversations about the voice of the writer point to a sensibility about sound, but are often limited to a written text. Anna Barnet, in an interview with Junot Díaz, states “His two principal linguistic registers (‘this kind of crazy Caribbean language and music’ and ‘this sort of African-American-infused American vernacular’) grind against each other along with the many other voices he ventriloquizes in his writing.” Barnet reminds readers that Díaz’s writing style is based in spoken language—particularly Díaz’s spoken language. This language of “voice” to describe a writer’s style (or, specifically, a writer’s ability to convey a clear sense of who the character is and/or their views) is commonplace but gives the impression that there is a sonic aspect to an author’s work, when in reality it is but a metaphor for something that occurs at the level of text.
A critical reading of a text that includes the audiobook rendition allows critics to add substance to those references to “voice.” In Junot Díaz’s case, it is possible that readers encounter him first through written text, and so have an expectation of what Díaz (or Yunior) would sound like live. In my textual analysis of eight audiobook reviews (and one book review that included a mention of the narration in the audiobook) most listeners showed some sort of discomfort with Díaz’s narration. One reviewer, for example, had issue with the “smoothness” of Díaz’s narration: “At times the reading was a little shaky and uneven”. Another reviewer stated “at times his cadence is choppy, with odd pauses and emphasis on strange words that detract from the overall experience.” Reviewers also had an issue with Díaz’s pace, which is characterized by pauses in places that many not seem normal in casual American speech. These statements hint at a “weird” quality in Díaz’s speech, something that does not come through when Díaz has a casual conversation. (Listen to this podcast episode of NPR’s Alt. Latino guest-starring Díaz and compare with this video of him reading part of This Is How You Lose Her.) Although one blogger pointed out that Díaz sounded “professorial” in the reading, others used the words “native,” “authenticity,” “Dominican” and even “Jersey accent” to describe how Díaz sounded. It is unclear how these reviewers define “native” or “authentic.”
Connecting sound to authenticity implies that Dominicans can only sound a certain way, or that the audio narration is lacking when it does not represent a “typical” Dominican voice. To the extent that Díaz is Dominican, his voice is of a Dominican male who has grown up in the Northeastern United States. His uneven audio narration creates a feeling of sonic unintelligibility in the listener, similar to the effect of including Spanish words in the written text. Díaz-as-narrator can make a listener uncomfortable, and by extension forces that reader to listen.
The sonic unintelligibility also relies on the text, on how Díaz plays with language by switching back and forth from English to Spanish. Díaz mentions in an interview with Marva Hinton that some readers are not happy with his choice of Spanglish in his writing: “There [are] folks who hear one Spanish word, and they’re convinced this is some sort of immigrant conspiracy” Farther down, in the same article, Díaz refers to his mix of Spanish and English (and a particular kind of Spanish and English at that, since he moves among Standard American English, African American Vernacular English, and Dominican Spanish) as “opaque language.” There’s a connection between the kind of “opaqueness” that Spanish gives and the unintelligible effect of Díaz read his work.
An example of how sonic unintelligibility operates in the audiobook is the first story, “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars.” This opener, told in first person, revolves about one of Yunior’s break-ups; Yunior and his girlfriend Magdalena, on whom he cheated, go to the Dominican Republic on a trip they had planned before she found out about the affair. It frames the book as being an in-depth analysis of loves lost, from the man who keeps losing them. It also sets the tone sonically for the audiobook reading: after the introduction of the book, a snippet of bachata music comes on, and then makes way for Díaz, who reads the title of the story. This is the pattern of the book: slices of bachata, followed by Díaz’s narration.
His voice is characterized by a slight sing-song cadence that is reminiscent of Dominican Spanish accent. If this were in Spanish, it might be easier to lose track of the cadence, but in English it sounds like a disembodied accent. I showcase the swing in Díaz’s narration by alternating capital letters and lower-case letters: “Her FAther, who usually would treat me like his HIjo, CALLS me an ASShole on the PHONE, SOUNDS like he’s STRANgling himself with the cord.” The voice seems to float for a while until Díaz arrives to the end of a paragraph or a series of sentences, and then it sinks. Moreover, this pattern does not change when Díaz switches characters: it’s hard to tell Yunior apart from Magdalena unless the reader pays close attention to when the narrator is switching characters and/or when the narrator uses a pronoun. The same effect comes from the odd pauses in the author’s narration: “Oh God, she wailed. Oh. My God.”
The choppiness and the emphasis in the reading are a way to dislocate the listener, in a similar way that Spanish phrases or lack of quotation marks in the text dislocate a reader who does not understand Spanish or who depends on the quotation marks to make sense of the prose. Also, this story focuses on Magdalena withdrawing from Yunior and not communicating with him. The tone, cadence, and sound of Díaz’s voice can be read to mirror the relationship between Yunior and Magdalena (and the other women in the text): the sonic unintelligibility is manifest at the level of plot through Yunior’s relationships.
Although many audiobook reviewers may consider the plot in their reviews, part of what makes an audiobook stand out is the performance of the text. I take my cues from audiobook reviewers and consider critically my listening experience of This Is How You Lose Her and how this can become the basis for a critical interpretation of the text. My analysis underscores that having an author read a text can provide a different way into analyzing the text and prompts readers to pay attention to sound. If, like Shokoff asserts, most audiobook readers listen to an audiobook while doing something else, Díaz shows that listening closely to the audio text can be as rewarding as reading a book.
Featured Image: “Junot Diaz” by WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
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Editor’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 three weeks ago 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. Two weeks ago, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took 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. Last week, regular SO! writer Regina Bradley discussed the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.
Today’s post comes from CFP winner Lilian Radovac, who shares with us a critical photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford
Updated with edits as of 12:28 pm EST
October, 2013. I’m waiting for the 80. It’s already dark and bitterly cold for fall, and the bus is predictably late. As the line of people waiting lengthens, traffic rushes past on President-Kennedy and north along Jeanne-Mance, punctuating the larger roar of rush hour in Montreal.
Suddenly, a woman’s voice lifts up out of the din. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying at first, but then a single phrase escapes from the thrum of traffic: “…freedom and democracy…” I look around, trying to place the sound. It’s gone. Several minutes later, the voice rises again: “Tell us again about freedom and democracy!” This time, my ears get a lock on the words and I leave my place in the line to follow them to their source.
My feet bring me to the Promenade des artistes, a slim triangle of concrete that separates President Kennedy Avenue from De Maisonneuve Boulevard, and the sounds of Mégaphone. The promenade is the temporary home of the audiovisual installation produced by the multimedia studio Moment Factory, co-sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada and the Quartier des spectacles partnership. The installation is composed of three zones: to the west, a small outdoor amphitheater arranged around a large red megaphone; across the street, the University of Quebec at Montreal’s science pavilion, which doubles as a projection screen; and to the east, housed in a series of “event vitrines,” an audio exhibition of recordings by notable Quebec speakers who have “shaped public space in Montreal with their words.”
According to the accompanying press kit, Mégaphone is inspired by London’s Speaker’s Corner and Montreal’s interwar tradition of popular assemblies. Its stated goal is to “bring the art of public speaking back into the city.” It’s designed as an interactive experience, which encourages visitors to take to the stage during designated open mic periods and, by speaking into the megaphone, to “light up the city” with their ideas. Their speeches are first acoustically amplified, then processed by voice recognition software and projected onto the façade of the science building, which becomes a canvas for randomly generated keywords. Mégaphone is also timed to coincide with the run-up to Montreal’s November 4th municipal election, and features a program of scheduled speakers that includes an appearance by the city’s mayoral candidates.
As I wander through the empty amphitheater, I find myself thinking that it’s a strange place for a sound installation. The Promenade des artistes is sandwiched between UQAM’s science campus and the northern border of Place des Arts, a Lincoln Center-style performing arts complex that occupies several city blocks. Jane Jacobs would have called this a “dead place,” lost as it is between a set of bicycle lanes and the science building’s indoor food court, which draws pedestrian traffic away from the open space of the street. On the day of my visit, I’m the only person there. Beyond the Promenade des artistes lies the larger Quartier des spectacles, an ongoing culture-led regeneration project which, in an effort to cement the city’s “brand” as a creative city, has concentrated Montreal’s outdoor cultural activities into a single, sprawling site. Traces of the working-class neighborhood it displaced peek out from behind construction fences, quietly attesting to the area’s industrial past.
Still following the voice, I walk towards the line of event vitrines, where seven audio exhibits map the aural contours of an imagined community made real. The speeches on display tell a story of Quebec’s emergence from its colonial past, when the province’s French-speaking majority was dominated by the Catholic church and a minority Anglophone elite. Each voice, in its way, speaks to a period of enormous social transformation fuelled by the dream of Quebec’s independence: Irving Layton delivers a lecture from an amplified podium; Gilles Vigneault sings “Gen du pays” from a stage at Parc Mont-Royal; Pierre Bourgault gives a firebrand speech at the Third Congress of the Parti Québécois. Only the seventeenth century Wendat Chief Kondiaronk remains eerily mute, his voice buried in the memoirs of his colonial French counterparts.
Poet Michèle Lalonde’s voice, however, dominates the space of the exhibit. It’s noticeably higher in pitch than the drone of traffic, and when it rises to meet the words “freedom and democracy” it pierces the low rumble of passing buses and trucks, filling the husk of the surrounding streets. The poem she reads is well known in Quebec, and the version on display here is central to the province’s history and identity as a nation. Recorded at La nuit de la poésie in 1970, the poem was first read at a 1968 benefit performance to support imprisoned members of the Front de libération du Québec, one of whom was Pierre Vallières, the author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique.
Inspired by Vallières’ memoir, “Speak White” is a double appropriation: of the English admonition to Francophones to abandon their mother tongue and, simultaneously, of the revolutionary potential of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, with which the most militant factions of the Quebec independence movement aligned themselves. It is, as Sean Mills has observed, an uncomfortable alliance in a province that struggles to recognize its own racism and status as a settler colony, but in the poetic space of Lalonde’s recitation the words still shudder with subaltern rage.
[Read English translation]
The term “megaphone” is something of a misnomer. The voices of participating speakers are amplified using a hand-held microphone that is connected to a stationary loudspeaker, which actually makes the megaphone more of a rudimentary public address system. It’s an important distinction, since the aural uses of the megaphone are shaped above all by its portability. Megaphones are a mobile audio technology and therefore a nomadic one; like boomboxes and iPods, they’re designed to be easy to carry and to be used while moving from place to place. The public address system, by contrast, is rooted in space: the speaking subject is anchored to the microphone and to the apparatus of amplification, which is composed not only of cables and loudspeakers but also the architectural elements (podium, stage, seating) of the auditorium.
More importantly, the portable megaphone is intended to be used outdoors and in crowds. Thomas Edison’s acoustic megaphone, which he patented in 1878, was soon used at sporting events and to magnify the voices of political leaders at outdoor public events. By 1900, street hawkers began selling makeshift megaphones to the politicians’ audiences, and their wares contributed to a new and noisy public sphere. When the megaphone was married to the transistor and to battery power in the 1950s, the technology was seized by social movements around the world, which used it to appropriate and disperse the power of the individual public speaker. Among them were the student and labor unions that flourished in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which had opened up a space for the province’s democratization.
The year before Mégaphone opened, the promenades of the Quartiers des spectacles were crossed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of bodies that spilled out of Parc Émilie-Gamelin, where students and their supporters gathered for the nighttime demonstrations that became a hallmark of the Quebec student strike, or printemps érable. Each night at about 8:30 pm, we set off on marches that had no planned route and no final destination, walking for hours along streets that we claimed with nothing but our voices and the feet that carried them along. If you arrived late you could find the #manifencours on Twitter, or you could listen for the sounds of the crowd’s chants and the police helicopters that hovered constantly overhead, keeping large swaths of the downtown core awake until the early morning hours.
When the Liberal government attempted to break the strike with the reviled Bill 78, which required protest organizers to submit itineraries to the authorities in advance, the night marches dovetailed with a sudden explosion of casserole protests, which coalesced around autonomous popular assemblies organized at the neighborhood level. Within days, demonstrators fanned out across the city as roving bands of casserolières set off from Villeray, Mile End, Hochelaga, St-Henri and even staid, sleepy Outremont, erupting into cacophonous clangs and cheers as we found each other at the borders of our quartiers and merged into ever larger assemblages. If a city can light up with sound, then that is what happened here in Montreal.
These echoes of the printemp érable form the acoustic backdrop of Mégaphone, and the sounds of the installation are designed to bleed into listeners’ memories of the strike. But Mégaphone is as much about the management of acoustic space as a celebration of its potential. Walking through the Promenade des artistes, I’m struck by a palpable but unintended theme: containment. The voices on display, already tethered to their microphones, are further limited by a series of overlapping spatial and temporal boundaries. The stage is accessible only on certain days and during designated hours, and then only when not reserved for previously scheduled speakers. Like the Quartier des spectacles that surrounds it, the installation is segregated from the lived spaces of the city, out of earshot of most residents and removed from the rhythms of their everyday. As if to belabor the point, speakers are bound by the Mégaphone “code of ethics,” which permits “no tolerance for aggressive, obscene or hateful speech, or for any behavior that is not consistent with respect for public order [emphasis mine].” Presumably, the code does not apply to the Quebeckers whose commitment to radical politics earned them a place in Mégaphone’s pantheon of speakers.
With its endlessly wandering marches and casseroles, the printemps érables was willfully inconsistent with respect for public order and its tactics reflected the anti-authoritarian impulses of the Quebec student movement. Simply by walking together, noisily and spontaneously, we recreated our city as a utopian space in which citizens, not governments, would chart their own course. By contrast, Mégaphone constrains the mobility of political speech, fencing it off in time and space and stripping it of its collective character. In doing so, it subjects the auditory space of the public sphere to what Don Mitchell terms a process of liberalization, drawing it away from the field of autonomous action and back under the stewardship of the state.
Philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve (better known as Anarchopanda) made this connection explicit when he and a group of fellow activists took to the Mégaphone stage to denounce municipal bylaw P-6, which, like Bill 78, requires protesters to inform the police of their activities under threat of arrest and massive fines. While Bill 78 (later Law 12) was repealed after a national outcry, P-6 remains in effect and its enforcement is in large part responsible for ending the strike and for the continuing suppression of public protest in Montreal.
As I walk back towards the bus stop, my fingers numb inside my mittens, I consider how much Mégaphone feels like a memorial to the city’s noisy public sphere, which, for the moment at least, is safely confined to the past.
Sincere thanks to Jonathan Sterne, Erika Biddle, Magdalena Olszanowski, Ted Rutland, Liz Miller and the Tapas Gals for the conversations that contributed to this post.
Featured image: by Lilian Radovac
Lilian Radovac is a writer, organizer and doctoral candidate in communication studies at McGill University. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the cultural history of noise control in New York City, a chapter of which, “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” was published in Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies (John Hopkins, 2012). Her work has also appeared in Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest”-Jonathan Sterne
“Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations”-Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
Editor’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!.
“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso