I don’t worry about the look of it so much. Choreography comes later, when I’m putting together a piece. I’m into the sound; for me, when I’m hittin’, layin’ it down, it’s all about the sound. –Savion Glover, My Life in Tap
It has been a little over a year since Amiri Baraka passed, and still I hear the echoes of his presence. I am especially attentive to the ways his work has been carried on by those involved in recent black uprisings in Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore. Powerful political poetics that have emerged from these events include work by Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine and the many contributors to blackpoetsspeakouttumblr.com.
And yet, part of what I’ve witnessed in the streets, actual physical spaces of public protest against police violence and systemic racial oppression, is an example of what Thomas DeFrantz has termed “corporeal orature,” or the ability of bodies to resonate throughout public space and shift political discourse. In these moments, the body talk of protesters is not simply the sound of clattering feet through city streets, but a commitment to the ways in which physical gestures can speak truth to power. I am especially interested in connecting Baraka’s legacy to the larger conversation about the aural kinesthetic that Imani Kai Johnson has proposed, and in teasing out the various dimensions and potentials embedded in that category.
For me, Savion Glover exemplified the lingering sound of Baraka’s spirit in his tap dance at his memorial service. Whenever I listen to the recording—which still brings tears to my eyes—I am reminded of the abundant sense of joy, sadness, and love that characterized Baraka’s service. Listening to Glover’s dance is an aural kinesthetic experience, like watching a comet pass across the night’s sky. I am reminded, too, of the way I clamored to record that moment, to keep a piece of the poet alive on my iPhone even after his public passing. And indeed, that performative sound of feet tapping, that measured excess of the body produced through movement, has kept Baraka alive for me; like his groundbreaking work, it is powerfully resistant to the proper rubrics of any one discipline except, perhaps for the study of sound itself.
So, this post then, is about tap dance and its ability to sound out Baraka’s name and life. But in a larger context, the intricate vibrations of Glover’s performance facilitate a deeper understanding of the relationship between sound and mourning, and a kind of mourning that is particularly African American, that is to say, American. It is a mourning that exists beyond the word, written text, or image and a sound practice that enables the bereaved to make a joyful noise and a mournful one at the very same time. So I ask, how do you write a eulogy with the body? How do you perform an embodied love? What does Black love and a reverence for Black life sound like? Sometimes, the answer is tap.
Audio Clip of Savion Glover’s Dance at Amiri Baraka’s Funeral, 18 Jan 2014
The dance explodes on stage like a burst of light. It begins with something approximating a drum roll – and then hard slow taps, hammering away like someone at a typewriter, I imagine, or a train gaining steam.
It is coming.
Slow, insistent and strong, with a little riff now and then, a little picking up of speed here and there. It is coming on louder now, that explosive thing, the tension you are noticing. He is doing the thing. And then there is that skillful, smooth, strong tap. Glover is at work, y’all.
As a tribute to Baraka, Glover’s dance bears numerous stylistic implications. Among them, I understand the rhythm of Glover’s tap as the rhythm of writing, an aesthetic that complicates the way his dance can be understood as a manifestation of the black vernacular. Sketching out the early connections between her son’s artistry and the percussive taps of the keyboard, Yvette Glover says. “‘I was working for a judge, as an assistant, when I was pregnant with Savion…And when I would type, and the carriage would automatically return, he’d walk, he’d follow it, in my stomach. You could see him move” (39). He does it still. In the audio clip, Glover’s footwork evokes the dexterity of Baraka’s language, all the while telling a story of its own.
But what about the intensity of the dance, its crescendo toward the end of the service, a flurry of percussive steps beside Baraka’s coffin? Baraka himself reminds us this particular musicality is so necessary here. In his discussion of “Afro-Christian Music and Religion” in Blues People, Baraka notes that in Black diasporic religious services, “the spirit will not descend without a song” (41). Glover’s dance takes place at a moment in the service when emotion exceeds the power of language, but not sound. He uses his body as an instrument of sound in its fullest sense. His performance is a choreography of embodied sound: full-on and at-once body poetry, mourning and tribute.
Elucidating the use of his body as an instrument of sound, Glover declares:
It’s like my feet are the drums and my shoes are the sticks[…]My left heel is stronger, for some reason, than my right; it’s my bass drum. My right heel is like the floor tom-tom. I can get a snare out of my right toe, a whip sound, not putting it down on the floor hard, but kind of whipping the floor with it. It get the sounds of a top tom-tom from the balls of my feet. The hi-hat is a sneaky one. I do it with a slight toe lift, either foot, so like a drummer, I can slip it in there anytime. And if I want cymbals, crash crash, that’s landing flat, both feet, full strength on the floor, full weight on both feet. That’s the cymbals. So I’ve got a whole drum set down there (19).
Combining his body’s drumbeat with the tic of Baraka’s keystrokes, Glover embeds the pattern of Baraka’s life in this tap dance, communicating it with the kind of deep and reverential love you are taught to have for your elders when you are young, appropriate and deep.
But as powerful as his body-poetry is, Glover’s silences are also key. In those inaudible spaces, Glover spreads out his arms, offering up the dance in a gesture of expansive love; the immensity of the silent gestures mirroring the immensity of Baraka’s life. He holds it out as a gift towards the audience, bows his head, too.
In moments of sound and silence, the audience calls out to Glover the way they would a preacher. At these moments, the dance becomes a call and response akin to the way Baraka’s life’s work was a call and response. A call to respond. A call to take what was given to you and make it mean. Listeners to the dance are called up out of themselves. We are changed by the dance and by the listening.
Tap tap tap.
Glover’s performance shows us how his specific blend of African and European dance traditions exists in a spiritual and artistic dimension. There is a religious explanation for this, too. In African Dance, Kariamu Welsh-Asante explains the function of the African funeral dance in definite terms:
All African dances can be used for transcendence and transformational purposes. Transcendence is the term usually associated with possession and trance. Dance is the conduit for transcendent activities. Dance enables an initiate or practitioner to progress or travel through several altered states, thereby achieving communication with an ancestor to deity and receiving valuable information that he/she can relate back to the community. Repetition is key to this process as it guides the initiates, or dancers, through the process of the ceremony. The more a movement is repeated, the greater the level of intensity and the closer a dancer gets to the designated deity or ancestor. Transformation means to change from one state, or phase, to another (16).
Glover certainly brought us close to Baraka. And yet, I would go a step further to suggest that this is, above all, blues dance. As such, it reveals continuing relevance of social dance and movement to Baraka’s political legacy. Baraka and Glover work directs us towards the propulsive nature of black social/percussive dance forms. These sonic gestures clarify the ways black life matters, impacts the public sphere and policy. The politicized nature of Black Arts Movement performances and the performative elements of contemporary Black protest are still linked through sound. Politicized Black aesthetics continue to offer us multiple opportunities to witness the convergence of sound and movement. Ras Baraka, affirms this in his own eulogy for his father:
Have you seen black fire it burns deep it never goes out you can try and extinguish it but it never goes out it never goes out it never goes out only up or out as in broad as in multiply as in blues black base of the fire dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone…
The power of the dance, of the Black Movement to move is still with us.
Featured Image, Screen Capture of Savion Glover dancing by JS
Kristin Moriah is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her critical work can be found in Callaloo, Theater Journal, TDR and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Moriah is completing a dissertation on African American literature and performance in transnational contexts at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin and the Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative. She is a 2014-15 @IRADAC_GC Archival Dissertation Fellow and spring 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Sometimes she tweets via @moriahgirl.
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Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali–Tara Betts
This April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0″–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.
Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues. In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently “refurbished” square and the displacement of their lives within it. For me, O’Keeffe’s ideas were electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via ReSounding Binghamton and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project. Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge. Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?
Last week, we heard from the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, Christie Zwahlen, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens. In coming weeks, we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffe‘s newest project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry, “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.” We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelin, who will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening. This week, artist/scholar Luz María Sánchez gives us the privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, detritus.2/ V.F(i)n_1–1st prize winner at the 2015 Biennial of the Frontiers in Matamoros, Mexico —which uses found recordings and images to break the deleterious silence created by narco violence in Mexico.
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
detritus is an open-ended art project I started in 2011, that has as its main subject the portrayal of violence in Mexico. I introduce the sounds and images of what I call the Postnational Violence in Mexico using the concept of detritus as the nucleus; I use the cultural objects I produce through my artistic practice as the vehicle. detritus actually explores violence (1) as it is portrayed through media (radio, TV, newspapers and online platforms) and (2) as it is registered, manipulated and transmitted by the different participants of it –civilians, the government, NGOs, the military, the cartels–.
The first stage of detritus deals with Mexican media, specifically online newspapers, radio and TV, during the Presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). The whole strategy of [former] President Calderón —even before he took office— was to knock down violence associated to drug trafficking in Mexico and, actually, just a few days after he did his pledge as President of Mexico, he declared the war against drug trafficking that underwent from 11December 2006 —when Calderón actually started this war by sending 5,000 soldiers and police officers to the state of Michoacán— until the last day he was in Office: 31 November 2012.
During the six years that this war took place, former President Calderón appeared in military garments as “Mexico’s Drug War Commander in Chief.” The main target of this military strategy was to re-claim the control on those states where Mexican cartels were in charge. As Guillermo Pereyra argues in México: violencia criminal y “Guerra contra el narcotráfico” (2012), “Mexico’s Drug War” began as a decision to recover sovereignty in a context of political and social crisis. At the end of this period, there were more than 45,000 officers deployed in the states of Mexico, Baja California, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Durango, and more than 60,000 casualties. US media called this war “The Mexican War on Drugs” or “Mexico’s Drug War.”
The research for the visuals of detritus included every single [online] edition of Milenio and Jornada —Mexican national newspapers—from 11 December 2006 until 31 November 2012, and eventually it also included Proceso magazine and El Blog del Narco, an online independent news outlet. This research allowed me to investigate how the media has steadily been increasing the volume of news and images dealing with this war, therefore contributing to the “normalization” of the very violence it covers. As Colombian artist Doris Salcedo states the normalization of barbarism comes from the excessive number of deaths that violence is leaving to the society and, [I will add] to the excessive number of images and sounds that media and individuals put on circulation and make it viral through social networks and online independent outlets. All of us are, either as transmitters or as receivers, building this texture of violence.
At the end of 2013 detritus was completed: more than 10,200 images, all of them categorized in a database that includes: title of newspaper, section, header, author of the photograph, caption, and a brief description of the image itself. I used a very simple process of photographic manipulation to alter those 10,200 images. Once transformed, these images are projected, for a very short period of time [2 seconds each] in a large screen. We could be standing in front of this projection for hours and never see any of those images repeated. For those who are drawn to numbers, we could see that at the beginning of this war, during a whole weekend, there will be four or five images related to the subject; by the end of 2012, there were more than 40 images during the same period of time.
But the description of the horror through Mexican media does not include all the necessary voices. That is why civilians started a process to empower themselves using the tools they have at hand–such as mobile phone’s cameras–a medium they can use without restrictions. Over the Internet, civilians circulated images, videos, and sounds of their day-to-day experiences dealing with extreme violence. They are not alone on this viralization of violence through audiovisual documents: members of drug cartels and self-defense groups are also uploading their combats. The big difference is each group’s “agenda.” Civilians are in search of an arena to share their experiences; cartels and other military groups are either in search of validation or in search of documenting the systematic violence used in order to control whole populations.
Therefore, the audio complement I designed for detritus, first detritus.2 and then its current iteration V.F(i)n_1 , features the sounds of shootings, recorded by civilians who happened to be at close range. Generally this footage was taken via mobile phone and uploaded onto YouTube, and, unlike the newspaper representations, the image is not necessarily what is most engaging, since the individual that is making the recording is usually at floor level, protected, in order to avoid being hit by a stray bullet. But the sounds are pristine: even if the image is almost motionless -in the corner of a room, looking through a small part of a window-, the sound describes better what is at stake: violence at a very close range. The sounds on these recordings are very similar: the shootings are placed in the background, and we generally listen to voices in the foreground.
Each of the twenty recordings that integrate to create detritus.2 was taken from You Tube. The shootings occurred in the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Zupango, Orizaba, Saltillo, Juarez, Changuitiro, Purépero, Xalapa, Jiquilpan, Santa María del Oro and Mexico City. All of them, played together, contribute to the assembly of what Salcedo calls a texture of sound. The recordings are reproduced/played by twenty portable digital speakers in the shape of guns. These sound-reproduction machines are completely autonomous–no power or sound cables attached–and each speaker is a sound component by itself. Once the battery is worn, the sound is gone until the battery is recharged, therefore restarting the process performance / sound – waste / silence. Silence is one of the worst problems when dealing with violence.The government and the drug cartels alike don’t want anybody to openly discuss these issues. Working with families within specific communities in Mexico and the US will help make their stories visible -out of the anonymous data- and visibility could empower them.
But exploring the “normalization” of violence through media is not my only intervention with detritus and detritus.2. Far from the sound art movement, where soundscape often functions as a neutral label that includes organized sounds taken from the surroundings, detritus.2 deals with Mexican contemporary cities’ sounds, recorded and disseminated by the same individuals that live within these acoustic situations. Those are the sounds that [also] construct the Mexican landscape, telling the story of the failed nation. Taken together, the sounds of detritus.2 amplifies the fact that we are standing in front of the failure of the Mexican state as we know it, and its civilian population has been dealing with this irregular situation for many decades. We have witnessed drug cartels infiltrate every layer of life; and just because many civilians end up surviving —with and around it—does not make the problem disappear. On the contrary, every broken boundary makes the problem harder and harder to be resolved.
The failure of the Mexican State, or the “inferno” as is being called now, is something Mexico can no longer hide. When I say Mexico here, I am not referring to its general population–already exhausted already from decades on “survival mode”– but rather the Capitol elite: the government, investors, intellectuals, and journalists alike. This situation is not new to civilians living outside of Mexico City. Entire communities in the north of Mexico have been abandoning their belongings-jobs-lives, in extremely fast exodus, either to the US or to tranquil states like Yucatán. Thousands of mothers and fathers are looking for their sons and daughters taken by the cartels, in the best-case scenario they are put to work as slaves either at the drug camps or as prostitutes, in the worst they may be in the thousands of mass graves that pollute the country. Civilians understood early in the story that any complaint to the police would result in an even worse situation. For years, it has been known in the bus industry that a lot of young male and female travelers have been kidnapped to make them join this industry of slaves, and only recently they started to admit it: tons of luggage at bus terminals on the northern states of Mexico speak for those that went missing, and nobody said a word. Just the past 19 October 2014 a corpse of a went-missing-police-officer’s mother was placed in front of the Ministry of the Interior’s building: they never pursued an investigation over the disappearance of the young officer, and the last will of this ailing mother was her coffin to be placed in the street outside of the Ministry of the Interior as a way of extreme protest.
Listening Ahead: V. (u)nF_2
In the next phase of detrius.2, V. (u)nF_2–an acronym for Vis. (un) necessary force–I am making sculptural objects and sounds to construct a multi-channel sound-installation exploring the question: how do civilians in Mexico live through the extreme violence product of the fight against drug cartels in a state that has revealed its own failure? The artwork consists of a multiple series of custom-made ceramic-sound devices/megaphones in the shape of human heads/faces, molded after living family members of civilians that are still on the “missing” lists, maybe kidnapped and/or killed by drug cartels. In order to make an archive that includes each family’s data, I will collaborate with organizations that assist civilians on finding their relatives. To make a representative selection, I plan to analyze data through a mathematic-algorithm; chosen families will be invited to be part of the project. Each family will designate a member to participate symbolically as the “missing” person. A 3D-scan data portrait will be made of each participant, followed by a ceramic-3D-print. I will then install an electronic-circuit and megaphone inside of the hollow-human-head/faces-ceramic-objects. To develop the sound element –a thick stratum of noise– I will digitally modify a multiple-layered-construction of sounds after the stored data. The specifics of each story/participant will be presented at the exhibition space through an interactive database. Custom-made ceramic-objects/megaphones will be resting on the floor; in in order to cross the exhibition-space, visitors will have to carefully move these 3D-ceramic-portraits, each one representing an individual story.
V. (u)nF_2 is a gesture that listens forward, taking those 24,000–and counting–missing-individuals outside of data-archives and rehumanizing them through storytelling, 3D-scan/print technology and sound. The fact that I will use traditional methods to approach my subject —the horror of this war against civilians– but will also use state-of-the-art-technology in order to shape the hardware needed for sound-installation, combines a human-scale project with the possibilities of the digital-world, which places this project within the so-called Third-Industrial-Revolution but grounds it in the real.
Listen to other sound installations by Luz María Sánchez:
Frecuencias Policiacas// Police Frequencies: “Las grabaciones que forman parte del audio multicanal de la instalación, fueron llevadas a cabo en la central de radiocomunicación de la policía de Nuevo Laredo, y fueron facilitadas a la artista por reporteros del diario El Mañana en agosto de 2005. Los audios registran una confrontación entre la policía de Nuevo Laredo y un grupo criminal no identificado, y por las características de los mismos, se pueden escuchar a diversos elementos policiacos, así como a las controladoras de la radiocomunicación. La re-transmisión de estos sonidos en una matriz multi-líneal, colocan a la obra en nuevos niveles de codificación en los que la complejidad visual, auditiva y político social de esta realidad, se hacen patentes.” –Description by Roberto Arcaute y Manuel Rocha Iturbide
Frecuencias Policiacas// Police Frequencies: “The recordings are part of the multichannel audio installation carried out in the central police radio Nuevo Laredo, provided to the artist by El Mañana newspaper reporters in August 2005. The audio recorded a confrontation between police and an unidentified criminal Nuevo Laredo group. . .The re-transmission of these sounds in a multi-linear matrix placed to work in new levels of encryption that make evident the social visual, auditory and political complexity of this reality.” –Description by Roberto Arcaute y Manuel Rocha Iturbide
2487: “2487 speaks the names of the two thousand four hundred eighty seven people who died crossing the U.S./Mexico border . The work employs digital technology and sound as a means for transborder memorialization and protest, imposing the absence of those lost into the public sphere. Sánchez’ immersive sound environment remaps social history as the names of the deceased fly across the border through soundscape and digital media. Drawing from data acquired from activist websites, Sánchez created a sound map of names which she recorded digitally. Her final score, along with the database, has been exhibited widely but lives permanently on the world wide web, in commemoration and quiet protest. Sánchez’ work connects the digital and geographic landscape to the listener’s body, gaining entry through sound and transcending political and physical barriers”– Description from UCR Critical Digital 8/19/2012
Sound and visual artist Luz María Sánchez studied both music and literature. Through her doctoral studies Sánchez has focused on the role of sound-in-art since its inception in the 19th century through its evolution as an independent art practice in the 20th century. Sánchez then examined the radio-plays of Samuel Beckett linking them to the sound-practices that emerged in the mid-20th century. Sánchez has continued her research on technologized-sound: she was part of the conference Mapping Sound and Urban Space in the Americas at Cornell University, and her book Technological Epiphanies: Samuel Beckett’s Use of Audiovisual Machines will be published in 2015. Her artwork has been included in major sound-and-music festivals such as Zéppellin-Sound-Art-Festival (Spain), Bourges-International-Festival-of-Electronic-Music-and-Sonic-Art (France), Festival-Internacional-de-Arte-Sonoro (Mexico), and has presented exhibitions at Marion-Koogler-McNay-Art-Museum, Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, Galería de la Raza (San Francisco), John-Michael-Kohler-Arts-Center (Sheboygan), Illinois State Museum (Chicago/Springfield), and Centro de Cultura Contemporánea (Barcelona) amongst others. She was granted a special distinction in the category Nouvea-Musiques at the Phonurgia-Nova-Prix (Arles), was the recipient of a Círculo-de-Bellas-Artes-de-Madrid’s grant, and Yuko Hasegawa selected her for the Artpace-International-Artist-in-Residence. She is member of the Board-of-the-Sound Experimentation-Space at Museum-of Contemporary-Art (MUAC). Sanchez was recently awarded the First Prize of the Frontiers Biennial (2015).
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“A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom”–Nicole Brittingham Furlonge
“Soundscapes of Narco Silence”—Marci R. McMahon
This April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0″–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.
Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues. In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently square and the displacement of their lives within it. For me, the idea was electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via the ReSounding Binghamton project and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project. Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my own efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge. Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?
In the forum we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffe‘s newest project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.” Artist Luz Maria Sanchez will give us privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, “detritus.2: The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico.” We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelin, who will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening. Today we begin with longtime SO! community member and writer, Christie Zwahlen, Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens. If you decide that a community is in need, can you still hear what they have to say?
Community engagement is an important piece of Sound Studies 2.0, the latest iteration of the field that moves beyond discovering and justifying sound as an object of study and toward a politics and praxis of intervention. New knowledge about sound and listening can both be produced through and actively inform community-based work. Likewise, sound studies can inform the theory and practice of community engagement in meaningful ways.
Listening plays a critical role in the field of community engagement, insofar as our work is undertaken in response to community-articulated needs. Though needs can be expressed through various modes, listening to residents and community partners remains crucially important to our work as practitioners. As has been reiterated countless times, the strength of relationships is what drives and sustains community-based work and enables collaborative endeavors. Yet, as important as listening is to this work, it is rarely, if ever, discussed in sonic terms. We know that listening both produces and perpetuates power inequity, yet have neglected to examine how listening mediates our understanding (or lack thereof) of community needs.
Thus, as Jennifer Stoever’s recent Sounding Out! post argues for the importance of a civically engaged sound studies, I am also arguing for the importance of a sonically informed community engagement praxis, one that demands self-reflexivity about our own listening practices as we attempt to identify community needs. What does “need” sound like? To whom? How has the state of being “in need” been sonically constructed by dominant modes of listening and the sonic color-line? How can we, as Community Engagement practitioners, guard against the compulsion to hear needs articulated in the absence of their verbal expression? In other words. what do we hear–or not hear–when we listen through the power-laden filter of “neediness”?
Like Sound Studies, Community Engagement is considered a relatively new field. Often equated to a movement within higher education, it has built steam on the strength of its learning outcomes for students engaged in Service-Learning and other high impact learning experiences. Furthermore, many higher education institutions explicitly prioritize working with their communities towards positive public outcomes in their mission statements, positioning outcomes for community residents as equally important to student learning.
Both research and practice have taught us that community engagement is most effective when based on community-articulated needs. Projects should address genuine needs as voiced by the community. As Barbara Jacoby writes in Service-Learning in Higher Education, “an effective [service-learning] program allows for those with needs to define those needs” (42). This central tenet of community engagement praxis issues a power check on community-campus partnerships and attempts to shield community members from the sometimes arrogance of University “experts” who falsely believe in their ability to speak on behalf of Others, re-enacting the very processes of silencing and oppression this work seeks to eliminate. Community voices are often stifled in unequal research or “service” encounters and are also often mis-heard by what Stoever calls the listening ear, which hears non-normative speech as an indication of need. Furthermore,the idea that need can be self-identified implicitly speaks to the recognition that visual markers of social difference affect our opinions and perceptions of others–particularly when those Others are from marginalized communities. Because of this, the voices of community residents are often figured as the gateway to “pure” knowledge about community needs.
While the concept of “voicing” needs in community-engaged work is broader than its sonic meaning (e.g. referring to the collection of data via surveys, needs assessments, other written communications, etc.), meeting face-to-face and speaking with community residents is still considered a best and necessary practice in the development of mutually beneficial relationships. The material “touch” manifested through the vocalic body connects us in ways that email, needs assessments, and other forms of digital communication cannot compete. Of constant concern to community engagement practitioners is how we can better respond to community-articulated needs and how best to inform ourselves of their existence. Missing from the discussion, however, is an interrogation of how listening shapes the way we hear needs articulated. What does someone in need sound like, or rather, what has our culture determined what someone in need sounds like? Are we hearing needs articulated where they do not exist? As much as the field of Community Engagement prioritizes listening in its praxis, the process itself is not understood as a material one. If we are basing our work on the voiced needs of community residents, how can we do this well without investigating our own listening practices or acknowledging at the most basic level that listening is a social process, not just a physiological one? Delving more deeply into these questions can help us to develop a sonically-informed community engagement praxis, one which takes into account our own biased ears as we engage with community members.
To think through the damage that mis-hearing need can do, I want to examine the case study of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was a key witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial in July, 2013. Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whom Zimmerman stalked and shot to death as Martin walked home from the corner store to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida. Many commentators placed blame for Zimmerman’s acquittal on Jeantel’s voice and use of African American Vernacular English, which were denigrated and dissected by courtroom officials, the media, and the Twittersphere. When the trial was over, a self-dubbed “village” of mentors descended on Jeantel, determined to provide her with a plethora of services that she, in fact, resisted. Krissah Thompson’s Washington Post article “For Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, a ‘village’ of mentors trying to keep her on track,” details Rachel Jeantel’s “transformation” after the George Zimmerman trial. A prime example of the way certain voices and bodies are figured as expressing need without ever saying a word, this “village” of mentors inferred from Jeantel’s voice a great longing for help.
As courtroom officials and many in the social media cosmos painted a sonic image of Jeantel as untrustworthy and unintelligible, Karen Andre–an African American lawyer and old friend of Jeantel’s lawyer Roderick Vereen–was thinking about what she could do to help the young woman she heard and saw on the stand. Taking the lead in Jeantel’s cultural makeover, Vereen is referred to as the “village elder.” Since the case ended, he has made Jeantel his project, despite, as Thompson reports, their expectations “differing wildly.”
As Karen Andre watched Jeantel’s testimony on television, she contacted Vereen directly to offer herself up as a mentor, because “simply, it looked to her as if the young woman needed one.” But it was not only Jeantel’s appearance (which was itself highly criticized) that motivated Andre to contact Vereen. Regina Bradley uses the term “sonic ratchetness” to describe Jeantel’s testimony and its reception as “an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.” It was this sonic ratchetness which signaled to Andre that Jeantel needed assistance–assistance becoming the “respectable” black woman to which she undoubtedly aspired. Though many spoke out in defense of Jeantel, the degree to which negative portrayals of her were accepted as fact further evidence the pervasiveness of the sonic color-line in guiding our response to black vocalics–as deficient, non-normative and indicative of need. In essence, through her speech, Jeantel has been characterized and interpreted by many (including members of the black professional class) as a charity case.
On Jeantel’s “progress” thus far, Vereen remarks, “her word choice was terrible [during the trial]. She didn’t know how to communicate or express herself clearly. Rachel has learned to confide with adults. She has become very open now.” As a black professional operating daily within the cultural norms of the U.S. court system, Vereen hears Jeantel’s use of African American vernacular as objectionable. By emphasizing her improved proficiency with white heteronormative discourse and increased “openness” as major accomplishments vis a vis her “progress,” Vereen highlights Jeantel’s manner of speech as both a determinant of need and a barrier to her functioning within the normal parameters of American social life. Vereen “helps” Jeantel by disciplining her speech to conform with normative white speaking and listening practices.
When asked about the public commentary surrounding her and her testimony, Jeantel says she “had to laugh it off.” Suddenly interrupted by Rose Reeder, another village mentor, who urges, “No. Be Honest,” Jeantel concedes that she was angry about being judged. Reeder’s censuring here evidences the ways in which Jeantel is silenced by the “assistance” being provided her. Interrupting Jeantel in this manner forces her to disclose personal information, at the risk of seeming like a liar. In capitulating to her mentor, Jeantel gives up a very basic right of expression. In effect, Jeantel’s improved “openness” to adults (thanks, village!) functions to silence and distort her authentic voice.
“I think the thing that moved me most,” says Tom Joyner, another of Jeantel’s mentors and host of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, “was when the attorney kept asking her questions and she kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And it occurred to me, ‘Yeah, not only was that attorney not listening to her, but I think that none of us were listening to the Rachel Jeantels of the world.” Ironically, Joyner who has offered to pay for Jeantel’s tuition at any historically black college of her choosing, is not listening well either. As the Washington Post piece also highlights, Jeantel and her Creole-speaking mother were rarely (if ever) consulted as to what types of aid were actually needed or desired (if any). Instead, Joyner and the village interpreted Jeantel’s voice alone as adequate evidence of need sans investigation.
What Joyner and others hear and what Jeantel is actually asking for continue to be incongruous. Jeantel would like to pursue a career in fashion. Joyner’s foundation refuses to pay. Vereen’s prescription is for Jeantel to attend Florida Memorial, a small historically black university in Southern Florida. As to whether the “village teachings” actually worked, Vereen condescendingly avows, “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.”
The manner in which Jeantel has been forcibly coerced to abandon her “sonic ratchetness” (at least in public), provides an important warning to those of us engaged in work which advances the “public good.” It should lead us to question whose good we are enacting and how our ideas about the public good are informed by what we hear and mis-hear.
As is often the case in community-based work, it is fruitful to return to Kretzmann and McKnight’s asset-based community development (ABCD) model in thinking through an ethical course of action. The ABCD model focuses its attention on a community’s assets instead of its needs or deficiencies, empowering even the least empowered members of a community to use what skills and talents they possess to work towards changes they desire. Viewing alternative modes of articulation as an asset (vs. an indicator of inherent need) may prove useful in staying attentive to our listening practices as they relate to marginalized communities. Though denigrated as improper speech, culturally specific modes of articulation convey meaning in their distance from the norm. These modes of articulation are complex in their practical and historical constitutions. Both in what is said and not said, we must acknowledge that our listening ears fabricate meaning beyond the verbal, and that sonic constructions of Otherness can distort and inform how we hear needs articulated.
Featured Image: MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Mass Communication Specialist 1st Kim Williams talks with a student while painting a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released) 110519-N-NY820-275
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
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This podcast is an effort to understand the cultural practices which surround the recovery of “lost sounds.” These are early linguistic sounds that have been forgotten after years of cultural and martial violence toward indigenous communities in America.
From the very beginning of the invasion of the Americas that began in 1492, Eurocentric ideologies overwhelmingly failed to recognize the strengths of American Indian cultures. Evaluating Native people as “savage,” efforts to westernize the tribes alternated between genocide and acts of removal. Government supported education, amongst other things, became the primary means to accomplish the forced eradication of Indian language. The loss of language as a component of ongoing colonization is what Hawaiian scholar Noenoe K. Silva has called “linguicide.” The results of “linguicide,” as the suppression of indigenous languages and cultures in the United States, has been catastrophic for American Indian and Alaska Native peoples.
For Indigenous people, the spoken language is a cherished intellectual treasure. Each sound captures how we see the world. Native American languages are oral, but some of them have been written in the last three centuries. There are over two hundred different North American languages still spoken by peoples of the United States and Canada. That is, of the over three hundred pre-contact languages originally spoken, only two hundred languages still remain. Fortunately, Native communities are fighting hard to keep these languages alive through sustainability efforts and revitalization projects.
I wonder about the relationship between “lost sounds,” indigenous language, and personal experience. How did we come to lose the language in our own homes? How does this loss continue today? What is being done to “find lost sounds”? How are we, as Native people, searching for the sounds, and what does that process mean to us? The conversation in this podcast is not about the science of linguists, it is not about history or the methods of linguistic preservation. Instead, it is a conversation about the experience of listening and trying to hear how we once were.
Marcella Ernest is a Native American (Ojibwe) interdisciplinary video artist and scholar. Her work combines electronic media with sound design with film and photography in a variety of formats; using multi-media installations incorporating large-scale projections and experimental film aesthetics. Currently living in California, Marcella is completing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Drawing upon a Critical Indigenous Studies framework to explore how “Indianness” and Indigenity are represented in studies of American and Indigenous visual and popular culture, her primary research is an engagement with contemporary Native art to understand how members of colonized groups use a re-mix of experimental video and sound design as a means for cultural and political expressions of resistance.
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