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Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear

Olin-Tonatiuh-and-Cristal-Gonzalez-in-Tamales-De-Puerco.-Photo-by-Ed-Krieger.

World Listening Month3This is the fourth and final post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Trevor Boffone prescribes, a much wider and more corporeal understanding of the practice that goes beyond an emphasis on the ear and even on sound itself.   –Editor-in-Chief JS

As Kent, a Deaf man, stands on stage in Tamales de Puerco, signing his story of struggling and growing up in a hearing family, the only aural sounds in the theater come from the audience: the sounds of crying. Performed in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language (ASL), Tamales offers a glimpse into the seldom seen realities of life as a single mother to a Deaf child as it intersects with Latinidad. The play presents the story of Norma, a young mother who confronts her abusive husband and challenges a country that rejects and oppresses her as an undocumented immigrant. She overcomes the hardships of being Latina, undocumented, and having a Deaf child (Mauricio) without any support from her husband, her mother, and local and state institutions. Ultimately, Norma must negotiate cultural citizenship and notions of belonging to the Deaf Latin@ community so that her son can have more opportunities. The play uses—and calls attention to—silence as an essential building block in the process of constructing, remixing, and performing the complexities of Latin@ identity.

Third Ear Image 2 - TdP - Norma and Tana

Listening to the silences in Latin@ theatre performance offers crucial insight into how the Latin@ population and Latinidad fit into the fabric of the United States in the 21st Century, as Marci R. McMahon notes in “Soundscapes of Narco Silence.” In Tamales, the staging of Deafness creates a particular kind of silence that promotes new listening strategies. What I find most compelling is how Deafness on stage–and the particular silences Deafness can create–opens up a space for what Steph Ceraso calls multimodal listening,” listening as a full-bodied event not solely linked to the ears, but rather connected to “bodies, affects, behaviors, design, space, and aesthetics.” Calling attention to the body as it does, the silences in the play give weight to Kent’s story and affects the viewer beyond the limits of voiced acting by encouraging spectators to concentrate on the actors’ physical emotions and how actors’ bodies work to transmit messages without verbal cues. I argue Tamales promotes multimodal listening by forcing spectators to use their “Third Ear”—a mode of listening across domains of silence, sound, and the moving body—as a device to understand a seemingly silent world.

To do this, I engage with the playscript and recordings of the 2013 production of Mercedes Floresislas’s Tamales de Puerco at CASA 0101 Theater under Edward Padilla’s direction. While Floresislas’s script raised many complex issues surrounding the Deaf Latin@ community, Padilla’s staging focused on the intersections of Deafness and Latinidad by foregrounding the use of silence in the production. [Note: I use the capitalized versions of Deaf and Deafness. A standard dictionary definition of “deaf” represents one who is partially or unable to hear (deaf and hearing impaired are essentially interchangeable). Deaf with a capital D, however, refers to the community that self-identifies as belonging to the Deaf culture. Deafness, therefore, is a sign of health and prognosis of well-being among sign language dependent hearing-impaired people. Likewise, hearing versus Hearing represents a similar biological/cultural binary.]

In Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater, one of the few studies to devote critical attention to Deaf theater as it relates to multicultural experience and identity, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren introduces the “Third Ear,” a useful term that facilitates focusing one’s attention on the performative forms of expression. Blending sensory, spatial, and visual elements generates a Third Ear that acts as a “Deaf-gain,” a hybrid mode of hearing and coming to know the world. When specific senses are lost, the mind becomes dynamic in such a way that continues to allow affected individuals to actively engage with their surroundings, with their community. Deaf people, therefore, do not lack a vital sense, but rather they gain a new sense—one typically inaccessible to hearing individuals– that enables them to successfully navigate their surroundings. Kochhar-Lindgren’s work focuses attention on the “sense” of performance and the different movements that work together to form speech sensed by the “Third Ear.” For audience members, learning to perceive the mixing of forms together as communication is fundamental to understanding the messages presented on stage; inevitably, the Third Ear promotes auditory silence yet it establishes that a lack of sound does not necessarily correspond with a lack of understanding. By removing all sound, silence gains power.

Third Ear Image 1 - TdP Poster Art (1)

The evocation of the Third Ear separates Tamales from the majority of Latin@ theater productions grounded in aural languages such as English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Deafness is seldom represented onstage in any type of theater, aside from revivals of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker and Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, more contemporary works such as Suzan Zeder’s Ware Trilogy and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, and the work of Deaf West Theatre in Hollywood, whose most recent production, Spring Awakening received rave reviews and will move Broadway in September 2015. The work of Deaf West has been of particular interest to Sound Studies scholars for its unique contributions to the American Theatre. In Cara Cardinale’s 2012 SO! post, she discusses Deaf West’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which the roles were reversed. The production’s interpreters were for the hearing audience and, thus, sign language took center stage. Yet, all of these more well-known works focus on Anglo experiences, neglecting the specific intersectional challenges that Deaf people of color face such as limited access to state-funded resources such as counseling services, educational inequality and the achievement gap, not to mention that the majority of Deaf Latin@s do not have parents who can sign with them (re: effectively communicate).

The Third Ear, as evoked in Tamales, seems especially suited for representing Latin@ Deafness onstage and evoking a concomitant visceral understanding in audiences. Floresislas’s writing and Padilla’s direction work together to strategically allow audience members to develop a Third Ear at key moments in the play, enabling them to fill silences they might have otherwise perceived as gaps. Entering Tamales’ silent world not only compels hearing audiences to recognize their supposed privilege, but pushes toward a deeper understanding of the relativity of hearing-as-privilege. In a Deaf world, hearing is not a privilege, but rather one of many ways to come to know the world. In this regard, Tamales reiterates Liana Silva’s argument that “deafness complicates what it means to listen” by calling attention to the many non-auditory signals that are vital to the act.

2B63E42B-FE77-6FF9-25FDAD4EE2D67726In addition, Tamales deliberately fosters moments of uncomfortable silences that are one of the production’s strengths. For example, silence plays a key role in an early scene in which Norma decides to leave her abusive husband, Reynaldo. In this violent episode–either by a deafening blow or disassociation–everything in her world goes silent. While Reynaldo yells at her and throws things around the house, his voice fades out. However, as Norma sits in silence, she becomes better able to navigate her abusive marriage. Norma hears the silence. Her hypervigilance increases her ability to identify potential threat(s) and, ultimately, she takes her son and flees from the situation. While Norma taps into her Third Ear on stage, the audience also enters a silent world in which they must seek alternative methods to actively engage with the production. By “losing” their hearing along with Norma, the audience must pay a different kind of attention to her to gain an understanding of the scene.

Along with recognizing certain hearing privileges, listening with the Third Ear both connects and separates the audience. For instance, in the scene in which Norma attends an AA meeting for Deaf people, Padilla’s direction activates the Third Ear by removing sound from the stage. In the original playscript, Floresislas wanted Kent’s monologue to include a voice-over, but during rehearsals, Padilla saw the potential to foreground the silence in this scene (and throughout the piece, as well); his direction transformed the staging from an aural scene to a silent one. Listening with the Third Ear enables the audience to blend sensory and visual hearing in order to understand the emotional depth of the action transpiring on stage. As Kent stands in silence, signing his story about the difficulties of connecting with his hearing father, many in the audience were audibly moved. During Kent’s monologue, the actor remained silent while supertitles revealed his speech:

Yesterday, my father had a heart attack and I got called to his bedside at the hospital. I had not seen him for almost 15 years! I had never had a conversation with my father; yes, he was hearing and I was his only deaf child. (…) I always believed by dad hated me; nothing I did was ever good enough. He was always watching me and looking angry for everything I ever did or asked. I actually wished he’d ignore me like the rest of the family! (15)

Third Ear Image 3 - TdP - Kent (Dickie Hearts)

Particularly gripping, this scene acts as a crucial building block in the necessity of creating opportunities for her son that drives Norma’s story forward, not to mention that it calls attention to the fact that reading isn’t necessarily a silent act. Kent’s story reveals much to a hearing audience who may be unfamiliar with the Deaf Latin@ community. Kent’s experience is typical of Deaf Latin@s, only 20% of whom have parents that can sign. It compels an understanding of the reasons why Norma learns ASL and pushes for a better life for her son. She does not want him to be in the same position that Kent finds himself in. And, she does not want to have the regret of having never learned to communicate with him. Kent continues:

Yesterday, he looked frail; he was paralyzed on one side. When he saw me, he moved his hand like this (brushes his left hand up the center of his chest then points at). At first, I didn’t understand what he was doing. But when he did it again, I understood. He said, “I’m proud of you.” Then he signed “I love you.” (…) My niece told me he had been learning ASL for the last 3 months because he wanted to tell me how sorry he was for not being able to talk to me. My dad didn’t hate me; he hated himself for not being able to talk to me! (…) But yesterday, I also had my first and last conversation with my dad he signed for me! That…makes me feel very proud! (15-16)

As Kent stands in silence, his emotional journey is given life through his hands and body. Interestingly, the silences enacted onstage by Tamales actually create sound, amplifying the sobbing that emanates from the audience in both its auditory and visual manifestations. The way in which silence allows the audiences’ sonic reactions to become part of the play itself suggests that how—and why–the audience responds may actually be more important than the performance itself. How much are the sobs about the heartbreaking nature of Kent’s story and how much of it is recognizing one’s own privileges? How much of it is the audience connecting with the story? How much of it is about seeing themselves represented? And how does silence amplify “listening” to Kent’s story?

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Tamales-De-Puerco-Header

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While not exhaustive, my reading of Tamales widens the conversation about the intricacies of Deaf Latin@ performance. The 2013 production of Tamales best hints at the possibilities of Latin@ performance in Boyle Heights and how community-based theater companies such as CASA 0101 can work to provide more access to Deaf people, thus forging both an inclusive community and theater company. More plays featuring Deaf characters, incorporating Deaf actors, and Deaf dramatists are needed, something Floresislas is already exploring. Still, much research remains as to how Deaf Latinidad is heard and how this identity fits into a performance framework. Through multimodal listening, Tamales urges spectators to leave the theater considering how they may or may not alter their actions to better benefit underprivileged and underrepresented communities such as the Latin@ Deaf community. Quite frankly, Tamales opens the “eyes and ears” of audiences. Now is the time to listen to Deaf Latinidad. What will we choose to hear in the silence?

Still Images from Tamales de Puerco, permission courtesy of CASA 0101 Theatre. Featured Image: Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in “Tamales De Puerco.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, dramaturge, and producer. He is a co-founder of Amaranto Productions and a member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee. Trevor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. His dissertation, Performing Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López and Theater for Social Change in Boyle Heights, is a study of theater and performance in East Los Angeles, focusing primarily on Josefina López’s role as a playwright, mentor, and community leader. He has published and presented original research on Chicana Feminist Teatro, the body in performance, Deaf Latinidad, Queer Latinidad, as well as the theater of Adelina Anthony, Nilo Cruz, Virginia Grise, Josefina López, Cherríe Moraga, Monica Palacios, and Carmen Peláez. Trevor recently served as a Research Fellow at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin for his project Bridging Women in Mexican-American Theater from Villalongín to Tafolla (1848-2014).

 

On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901” via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.

 

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

Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

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

Listening to the Border: “‘2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

Saving Sound, Sounding Black, Voicing America: John Lomax and the Creation of the “American Voice”

Hrston

100 Years of Lomax4Today, SO! finishes its series reconsidering the life and work of Alan Lomax in his centenary year, edited by Tanya Clement of The University of Texas at Austin. We started out with Mark Davidson‘s reflections on what it means to raise questions about the politics behind Lomax’s efforts to record and collect folk music, and continued a few weeks later with Parker Fishel‘s consideration of Lomax’s famous “Southern Journey” and how it has been appropriated by musicians more recently. The third piece in this series was Clement’s own, which challenged us to consider the politics behind efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.

We conclude with a piece by Toneisha Taylor, who urges us to think about the influence of John Lomax’s curatorial practice on Alan’s own, particularly the monumental Works Progress Administration project of recording interviews with elderly former slaves in the 1930s. At once a critique and a counternarrative, Taylor’s work urges us to think of the interviewees as co-creators of the “American voice” so important to both Lomaxes.

— Special Editor Neil Verma


I recently found myself in a discussion with white friends and fellow scholars about the Lomax recordings of the 1930’s where I, as the lone Black woman in the conversation, heard myself tell an inner truth that most Black folk know, but won’t speak on. I admitted to my small audience of friends and colleagues, in the vein of Black folklore scholar John B. Cade, a truth about the past: if you were a Black person living in Waller County Texas in the 1930s and white men came to your door with notebooks, questions and a voice recording device, you weren’t thinking to yourself, “let me be my most honest and authentic self.” Even if you knew the men to be John Lomax and Alan Lomax—those men collecting those songs from Black folks around and through these parts—you still didn’t trust them. Not really. Your whole life experience up until that point taught you better. It was still your life. And you knew that.

Although we scholars have not often been willing to admit it, those Black folks had an agency when it came to the myth creation and historical preservation associated with the Lomax archive. They knew what they were doing. They knew that they were telling their stories in a ways that served them best as John Lomax contemporary John Cade notes in his work “Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves.”

John Lomax and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Ala., Oct. 1940,  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

John Lomax and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Ala., Oct. 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In our modern day readings of the Lomax collections, it is not at all fair to take agency away from Black folk brave enough to share their stories, and to place the creative power in the hands of the Lomaxes and the white oral history and folk music collectors they worked with in the Federal Writers Project. To do that negates the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Cade, and other Black folklore and folk life collectors and scholars; it also negates the power of the narrators that shared their lives with John and Alan Lomax. By focusing on the sound recordings of former slaves, we can investigate the ways in which Black people who participated in the Works Progress Administration interviews coded their agency in their narratives. Moreover, we have an opportunity to investigate the ways in which the Lomaxes facilitated the agency of Black interview participants and Black folklorists.

The systematic collection of slave narratives as recorded by the writers and scholars participating in the John Lomax-directed Federal Writers Project  always had multiple goals. The Works Progress Administration conceived of the project as a way to employ out of work authors and underemployed scholars during the Depression. The Library of Congress and John Lomax saw the project as a method to collect first hand accounts of a dying history. The participants likely saw the opportunity as a way to be a witness to their own truths. During the 1930’s and 1940’s when the bulk of the collection was taking place other scholars such as Cade were working to collect narratives using similar techniques and research designs. Many scholars, at the time and afterward–famously John Blassingame and Henry Louis Gates–would question the authenticity of the transcribed narratives, there was always a sense that the WPA collected narrative left more questions than they answered. When the Library of Congress, with funding from Citigroup Foundation, put the narratives, transcripts, WPA collection reports, photographs and other documents up on the internets they opened the collection up to scholars to ask new questions. The digital representation of the WPA collection allowed for new options in research with the ability to hear the recordings the controversy over authenticity of transcripts seemed dated and immaterial. Now the questions can focus on embodied narrative, with access to the reports and memos written by WPA staff questions of intent and purpose can be asked. With a focus on sound studies we can ask about the ways in with interpersonal discourse in racialized moments are navigated between people with sociocultural difference.

This post focuses on the early collection work of John Lomax (Alan Lomax’s father and teacher), asking some critical questions about how the Lomaxes archived Black voices into the “American Voice.” In his piece, as part of this series, Parker Fishel discusses the purposefulness of Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey recordings notes. As Fishel notes one of the elements Alan offers in his notes are methods for critical listening. By focusing on both the recordings in the WPA Slave Narratives and letters and memos written by John and Alan Lomax directing the collection, transcription, and preservation of the narratives I focus on how taking the totality of the collection into consideration can change the view of the WPA Slave narratives. How was it possible that the Lomaxes preserved stories of Black American life while at the same time, silencing their subjects in other ways? How can we rediscover, conserve, and integrate the sounds of Black folk life into a more holistic understanding of the American past?

Patsy Moses, age 74, ca. 1937, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Patsy Moses, age 74, ca. 1937, courtesy of the Library of Congress

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Research

I discovered the work of the WPA Slave Narratives when I was in college. I was assigned a paper and went to the library to do some research. With the help of the research librarian I found the website (layout unchanged since the late-1990’s) for the WPA Slave Narratives. I wrote my paper, did well, and, like most undergraduates, moved forward with my life.

However, the voices of those Black folks continued to echo in the back of my mind. As I advanced in my academic study, I would “check up” on the website, you know, lurk. I would go in to see if there were updates or new information placed online. When I found information, I engaged the text. When the Library of Congress made the digital recordings available online, the collection included WPA recordings as well as other interviews recorded and collected with former slaves. The crackle of the recordings, coupled with the rhythm of voices of those women and men bold enough to share their stories, drew me in once more. In particular, I tended to return to recording of Aunt Harriet Smith. Her memory of her work, life, and religious experiences during slavery still interest me.

“Ex-slave Narratives – Interview with Aunt Harriet Smith”. Released: 2003.

Mrs. Smith, like all participants in the Ex-Slave Narrative Project, shares her personal narrative in such a ways as to engage the listener in the shared creation of a “memorable message.”  Memorable messages are stories that we get from family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and even strangers that transmit an experience so salient we bookmark the message and use it as a guide for future interaction, behavior—performance.Communication scholars have worked with memorable messages for decades (Knapp, Stohl & Reardon 1981; Camara & Orbe, 2010). In tandem with the narrative paradigm, memorable messages function within rhetoric to give rise to the central importance of the retelling of human experience as part of the collective human story (Fisher, 1984). The value of listening to the recording of Mrs. Smith, therefore, is in the way hearing her voice completes the accuracy of the narrative.For example, take a listen [about 5:31 in the recording] to the way she answers the interviewer’s question:

Well did you ever hear of any slaves being mistreated? Were there any tails going around?

Mrs. Smith answers:

Yes, I know of times when, mistreated people they did. I hear our folks talk ‘bout whopping, you know, cus they had to grease the back. To get the clothes from their back.

The tone in her voice and the engagement in her memory is so clear and certain that her insistence that the family she belonged to didn’t “mistreat their colored people” was honestly presented. Notably, even the short transcription I provided differs from the transcribed section of the same interview printed at the time of the collection.

As I discuss elsewhere, memorable messages as theory relies on the verbal and embodied telling of a story. Different from the womanist theorizing of re-memory, memorable messages are based on the lived experience of others not ourselves. Re-memory is the work done by the womanist who imparts the memorable message. In constructing the narrative I, as the womanist narrator, re-member my narrative as part of the life lesson I seek to impart to my reader.

John Lomax, Alan Lomax and the Power to Decide

The process of generating the WPA narratives was far more complicated than many realize. It is not tangential to the creation of the WPA Slave narratives that one way of entering the project was through the former slavemaster. In other words, Black participants were often identified by their former owners or the relatives of those owners to participate in the collection. Additionally, some of the interviewers were themselves know to be related to large slaveholding families. The combination of these facts likely impacted the creation of the narratives on the part of the Black participants. In  her essay “Ex-Slave Narratives: The WPA Federal Writers’ Project Reappraised” Lynda M. Hill focuses on the language and questions of Alan Lomax outlined in a number of his reports to his father and other directors of the WPA Ex-Slave Narrative collection. In their papers and notes, as well as their directives to those collecting the narratives—a list including Alan Lomax, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, John Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, John Henry Faulk, Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, Ruby Lomax and others—it is clear that both father and son wish for a greater humanity in the interviews.

Zora Neale Hurston with three boys in Eatonville Florida, 1935. Hurston interviewed children and had them demonstrate their games as Alan Lomax documented the action. [Prints and Photographs, Call number: LOT 7414-C, no. N109a, frame 47].

Zora Neale Hurston with three boys in Eatonville Florida, 1935. Hurston interviewed children and had them demonstrate their games as Alan Lomax documented the action. [Prints and Photographs, Call number: LOT 7414-C, no. N109a, frame 47].

Where Alan and John seemed to disagree was on the content. John Lomax wanted a narrative concentrated on the participant’s life during slavery, where Alan also wanted to know about their life since. Alan seemed more interested in race relations, as well as the economic, political and social engagement of the participants. Both father and son seem quick to place the blame for lightness of the interviews on the interviewers they used and their inability or reluctance to ask probative follow-up questions.

The Lomaxes, Texans who spent much time in the Southern states collecting narratives, songs, and oral histories from African American community members, speak from a place of experience. When Alan Lomax suggests that interviewers need to “spend time” and “become friends” with individuals, he knows of what he speaks. While certain that members of the “ex-slave community” can be reluctant to share their stories and the truths of their inner lives with white outsiders, he is much less clear on how one might “become friends” with them. To modern ethnographers, Alan Lomax’s call to his contemporary white colleagues can read as harsh (or perhaps not harsh enough). For 21st century ethnographers, folklorists, and musicologists, it is common to “become friends” to engage in participant observation research where the scholar and his or her interlocutors have fewer social distances.

[Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition], 1935, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

[Alan Lomax (left) youngster on board boat, during Bahamas recording expedition], 1935, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alan Lomax also may not have always been aware of his own process of “becoming friends” and how much it was guided by his social and cultural capital. It is probable that Alan’s social relationships with his father, mother, friends, colleagues and business associates all made access to certain people much easier, and their willingness to share aspects of their lives with him more palpable. Where Alan saw “lightness” in other’s collections of ex-slave narratives, there was likely greater reserve on the part of both the interviewer and the speakers, given the vast social distances of the 1930s.

Aunt Harriet McClintock, dancing for John A. Lomax as she sang "Shing, Shing," at the crossroads near Sumterville, Ala., 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Aunt Harriet McClintock, dancing for John A. Lomax as she sang “Shing, Shing,” at the crossroads near Sumterville, Ala., 1940, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In April 1937, John Lomax himself seemed to recognize that the directives he sent to local field directors were not yielding the responses he thought they should, prompting a revision of the interview questions as and instructions. While both John Lomax and Alan Lomax pushed on local directors to hire African American interviewers, there was no formal incentive to follow through (65-66). Some local directors did hire African American interviewers, but would fire or replace them within a few short months. The field notes and interview transcripts collected by African Americans were often included in larger reports with notations suggesting the local director found the work inferior or suspect (66-67).

Critique and Understanding : Questions With and Without Answers

I continue to lurk about the WPA website to this day, wondering if the site’s peach background and sepia photograph header and text-only links create a statement of recording silence. As an early career faculty member with a keener sense of funding and project completion maps, I see the unchanged digital interface of the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 as a type of visual internet nostalgia, a way of placing Black voices in the record and then silencing or muting the power of voices by not attending to their narratives or, ironically, making those narratives easily accessible. Every time I check back, I question how the visual presentation of information is as critical to scholarly engagement as the recording itself.

Albeit in a new technical format, my critique is not novel, but rather one encoded in the report Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938 Administrative Files compiled in 1941. Slave narratives tell us much of the daily interactions and histories of all parts of American life. John Lomax believed that their preservation in the moment was necessary. His sense of coding the narratives in more standardized, easy-to-read 1930s language did, however, point to the limits of his willingness to allow the narrative to stand in full voice. To John Lomax, it mattered that there was uniformity in the way that the written text of ex-slave narratives appeared. He knew part of the long project was a book length manuscript. The collection of narratives needed to present visually in a way that eased the reader, some of whom may have been reluctant to see Black lives as having authenticity. It is in this moment of graphic depiction that language becomes contested as some (perhaps rightfully,) argue the slave narratives are inaccurate reflections of slave life.

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Does it matter that the few sound recordings remaining from the WPA project are not coupled with the transcribed narratives and photographs of speakers listed on the Slave Narratives site? Yes. Through sound, listeners have a truer sense of the active creation of Black bodies by Black folks involved in their own documentation. Think back to Mrs. Smith and her description of the neighborhood girl that leaves with the union soldiers. Mrs. Smith activates a sense of freedom and sadness in those few sentences that is understood through the combination of her tone and words. Access to sound records in a digital format allows contemporary scholars the opportunity to compare the narrator’s voice and embodiment to the written document where possible. The Library of Congress and The American Folk Life Center actively document and curate the list of sound recordings and their origins. However, the preset format forces interested people into a game of lurker hide and seek on the LOC site to access them. It is this “work” that keeps the sound recordings, texts, and photographs far too distant from one other, allowing the narratives to be only minimally present and appear not to be valued. In their current format, the WPA recordings seem appropriated as a way of suggesting inclusion in American life, but not prioritized as valued American experience.

Interviewed by Ira S. Johnson Birmingham, Alabama WPA Slave Narratives, A917, vol. 1, pp. 404-406 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)

Simon Walker, Interviewed by Ira S. Johnson Birmingham, Alabama WPA Slave Narratives, A917, vol. 1, pp. 404-406 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (90)

One could argue that the reading of Black bodies as American bodies isn’t possible without the inclusion of Black voices in Lomax’s collection of Americana and folk music.The narratives of daily life during slavery and after shape our understanding of the bodies of Blackness and the human toll of bondage. When John Lomax, and by extension Alan Lomax, collected American folk music and actively sought the music and voices of Black southern musicians and story-tellers, they authenticated belongingness of Black peoples in the creation of the American voice. Lomax centralized Black life in American life. However, the Lomax team accomplished this archiving only with with the cooperation of Black narrators whose lives were central to the telling of American life. —what we need now are more questions that center on the documents, sounds and voices of the past—centralizing memorable message sound is the key.  In a contemporary context,the WPA narratives provide a space to investigate memorable message creation and the embodiment of Blackness in the project of American life.

Featured Image: Gabriel Brown playing guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen- Eatonville, Florida, June 1935.  Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/107444

Toniesha L. Taylor is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Interim Department Head in the Department Languages and Communication at Prairie View A & M University. She earned her B. A. with a double major in 1999 from California State University, San Marcos in Communication and Liberal Studies with a minor in History. She immediately began her graduate work at San Jose State University in Speech Communication completing an M. A. in 2002. Her research foci in African American, Religion, Intercultural, Gender and Popular Culture communication started during her undergraduate studies. She has cultivated those interest throughout her doctoral work at Bowling Green State University were she completed her Ph.D. in Communication Studies with a focus on Rhetoric. Her dissertation developed womanist rhetorical theory and analysis of African American women’s sermons in the contemporary Black Church.

Toniesha’s research, conference presentations and publications speak to her diverse interest. Her recent research and conference presentations include discussions on womanist rhetoric as method and theory; practical social justice pedagogy for faculty and students; critical engagement in popular cultural critique; digital humanities methods implications for activist recovery projects; African American women’s sermons and conversion discourses both historic and contemporary. Her recent publications include “Transformative Womanist Rhetorical Strategies: Contextualizing Discourse and the Performance of Black Bodies of Desire” in Crémieux, Lemoine & Rocchi (Eds.) Black Being, Black Embodying; Contemporary Arts & The Performance Of Identities and “Black Women, Thou Art Produced! Tyler Perry’s Gosperella Productions: A Womanist Critique” in Bell & Jackson (Eds.) Tyler Perry Reader.

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 — Suzanne E. Smith

 

Sounding Out! Podcast #42: Listening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’

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This week, Sounding Out! is happy to share a podcast on nostalgia, performance, and sound. Please join host, Eleanor Russell (Northwestern University), as she guides us through through the popular sounds of the 1980s and compares her sonically-mediated memories to the lived perspectives of her co-hosts André Callot (Independent Artist) and Eric Wenzel (Roosevelt University). How do we remember urban space through sonic media, and is their a potential to queer our memories of the decade by revisiting our shared media ouvré? No matter where you stand on the issue, we recommend that if you enjoyed this week’s podcast you listen in on Eleanor’s other work exploring performance and sound at Noisy Ghost.

Podcast host Eleanor Russell is a Ph.D student at Northwestern University in the Interdisciplinary Program in Theatre and Drama. Her research interests include sound studies, women’s stand-up and performance art, and feminist epistemologies and phenomenologies. She is affiliated with the Critical Theory Cluster at Northwestern. MA in Theatre History and Criticism from Brooklyn College, BA Religious Studies from Grinnell College.

Featured image by Domriel @Flickr CC BY-NC.

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Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale” – Sonia Li

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory– Stuart Fowkes

Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs – Tim J. Anderson

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