Editor’s Note: This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
We kicked things off two weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers last week on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Next week CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.
Today’s post comes from regular writer Regina Bradley whose post reminds us of the recent verdict of the Michael Dunn case, the “loud music case” when he shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a gas station. She discusses the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.
Edited on Feb 17, 2014 at 9:35 am EST: the first published version of this post did not acknowledge Nina Sun Eidsheim as the coiner of the phrase “sonic blackness.” We have added a reference in the post to recognize the work Eidsheim has done in theorizing this concept.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford
In a recent Chase credit card commercial a white woman pulls up to a gas station and pumps gas into her minivan while blasting loud music. Her windows rattle and the toys of her children vibrate to the beat. After pumping gas, the woman hops into her car, puts on a pair of shades, and bounces to the beat like a “cool mom.” In the context of the commercial, the white suburban mother is not threatening. The commercial reminds me that Jordan Davis’ life ended at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. His loud hip hop music was not cool; in fact, he and the music are perceived to be threatening.
The woman in the Chase commercial borrows what is instantly recognizable as sonic black (masculine) cool. Nina Sun Eidsheim, in her article “Marian Anderson and ‘Sonic Blackness’ in American Opera”, theorizes sonic blackness as the racialization of sounds that listeners perceive to be coming from a black body. Borrowing from her concept, I extend sonic blackness as the sound that are perceived as black that enter spaces where physical blackness could be readily refused. Of particular interest for this essay is the connection between black mobility, urban space, and sound. I focus particularly on hip hop as a mobile form of sonic blackness whose origins are based in the city. Hip hop reinforces conceptualizations of contemporary blackness as urban. In this context, sonic blackness collapses the absolute binaries in which blacks are frequently forced to exist, i.e. urban and rural, working class and middle class, silence and noise. Yet when it is situated in hip hop, sonic blackness can also be considered a disruption of suburbia, a dominant trope of white privilege at the end of the 20th century. Using examples from the contemporary cartoon show The Boondocks, I posit that the show’s use of hip hop underscores how the white suburban soundscape is constructed in contrast to black urban sounds.
America’s popular imagination portrays the suburbs as white, middle class, and quiet. Constructions of the suburbs in recent history have not strayed far from the idealistic neighborhoods of the 1950s and 1960s portrayed in shows like Leave It to Beaver. Take for example the inclusion of gated communities as the upper echelon of suburbs and white privilege seen in The Real Housewives of Orange County (which opens with the viewer ‘walking through’ opened gates into the Orange County community). I’d like to emphasize the connection between whiteness and quiet, as privilege in these types of spaces is present but often not visible or audible. Suburbs are the result of urban industrialism, anxiety of close association with an increasing minority community, and the need to sustain a romantic ideal of the American dream. A suburb’s physical parameter is a middle-class manifestation of manicured lawns, gates, and homeowner associations. At the level of sound, the suburbs’ class privilege is represented as the hum of lawn mowers, chirping birds, and screeching breaks of school buses. As Steve Macek points out in Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, And The Moral Panic Over The City, suburban sensibilities cling to an idealistic notion of a physically and sonically constructed white ambivalence to racial and class anxieties associated with cities. Any dysfunction associated with whiteness is quietly tucked away from public view.
White suburbia sustains its desirability because it is a physically and sonically segregated space. Yet white suburbia is also the site of black Americans’ most recent migratory efforts. In ways that northern cities signified opportunity for blacks in the early 20th century, the ideals of racial progress and class in the late 20th century have shifted to U.S. suburbs. Thoughts of the middle class in the black imagination amplify the suburb as a utopic space because of its initial lack of access. The suburb becomes the mountaintop of racial access and privilege.
Consider the premise for Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry examines in the play the high stakes of home ownership in a ‘good neighborhood.’ The Lee family leaves the Southside for the opportunity at a better life and more space for their growing family. As Liana Silva-Ford pointed in her discussion of A Raisin in the Sun two weeks ago, the Lee family’s decision to move into the Clybourn Park neighborhood disrupts the suburb as a space of white privilege and annotates the cusp of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, visual demonstrations of black protest that reach suburban areas are annotated by sonic markers of struggle i.e. the sound of attacking guard dogs, police officers screaming at protestors, spraying fire hoses, and screams and moans of black bodies under attack. The audio-visual representation of the struggle of integration collapses the notions of white suburbia as a site of ‘perfect peace.’ The above referenced sonic markers also destabilize classifications of black trauma as restricted to urban spaces like the inner city, which is believed to embody blacks’ realities.
Where Hansberry’s interrogation of space and access in Raisin in the Sun is an initial foray into constructions of white privilege vis-à-vis suburban communities, Aaron McGruder’s 21st century suburban space of The Boondocks pivots on the romanticized ideas of blacks in middle class spaces derived from the 1950s and 1960s. The show introduces viewers to patriarch Robert (Grandad Freeman) and his two grandsons, Huey and Riley Freeman, who have left the south side of Chicago for the white suburb of Woodcrest. McGruder incorporates sonic markers of race and class that collapse suburbs as white only spaces. Aside from lighthearted lounge music style piano riffs during dialogues that indicate whiteness, McGruder incorporates sonic elements of hip hop that interrupt white suburbia. Elements of sonic registers of hip hop, like heavy bass kicks and songs like “Booty Butt Cheeks” or “Thuggin’ Love,” disrupt the quiet of the Woodcrest community.
The clash of hip hop’s loudness with Woodcrest’s quiet demeanor is best demonstrated in the episodes “The Story of Thugnificent” and “The Block is Hot.” In “The Story of Thugnificent,” rapper Thugnificent decides to move to Woodcrest. His presence is heard before it is seen, a caravan of cars with bass systems playing “Booty Butt Cheeks” before he actually appears on screen. Thugnificent’s arrival is striking as he introduces hip hop as a literal and sonically disruptive element of black working class cultural expression. The disruption is celebrated, however, because of Thugnificent’s allure as a rapper. He gets a pass that Grandad Freeman questions because he sees Thugnificient as a threat to what he perceives to be as a delicate existence of his blackness in a white community.
Grandad Freeman’s vehement opposition to embrace “the homie” Thugnificent destabilizes notions of policing as a one-sided scare tactic by whites. Yet to repel Thugnificent’s physical and sonic presence, Grandad resorts to hip hop and records a diss record that demands Thugnificent to leave Woodcrest. The diss record parodies the sonic notes of a rap battle: Grandad starts the track with ramblings of “yeah” and “uh.” Where these terms are used in a rap battle to try to “catch the beat,” Grandad’s use of these words is an offset attempt to try to find something to say. The result of Grandad and Thugnificent’s rap battle on wax is a rise in physical violence against senior citizens in Woodcrest. The awkwardness of Grandad’s diss track parallels not only a generational dismissal of hip hop as an outlet of protest but the sonic awkwardness of hip hop being the voice of protest for a suburban space.
In the episode “Block is Hot,” a nod to rapper Lil Wayne’s same titled track (although he nor the song are mentioned anywhere in the show), Huey Freeman blasts rap group Public Enemy’s pro-black and anti-police brutality anthem “Fight the Power” to remind his neighborhood he is a black nationalist. He is also dressed in a black hoodie and black timberland boots. Huey is undeniably hip hop in a privileged white space. Huey’s physical apparel, a nod to the Black Panther party and the hip hop fashion affinity for wearing the color black is amplified by “Fight the Power.” Huey’s posturing can also be read as a homage to Radio Raheem from Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing because like Radio Raheem, Huey lugs around a large boombox to play “Fight the Power.” Particularly striking is the overlap of the urban hip hop masculinity Raheem signifies with Huey’s own hip hop posturing in Woodcrest. While Raheem remains in the ‘hood, Huey doubly signifies hip hop’s migration from the city into suburban areas as well as his own migration to Woodcrest from Chicago. Huey uses hip hop as a site of social-political resistance and as a way to remain attached to his urban roots. Blasting “Fight the Power” shows how Huey remains conscious of white privilege in Woodcrest. He recognizes the need to identify black agency – even if it is only emphasized through sound – while reflecting on the “new” suburb as a racially ambiguous space.
The most jarring use of sound to reflect on the racial politics of the new suburb is the shooting of Uncle Ruckus by police officers. The ricochet of the bullets can be heard against cars and other inanimate objects but the bullets miss their target, Ruckus. The gun shots mark an interruption of the suburban soundscape. Gun shots, sonic signifiers of power, death, and trauma, are also markers of black violence as an urban phenomenon. However, negotiations of power shift to speak to reclamation of white privilege in sonic and physical spaces . The gun shots inflicted upon black bodies in suburban spaces could also be read as a subversion of gun shots heard in hip hop. While the sound of a firing gun in the hip hop imagination is expected and acceptable, gun shots in white suburbia are disruptive and displaced because they contest its appearance as a quiet and respectable space. Further, the sonic significance of the bullets riddling everything around Ruckus is the messiness of the hit-or-miss surveillance of black bodies, particularly black men, as necessary in privileged white spaces.
The policing of black bodies in suburban spaces, especially over the past two years, begs the question of how suburban soundscapes serve as backdrops of 21st century racial anxieties and whiteness. The centrality of sound in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, and Jonathan Ferrell,– i.e. 911 tapes and banging on house doors – is critical in identifying race and space. Sonic markers of racial anxiety in their deaths devastatingly reemphasize the connection of race and sound in white privilege spaces. For example, Davis’ killer Michael Dunn stated to his girlfriend that he “hate[d] that thug music.” Unlike the suburban mom in the Chase commercial, Dunn is threatened by the sonic blackness and hypermasculinity associated with loud [hip hop] music. The negative connotations of hip hop as “thug music” and Davis’ mere presence as a young black man trigger a devastating response to the disruption of white privileged space.
As I work through my visceral response to Michael Dunn’s not guilty verdict for the actual slaughter of Jordan Davis, I think about the frivolity of the suburban mom in the Chase commercial and her enjoyment of loud music. The overlap of her whiteness, gender, and status as a suburbanite protect her from any inclinations of being a menace. She uses loud music as a sense of liberation – a premise for the Chase Freedom card being promoted in the commercial. Unlike Chase’s suburban mom, Jordan Davis’ use of loud music is not freeing – it contextualizes him in a rigid space of hypermasculinity and pathology that is all too often associated with hip hop culture. As I discuss previously, the traumas associated with black bodies that cannot be literally articulated take place in nonliteral spaces like sound. Utilizing sound is particularly useful in situating blackness in privileged white spaces like suburbs that displace their agency and significance because of racial anxieties associated with space and class.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
Featured image: “Dead End in the Burbs” by Flickr user Vox Efx, CC BY 2.0
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death”-Regina Bradley
Happy new year, dear Sounding Out! readers! Early January brings about New Year’s resolutions, specials on bins for holiday ornaments, Three Kings’ Day, and our yearly MLA sound studies panel round-up. This year, MLA 2014 attendees will get another blast of cold temperatures because this year’s convention is in Chicago—not much of a difference weather-wise from Boston but just as exciting! If you’re undecided about what panels to check out or if you’re not sure about where to start with the MLA Program, you’re in the right place: I combed the MLA Program page by page and condensed it just for our sound studies aficionados. If you’re sitting this MLA out or if you’re just curious about what the following panels are all about, it’s easy to follow the conference from home if you have access to Twitter. MLA is one of the most active academic conferences on social media: there’s the lively twitter hashtag #MLA14, the individual hashtags for each session (#s–followed by the session number), and an attentive twitter account (@MLAConvention), so even if you’re not in Chi-town you can still see what’s going on at your favorite panels this week.
Whereas last year some of the sound-oriented panels had a particular digital angle, this year there are several panels look at the intersection of sound and literary studies. The titles may not suggest sound, but the presentations do. For example, panel #s384 Literary Crossroads: African American Literature and Christianity includes presentations on representations of gospel and spirituality in different African American books. Another panel of interest is #s414, Literature and Media in the Nineteenth-Century United States arranged by the Division on Nineteenth-Century American Literature. (This panel resonates nicely with Sounding Out!’s Sound in the Nineteenth Century forum which just ended last Monday.) The focus on literature may come from the fact that the MLA brings many literary scholars together, but it is encouraging that the study of sound is also overlapping with the study of literature.
Despite that the convention brings literature scholars from across the United States together, some of the more intriguing sound-oriented panels are not focused on literature at all. In fact, several panels address sound from the angle of music. Panel #s131, The Musics of Chicago brings together High Fidelity and Lupe Fiasco, and panel #s162 on the HBO series Girls includes Chloe H. Johnson’s paper “Dancing on My Own: Popular Music and Issues of Identity in Girls.“ Although the fields of literary studies and cultural studies are sometimes in tension with each other, some MLA presenters are approaching popular culture particularly from an aural angle.
Music is not the only presence of sound in the MLA Program. Several panels bring up sound in conjunction with pedagogy. Some of our readers may remember the forum Sounding Out! hosted last year on sound and pedagogy—a forum of which I was a part. I’m glad to see other language, composition, and literature teachers are thinking about sound too. Panel #s114, Dialects of English Worldwide: Issues in English Language Studies includes several papers that think about spoken English nowadays. For those who are interested in how the sound of students’ speech are intersected by structural racism and public policy will find lots to think about with this panel. If you’re looking for concrete suggestions on using sound as a pedagogical approach, panel #s213 has some answers. Twenty-First-Century Pedagogies, arranged by the Discussion Group on the Two-Year College includes a presentation on sound essays by Kathryn O’Donoghue from the Graduate Center at City Univ. of New York.
Where will Team SO! be at MLA 2014? Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman can be found at the DH Commons pre-conference workshop on Thursday, January 9, 2014; she will be presenting Friday, January 10 at 8:30 am on her research on Lead belly and Richard Wright as part of panel #s221, Singing Out in the American Literary Experience. Regular writer Regina Bradley will be presenting Friday at 5:15 pm on panel #s403 Words, Works, and New Archives: Studying African American Literature in the Twenty-First Century. Guest blogger Scott Poulson-Bryant will be at panel #s447, The Seventies in Black and White: A Soundtrack on Saturday at 8:30 am. I will be presenting on Friday morning at panel #s218, a roundtable on the graduate seminar paper and will be leading panel #s788, Back Up Your Work: Conceptualizing Writing Support for Graduate Students on Sunday at 1:45 pm. You can catch us on Twitter: @lianamsilvaford and @soundingoutblog where we’ll be live-tweeting panels and keeping followers up to date on convention chatter. Who knows, maybe there’ll be an impromptu SO! tweet-up? Stay tuned to our social media feeds!
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
Featured image: “Mississippi North” by Flickr user John W. Iwanski, CC-BY-NC-2.0
THURSDAY, JANUARY 9, 2014
8:30 am-11:30 am
3. Get Started in the Digital Humanities with Help from DHCommons
Chicago A–B, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING: Ryan Cordell, Northeastern Univ.; Josh Honn, Northwestern Univ.; Katherine A. Rowe, Bryn Mawr Coll.
The workshop welcomes language and literature scholars who wish to learn about, pursue, or join digital humanities (DH) projects but do not have the institutional infrastructure to support them. Representatives of DH projects and initiatives will share their expertise on project design, outline available resources and opportunities, and lead small-group training sessions on DH technologies and skills. Preregistration required.
12:00 pm-1:15 pm
31. Radical Curators, Vulnerable Genres: Lost Histories of Collecting, Editing, Bibliography
Michigan–Michigan State, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING: Meredith L. McGill, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
Jessica J. Beard, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz;
Alex Black, Cornell Univ.;
Jane Greenway Carr, New York Univ.;
Ellen Gruber Garvey, New Jersey City Univ.
Laura Helton, Univ. of Virginia
Courtney Thorsson, Univ. of Oregon
33. Sir Walter Scott and Music
Sheffield, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Lyrica Society for Word-Music Relations
PRESIDING: Jeff Dailey, Five Towns Coll.
1. “Cutting Out the Castle Quicksand: Scott’s Bride, Donizetti’s Lucia, and the ‘Personally Furious’ Ayn Rand,” Shoshana Milgram Knapp, Virginia Polytechnic Inst. and State Univ.
2. “‘Drifting through the Intellectual Atmosphere’ from Scott’s Old Morality to Liszt’s Hexameron,” Catherine Ludlow, Western Illinois Univ.
3. “Walter Scott, British Identity, and International Grand Opera: Isidore de Lara’s Amy Robsart(1893),” Tommaso Sabbatini, Univ. of Chicago
For abstracts, visit lyricasociety.org.
75. Voice and Silence
Mississippi, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Division on French Medieval Language and Literature
PRESIDING: Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Boston Coll.
1. “Gut Feelings,” Jason D. Jacobs, Roger Williams Univ.
2. “Tomboy Silence,” Wan-Chuan Kao, Washington and Lee Univ.
3. “Giving Voice to the Word of God; or, Bernard of Clairvaux Sings the Song of Songs,” Kris Trujillo, Univ. of California, Berkeley
114. Dialects of English Worldwide: Issues in English Language Studies
Illinois, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Present-Day English Language
PRESIDING: Elizabeth Bell Canon, Emory Univ.
1. “‘Speak the Language of Your Flag’: American Policy Responses to Nonanglophone Immigrants,” Dennis E. Baron, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana
2. “The Sounds of Silence: Standard and Nonstandard Englishes in Contemporary Ethnic American Writing,” Melissa Dennihy, Queensborough Community Coll., City Univ. of New York
3. “Star Spanglish Banter: Harnessing Students’ Linguistic Expertise,” Jill Hallett, Northeastern Illinois Univ.
4. “Emerging Attitudes toward New Media within the Discourses of Poetics and Literature,” April Pierce, Univ. of Oxford
131. The Musics of Chicago
Chicago H, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING: Shawn Higgins, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
1. “Sweet Home Chicago? (Dis)Locating the American ‘Race Record’ in High Fidelity,” Jürgen E. Grandt, Univ. of North Georgia
2. “Experiment and Exodus in the Music of Chicago,” Toshiyuki Ohwada, Keio Univ.
3. “Fly Girls or Blackface? The Racial and Gender Politics of Lupe Fiasco,” Jorge Santos, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
141. Enduring Noise: Sound and Sexual Difference
Illinois, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING: Rizvana Bradley, Emory Univ.
1. “Listening to Gertrude Stein’s Repeating: Sonorous Temporality in The Making of Americans,” Erin McNellis, Univ. of California, Irvine
2. “Queer Extensities: Pauline Oliveros and Disco,” Amalle Dublon, Duke Univ.
3. “Metal, Reproduction, and the Politics of Doom,” Aliza Shvarts, New York Univ.
RESPONDING: Rizvana Bradley
162. Girls and the F Word: Twenty-First-Century Representations of Women’s Lives
Los Angeles–Miami, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Tahneer Oksman, Marymount Manhattan Coll.
1. “‘My Shoes Match My Dress . . . Kind Of!’: The Politics of Dressing and Nakedness in Girls,” Laura Scroggs, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities
2. “She’s Just Not That into You: Girls, Dating, and Damage,” Jennifer Mitchell, Weber State Univ.
3. “Dancing on My Own: Popular Music and Issues of Identity in Girls,” Chloe H. Johnson, York Univ., Keele
RESPONDING: Nancy K. Miller, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York
FRIDAY, JANUARY 10, 2014
8:30 am-9:45 am
207. Diversifying the Victorian Verse Archives
Chicago A–B, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Meredith Martin, Princeton Univ.
1. “Recovering Tennyson’s ‘Melody in Poetry’: Salon Recitations and Musical Settings,” Phyllis Weliver, Saint Louis Univ.
2. “Morris Metrics: The Work of Meter in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Yopie Prins, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
3. “Digital Archives and the Music of Victorian Poetry,” Joanna Swafford, Univ. of Virginia
For abstracts, visit https://sites.google.com/a/slu.edu/diversifying-the-victorian-verse-archives/
213. Twenty-First-Century Pedagogies
Michigan–Michigan State, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on the Two-Year College
PRESIDING: Stacey Lee Donohue, Central Oregon Community Coll.
1. “Not on Wikipedia: Making the Local Visible,” Laurel Harris, Queensborough Community Coll., City Univ. of New York
2. “Survival Spanish Online: Designing a Community College Course That Bridges Culture and Authentic Connections,” Cecilia McGinniss Kennedy, Clark State Community Coll., OH
3. “Sound Essays: A Cure for the Common Core,” Kathryn O’Donoghue, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York
4. “Leveling Up! Gamifying the Literature Classroom,” Jessica Lewis-Turner, Temple Univ., Philadelphia
For abstracts, visit commons.mla.org/groups/the-two-year-college/announcements/ after 15 Dec.
217. Cuba on Stage
Arkansas, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Cuban and Cuban Diaspora Cultural Production
PRESIDING: Vicky Unruh, Univ. of Kansas
1. “José Triana, Virgilio Piñera, and the Racial Erotics of Cuban Tragedy,” Armando Garcia, Univ. of Pittsburgh
2. “Estorino’s Gray Ghosts,” David Lisenby, Univ. at Albany, State Univ. of New York
3. “Musical Trangressions on the Cuban Stage: Rap, Rock, and Reggaeton,” Elena Valdez, Swarthmore Coll.
4. “Locating the Malecón,” Bretton White, Colby Coll.
221. Singing Out in the American Literary Experience
Old Town, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Folklore and Literature
PRESIDING: Mark Allan Jackson, Middle Tennessee State Univ.
1. “Re-sounding Folk Voice, Remaking the Ballad: Alan Lomax, Margaret Walker, and the New Criticism,” Derek Furr, Bard Coll.
2. “‘A Voice to Match All That’: Lead Belly, Richard Wright, and Lynching’s Sound Track,” Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Binghamton Univ., State Univ. of New York
3. “Stunting Gualinto: The Limits of Corrido Heroism in Americo Paredes’s George Washington Gomez,” Melanie Hernandez, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
For abstracts, write to email@example.com.
261. Applying Linguistics to the Learning of Middle Eastern Languages
Huron, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on General Linguistics
PRESIDING: Terrence Potter, Georgetown Univ.
1. “How Strategic Can They Be? Differences between Student and Instructor Attitudes toward Language Learning Strategies,” Gregory Ebner, United States Military Acad.
2. “Needs-Analysis Informed Task Design in Arabic Foreign Language Programs in the United States: Insights from Learner Perceptions and Production,” Maimoonah Al Khalil, King Saud Univ., Riyadh
3. “Linguistic Advantages and Constraints in the Classroom: Judeo-Spanish as an L2,” Bryan Kirschen, Univ. of California, Los Angeles
For abstracts, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
263. John Clare: The Voices of Nature
Chicago C, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the John Clare Society of North America
PRESIDING: Rochelle Johnson, Coll. of Idaho
1. “Speaking for the Trees: Margaret Cavendish, John Clare, and Voicing Nature,” Bridget Mary Keegan, Creighton Univ.
2. “Clare’s Air: Sound in Motion,” Paul Chirico, Univ. of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Coll.
3. “John Clare: The Unusual and Challenging Natural Historian,” Eric H. Robinson, Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston
12:00 pm-1:15 pm
269A. Chicago Latina/o Writing: A Creative Conversation
Sheraton I, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Office of the Executive Director
PRESIDING: Ariana Ruiz, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana
SPEAKERS: Rey Andújar, Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe
Brenda Cárdenas, Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Paul Martínez Pompa, Triton Coll.
Achy Obejas, Chicago, IL
270. Women’s Education in Third World Countries
Parlor G, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Culture and Society
PRESIDING : Shirin E. Edwin, Sam Houston State Univ.
1. “Narrative Approaches to Transmitting Regional Oral and Instrumental Literary Traditions in the Works of Aminata Sow Fall,” Julie Ann Huntington, Marymount Manhattan Coll.
2. “Gender, Class, and Education: Intersections in South Asian Literature,” Maryse Jayasuriya, Univ. of Texas, El Paso
3. “Women’s Schooling in Clarice Lispector’s Narrative: A Brazilian Education,” Alejandro E. Latinez, Sam Houston State Univ.
279. Dadaphone: Indeterminacy in Words and Music
Huron, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Lyrica Society for Word-Music Relations and the Association for the Study of Dada and Surrealism
PRESIDING : Jeff Dailey, Five Towns Coll.
1. “Black Dada,” Kathy Lou Schultz, Univ. of Memphis
2. “Aleatory Adaptation and Indeterminate Interpretation: Radiohead’s In Rainbows as Faustian Rock Opera,” Meg Tarquinio Roche, Northeastern Univ.
3. “Game Changer: Cage’s Word-Music Combination in ‘Renunion’ and ‘Solo 23,’” Sydney Boyd, Rice Univ.
4. “Graphic Notation in Contemporary Music and Its Debt to Dada,” Laura Prichard, Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell
For abstracts, visit lyricasociety.org.
5:15 pm-6:30 pm
384. Literary Crossroads: African American Literature and Christianity
Addison, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Conference on Christianity and Literature and the Division on Literature and Religion
PRESIDING: Katherine Clay Bassard, Virginia Commonwealth Univ.
1. “God’s Trombones, the Social Gospel, and the Harlem Renaissance,” Jonathan Fedors, Univ. of Pennsylvania
2. “When the Gospel Sings the Blues in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Claudia Rosemary May, Univ. of California, Berkeley
3. “Faith Moves: Belief and the Body in Bill T. Jones’s Chapel/Chapter and Toni Morrison’sParadise,” Leslie Elizabeth Wingard, Coll. of Wooster
For abstracts, write to email@example.com.
403. Words, Works, and New Archives: Studying African American Literature in the Twenty-First Century
Michigan–Michigan State, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the College Language Association
PRESIDING : Warren Carson, Univ. of South Carolina, Spartanburg
1. “The Field and Function of African American Literary Scholarship: A Memorial and a Challenge,” Dana A. Williams, Howard Univ.
2. “The Black Book: Creating an Interactive Research Environment,” Kenton Rambsy, Univ. of Kansas
3. “Keepin’ It Interactive: Hip-Hop in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” Regina Bradley, Kennesaw State Univ.; Jeremy Dean, Rap Genius, Inc.
414. Literature and Media in the Nineteenth-Century United States
Chicago A–B, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Nineteenth-Century American Literature
PRESIDING : Meredith L. McGill, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
SPEAKERS: Jonathan Elmer, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
Teresa Alice Goddu, Vanderbilt Univ.
Naomi Greyser, Univ. of Iowa
Brian Hochman, Georgetown Univ.
Christopher J. Lukasik, Purdue Univ., West Lafayette
Lauren A. Neefe, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York
For project statements, panelist biographies, and description of roundtable format, visit19thcamlitdiv.wordpress.com after 1 Dec.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 11, 2014
8:30 am-9:45 am
441. Socialist Senses
Ohio, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Slavic Literatures and Cultures
PRESIDING : Nancy Condee, Univ. of Pittsburgh
1. “The Materiality of Sound: Esfir Shub’s Haptic Cinema,” Lilya Kaganovsky, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana
2. “From the Cinema of Attractions to the Cinema of Affect in Early Socialist Realism,” R. J. D. Bird, Univ. of Chicago
3. “Ineluctable Modality of the Visible: Gorky’s Return and the Onset of Clarity,” Petre M. Petrov, Princeton Univ.
For abstracts, visit mlaslavic.blogspot.com/ after 30 Dec.
447. The Seventies in Black and White: A Soundtrack
Purdue-Wisconsin, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Jack Hamilton, Harvard Univ.
1. “Mutts of the Planet: Joni Mitchell Channels Charles Mingus,” David Yaffe, Syracuse Univ.
2. “Righteous Minstrels: Race, Writing, and the Clash,” Jack Hamilton
3. “Broken Masculinities: Black Sound, White Men, and New York City,” Scott Poulson-Bryant, Harvard Univ.
10:15 am-11:30 am
474. African American Voices from the Civil War
Michigan–Michigan State, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Timothy Sweet, West Virginia Univ., Morgantown
1. “The Color of Quaintness: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Black Song, and American Union,”Jeremy Wells, Indiana Univ. Southeast
2. “‘If We Ever Expect to Be a Pepple’: The Literary Culture of African American Soldiers,” Christopher A. Hager, Trinity Coll., CT
3. “‘And Terrors Broke from Hill to Hill’: The Civil War Poems of George Moses Horton,” Faith Barrett, Duquesne Univ.
4. “The Negro in the American Rebellion: William Wells Brown and the Design of African American History,” John Ernest, Univ. of Delaware, Newark
485. Digital Practice: Social Networks across Borders
Missouri, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Division on Twentieth-Century German Literature
PRESIDING : Stefanie Harris, Texas A&M Univ., College Station
1. “Kafka and the Kafkaesques: Close Reading Online Fan Fiction,” Bonnie Ruberg, Univ. of California, Berkeley
2. “Network Politics, Wireless Protocols, and Public Space,” Erik Born, Univ. of California, Berkeley
3. “Intersections of Music, Politics, and Digital Media: Bandista,” Ela Gezen, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst
Responding: Yasemin Yildiz, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana
For abstracts, visit german.berkeley.edu/transit.
12:00 pm-1:15 pm
508. Performing Blackness in the Nineteenth Century
Chicago A–B, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Nineteenth-Century American Literature
PRESIDING : Harvey Young, Northwestern Univ.
1. “Being Touched: Sojourner Truth’s ‘Spiritual Theatre’ and the Genealogy of Radical Black Activism,” Jayna Brown, Univ. of California, Riverside
2. “Frederick Douglass and the ‘Claims’ of Democratic Individuality in Antebellum Political Theory,” Douglas Jones, Princeton Univ.
3. “’Dey Make Me Say Dat All De Time: Performance Art, Objecthood, and Joice Heth’s Sonic of Dissent,” Uri McMillan, Univ. of California, Los Angeles
509. Becoming Chroniclers: Latin American Women Writers and the Press, 1920–73
Parlor F, Sheraton Chicago
PRESIDING : Vicky Unruh, Univ. of Kansas
1. “The Opportunities of Technology: Cube Bonifant’s Radiophonic Chronicles in El universal ilustrado,” Viviane A. Mahieux, Univ. of California, Irvine
2. “Key Moments in the Subversion of a Genre: Alfonsina Storni and Clarice Lispector Redefine Womanhood,” Mariela Méndez, Univ. of Richmond
3. “Issues of Gender and Genre: Isabel Allende and Clarice Lispector Writing Chronicles, 1968–73,” Claudia Mariana Darrigrandi, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez
572. Illness and Disability Memoir as Embodied Knowledge
Los Angeles–Miami, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession
PRESIDING : Rachel Adams, Columbia Univ.
1. “Recoding Silence: Teresa de Cartagena, Medieval Sign Lexicons, and Deaf Life Writing,” Jonathan H. Hsy, George Washington Univ.
2. “‘Twisted and Deformed’: Virginia Woolf, Alison Bechdel, and Crip-Feminist Autobiography,” Cynthia Barounis, Washington Univ. in St. Louis
3. “‘My Worry Now Accumulates’: Sensorial and Emotional Contagion in Autistic Life Writing,” Ralph James Savarese, Grinnell Coll.
For papers or abstracts, write to firstname.lastname@example.org after 1 Jan.
3:30 pm-4:45 pm
586. Early Modern Media Ecologies
Great America, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING: Jen Boyle, Coastal Carolina Univ.
1. “Needlework Networks: Paper, Prints, and Female Authorship,” Whitney Trettien, Duke Univ.
2. “Sidney Circularities: Music and Script in the Contrafactum Lyric,” Scott A. Trudell, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
3. “Stage, Stall, Street, Sheet: Multimedia Shakespeare,” Adam G. Hooks, Univ. of Iowa
For abstracts, visit www.scotttrudell.com.
591. Multilingualism in Native American and Aboriginal Texts
Kane, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on American Indian Literatures
PRESIDING : Beth H. Piatote, Univ. of California, Berkeley
1. “Reading Resistance and Resisting Readings in a Bilingual Text,” Laura J. Beard, Univ. of Alberta
2. “Narrative and Orthography in Cree Oral Histories,” Stephanie J. Fitzgerald, Univ. of Kansas
3. “Ongwe Onwe Languages in the Fourth Epoch of Iroquois History,” Penelope M. Kelsey, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder
4. “Poetics of ka ‘āina and na ‘ōiwi: Language(s) of Land, Earth, and the Hawaiian People in Haunani-Kay Trask’s Night Is a Sharkskin Drum,” Nicole Tabor, Moravian Coll.
5:15 pm-6:30 pm
624. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in Medieval and Early Modern England: Form and History
Old Town, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Ian Cornelius, Yale Univ.
1. “Singing and Speaking Boethius in Anglo-Saxon England,” Anne Schindel, Yale Univ.
2. “Sensible Prose and the Sense of Meter: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Boethius and After,” Eleanor Johnson, Columbia Univ.
3. “Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and an Expansive Theology in the Late Sixteenth Century: Queen Elizabeth’s Translation in Context,” Linda Suzanne Shenk, Iowa State Univ.
For abstracts, write to email@example.com.
625. Verbal and Visual Satire in the Nineteenth Century
Chicago F, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Joseph Litvak, Tufts Univ.
1. “Organizing Anarchy: Class, Intellectual Property, and Graphic Satire,” Jason Kolkey, Loyola Univ., Chicago
2. “The Reemergence of Radical Satire in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Frank A. Palmeri, Univ. of Miami
3. “Turn-of-the-Century Satirical Plots of Fenian and Anarchist Terrorism,” Jennifer Malia, Norfolk State Univ
645. Current Issues in Romance Linguistics
Parlor F, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Comparative Romance Linguistics
PRESIDING : Andrea Perez Mukdsi, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York
1. “Attribution in Romance: Reconstructing the Oral and Written Tradition,” Martin Hummel, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz
2. “Pronouns and the Author-Reader Relationship in Academic Portuguese,” Karina Veronica Molsing, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul; Cristina Perna, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul
3. “The Semantic Feature [+INFLUENCE] and the Spanish Subjunctive,” M. Emma Ticio Quesada, Syracuse Univ.
4. “Palatalization in Chilean Spanish and Proto-romance,” Carolina Gonzalez, Florida State Univ.
For abstracts, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 12, 2014
12:00 pm-1:15 pm
742. Socialist Culture in the Age of Disco: East European Popular Pleasures
Parlor F, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages
PRESIDING: Jessie M. Labov, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
1. “Imperial Disco: Czeslaw Milosz and Science Fiction,” Mikolaj Golubiewski, Free Univ.
2. “The ‘Movement of Writing Workers’ and State Stability in the 1970s German Democratic Republic,” William Waltz, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison
3. “Flaming Socialist Creatures: Hippies as Auteurs in Soviet Latvia,” Mark Svede, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
For abstracts, visit mlaslavic.blogspot.com/.
744. Mass versus Coterie: The Audiobook
Missouri, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Division on Prose Fiction
PRESIDING : Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
1. “‘Fully Fleshed Out and Filled with Emotion’: Accent, Region, and Identification in the Reception of The Help,” Sydney Bufkin, Univ. of Texas, Austin
2. “Joyce, LibriVox, and the Recording Coterie,” Brandon Walsh, Univ. of Virginia
3. “Alien Stereo: China Mieville’s Embassytown,” Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia
1:45 pm-3:00 pm
788. Back Up Your Work: Conceptualizing Writing Support for Graduate Students
Grace, Chicago Marriott
PRESIDING : Liana Silva-Ford, Houston, TX
Tara Betts, Binghamton Univ., State Univ. of New York;
Lee Ann Glowzenski, Duquesne Univ.;
Annemarie Pérez, Loyola Marymount Univ.
Abigail Scheg, Elizabeth City State Univ.
792. Old Materials, New Materialisms
Missouri, Sheraton Chicago
Program arranged by the Division on Methods of Literary Research
1. “Objects, Authors, and Other Matter(s) in the Gloria Anzaldúa Archive,” Suzanne M. Bost, Loyola Univ., Chicago
2. “Writing Histories of Listening: Acoustemology as Literary Practice,” Ely Rosenblum, Univ. of Cambridge
3. “Even the Stones Cry Out: Archival Research and the Inhuman Turn,” Andrew Ferguson, Univ. of Virginia
4. “A Life of Its Own: A Vital Materialist Look at the Medieval Manuscript as an Agentic Assemblage,” Angela Bennett Segler, New York Univ.
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2013 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. Once again, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO! regular Regina Bradley, questioning how American racial ideologies impact listening as a cultural, embodied act. Listen carefully, because we will be following Regina’s post with a special Sounding Out! Comment Klatsch on Wednesday, July 3rd that considers the consequences of racialized refusals to listen. What are the consequences of a listening that is interrupted? distorted? denied? perpetually deferred?—Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Rachel Jeantel gave me life with a curt “that’s real retarded, sir.” Responding to George Zimmerman’s attorney Don West’s suggestion that Trayvon Martin pursued and wanted to hurt Zimmerman, Jeantel undoubtedly lifted many eyebrows and possibly a few “hell naws” under the breaths of those watching her testify. Her response to West regarding his lack of understanding can be extended to assess the firestorm of controversy surrounding her testimony: questions of her literacy as oppositional to the prosecution’s hopes of conviction, surprise at her brashness and demonstrative gestures of irritation, and, worst of all, judgments about the literal and figurative fullness of her girlhood/womanhood and chocolate skin as signs to ring the alarm as grounds for dismissing justice for Trayvon Martin. Because her testimony operated outside of normal constructs of witness etiquette and respectability, it was greeted with a hailstorm of controversy paralleling the rawness of responses to scripted reality shows. The shallowness of “critique” of Jeantel—whom, it must be continually repeated, is not on trial—was disgusting.
But you don’t need me to tell you that, because if you were really listening to Rachel Jeantel, SHE told you. Jeantel’s delivery was particularly striking, offering her audience low timbred and often emphatic quips of “what?!” and “you ain’t get that from me” to indicate her irritation and frustration with West. Jeantel’s refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom – the epitome of a hyper-respectable space – destabilizes not only racial paradigms of black (southern) respectability but Americanized expectations of black women’s scripts of respectability. As Brittney Cooper points out, “Rachel Jeantel has her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom, a mashup of her Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages – Haitian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish and English – that she speaks.” Her people ain’t from hea and because of her upbringing can’t be categorized like other black girls from hea. In this sense, Rachel Jeantel is ratchet.
As I previously define in an analysis of Beyonce’s “Bow Down,” [sonic] ratchetness is a means of navigating sliding representations of respectability within American popular culture. Jeantel’s testimony, however, thinly treads between ratchetness as performative discourse and lived experience. Her reference to the television show The First 48, during a line of questioning regarding how she knew the police would contact her, for example, signified to some that Jeantel was oblivious to the judicial process.
Upon closer examination, however, The First 48 is a touchstone in understanding her negotiation of the criminal justice system as a series of steps/performances surrounding the policing of black bodies from her native Miami (which, it seems, is always on the show). It provides a widely acknowledged– and commodified – representation of black trauma in relation to the U.S. justice system. Jeantel’s ratchetness, then, is a tragicomedic site of cultural and gendered trauma accessible to the national public. Her personal loss of a close friend is overshadowed by her performance of that grief in a space of hyper-respectability. Her emotionally charged question “are you listening?” jolted not only West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?
Jeantel’s performance of ratchetness both pointed out and disrupted America’s racialized and gendered listening practices. I’d like to suggest her two-fold performance of ratchetness – sonic and cultural, imposed and embodied –presented ratchetness outside of a strictly pop culture lens. Instead, Jeantel’s performance and lived experiences present ratchetness as an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.
The lightning-speed meme-ification of Jeantel invoked flatter, more familiarized representations of ratchet. Because of our inability to translate Jeantel’s grief as “respectable,” she bore the brunt of public scorn and attempts of humiliation. The idea that Jeantel signifies a real life Precious, for example—the main character of Lee Daniel’s Oscar-nominated 2009 film adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, played by Gabourey Sidibe—demonstrates increasingly blurred lines between black women’s performative and lived experiences. It should be noted that Sidibe herself was frequently attacked in the press and on the Internet, to the point where she told her co-star Mo’nique in Interview Magazine, “I try to stay off the Internet. Just because people hurt my feelings sometimes. . .a lot of people commented that I’m an incredible actress. But other opinions weren’t so nice, physically or whatever.” Jeantel-as-Precious inadvertently suggests Jeantel’s ratchetness is grounded in the sense that she is plus-sized, dark, “illiterate,” and from a working class background. Precious-as-Sidibe becomes the medium through which Jeantel’s (il)legible womanhood is comprehensive.
Further, meme-ing Jeantel as Precious solidifies her working class background and ultimately her testimony as a threat to Trayvon Martin’s (re)deemed middle class respectability as a portal of victimization. Returning to Cooper’s observations of Jeantel’s use of hybrid-linguistics, it is Jeantel’s sonic delivery that most threatens Martin’s perceived and scripted middle class respectability. Jeantel’s use of so-called “broken” English has overwhelmingly been heard by what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls America’s dominant “listening ear” in “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in Blackboard Jungle” as a marker of her working class background – not her trilingual background – and thus, it sonically aligns Martin with the black working class and voids prospects of him being considered a victim of violence rather than its perpetrator. Don West’s treatment of Jeantel on the witness stand attempted to impose a parallel between Jeantel’s alleged “illiteracy” and Martin’s criminality. The “crime” of illiteracy within the courtroom and supposed “crime” of Martin beating Zimmerman into shooting him co-exist within a policed space of (white) respectability that black bodies are frequently forced to adhere.
Jeantel retaliated against West’s attempts to back her into this tight space, however, with her emphatic use of “sir.” Jeantel’s brilliantly subversive tactic demonstrates ratchety resistance because it provides a subtle inversion of the white supremacist discourse directed towards her. Her use of “sir” reminded me of the unnamed protagonist’s grandfather at the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who on his deathbed commanded his family to “live with your head in the lion’s mouth:” “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). Indeed, Jeantel busted “the lion’s mouth” wide open vis-à-vis a hybridized slang and an emphatic “yes sir” or “no sir.” Most importantly, Jeantel sustained her dignity and self-respect in the process. Jeantel’s mastery of a low, monotone “sir” signifies her existence outside of the politics of respectability that frame not only black women’s experiences but blacks’ submission to white supremacy.
Where West and others focused on her facial features or even her delivery of “sir” as a sign of (dis)respect, what was lost upon many was how her aurally subversive delivery of arguably the most hyper-respectable word in (American) English kept her in command of her testimony.
Rachel Jeantel is ratchety brilliance. She witnessed, performed, and sounded her truths in ways that complicated if not contradicted the normative discourse policing black women’s bodies. Although much of her cunning was shortsightedly heard as uncouth and aural evidence of a lack of (middle class) home training, Jeantel signifies the usefulness of ratchet as a form of resistance to the white privilege that dictates respectable spaces like the U.S. courtroom. Sir.
R.N. Bradley recently graduated with a PhD in African American Literature at Florida State University and is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death–Regina Bradley
The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?-Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Welcome to week two of our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,” a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. For an encore of week one of the forum, click here. And now, put your hands together for Regina Bradley!–JSA
I’m most haunted by a scene in the film Django Unchained (2012) where a slave and former mandingo fighter is torn to bits by dogs offscreen. After seeing the dogs begin to maim the slave, the scene rapidly cuts away to former slave and bounty hunter Django’s expression (played by Jamie Foxx) while the man hollers in pain amidst the growl of dogs in the background. The scene’s grisliness was not situated within Quentin Tarantino’s signature visual violence, but in its sound. Sound better relayed the violence imposed upon the man’s body, signifying the unavailability of literal or visual discourse to speak to the racial trauma black bodies continuously face.
Tarantino’s use of sound in this scene and the rest of the film capitalizes on an intriguing alternative to investigating racial trauma narratives in our current popular imagination. I know folks are tired of hearing about Django Unchained, but hear me out. Er, hear Quentin Tarantino out. No, I’m not talking about interviews or dribble about how he was a slave in his last life or two but rather the way he manipulates music to present a soudscape where revenge fantasies are okay. Unlike past sonic renderings of slavery like the O’Jays’ track “Ship Ahoy,” Django retraces the slave narrative in a contemporary social-cultural moment. Tarantino’s redrawing represents how postracialism provides a scapegoat for (a)historical representations of racial trauma and violence. I am most interested in the ways that the Django Unchained soundscape provides Tarantino a way to dabble in what historian and blogger Jelani Cobb calls “racial ventriloquism” by allowing him to present a sonically revisionist representation of the intersections of slave discourse, black manhood, and trauma.
If it is true that Jamie Foxx asserted that “hip hop goes hand in hand with Quentin Tarantino” then Django reflects a type of hip hop sensibility that is situated between hip hop’s commodification as the most visible form of contemporary black culture and as the most accessible form of blackness and black expression. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d suggest Tarantino’s inclusion of two rappers, Tupac Shakur and Rick Ross, within Django is no doubt a nod toward a gangsta rap sensibility that Tarantino appropriates for his slave narrative/western. Shakur’s song “Unchained” plays in the film’s trailers; Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” plays in the movie and its rolling credits. Sampling from Tupac Shakur’s music as a member of the group Outlawz reflects the vengeful, if not nihilistic, undertones of gangsta rap that run parallel to the spaghetti western aesthetic that Django is primarily framed within. Not only is Django a badass and outlaw in the sense that he is a freed slave bounty hunter roaming the South in search of his woman, but Tupac’s song contextualizes him as a gangsta badass outlaw bounty hunter who exists in the fringes of normative society. He is not the norm, but rather the exceptionally violent Negro that we as an audience root for. We want him to be violent. Violence is not only a fantasy but a privilege we want to give Django because of the violence inflicted upon him as a former slave.
“Unchained,” a mashup of James Brown’s “The Payback” and Tupac Shakur’s posthumous release “Untouchable,” sonically corresponds to these desires, using funk and the underlying association of violence in gangsta rap to provide a backdrop to cheer for Django’s violent revenge. The song utilizes sound bytes of Django and his bounty hunter partner/emancipator King Schultz (played by Christopher Waltz) interwoven with samples of “The Payback” in order to provide the context of why Django becomes unchained and displaced from the traditional impositions of violence seen in slave narratives.
A reflection of hip hop in terms of production – sampling and blending to create a unique new sound – “Unchained” also provides its listeners with a bridge between a (revisionist) slave narrative and contemporary racial violence. As the song opens, a prominent electric guitar strums to remind the listener of its western generic context but gives way to an emphatic crescendo of the horns that introduce “The Payback.” The loudness of the horns signifies the arrival of something great–Django’s arrival. The horns demand the listener’s attention. James Brown sings “sold me out, for chump change. . .told me that they, had it all arranged” sets up Django’s literal and sonic “emancipation,” correlating “sold me out” to being sold as a slave. A sound byte of King Schultz shooting Django’s overseer immediately follows Brown’s verse, bridging Brown’s verse of “time to get ready for the big payback” with Django’s freedom in the film. Django’s change in stature is sonically affirmed by an adamant and hype Shakur, rhetorically asking in loop “Am I wrong ‘cause I wanna get it on til I die?!” Shakur’s voice over the infamous horns of “Payback” and Brown’s signature scream relay the urgency of Django’s mission and past traumas, emphasizing not only black men’s capability but willingness to be violent when threatened.
Another reading of this loop suggests the inherent need for black men to be violent, an essentialized (mis)conceptualization of contemporary black men within a gangsta rap aesthetic that parallels Tarantino’s (re)vengeful intentions for Django Freeman. The call and response between Shakur and the sound byte of Foxx repeating “I love the way you die boy” loosely correlates and subverts the racial trauma that often provides the foundation for slavery discourse. Foxx’s sample comes from a scene in the film where Django has just shot and killed his former overseer. The line is an inversion of when Django previously begged for mercy for his wife Broomhilda and the overseer sneered “I like the way you beg, boy.” The triumphant rendering of Brown’s horns and the loop of Shakur, when heard in conjunction with Foxx’s sound byte, signify that Django has, indeed, got the big payback. The sound bytes of Django’s voice provides a challenge to the literal slave’s voice while the music provides a backdrop for what a slave’s revenge may sound like, subverting the racial trauma inflicted on slaves.
James Brown and Tupac Shakur reflect pivotal moments of black masculinity from soul and early renderings of commodified rap, but Rick Ross reflects a more contemporary moment of black masculinity and violence within hip hop as a multicultural space. It is significant that Django includes this moment of hip hop because it similarly frames the haziness of racial politics that contextualizes the film. Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” showcases a gruff Rick Ross spitting bars about violent repercussions and avenging himself and slave women:
The track reflects a sonic representation of the American South as a site of racial trauma as seen in the American popular imagination. There is a minute and, if unaware of the film’s homage, a quickly fleeting understanding of the black coffin as representative of the original Django’s coffin that he carried around with him as a reminder of his traumatic experience and need for revenge. The sonic feel of this track is overtly masculine, consisting of Ross’s signature grunt, a lone whistle, a wailing male chorus, and hard-hitting percussion. Ross’s demands for black coffins, black pastors, and black bibles against a sonic backdrop of wails and an unsettling bell toll inflict a similarly violent Southern cultural soundscape.
Furthermore, the understanding of blackness as pathological due to the trauma blacks experience, frames Ross’s narrative as parallel to Django’s (if he were a rapper). I’m particularly struck by “100 Black Coffins” for two reasons: Rick Ross’s beat (he never picks a lame one) and Ross’ call and response with himself. Furthermore, the urgency and depth that Ross presents in his background ad libs is a haunting reflection of black (slave) men’s inability to avenge and protect their families and themselves. Ross’ solo call and response signifies a coping mechanism for the solitary existence many slaves faced when disconnected from loved ones. Ross seamlessly interchanges ahistorical images and hip hop memes against a sonic backdrop that reflects the use of sound as a usefully ahistorical space where a ‘mash-up’ of blacks’ past and present can collide. Ross talking about slinging drugs from the block extends to blacks being sold on a slave block without a question of how the two correlate. This is undoubtedly problematic but, within the context of Django as a revenge fantasy film, is acceptable because it is part of the performance of a pseudo-slave narrative.
Idealistically, critically engaging Django as a sonic discourse could provide bridges to similarly violent – yet very real – representations of sonic violence in the popular imagination like Trayvon Martin’s 911 tapes and the recent murder of Jordan Davis. It is also important to point out the existence of nonmusical cues of silence and screaming presented by Kerry Washington’s character, Broomhilda, and what they suggest about the treatment of (slave) women’s narratives and agency in a sonic space, an issue that the two hip hop tracks do not broach. Overall, however, Django pushes the envelope sonically and visually in reference to sonic borders of blackness and the usefulness of the sound of racial trauma to contextualizing black masculinity, provoking a complicated question: in what ways does music blur contemporary and historical black discourses, creating a hazy representation of not only what blackness does, but what black pathology sounds like?
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University and a regular writer for Sounding Out!