Today, Society for the Humanities Director Timothy Murray sings us back home with a meditation on the soundscapes of study at the A.D. White House this year, closing out our spring “Live from the SHC“ series covering new research on “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” The 2011-2012 Fellows have got to say goodbye for the summer–and sadly beyond–but we all hope that next years’ Fellows (2012-2013 Theme: Risk @ Humanities) enjoy all the good vibrations we will leave behind, and that you, Dear SO! readers, have enjoyed our broadcast! Our summer series, “Tuning In the Past,” on radio and legacy of broadcaster Norman Corwin, featuring Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo begins at the end of June. And, of course, every Monday in between and beyond, we’ll keep giving you something you can feel. –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)
Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for hosting “Live from the SHC“ on Sounding Out! What a fantastic experience it’s been to have Jennifer screening and tweaking Sounding Out! from her garret office overlooking the gardens behind the A.D. White House, the Cornell home of the Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. Readers of “Live from the SHC“ have read various strains of this year’s focal theme, “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” The aim of this year’s residential research project was to contemplate and analyze the resonance of historical and contemporary representations, movements, ideas, and negations of sound.
Open to study of the broadest cross-cultural range of contexts and media that cross the boundaries of time and space–from East and West/South and North–the Fellows’ research delved into the complex ways that sound abounds in visual, textual, and aural realms. From “voicing” to “listening,” sound shaped the framework of our critical and philosophical analyses of the body, affect, and social publics. Sound came to be appreciated for its shaping of the parameters of psycho-cultural imaginaries, social practice, religious ritual, and political regulation throughout history and across the globe. Just as sound differs in the global context of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, not to mention the specificities of ethnic difference and cultural diversity, “voice,” “hearing,” and “listening” frame the humanities disciplines in relation to their aesthetic properties and political ramifications.
The Fellows found themselves reflecting on several key issues. Which criteria differentiates natural from artificial sounds? Does sound challenge disciplinary distinctions between the visual and the oral/aural/tactile? Can the loud noises of industrial culture be distinguished from the synthetic sounds of electronic music, the stammerings of performance and the vibrations of philosophical manifestos? It should come as no surprise to followers of Sounding Out! that sound marks the passage of time, the correlation of the aural to the movement of the body in dance and performance, the sonic promise of cartographic projects of social movements and migrations, and the cultural and ethnic specificities of acoustic fields and rhythms in the age of sampling and mixing, not to mention the gender, racial, and ethnic import of voice and spoken narrative.
Adding vibrant texture to our year-long discussions were the three weeks spent in extended dialogue with the Society’s Senior Invited Fellows. Emily Thompson (The Soundscape of Modernity) charted the histories of the architectonic sounds of cinema houses as well as the untraceable wealth of the historical sounds of New York City as its peripheries morphed from country estate to urban zone. Brandon LaBelle came from Norway to take us on a journey of artistic imagination and phenomenological hopefulness as he cruised his writings on Acoustic Territories and Site Specific Sound while sampling the background noises of his multimedia installations. Then Norie Neumark, fresh off the release of VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (co-edited with Ross Gibson and Theo Van Leewen), arrived from Australia to follow up on our 2003 online seminar on Sound Cultures. She reminded us of the deep history of sound studies down under, while focusing our attention on voicings and her own multimedia art practice that blends spoken narrative, synthetic noise, mouthed breath, and shocks in the ear. [The "Live From the SHC" logo is a piece from Neumark and Maria Miranda's "Shock in the Ear"--ED].
Various other visitors throughout the year included multimedia artists Mendi and Keith Obadike whose “not” Afrofuturism walked us through their exciting series of performance works,“Four Electric Ghosts,” Caitlin Marshall from Berkeley who brought cyborg speech to life with her prosthetic soundings, and renowned choreographer William Forsythe, whose four-hour choreography piece ”Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time“–performed amidst amidst over 150 hanging pendulums–combined dance and environment as a means of physically manifesting the process of thought. Marjorie Garber from Harvard rode our acoustic wave to reflect on the future of the humanities while Norma Coates came down from Western Ontario to sensitize us to the mixes of pop sound and culture.
In listening back to the echoes of the year past, rather than here retracing the specific projects of our Fellows (you can consult the critical tales already Sound[ed] Out! by Damien Keane, Tom McEnaney, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Jonathan Skinner, Eric Lott, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, and Jeanette Jouili), I find myself sampling the sounds, noises, and glitches that provided unexpected reverbs for the academic writing happening behind closed office doors throughout the A. D. White House.
Sounds of glee, delight, and play first arrived on the scene at the end of August with gaggles of laughing and screaming kids running wild and climbing trees in the gardens, surrounded by bemused adults and envious dogs. Accompanying partners brought to the mix the diverse soundings of African film, suspicious packages, software beats, performance art, critical geography, and real estate hawking. No wonder the assembled Fellows strayed so readily, if not unconventionally, from the promised strictures of already exceptional research projects that brought to our weekly seminar table the street sounds of Egypt, Turkey, Korea, early modern Germany, contemporary Islam, American hip hop, contemporary art, circuit bending, gaming, German, Irish, U.S. and Latin American radio, voices of performers, animals, and posthumans, urban soundscapes, and, here making a loud call out to one Stoever-Ackerman, sonic color-lines.
Resounding throughout the year to give cadence and timbre to our serious ponderings were the spontaneous soundings that seemed always to give ample depth to the provocative interstices of intellectual life. There were the noises of glitch, circuit-bending, and Guitar Hero that stretched and extended the purpose of music and machinics. There were spontaneous voice lessons that turned anxious performers into wild choreographic objects. Singing above in the hidden alcoves–when not streaming through the high Victorian ceilings of the A. D. White House–were our flying mammal friends whose echolocation extended beyond the reach of our mere human ears. Then were the sudden noisy reminders of the vulnerability of our corporeal organs. Who could forget the reported imaginary of the crunch of human leg against car as two of our Fellows found themselves under assault from a crazed pizza delivery guy – luckily no lasting damage?
Our fellows will carry away the subliminal lacings of the lighter sounds of improvisation and camaraderie. There were the poundings of feet and slappings of bodies dancing late into the night after hours of laborious conferencing to the beats of DJs Marcus Boon, Art Jones, and Earmuffs.
At the end of the year, Fellows grooved to the beat of Tom McEnaney playing bass with The Vix Krater out at the Rongo in Trumansburg, NY (down the road from the home of Moog), before retreating to the bowels of the A. D. White House basement for another dusty, late night jam session with drums, synthesizer, guitars, bass, and various acoustics, led by the ultimate sound blogger herself, the guitar heroesse, Jenny S-A. [Well, I'm learning. So far I know E-Minor. It was Trevor that really broke my strings in! --ED].
And, yes, there was always the accompaniment of the clinks of glasses and bottles bearing the liquid life blood of any noisy crew.
The French philososopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, reminds us in Listening (2007) that the shared space of noise and sound entails “a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject or to itself, all simultaneously. Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me’” (7). What resounded and referred this year at the Society for the Humanities was the very immaterial and inchoate touch of sound, which is a-live in intensity and force. But who would have imagined the intensity of the noise of referral that remained so constant throughout the year to envelop the solid academic work of our Fellows in the wilding vibrations of jouissance? Indeed, perhaps the best lesson of the year, at a moment when the humanities finds itself threatened and in transition by the supposed certainty of metric and assessment, is that the Society’s scholarship in sound was driven by the relentless noise of referral and the unpredictable delight of the commune.
Featured Image Credit: Brandon La Belle, Duck Duck Goose Installation, Ausland, Berlin
Timothy Murray is Professor of Comparative Literature and English and Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. He is the Cornell Principal Investigator of the Central Humanities Corridor, generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and he sits on the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of the Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and the Steering Committee of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). He is Co-Moderator of the -empyre- new media listserv and the author of Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (Minnesota 2008); Zonas de Contacto: el arte en CD-ROM (Centro de la imagen, 1999); Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, Art (Routledge, 1997); Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (Routledge, 1993); Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in XVIIth-Century England and France (Oxford, 1987). He is editor of Mimesis, Masochism & Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought (Michigan, 1997) and, with Alan Smith, Repossessions: Psychoanalysis and the Phantasms of Early-Modern Culture (Minnesota, 1997). His curatorial projects include CTHEORY MULTIMEDIA and Contact Zones: The Art of the CD-Rom.
In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound and they all knew what the sound sounded like. –Toni Morrison, Beloved
A conversation in my Black Feminist Theories class on the two versions of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech from the Ohio Women’s Convention—the one published in 1863 that renders her words in a black southern dialect or the 1851 version that does not—elicited the following story about listening. A black male student was student teaching/observing in a classroom — the teacher was white, the student teacher black. The exercise he observed involved transcribing speech and then reading it back. A black male student in the classroom spoke and the white teacher and black student teacher each transcribed the speech and read their transcriptions aloud. The white teacher’s transcription/recording was in dialect, the black student teacher’s was not. The student teacher maintained that what and how the white teacher heard the black student was not, in fact, either what or how the black student spoke.
Discussions like these have spurred me to meditate more deeply on sound. And now that I’ve really begun to consider it, texts have become much noisier places; the white spaces and black marks becoming places for reading and hearing. Thinking more deeply about sonic affinities and communities has helped me really begin to understand how sound shapes sight and sight shapes sound.
An example: Since reading Fred Moten’s In the Break, in particular “The Resistance of the Object,” it’s not only impossible for me to read the scene of Captain Anthony’s beating/rape of Aunt Hester in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative without hearing Abbey Lincoln’s hums, moans, and screams, it is not possible for me to read the entire text without populating it with sound, even as those sounds are, in my imagining of them, not always specific.
Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that I am aware that the world that the text references is a world filled with sounds peculiar to it, many of which may no longer be present in our contemporary world. At the same time, I try to bring at least some of those sounds—talking drums, field hollers, whips cracking, the sounds of chains, etc.—and approximations of sounds into the classroom when I teach Douglass’s Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom (as well as when I teach other texts).
In “The Word and the Sound: Listening to the Sonic Colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” (2011) Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman writes, “The emphasis Douglass places on divergent listening practices shows how they shape (and are shaped by) race, exposing and resisting the aural edge of the ostensibly visual culture of white supremacy, what I have termed the “sonic colour-line” (21). Stoever-Ackerman riffs on Elizabeth Alexander’s “Can you be BLACK and Look at This: Reading the Rodney King Video” (and Alexander riffs on Pat Ward Williams’s “Accused, Blowtorch, Padlock”) to ask, “Can you be WHITE and (really) LISTEN to this?” or alternatively, “Are you white because of HOW you listen to this?” (21).
In his review of Shane White and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (Beacon Press, 2005) in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Urban History, Robert Desrochers contrasts the abolitionists who were attuned to how to make a white audience hear the sounds that surrounded and produced the (performances of the formerly) enslaved, to the “Virginia patriarch who failed to mention the singing of his slaves even once in a diary that ran to hundreds of manuscript pages” (754). Given these examples of the ways that many white ears had to be systematically attuned to hearing slavery’s sounds as well as the understanding that, “the very things that made slave sounds distinctive—chants, grunts, and groans; melismatic, repetitious, and improvisational lyric play; pitch and tonal inflections and cadences; timbral variations, polyrhythms, and heterophonic harmonies—struck whites mostly as strange, inappropriate, wrong” (754)—the answers to Stoever-Ackerman’s questions may be respectively “no” and “yes” (or several combinations of no and yes), particularly if we engage “whiteness” as an ideology and not simply (or not only) a “raced” description of those people constituted socially and legally as (presumably) white.
It was with these kinds of questions of sound and sonic whiteness on my mind (especially this question of who hears, who doesn’t hear, and then again what is and isn’t heard) that I read and was brought up short by Helen Vendler’s recent November 24, 2011 New York Review of Books review of Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. In this piece, Vendler takes Dove to task for what she considers the anthology’s over-inclusiveness (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading”), the “accessibility” of the poems (“short poems of rather restricted vocabulary”), and the appearance of a large number of black and other non-white poets in the latter part of the twentieth-century. In short, from Vendler’s perspective, Dove is choosing “sociology” and complaint over artistry; mixing the wheat and the chaff.
Vendler writes, “Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.”
And Vendler on Dove on Hart Crane: “sometimes one wonders whether Dove is being hasty. She speaks, for instance, of ‘the cacophony of urban life on Hart Crane’s bridge.’ But the bridge in his ‘Proem’ exhibits no noisy ‘cacophony’; its panorama is a silent one. The seagull flies over it; the madman noiselessly leaps from ‘the speechless caravan’ into the water; its cables breathe the North Atlantic; the traffic lights condense eternity as they skim the bridge’s curve, which resembles a ‘sigh of stars’; the speaker watches in silence under the shadow of the pier; and the bridge vaults the sea. The automatic—and not apt—association of an urban scene with noise has generated Dove’s ‘cacophony.’”
Why does Vendler insist on silence where Dove joins sight and sound? That Vendler imagines silence and takes Dove to task for attaching cacophony to the city scene in the bridge poem is a struggle over meaning, over epistemology and ontology. How is Vendler registering not only the poem but also the entire text differently? This isn’t the only instance of Vendler’s insistent sonic “whiteness” whereby and wherein the reading of the poem, the anthology, and the anthologizer herself are disciplined.
Speechlessness though, is not soundlessness, and it seems to me that Dove locates herself on the bridge (and in the soundscape of the contemporary written poem) such that she hears the water, the seagull, and the leap and curve and flap of gull and man. As Dove herself responded (also in the New York Review of Books), “A cursory sweep over just the section [Vendler] excerpted in my anthology yields a host of extraordinary sounds: what with trains whistling their “wail into distances,” chanting road gangs, papooses crying—even men crunching down on tobacco quid—my gasp of surprise at Vendler’s blunder can barely be heard.”
In Vendler’s remarks and Dove’s response we might read the kind of cultural dissonance that continues to both construct and give insight into how different communities of readers and listeners are formed and the ways they are and aren’t racialized. By the end of the review, Vendler wants to be heard by those whom she imagines as the anthology’s likely readers: she wants to turn to them and “say,” to “cry out,” that there are better poems than those included here. For the sounds that in this anthology that Vendler hears most often in the “minor” poems, in the “minority” poets, and the “minority” anthologizer, are simplicity, noise, and needless complaint. And Vendler and Dove have been here before – see Vendler on Dove and Delaney on Vendler and Dove.)
But despite the debate putting poetry front and center and enacting ways that it matters, Vendler’s critique and Dove’s response are each conservative, though in quite different ways. Neither Vendler nor Dove in the review, anthology, and defense of the anthology imagines the inclusion of spoken word, hip-hop (see Howard Rambsy II), and other forms of contemporary rhyme and verse that speak to a broad range of audiences across race, sex, and class. The inclusion of rap might further change the tenor of the conversation, opening up in important ways the debate over what counts as poetry, and expanding how black musical and poetic forms are heard and by whom.
Christina Sharpe is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Tufts University where she also directs American Studies. Her book Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects was published in 2010 by Duke University Press. Her current book project is Memory for Forgetting: Blackness, Whiteness, and Cultures of Surprise.
From Illegitimate to Illmatic: On Tiger Mothers, Ethnoburbs, and Playing the Violin While Dreaming of Nas
“I told you, I like it.”
“This is why we have so much trouble with you.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“Listen to that cursing…it’s nothing but garbage!”
“What are you doing?”
“All of these CDs are going in the basement. No more rap until you start listening to your parents! Now, go practice your violin!”
Growing up, exchanges like these were common between my Korean American mother and me—a multiracial Korean Euro-American. In her eyes, there was no such thing as enough violin practice. Rap—the vulgarity! The noise! It was turning me into a juvenile delinquent! She was convinced I had it in me to be the next Korean-American classical music virtuoso, the next Sarah Chang—if only I would practice more scales and stop trying to imitate “black men shouting.” (However “conversational” the rap world considered Nas’s flow, my mother still heard yelling.)
It’s not that I didn’t like classical music—I watched Amadeus on loop until the VHS squealed—but my mother, like the mothers of most all my Asian friends, insisted on it consuming a fairly large chunk of my life. While immensely diverse in its makeup, most of the Asian population where I lived was either Korean or Chinese, and were forced by their parents to learn violin, piano or cello. Not only was it criminal to play an instrument other than one of these; but, whichever one (or two) you chose, you had better be the best at it.
Author and Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, recently incited an online firestorm when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her controversial new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she recounts calling her daughters “worthless” and “garbage” if they couldn’t perform a piece of classical music up to her exacting standards. University of Hawai’i at Manoa Professor, Mari Yoshihara’s study, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music (2008) describes similar instances of “tiger mothering,” such as virtuoso violinist, Midori Goto’s, mother, Setsu Goto, who (it was rumored) was so strict that it forced Midori into a mental breakdown and an eating disorder. Many would likely agree that “Tiger Mothering” such as this is morally questionable (and in some cases abusive), but I should note that instances like these are only part of a much bigger picture. Scores of students and performers would no doubt concur with Dr. O’C’s recent SO! account of the potential for classical music praxis to have ameliorative effects. Despite this, however, classical music training seems to have become a central tenet of “Tiger Mother” methodology. In all the kerfluffle over Chua’s book, no one has been asking the most foundational question: Why is it so important to Asians and Asian Americans that their children play classical music?
In a recent interview on why she chose classical violin and piano for her children, Chua fancifully suggests that classical music is the antidote to materialism. She says that “classical music all about depth” and calls the violin and piano “very respectable instruments.” Indicative of more than just a love of classical music, Chua’s statements imply that other forms of music lack comparable artistic value and require less cultivation to perform and enjoy. In a similar vein, the Asian-descent classical musicians interviewed in Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore divulge their belief that playing classical music anchors one to a high social stratum. Acknowledging the contradiction between classical music’s high cultural status and its mostly poor compensation, the musicians identified social factors such as educational attainment and musical taste and ability as more important determining factors of class standing than income. Yoshihara thus links the importance Asians and Asian Americans place on classical music praxis to class consciousness and the production of cultural capital.
Class consciousness no doubt accounts for some of the zealousness exhibited by Tiger Mothers with regard to their children’s classical music training, but it’s not the only thing that keeps them roaring. Chua’s Battle Hymn illustrates that, in addition to class consciousness, the pressure to study classical music stems from an intra-racial expectation to perform Asianness adequately. Chapter 5 of Chua’s memoir, titled, “On Generational Decline,” is her cut-and-dried summarization of how subsequent generations of Chinese Americans become lazier as they’re allowed to revel in the comforts of middle class life. Chua chooses classical music for her children because it is “the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.” Constructed as an appeal to Chinese Americans, Chua essentially argues that classical music training is key to an Asian person’s cultural and racial legitimacy. Unwilling to relinquish “the high cultural tradition of [her] ancient ancestors,” she expects her children to uphold a racially and culturally endorsed standard of melody-making that reinforces Asian gender norms and encourages other Asian parents to do the same.
In Ellicott City, Maryland, the wealthy, culturally diverse “Ethnoburb” of Baltimore where I grew up, Asian American classical musicians abound and Asian American rappers are few. Here, (where the community-wide motto is “Choose Civility”) Asian youth gained a sort of “cred” for mastering the violin or piano, and this pressure to “prove” oneself along racial lines was something I always felt—particularly as a teen of mixed race. It was probably the biggest reason why I didn’t quit the violin until I graduated from high school. I hated it, but resentfully continued attending orchestra and private lessons in the fear that I would lose the meager amount of “cred” I’d built up. It hardly mattered, though. There was no chance of me getting into an Ivy League school or playing Carnegie Hall—I listened to rap and sometimes didn’t do my homework. In short, I would never be a “Super Asian” (a term coined by my Indian music stand partner and me), and as any Asian kid knows, if you’re not the best, you needn’t bother trying. None of the “Super Asians” had any interest in rap, and one even joked that I was a “chocolate-filled twinkie” for wearing a Pelle Pelle jacket to practice one week.
People who looked like Sarah Chang were supposed to be in the business of making melodies, not rhymes. Chang performing a violin concerto is a comforting scene, a sonic image that reaffirms a familiar cultural narrative of femininity and class stature associated with Asianness in the US. A result of the gradual process of East Asian modernization (instigated by Western Imperialism), classical music was initially adopted by the people at the behest of the state, eventually becoming a integral part of middle class life in East Asia and a social marker of bourgeois womanhood that functioned to situate women vis à vis the domicile. Uncomfortable defining myself in this way (and feeling, also, that I never truly could), I gravitated towards something more “disruptive” that would allow me to show a different face to the world.
Rap became a vehicle for me to explain myself in more hybrid terms. On drives into Baltimore City, I heard it bellowing from the windows of the West Side’s crumbling row homes. The loud, curt, interjections! The spontaneity and candor! This loudness was initially what drew me in, but eventually I realized that rap had just as much profundity as anything classical you could throw at it. Listening to rap, I was finally on offense. It was a medium that spoke to me, because it made me feel capable of speaking back. And there was an entire legion of disaffected youth who seemed to feel the same way.
Despite this popularity, however, critics of rap maintain that the sounds that (predominately African American) rappers produce are nothing more than “noise.” In Black Noise, Tricia Rose observes that despite (and perhaps because of) rap’s widespread popularity and cultural relevance, it is often pitted as classical music’s polar-opposite—“unintelligible yet aggressive sound that disrupt[s the] familial domain” (63). Against charges that rap lacks “depth,” purveyors of hip hop (despite their hefty salaries) often accrue little to no widespread artistic acclaim. Evidence of what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman terms the “sonic color-line,” this demotion and “Othering” of non-white sounds into “noise” (discussed further in her recent SO! post) has historically functioned to both generate and underwrite public attitudes about race, class and gender and to create dominant ideas about listening that she dubs “the listening ear.”
It seems that dominant modes of listening have everything figured out. If you look like this, you sound like that. But, what about people who look like me? What are we supposed to sound like? With which sonic cultural productions am I supposed to ally myself, and do I have a choice in the matter? How does “the listening ear” interpret a biracial Korean Euro-American or any person of mixed race heritage? Was there a distinction to be heard? I was sure there was, but didn’t quite know how to voice it.
For most of my life I have lived on the precipice of Asianness and something else, leaving me to feel—at times—confused, demoralized and illegitimate. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant famously note in their seminal work, Racial Formation, “Without a racial identity [in America], one is in danger of having no identity.” Acutely aware of my difference, I searched for ways of being heard as a multiracial subject in a fiercely stratified, race-conscious society. In the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, Michael Omi notes that within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Disruptive to fixed notions about race, it is often a challenge for multiracial subjects to be recognized or understood by the state or the ear.
Rap assisted me in my effort to be heard as a multiracial person. While my Asian friends in All-State Orchestra were polishing their four-octave chromatic scales for the judging panel at Julliard, I was conscientiously studying Rakim’s flow and the RZA’s beats, hoping that one day it might make sense for me to show my face at a rap battle, if only as an observer. After the realization that Nas wasn’t the reason I could never be a “Super Asian,” my mom returned my copy of his masterpiece debut, Illmatic. As previously, I spent the hours before bedtime reciting the lyrics to Nasty classics like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” moved by every skillful turn of phrase: “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian/half man-half amazin,” I would repeat over and over until I got the cadences just right. Whatever the hell he was talking about, I was sure it applied to me.
Ishmael Reed’s 12/12/2010 op-ed for the New York Times, “What Progressives Don’t Understand About Obama,” certainly struck a nerve amongst the Left. In the piece, Reed calls out far-Lefters for their misplaced–and dangerous–desire for President Obama to essentially “bust a can of whup ass” out on the Republicans over the tax cut debacle. Citing a lifetime of being labeled rhetorically “rowdy” by white teachers and peers, Reed calls attention to a deeply embedded and racialized double standard for the public expression of anger in the United States. Beyond turning a deaf ear their own pleas for a “sane” national debate back in October–see Mark Brantner‘s Sounding Out! analysis of the rhetorical logic of John Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity here–Reed argues that white liberals are also disregarding the racialized difference between white perceptions of their own anger (represented as righteous and authoritative) and their characterizarions of black anger (as a loud, dangerous “whup ass”–or as Reed phrases it “paranoid,” “bitter,” “rowdy,” “angry,” [and] “bull[ying]“). In other words, behind the cries in Reed’s comments for Obama to regain his “drama and passion” and to “stand up and tell these idiots to stuff it” lies a flirtation with and fear of “black anger,” which has a long history in the United States. As Reed mentions, black intellectuals have “been accused of tirades and diatribes for more than 100 years.”
As someone who researches the racialization of sound and listening, I have been tracking Obama’s struggle with sonic stereotypes for quite some time now, and I think it is important to connect Reed’s recent thoughts with the utterance of another man named Reid almost a year ago. Woven into comments supposedly intended as praise of President Obama’s political prowess, Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told two political journalists that he had known Obama would be elected president in 2008 because he was “light skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” In this brief sound bite, the other Reid acknowledged the increased role that vocal grain and diction would play in a “post-racial” or “colorblind” world, linking the racialization of skin pigmentation with its less acknowledged yet perhaps more insidious counterpart, the racialization of sounds, voices and speech. Unfortunately, incendiary media coverage focused bluntly on Reid’s alleged racism for using the antiquated term “Negro” rather than sparking a more nuanced conversation about the role that race plays in perception and the multifaceted ways in which this racialized perception affects American politics and culture, down to the very level of the senses.
What was most disturbing about Reid’s comments (and the least talked about) was how they showed aural markers of race aligning with—and even superseding—visual codes of race, exposing the seeming comfort Americans have developed with this “sonic color-line,” as I have termed it. Inspired by and indebted to W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of the visual color-line in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and his later reimagining of that color-line as a suffocating plate-glass enclosure in Dusk of Dawn (1940), my notion of the sonic color-line posits listening as an interpretive site where racial difference is coded, produced, and policed. In short, we hear race in addition to (and sometimes even before) seeing it. As I have argued elsewhere, the socially constructed division between “sound/noise” marks one border of the sonic color-line; the hierarchies pointed out by Reed (quiet/loud) and exacerbated by Reid (proper/improper) mark still others. The sonic markers of whiteness (“sound”/”quiet”/”proper”) are culturally associated with both intellect and full citizenship privileges; the sonic markers representing blackness (“noise”/”loud”/”improper”) are repeatedly trotted out as signs of deviance, danger, and deserved abjection.
Though I very rarely find myself agreeing with Conservative linguist John McWhorter, I couldn’t help concede to the sentiment expressed in his January 9, 2010, blog for the The New Republic, “Reid’s Three Little Words; The Log in Our Own Eye”: “And who among us—including black people—thinks someone with what I call a ‘black-cent’ who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it’s fair or not?” Both Reid’s statement and McWhorter’s embellishment imply an unspoken sonic color-line, a racial “common sense” that African Americans are not only identifiable by a particular type of sound—the so-called “Negro dialect” or “black-cent” and its attendant loudness—but are aberrant and unelectable because of it, a sonic standard that does not appear to apply to white people. After all, the preceding two white presidents were known for their distinctive dialects and the ways in which they used them to mobilize their respective electorates; Bill Clinton’s soft-spoken Southern drawl was often read as smooth, intimate, and reassuring during the 1990s and George Bush’s folksy Texas-by-way-of-Andover twang attempted to sonically bridge the gaping class divides in the Republican coalition. But even before the recent debates that have pitted Obama’s “coolness”–itself a racialized jazz form of “quiet revolution” a la Miles Davis–against the imagined explosive heat of his anger, contemporary pundits heard the sound of Obama’s crisp, cosmopolitan voice with anxious and divisive ears, leading some to question his “blackness” and his political commitment to black people (Salon,“Colorblind,” 1.22.07)while still others called his baritone “magic” and immediately connected its resonant qualities with Martin Luther King Jr.’s, despite clear differences of tone, cadence, and regional inflection (Salon,“Does Obama’s Baritone Give Him an Edge?”2.28.2008).
In other words, Americans continue to hear Obama’s voice through the historical filter of “loudness” and the so-called “Negro dialect” whether or not Obama wants them to and whether or not he “wanted to have one.” While Reid’s prompt and profuse apologies to Obama may have pulled the story from the news cycle—the President called the remarks “unfortunate”—the phenomenon Reid’s clumsy words exposed remains an invisible yet palpable cultural force in the U.S., one whose longer historical genealogy has yet to be reckoned with. Sure to be labeled “rowdy” for beginning to do so, Reed’s recent commentary suggests that Obama’s social and historical knowledge has led him to an astute awareness of “when not to shout” that white Liberals need to recognize. I offer a perhaps less consoling conclusion, that we need to concentrate less on the sound of Obama’s voice and more on the racialized listening practices that can radically distort public discourse in this country. Unless we understand (and eventually dismantle) the relationship between the dominant American “listening ear” and the sonic color-line that shapes it for many (white) liberals and conservatives alike, we will continue to shout into the wind.