Unlearning Black Sound in Black Artistry: Examining the Quiet in Solange’s A Seat At the Table

Editors’ note: As an interdisciplinary field, sound studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB

On May 18th, 2017, Solange Knowles took viewers on an expedition as she glided, danced and “agonized” in a “joyful praise break” on the floor of New York City’s Guggenheim museum. Drawing from the museum’s narrative of introspection and multi-sensory connection, Solange’s performance of “An Ode To. . .” prompted viewers to relearn and reorient the melodies of A Seat at the Table (2016). Solange’s performance in this setting hearkened listeners to new concepts and emotions in the record they didn’t catch before as they consumed it. This begs the question– what other sonic elements have we neglected to identify in A Seat at the Table? And why?

A Seat at the Table integrates topics like race, depression, and empowerment. Although the younger sister of powerhouse Beyoncé Knowles, Solange has managed to carve out her own legion of dedicated listeners from her infusion of Minnie Ripperton-esque vocals, hip-hop production and Gil Scott-Heron storytelling. Thematically, the album incorporates issues of Black Lives Matter and cultural self-preservation. However, Solange weaves personal elements such as vulnerability, futurism and paternity throughout the record as well, which buoy the album to praise but are hardly discussed in the album’s many reviews. Instead, writers and listeners have largely focused on resistance, anger and reactionary concepts.

Image of Solange at Boston’s Calling Music Fest 2013 by Flickr User Jessy Gonzalez, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Because Solange is a black women, historical signifiers of black embodiment influence both the listeners’ senses and consumption of her album. Solange’s intimate moments and reveals are shrouded by the limitation of black sound to the disruptive, angry or depressive. Such masking demands a listening praxis akin to what sound artist Christine Sun Kim describes as “unlearning.” “I’m trying to unlearn what I’ve been taught by others,” she said in an interview about her work, “and trying to find my own definition of both sound and silence.”  This unlearning and re-imagination of sound is a difficult transformation considering how sound is influenced by our racialized, gendered, and religious histories.

Consider the contemporary rhetoric of black sound. Black outcry and screaming is a banal American, banal soundscape. Blackness is grieving. Blackness tiptoes near death. Captivity is a breath away. Black Lives Matter leans on the Civil Rights Movement often sonically. Dr. J Marion Sims, both his medical torture of enslaved women and the widespread belief that black people are inured to pain, still haunts our research methodologies, medical practice and our daily lives. This ushering of strife consumes black life into a sound that bleeds—an aural transfer both material and metaphoric—black sound is never personal, individualized or singular, and such historical misperceptions influences black sound studies. The Western artistic critique of black sound and black artistry overwhelmingly focuses on the reaction of whiteness, black resistance, and little else—because supposedly—there is nothing notable about blackness in and of itself.

For example, revisit the 1968 Olympic photo of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman as they stand on the platform with their medals. What do you see in this photo? Perhaps nationalism, masculinity, aggression, or anger from their bodily gesture to the Black Panther Party Movement? What do you hear in the photo—what is its decibel? An outcry? A rebellious yell? desperate scream?

(l-r) Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos during the award ceremony of the 200 m race at the Mexican Olympic games. (creative commons, Wikipedia)

But what other nuances are in the photo? What other critiques are masked by this proscribed sound? In The Sovereignty of Quiet (2012), Kevin Quashie invites us to:

Look again, closely, at the pictures from that day and you can see something more than the certainty of public assertiveness. See, for example, how the severity of Smith’s salute is balanced by the yielding of Carlos’s raised arm. And then notice how the sharpness of their gesture is complemented by one telling detail:  that their heads are bowed as if in prayer, that Smith, in fact, has his eyes closed. The effect of their bowed heads is to suggest intimacy…How is it that they are largely icons of resistance, and that vulnerability and interiority are not among all things we are encouraged to read on their image? (Quashie 2-3).

Because of racialized history, we have limited our conceptualization of blackness in literature, film and other mediums. We only hear blackness as it pertains to resistance, grief, and anger—the reaction to whiteness. Black people are verbs instead of nouns. The ’68 Olympic photo is particularly special as it captures the steadfast Western influence that infects our synesthesia because of political and social histories. Moreover, such defects are even internalized in the black artist. As an identity, Quashie argues that “blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence, struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness (4). Sonically this means blackness in contemporary discourse is critiqued by its decibel of resistance.  We cannot read or hear blackness without integrating white pain.

Much like typical readings of the ’68 olympic photo, Solange’s album cover might elicit themes of self-esteem, black-nationalism or even aggression.  However, Solange quietly sounds her life transition and personal vulnerability, via her photo, if we would hear it.

But confining view of blackness as pain and resistance prevents us—including those who are black-identifying—from noticing and celebrating vulnerability, grace, and the interiority.  Quashie describes interiority as the “inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self. . .[it is] expansive, voluptuous, creative; impulsive…more akin to hunger, memory forgetting, the edges of all the humanness one has” (20-21). It’s the tender part of identity shown through subtly—the desires and dreams spoken through prayer. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. tapping his feet to Coltrane or Tupac Shakur watching dancers to perfect his plié—it’s the soft falsetto Solange uses in her album that bolsters emotional healing and draws avian imagery.

Asking what quiet can bring to our personal, cultural, historical and political understandings of blackness does not signal the imposition of respectability politics or desire for post-racialism. Rather, Quashie’s theory considers how whiteness has constructed and limited our senses as it relates to blackness. Blackness will remain in resistance because of systemic oppression but there is so more to black life. The element of analysis and sensory itself needs expansion.

Subsequently, Solange Knowles’ recent album innovatively captures resistance but centers other aspects of black sonic experience:  individualization—the nuances of interiority regarding mental health, paternity and forgiveness.

The first track of the song, “Rise,” flutters an anthem of well-being:

Fall in your ways so you can crumble.

Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night.

Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise

Her tone and pitch is sweet, light and matter-of-fact. The repetition and delivery is similar to a lullaby —reminiscent of Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son”—a soft plea to rest, welcome weariness and any conflict with authenticity but to also travel with a straight back and head looking forward. Fall in your ways… At the 1.11 mark, there is a break of silence in the song; thereafter, the synthesizer yawns into melody with a futuristic twang. This Afrofuturistic moment—the study of blackness as it relates to space, technology, art and futurism— continues later with the production and lyrical content with “Borderline (An Ode To Self Care).” Notably, “Rise” introduces the sonic atmosphere of the record through Solange’s honeyed tonal drops and leaps when she sings “So you can sleep at night.” Her delivery mimics a bird within a thermal lift—her voice calling the plight of the Flying African—the myth that Igbo people escaped slavery by flying back to Africa at night. “Fall in your ways” whispers the discovery and preservation of one’s interiority. Rise emphasizes inner, restorative practice.

Charles Dickson’s “Wishing on a Star” at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles, image by Flickr User  ATOMIC Hot Links (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Solange also highlights interiority through her album interludes, mostly narrated by Master P, rapper and owner of No Limit Records. This also relates to her inclusion of paternity alongside maternity—a bright distinction considering her identification with black womanhood and the historical racist exclusion of black fathers in the home (e.g. the Moynihan Report and welfare polices). Solange notes the importance of her father and Master P’s presence with an interview with her sister:

I remember reading or hearing things about Master P that reminded me so much of Dad growing up. And I wanted a voice throughout the record that represented empowerment and independence, the voice of someone who never gave in, even when it was easy to lose sight of everything that he built.

Thus the precursor to each song draws from Master P’s embodiment of kinship, lineage and esteem, traits the teenaged-Solange admired and later internalizes into her interiority.

Through these interludes, Solange redresses Master P’s sonic history, particularly his famous rap catch phrase.  As he explains in the interlude “Pedestals“:

I never cried or nothing, and that’s where the, ‘Make ’em say uhh uhh,’ that’s like my pain…that’s my battle cry.

Solange spotlights Master P’s quiet–and accompanying tonal signature—while showing its relation to “louder” elements of masculinization and coping. P’s insoluble moan is a staple throughout his songs and a signature in other No Limit artists’s songs as well.

No longer limited to its “loudness” or flattened to party anthem accompaniment—as this song and sound has all too often been characterized—P’s “battle cry” calls out, sounding a communal harkening of empathy and relation.

. . .uhh uhh. . .

In tracks such as Don’t Touch My Hair, Solange makes Black Lives Matter a key sonic element in her album, but as with her rendering of Master P, in a way that “unlearns” previous assumptions and limitations and reveals how the Black Lives Matter Movement and network is pigeon-holed by American racial ideology and its accompanying sonic constriction.While the catalyst for the movement was white supremacy and police brutality, the movement’s guiding principles also highlight interiority-infused concepts of loving engagement, empathy, and restorative justice. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the network, has been vocal about the movement’s integration of the arts and the reimagination of blackness. The focus on black outcry and white sirens muffles the movement’s quiet. The consequences of ignoring the interiority dismisses the whole, black self.

Belying a similar dynamic, many listeners have pinned “Don’t Touch My Hair” as a declaration to whiteness, but considering Solange’s point of view, lyrics and gentle sonic value, makes the meaning of the stretch far wider.

As Solange divulges through the sound of the Mardi Gras trumpet that blares throughout the chorus and changes in volume and texture after the quiet interlude ends at 3:34, black hair is spiritual.  As the trumpets blasts in hosannas in gospel celebration, the track also sounds honor, adoration, tribute and preservation in the thick of American, racialized fixation.

The unlearning of confined sensory orientation that Solange’s A Seat at The Table and “An Ode To. . .” demands unveils a progression to time travel, what Michelle Commander’s recent book calls  Afro-Atlantic Flight. Solange further incorporates such spiritual, diasporic flight with her homage to Parliament-Funkadelic artist Junie Morrison–who passed just a few months after the record came out–in her futuristic track, “Junie,” punctuated with the light, avian melisma, one of her sonic signatures on the record:

Let’s go to moonlight, then they will never find
Let’s go to home, free from the mother mind.

Come on along, along, along, along, along, along, along

Featured Image of Solange by Flickr User Greg Chow (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Kimberly Williams overseas a Black Cultural Center at Virginia Tech where her work includes advocacy, policy, programming and bloodletting. She received her M.F.A. in poetry at Cornell University where she also became a Callaloo Oxford University fellow. Her thesis studied the sonic flight from the Stono Rebellion into contemporary dance and household rhythm. You can find her work in Gulf Coast, Callaloo, Drunken Boat and more. At night, you can catch her watching 90s live performances of Michael Jackson or Nine Inch Nails.

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

The Listening Body in Death –Denise Gill

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka –Kristin Moriah

Moonlight’s Orchestral Manoeuvers: A duet by Shakira Holt and Christopher Chien

How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence–Robin James

Introduction to Sound, Ability, and Emergence Forum

The language of sound studies, and even the word sound itself, doesn’t do justice to our scholarship. Sound studies is, to me, a populist discipline that has given me a social setting and theoretical framework in which to develop my own ideas. Into this field I can carry my own history and let it screech and flash until it finds at least passing resolution.

Sound studies is less about sound than vibration, though this distinction is not easy for me to clarify. My experience of sound studies is somewhere in the web of music-as-activism, music-as-tactile-experience, and cultural studies. It all comes back to music, but music is, to me, a fairly broad term. I have written about the work of Diamanda Galás and Throbbing Gristle— lately I have been going back to early Sonic Youth and Aphex Twin’s song [Equation] which, at the end features noise that, when sent through a spectrogram analysis, reveals a visual face. The thread that runs through this music is a lack of “standard” musicality. Instead many of these artists create an atmosphere of sound, a deeply affective field in which the audience is immersed. Although not music in the traditional sense, these musical experiences produce the shrill prick of goosebumps in my body, the deeply triumphant bass in my bones. It is a convergence of things that can’t be contained in the auditory cortex.

On rhythm: My tattoo artist working on the last piece of my half sleeve. Usually I find the visceral rattle of the gun trumps physical discomfort, and I try to remain as quiet as possible and focus on the whir, the vibration, echoing between layers of my skin, somewhere in the connection between bodily stimulus and neural recognition.

Eleni Ikoniadou’s 2014 book The Rhythmic Event explores rhythm from a confluence of media theorists and artists who embrace the body and temporal experience as an immanent mode of becoming. While criticized by Eddie Lohmeyer (2015) for not drawing explicit connections between theorists, I believe Ikoniadou prevails in her attempt to theorize the rhythmic event as a means of collapsing or decoding linear time and discrete experience into an underlying and rhizomatically immanent means of affective and affinitive connections. Rich in theory and exciting in promise, Ikoniadou’s work builds on preexisting theory and syncs it with the body in its ambient, affective field. As she deftly explains, rather than a Platonic understanding of rhythm as a means of ordering time, Ikoniadou adopts a Deleuzian view of rhythm as “a middle force that occupies the distance between events, hinting that there is no empty space or void waiting to be filled by human perception” (13).  This immanence— an ontology in which the universe thrums always with a richness of vibration, sets in motion new ways of understanding art and experience, replacing the subjective with the affective.  In many ways Ikoniadou’s work informs and reinvigorates the convergence of affect theory, queer theory, and sound studies. Often, it is transcendent, enabling “sound studies” to encompass any possible connotation of feeling, of touch, of culture, of intuition, of the intricate nature of intersectionality, interconnectedness.

While sound studies once fought to decenter the Western cultural reliance on the gaze as the default sense through which critical theory should run, we are now as a discipline much more textured, synaesthetic. Through sound studies we learned of remote intimacy (Jennifer Terry via Karen Tongson)  and the network of interlinking experience that connected us past simple auditory stimuli.  We now have constructed a vibrational ontology in which sound is essential, though it is not always experienced as simply sound.

The Sound, Ability, and Emergence Forum stretches, yearns, and trembles toward these critical questions:  Where do we move from here? How will our language reflect the broadening sense of sound as delicately connected to all our other experiences? and how can we allow for theories and experiences from those who listen but might not hear in the traditional and often ableist sense of the word?

Airek Beauchamp is an Assistant Professor at Arkansas State where he specializes in Writing Studies. As Assistant Director of Campus Writing at Arkansas State he has the privilege of engaging academic and community activism, and he attempts to tie all of his scholarship to concrete political action. His other areas of research include queer theory, affect theory, and trauma in the LGBTQ community.

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

The Listening Body in Death –Denise Gill

Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body–Airek Beauchamp

Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis –Airek Beauchamp

 

The Listening Body in Death

Editors’ note: As a discipline Sound Studies is unique in its scope—under its purview we find the science of acoustics, cultural representation through the auditory, and, to perhaps mis-paraphrase Donna Haraway, emergent ontologies. Not only are we able to see how sound impacts the physical world, but how that impact plays out in bodies and cultural tropes. Most importantly, we are able to imagine new ways of describing, adapting, and revising the aural into aspirant, liberatory ontologies. The essays in this series all aim to push what we know a bit, to question our own knowledges and see where we might be headed. In this series, co-edited by Airek Beauchamp and Jennifer Stoever you will find new takes on sound and embodiment, cultural expression, and what it means to hear. –AB

My voice melds with the sound of the water pouring from the hose, as I gently massage the waste, blood, and tears from the body of the deceased. In the act of washing the dead, water is simultaneously sound, spirit, and sensory experience for the deceased and for the washer herself.

Washing the deceased in groups of three, our individual solo voices punctuate space at our own paces and intensities. Our sound soothes and cleanses the deceased as much as our washing. The melodic recitations we provide when gently holding the deceased are the most important components of ritual cleansing before one is buried. We repeatedly sound “Forgiveness, o Teacher [e.g., God]” while exhaling and inhaling. Often we recite the Tekbir—which articulates God’s greatness—adding a melodic architecture to our textured calls for forgiveness.

In washing the dead, we touch the deceased with respect and humility. “Please,” a family member will often beg, “please do not use cold water.” We quickly respond, “of course, this sister is still sensing us.”

Approaching the grieving we smile and gently say, “she is only without breath.”  We turn on the water and gently command: “bring me your hand.” And the bereaved joins hands with the washer and feels the warmth of the water. We espouse a tactility exclusively belonging to the washer—as the choreographer and improviser of mourning—with the one who is left alive and in grief.

Our touch and voices alter with each separate experiencing of washing the dead. Because each deceased woman is her own person with her different body and causes of death, no encounter is the same. In the way that we leverage our own bodily movements of lifting and turning the deceased’s body, we actively chose to duet with sounds pouring from the mourning family members in the room. If the mourners are silent, we tend to fill the space with our sound. Our recitations are not only for ritual per se, but exist to offer pleasing sounds to the dead herself.

We recite believing, as Muslims do, that her soul still hears us. While “dead,” she can communicate with all or part of her former body, cooperating with us, the living, as we mediate mourning and prepare her body for burial.

One of the most hard-drawn sensory lines we assume and maintain is the border of death. Death ostensibly marks the end of our constellation of sense experience, engenders the limit of the body, and demarcates the edges of aurality. While we know that hearing remains the last of the senses experienced in dying, scholars of sound studies have yet to extend our exceptional inquiries on hearing, aurality, and listening into posthumous auralities practiced by multiple communities throughout the world. How might sound studies scholars attend to the multi-sensory perceptions and auralities that extend beyond the grey where western epistemological structures end?

As a specialist of Ottoman and Turkish classical musics, I have long been interested in how variant Sunni Islamic practices—themselves rooted in centuries of philosophical debates outside of those generated in “the west”—unsettle categories that many scholars globally assume to be fixed and natural. My current projects have led me to consider the intensity of diverse listening structures attuned to violent thresholds of death in Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

In fall of 2016, my ethnography on listening towards posthumous aurality brought me to Karacaahmet Cemetery in Istanbul, a critically important burial ground of the Ottoman Empire and reportedly the second largest cemetery in the world. Here I was apprenticed to the women of Karacaahmet, practicing Sunni Muslims and official state employees who provide the service of conducting the Islamic rituals of washing the dead. During this time I had the privilege of laying dozens of women and girl-children of all ages, diseases, and accidents to rest with sound.

Walking in Karacaahmet. Istanbul, September 2016. Photograph by the author.

In taking posthumous aurality seriously, I have few paths of translation available to me. I am challenged by normative secular belief structures that we may uncritically reproduce in scholarship. Death is not necessarily the end of aurality. Provincializing western critical theory and engaging ethnographic insight from non-western eschatologies—the areas of theology concerned with death and dying—invites one path for expanding our structures of listening beyond a body’s end.

For decades now, scholars have studied the body not as an accomplished fact but rather as a process. Yet in the body praxis long upheld in Islamic death rituals in Turkey, the vitality, socialization, and subjection of the body does not end in death, but rather passes into an alternate sensory and dialogically sonic realm. Death offers a space akin to what Bohlman and Engelhardt have considered as the sonic emptiness of religious ontologies, or “a space of perception and experience, not of silence and absence.”

Posthumous aurality, as I define and explore it, takes both an ethnographic and a sound studies approach to consider sensory possibilities of death. In this liminal space of mingled bodies—the bodies of the dead, the washers as care laborers, and the deceased’s mourning family members—I listen at a crossroads in which local belief structures mediate and structure sounds, soundings, silences, and voicing.

In Muslim cemeteries in Istanbul, it is believed that there is life in the grave. Death is described in terms of development, progression, pathway, and mere transition from one stage of life to another stage. The barzakh, the barrier of the grave and time spent dwelling posthumously in it, is an interstitial zone entered upon death which the soul can experience pleasure and pain, socialize and commune with others. There exists no necessary binary of life versus death, sound versus silence in these spaces.

The barzakh is a stage of movement, a zone of transference and oscillation. The body is a listening body—its soul communicates and lingers around it, sensing the sounds and touch offered by the washers. Ottoman poetry abounds about such sensings, echoing the understanding the body is a cage and the spirit is incarcerated in it. Artists of the word—with wording historically experienced aurally—narrate the body as wishing for its release (e.g., death) and the possibility of being reunited with its beloved (e.g., the divine) and returning to the earth as soil.

Sonic generosity in the face of death requires washers to engage a modality of listening, touch, and sounding to send an individual to the next realm to await resurrection. Her soul circles the room where we wash her body, listening and participating with us sonically, called back to her body in the grave three times before it is closed.

We believe we hold the body in its second most intimate moment in life, after that of its emergence from the womb. The scent of death fills our nostrils as we sweat to lift the deceased after we finish shrouding her and sprinkling the shroud with rose water. Gently, we ease her into the pine box that transports her to her grave.

And after we are done washing someone—whether we refer to her as “sister,” “aunt,” or “daughter”—we later, in our back tea room, remark upon the grieving of the family members joining us in the room and the discovery of ailments or sores on our sister.

The shoes that we shed at the entrance to our back tea room. Istanbul, October 2016. Photograph by the author.

In these moments of collective sharing, we discover ourselves in our shared similarities with the dead. Wisdom is, after all, listening in tandem with others and recognizing that which is most human in all of us.

In the context of Cairo, Egypt, Charles Hirschkind has beautifully analyzed “the ethical and therapeutic virtues of the ear.” Yet in washing the dead, I produce and engage in a space beyond the pieties maintained by circulating listening structures in particular places. I enter a particular and intimate form of relationality—not a relationship to myself as a subject or the subjection of the dead other, but rather to relationality itself as a form of the sonorous. Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us that the sonorous “outweighs form.” In listening towards posthumous aurality, I am ushered into a unique corporeal and sensorial form of access. Posthumous aurality is simultaneously “mine” and also shared.

Posthumous aurality renders all of our bodies—including that of the literal post-human dead—as capable of being influenced by others in that place. Sharing posthumous auralities in tandem with the washers, the grieving, and the deceased echoes in a space that is indissociably material and spiritual, internal and external, singular and plural.

The critical theories and methodologies of sound studies tend to not center diverse non-western tenets of sensory apparatus espoused by individuals and communities who perceive sound outside of the boundaries of western metaphysics. Posthumous auralities—when translated and mediated linguistically—offers a sound path to understanding the continuations and transformations of sense experience that occur in death.  Tuning into posthumous auralities in Turkey’s urban Muslim cemeteries has helped me recover sounds long unheard because they have been relegated to the boundaries of our academic disciplines and the fringes of our very lives.

Featured Image: A view from Eyüp Sultan.  Istanbul, October 2016.  Photograph by the author.

Denise Gill is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Washington University in St. Louis in the Departments of Music; Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Her research has been supported by Fulbright and ACLS.  Her book, Melancholic Modalities: Affect, Islam, and Turkish Classical Musicians (Oxford, 2017), introduces methodologies of rhizomatic analysis and bi-aurality for scholars of sound, musical practices, and affect.  Her current projects focus on listening structures of death, refugee loss, and acoustemologies of Muslim cemeteries and shrines in Istanbul. A kanun (trapezoidal zither) player, Denise has performed in concert halls in Turkey, the U.S., and throughout major cities in Europe. 

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

Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

The Amplification of Muted Voices: Notes on a Recitation of the Adhan–David Font-Navarrette

Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade–Michelle Commander

An Ear-splitting Cry: Gender, Performance, and Representations of Zaghareet in the U.S.“-Meghan Drury

Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade

The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.

Normalization of white supremacist rhetoric via American news media

Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.

In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’

VebfqUnF

My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.

Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.

As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.

I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.

European slave traders forced tens of thousands of African people onto slave ships through the “Door of No Return” at  Elmina Castle, Ghana; many died here before making the “middle passage.”  Built by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle was the center of the Dutch Slave Trade through 1814  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

.

The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.


In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife.  Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands].  The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.

Charleston 1837 Bed and Breakfast, Image by Flickr User Anthony (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?

In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.

Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives

Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.

Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.

The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.

Midway plantation house, post move, image by Flickr user Preservation North Carolina (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.

Still from Moving Midway trailer, Robert Hinton talks with Godfrey Cheshire

Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:

Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?

Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.

[Both men laugh.]

__

“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu

__

Featured Image: The author  listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author

__

Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

__

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

Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely

Moonlight’s Orchestral Manoeuvers: A duet by Shakira Holt and Christopher Chien

SO! Reads: Shana Redmond’s Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora–Ashon Crawley

%d bloggers like this: