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What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music

The lyrics to Beyoncé’s 2008 song “Radio” treats listening pleasure as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sexual pleasure. For example, they describe how turning up a car stereo transforms it into a sex toy: “And the bassline be rattlin’ through my see-eat, ee-eats/Then that crazy feeling starts happeni-ing- i-ing OH!” Earlier in the song, the lyrics suggest that this is a way for the narrator to get off without arousing any attempts to police her sexuality: “You’re the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room/…And mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom.” Because her parents wouldn’t let her be alone in her bedroom with anyone or anything that they recognized as sexual, “Radio”’s narrator finds sexual pleasure in a practice that isn’t usually legible as sex. In her iconic essay “On A Lesbian Relationship With Music,” musicologist Suzanne Cusick argues that if we “suppose that sexuality isn’t necessarily linked to genital pleasure” and instead “a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given” (70), we can understand the physical pleasures of listening to music, music making, and music performance as kinds of sexual pleasure.

Though Cusick’s piece overlooks the fact that sexual deviance has been, since the invention of the idea of sexuality in the late 19th century, thoroughly racialized, her argument can be a good jumping-off point for thinking about black women’s negotiations of post-feminist ideas of sexual respectability; it focuses our attention on musical sound as a technique for producing queer pleasures that bend the circuits connecting whiteness, cispatriarchal gender, and hetero/homonormative sexuality. In an earlier SO! Piece on post-feminism and post-feminist pop, I defined post-feminism as the view that “the problems liberal feminism identified are things in…our past.” Such problems include silencing, passivity, poor body image, and sexual objectification. I also argued that post-feminist pop used sonic markers of black sexuality as representations of the “past” that (mostly) white post-feminists and their allies have overcome. It does this, for example, by “tak[ing] a “ratchet” sound and translat[ing] it into very respectable, traditional R&B rhythmic terms.” In this two-part post, I want to approach this issue from another angle. I argue that black femme musicians use sounds to negotiate post-feminist norms about sexual respectability, norms that consistently present black sexuality as regressive and pre-feminist.

Black women musicians’ use of sound to negotiate gender norms and respectability politics is a centuries-old tradition. Angela Davis discusses the negotiations of Blues women in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism (1998), and Shana Redmond’s recent article “This Safer Space: Janelle Monae’s ‘Cold War’” reviews these traditions as they are relevant for black women pop musicians in the US. While there are many black femme musicians doing this work in queer subcultures and subgenres, I want to focus here on how this work appears within the Top 40, right alongside all these white post-feminist pop songs I talked about in my earlier post because such musical performances illustrate how black women negotiate hegemonic femininities in mainstream spaces.

As America’s post-identity white supremacist patriarchy conditionally and instrumentally includes people of color in privileged spaces, it demands “normal” gender and sexuality performances for the most legibly feminine women of color as the price of admission. As long as black women don’t express or evoke any ratchetness–any potential for blackness to destabilize cisbinary gender and hetero/homonormativity, to make gender and sexuality transitional–their expressions of sexuality and sexual agency fit with multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.

It is in this complicated context that I situate Nicki Minaj’s (and in my next post Beyoncé’s and Missy Elliott’s) recent uses of sound and their bodies as instruments to generate sounds. If, as I argued in my previous post, the verbal and visual content of post-feminist pop songs and videos is thought to “politically” (i.e., formally, before the law) emancipate women while the sounds perform the ongoing work of white supremacist patriarchy, the songs I will discuss use sounds to perform alternative practices of emancipation. I’m arguing that white bourgeois post-feminism presents black women musicians with new variations on well-worn ideas and practices designed to oppress black women by placing them in racialized, gendered double-binds.

For example, post-feminism transforms the well-worn virgin/whore dichotomy, which traditionally frames sexual respectability as a matter of chastity and purity (which, as Richard Dyer and others have argued, connotes racial whiteness), into a subject/object dichotomy. This dichotomy frames sexual respectability as a matter of agency and self-ownership (“good” women have agency over their sexuality; “bad” women are mere objects for others). As Cheryl Harris argues, ownership both discursively connotes and legally denotes racial whiteness. Combine the whiteness of self-ownership with well-established stereotypes about black women’s hypersexuality, and the post-feminist demand for sexual self-ownership puts black women in a catch-22: meeting the new post-feminist gender norm for femininity also means embodying old derogatory stereotypes.

I think of the three songs (“Anaconda,” “WTF,” and “Drunk in Love”) as adapting performance traditions to contemporary contexts. First, they are part of what both Ashton Crawley and Shakira Holt identify as the shouting tradition, which, as Holt explains, is a worship practice that “can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning.” She continues, arguing that “shouting…is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them.” These vocal performances apply the shouting tradition’s combination of the choreographic and the sonic and binary-confounding tactics to queer listening and vocal performance strategies.

Francesca Royster identifies such strategies in both Michael Jackson’s work and her audition of it. According to Royster, Jackson’s use of non-verbal sounds produces an erotics that exceeds the cisheteronormative bounds of his songs’ lyrics. They were what allowed her, as a queer teenager, to identify with a love song that otherwise excluded her:

in the moments when he didn’t use words, ‘ch ch huhs,’ the ‘oohs,’ and the ‘hee hee hee hee hees’…I ignored the romantic stories of the lyrics and focused on the sounds, the timbre of his voice and the pauses in between. listening to those nonverbal moments–the murmured opening of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” or his sobbed breakdown at the end of “She’s Out of My Life,’ I discovered the erotic (117).

“Michael Jackson” by Flickr user Daniele Dalledonne, CC BY-SA 2.0

Royster references a black sexual politics in line with Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic in “The Uses of the Erotic,” which is bodily pleasure informed by the implicit and explicit knowledges learned through lived experience on the margins of the “European-American male tradition” (54), and best expressed in the phrase “it feels right to me” (54). Lorde’s erotic is a script for knowing and feeling that doesn’t require us to adopt white supremacist gender and sexual identities to play along. Royster calls on this idea when she argues that Jackson’s non-verbal sounds–his use of timbre, rhythm, articulation, pitch–impart erotic experiences and gendered performances that can veer off the trite boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl stories in his lyrics. “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119). Like shouting, “erotic” self-listening confounds several binaries designed specifically to oppress black women, including subject/object binaries and binary cisheterogender categories.

Nicki Minaj uses extra-verbal sounds as opportunities to feel her singing, rapping, vocalizing body as a source of what Holt calls “sonophilic” pleasure, pleasure that “provide[s] stimulation and identification in the listener” and invites the listener to sing (or shout) along. Minaj is praised for her self-possession when it comes to business or artistry, but such self-possession is condemned or erased entirely when discussing her performances of sexuality. As Treva B. Lindsey argues, “the frequency that Nicki works on is not the easiest frequency for us to wrestle with, because it’s about…whether we can actually tell the difference between self-objectification and self-gratification.’’ Though this frequency may be difficult to parse for ears tempered to rationalize post-feminist assumptions about subjectivity and gender, Minaj uses her signature wide sonic pallette to shift the conversation about subjectivity and gender to frequencies that rationalize alternative assumptions.

In her 2014 hit “Anaconda,” she makes a lot of noises: she laughs, snorts, trills her tongue, inhales with a low creaky sound in the back of her throat, percussively “chyeah”s from her diaphragm,among other sounds. The song’s coda finds her making most of the extraverbal sounds. This segment kicks off with her quasi-sarcastic cackle, which goes from her throat and chest up to resonate in her nasal  and sinus cavities. She then ends her verse with a trademark “chyeah,” followed by another cackle. Then Minaj gives a gristly, creaky exhale and inhale, trilling her tongue and then finishing with a few more “chyeah”s. While these sounds do percussive and musical work within the song, we can’t discount the fact that they’re also, well…fun to make. They feel good, freeing even. And given the prominent role the enjoyment of one’s own and other women’s bodies plays in “Anaconda” and throughout Minaj’s ouevre, it makes sense that these sounds are, well, ways that she can go about feelin herself.

Listening to and feeling sonophilic pleasure in sounds she performs, Minaj both complicates post-feminism’s subject/object binaries and rescripts cishetero narratives about sexual pleasure. “Anaconda” flips the script on the misogyny of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” by sampling the track and rearticulating cishertero male desire as Nicki’s own erotic. First, instead of accompanying a video about the male gaze, that bass hook now accompanies a video of Nicki’s pleasure in her femme body and the bodies of other black femmes, playing as she touches and admires other women working out with her. Second, Nicki re-scripts the bass line as a syllabification: “dun-da-da-dun-da-dun-da-dun-dun,” which keeps the pattern of accents on 1 and 4, while altering the melody’s pitch and rhythm.

Just as “Anaconda”’s lyrics re-script Mix-A-Lot’s male gaze, so do her sounds. If the original hook sonically orients listeners as cishetero “men” and “women,” Nicki’s vocal performance reorients listeners to create and experience bodily pleasure beyond the “legible” and the scripted. Though the lyrics are clearly about sexual pleasure, the sonic expression or representation of that pleasure–i.e., the performer’s pleasure in hearing/feeling herself make all these extraverbal sounds–makes it physically manifest in ways that aren’t conventionally understood as sexual or gendered. Because it veers off white ciseterogendered scripts about both gender and agency, Minaj’s performance of sonophilia is an instance of what L.H. Stallings calls hip hop’s “ratchet imagination.” This imagination is ignited by black women’s dance aesthetics, wherein “black women with various gender performances and sexual identities within the club, on stage and off, whose bodies and actions elicit new performances of black masculinity” renders both gender and subject/object binaries “transitional” (138).

Nicki isn’t the only black woman rapper to use extra-verbal vocal sounds to re-script gendered bodily pleasure. In my next post, I’ll look at Beyoncé and Missy Elliot’s use of extra-vocal sounds to stretch beyond post-feminism pop’s boundaries.

Featured image: screenshot from “Anaconda” music video

Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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

“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson

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

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

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?’

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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)

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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.]

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“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

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

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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.

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“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*

*Dedicated to the love we hear in our mothers’ accents. This post is co-authored by Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas

The Cinco de Mayo season showcases troubling instances of Spanish being mocked. Corporate ‘merica profits from Drinko de Mayo when menus advertise “el happy hour”; words like “fiesta” and “amigo” are overused; and Spanish hyperanglicized for laughs (one of the worst: “COM-PREN-DAY”).  These acts of linguistic privilege, according to Jane Hill, elevate whiteness in public spaces. What is heard as playful for the dominant ear is simply an acoustic representation of the racist appropriation of mustaches, sombreros, and sarapes.

CinKO de Mayo(naise)

Fiesta like there’s no mañana

Said no Juan ever

That said, bilennials have struck back.

Last year, the Latino digital platform, we are mitú, published a list that resonated with its young, bicultural readers, those long accustomed to hearing Spanish Accented English (SAE) as part of their everyday speech: 17 Popular Brand Logos If They Looked The Way Your Parents Pronounce Them.  This humorous phonetic play in the face of complaints about foreign accents being unintelligible or moral indignation over immigrants who do not learn English with native-like proficiency re-directs our attention to digital, engaged Spanish-English bilingual communities. Like Chicana/o listening practices, these digital memes, gifs, and lists embrace how these accents invoke sounds of survival, solidarity and place making.

Con Fleis (Corn Flakes)

Gualmar (Wal-Mart)

Feisbu (Facebook)

Cosco (Costco)

 

 

The witty Buzzfeed-ish list re-spelled English-language global logos in Mexican, immigrant styled phonetics to reflect how said stores, brands, and social media sites are heard within Spanish-dominant or bilingual speaking communities. The absence of letters (Cosco) and/or the substitution of letters (Gualmar) induce an “accented” non-English dominant speech, dislodging standard rules about English-language spelling and pronunciation. Readers chuckled at seeing immigrant, ESL (English as a Second Language), phonetic speech in print – a tactic Sara V. Hinojos refers to in her media writings as a visual accent, or a visual vocabulary based on sound.

In order to “get” the humor behind the wave of memes and gifs that use Spanish Accented English (SAE), Chicana/o readers rely much more on their listening ears than their eyes to understand how these accents are voiced in print. Here, listening to accents operates as a popular form of literacy, one that registers the audible, racialized experiences of Spanish-speaking immigrants.  Of course, the use of creative, rasquache forms of humor have long been a hallmark aspect of Chicana/o humor. Yet listening to these digital literacies, especially within the contemporary “build the wall yet eat the taco” era, help make these accents legible.

Estop (Stop)

Eschool (School)

Espray (Sprite)

 

Certainly, some vocal accents are audibly more patent to select ears than others. Accents work to socially and geographically locate speakers; for instance, often racially indexing Spanish Accented English speakers as Mexican (regardless of nationality), immigrant (regardless of citizenship), and/or poor (regardless of occupation). Sociocultural linguists remind us that accents, word choice, vocal tone and other sound qualities of language are a part of a larger Bourdieu-ian rubric of linguistic capital.  Social psychologists consistently demonstrate that listeners make “moral, intellectual, and aesthetic judgments of others based on language use and accent alone.” For scholars of race and sound, accents comprise part of a sonic color line; a socially constructed aural boundary that aligns accented English speech as non-white and non-accented (or Midwestern) English as white.  Vocal neutrality, like whiteness itself, operates invisibly as privilege usually does.

Jess (Yes)

Brefas (Breakfast)

Effectively “reading” a visual accent does not privilege a bilingual speaker but rather an accented listener, one raised or surrounded by immigrant speakers. The humorous phonetic play of a visual accent symbolically challenges the capitalist logic that a “neutral accent” or non-accent in English holds immense Western value.  For those of us with accented speakers in our families and communities, accents function as emotional markers; vocal or vernacular archives that trace an individual or family’s migration, travels and/or histories.  As Denice Forham shares poetically about her Puerto Rican mother’s accent, “even when her lips can barely stress themselves around English, her accent is a stubborn compass, always pointing her towards home.” For our families, accents evince the affective labor entailed in retraining tongues, in learning new idioms, and general struggles to converse in Inglish.

(when your grandmother wants to motivate you)

Using the name of a popular Mexican sweet bread (conchas) as a substitute for “conscious” upsets Western, phonetic understandings of “scious” in favor of a phonetic, Mexican stand-in. Concha, a sea shelled shaped sweet bread, associated with female genitalia and used in digital Latino communities has become a symbol for body positive inclusion; an insistence to not feel “self conchas” when eating (see Nalgona Positivity and SOMAR ATX). These memes privilege an accented listener, a feminist sensibility, as well as a panadería connoisseur.

The mega-for-profit-English-teaching-colonial organization, known as Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), explains that the lack of distinction in the Spanish language between a short and long vowel – for instance ship/sheep  – causes miscomprehension for assumed-yet-never-named native English listeners. Those learning English as a Second Language are encouraged to first reorient their own ears to listen to the subtlety between pull/pool before grasping the complexities of yacht/jot. The communicative burden lies on the accented speaker rather than the non-accented listener. The visual accent places the onus on the English-dominant listener, effectively excluding them.

Trico Tri, Japi Jalogüín!

(Trick or Treat, Happy Halloween!)

Despite the fact that the United States represents the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Spanish maintains a racialized, classed and “second-tiered” status within the United States imaginary (see Bonnie Urciuoli; Jane Hill; Jonathan Rosa; and D. Inés Casillas). These disparaging attitudes are evident when Spanish is prohibited in work places; when bilingual education and English Language Learner (ELL) programs are eliminated at ballot boxes; or when public school teachers are removed from posts based on their “heavy accents.” Institutional efforts to tame bilingual, accented tongues are less about speech and much more about accommodating the dominant, white listening ear.

According to Jennifer Stoever, the listening ear refers to dominant listening practices. Listening, she argues, is an embodied cultural practice that influences one’s position to power. “As the dominant ‘listening ear’ is disciplined to process white male ways of sounding as default—natural, normal, and desirable—alternate ways of listening and sounding are deemed aberrant and, depending upon the historical context, as excessively sensitive, strikingly deficient, or impossibly both.” Therefore the dominant listening ear not only tunes out “other” sounds but also treats them as illegitimate because they deviate from what sounds “normal” (read: white).

Cálmate Carnal, Tey Quirisi

(Relax Friend, Take it easy)

Gail Shuck found that white, native English-speaking college students construct an ideological distinction between Us and Them; gesturing to a sonic color line. Compellingly, she reported how American tourists in Mexico would describe native Spanish speakers as “heavily accented.” Yes. The communicative proficiency of Spanish by Mexicans in Mexico continued to be scrutinized by native English-language listeners.

Churro Know My Life

Cinco de Mayo has versed us too well on the visual markers of racism like oversized sombreros, felt mustaches, and cheap beer pursuits, all a part of the commercial exploitation of Mexican communities in the U.S. But then phrases such as “Grassy Ass” or “No Problem-o” are heard bitterly as recurrent reminders that our language and accents are policed with the same fervor as our bodies. The inventive use of the visual accent archives how we listen, privileging the accented ear.  The loving jest that enwraps these digital literacies reminds us to never lose our accents.

Sara Veronica Hinojos is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor and Scholar with the Center for Mexican American Studies and Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston (2016-2018). She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in Chicana and Chicano Studies. Her research focuses on Chicana/o and Latina/o Media, the Politics of Language, and Humor. 
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Dolores Inés Casillas is associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy (2014) was published by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series.
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