In Spring 2017, I brought Houston-based playwright/performer Josh Inocéncio to my campus—the University of Houston—to perform his solo show Purple Eyes (for more on the event, see “Campus Organizing, or How I Use Theatre to Resist”). Purple Eyes is what Inocéncio calls an “ancestral auto/biographical” performance piece which explores his upbringing as a closeted gay Chicano living in the midst of the cultural heritage of machismo. Following a legacy of solo performance storytelling aesthetics seen in John Leguizamo’s Freak and Luis Alfaro’s Downtown, Inocéncio plays with memory to understand how the United States and Mexico have influenced his family and his own identity formation. Moreover, Purple Eyes explores the intersections of queerness and Chican@ identity alongside the legacy of machismo in his family (For more on the play, see “Queering Machismo from Michoacán to Montrose”).
During my Intro to LGBT Studies course following the performance, students discussed issues of representation and how many of them had never seen a queer Latin@/x play or performance, with some of them having never seen a live play. Many students picked up on how Purple Eyes foregrounds the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. While these discussions were indeed fruitful, what struck me most was how both classes harped on Inocéncio’s use of different linguistic registers. Put simply, what stayed with them was how the performance sounded. My students obsessed over the Spanish in the play, leading me to question why this group of students at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in a city that is over 40% Latin@ had so much trouble whenever Inocéncio spoke Spanish, or the sounds of Latinidad.
In what follows, I discuss how my students heard Purple Eyes. While the play is predominately in English, Inocéncio often code-switches into Spanish and German to more accurately embody particular family members. This blog adds to previous research by Dolores Inés Casillas, Sara V. Hinojos, Marci R. McMahon, Liana Silva, and Jennifer Stoever on the relationship between the Spanish language and non-Spanish speaking Americans. Indeed, my students racialized the Spanish in Purple Eyes while completely disregarding the German in the play. Why?
Drawing from sociology, racialization is the process of imposing racial identities to a social practice or group that might not have identified in such a way. Typically, the dominant group racializes the marginalized group; i.e. Latin@s in the U.S. become racialized by the mainstream. Even so, Latin@s are not a race, but are an ethnic group. Yet, I argue that non-Latin@ Americans view Latin@s through a lens of race which often becomes a sonic one, in which language becomes one of the most overt identity markers. In terms of Spanish, while many races and ethnicities speak the language, in the United States it is often viewed as a way to mark Spanish-speaking Latin@s as Other. In this way, language plays a fundamental role in shaping mainstream ideas about race. According to Dolores Inés Casillas, “For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class,” and as Jennifer Stoever argues, the sounds of Latinidad indicate “illegality” in the U.S.
Drawing from the intersections of race, language, and racism, the relatively new academic field Raciolinguistics has emerged as a means to explain how people use language to shape their identity (For more, see Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race). Branching off from Raciolinguistics, I am most interested in exploring how the mainstream hears languages and racializes what they are hearing. The result is that Spanish is seen as Other, meaning that monolingual U.S. listeners hear Spanish-speakers as inherently different and a threat to a mainstream United States cultural and, more importantly, national identity.
Reflecting Inocéncio’s cultural multiplicity, Purple Eyes features English, Spanish, and German strategically used at different moments in the play to reflect the temporality, positionality, and relationship to language of each character that Inocéncio inhabits. While the chapter on his father is entirely in English, the final chapter focusing on Josh himself opens with a monologue in Spanish in which the performer narrates the events of the FIFA World Cup before finally announcing to the crowd that the epilogue is Inocéncio’s journey of young love and heartbreak on his journey of queer discovery. This moment features the longest extended use of Spanish in the play. The remaining Spanish is sprinkled in as Josh code-switches between the two languages for added cultural specificity.
While some of my Spanish-speaking students appreciated hearing a play that reflected their linguistic identities, monolingual English speakers in my class claimed that the Spanish confused them and made it difficult for them to follow certain parts of the play. After several students echoed these thoughts, a student from Mexico without full fluency in English comprehension told others about how her experiences were the exact opposite. She had trouble following some of the parts in English since she is still learning the language. I then pivoted the conversation to discuss how my English-dominant students approached the play with the assumption that English is the norm and a performance on a university campus should reflect this. Case in point: several told me that the show should have been subtitled.
But what was most telling was the following exchange. After several expressed confusion over the Spanish, one particularly woke student from Nigeria raised her hand and said: “I haven’t heard anyone say anything about the German in the play and not being able to follow the play during the German part.” She then noted how, in the United States, Spanish is racialized whereas German is not. In fact, most of the students did not even recall German in the play. Admittedly, the play features far more Spanish than German, but the scene in which Inocéncio speaks German occurs while dramatizing his Austrian grandmother’s abortion. As Inocéncio (as Oma) frantically repeated “Ich kann nicht” (I can’t), my students had no trouble; to use some Millennial vernacular, it was with Spanish that they “couldn’t even.” Arguably, this is the most intense scene in the performance and one that my students wanted to discuss. That the majority of them understood this scene without fully registering the German, coupled with their confusion over lines spoken in Spanish, speaks to not only how race and ethnicity impact how languages are heard in the United States. German is viewed as familiar and accessible whereas Spanish is immediately heard as foreign, i.e. undesirable, not welcome here.
As the Latin@ population continues to grow and the Spanish language becomes an increasingly present reality in U.S. everyday life, audiences must consider possibilities not grounded in an English-only narrative. My experiences with Purple Eyes are not unique. I have witnessed and heard many stories about audiences at mainstream theatre companies who have struggled whenever a play included Spanish. While I don’t claim to have the answers to address this across the nation, as an educator, I question what tools I can give my students to help prepare them for sonic experiences outside of their comfort zone and, specifically, how they become aware of subconscious racialization practices. What will they hear? And, more importantly, how will they react?
Featured Image: Still from Purple Eyes (Ojos Violetas), with permission from Josh Inocencio who retains copyright.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, dramaturg, producer, and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. He is a member of the National Steering Committee for the Latinx Theatre Commons and the Café Onda Editorial Board. Trevor has a Ph.D. in Latin@ Theatre and Literature from the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He holds an MA in Hispanic Studies from Villanova University and a BA in Spanish from Loyola University New Orleans. Trevor researches the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and community in Chican@ and Latin@ theater and performance. His first book project, Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López, Community, and Social Change in Los Angeles, examines the textual and performative strategies of contemporary Latin@ theatermakers based in Boyle Heights that use performance as a tool to expand notions of Latinidad and (re)build a community that reflects this diverse and fluid identity. He is co-editing (with Teresa Marrero and Chantal Rodriguez) an anthology of Latinx plays from the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Encuentro 2014 (under contract with Northwestern University Press).
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“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*–Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear–Trevor Boffone
If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag–Marlen Rios-Hernández
In the N
um u tekwap uha, the Comanche language:
Haa ma r
uawe, haa n uhaitsi. N unahnia tsa Dustin Tahmahkera.
In this post, I talk about the phrase “becoming sound,” and also gesture to several examples across Indi’n Country to encourage us to listen for aural affirmations and disavowals of indigeneity and encourage active reflection on the roles of sound in becoming and being indigenous, now and in the future. By “becoming sound,” I’m interested in the interdependent relations between emitting sound as the formations of sonic vibrations in the air and becoming sound as a method toward restoring good health through cultural ways of listening and healing.
While the former use of sound gets situated more in sound studies, the latter sense of “sound” is evoked more by the medical humanities, such as when saying someone is “of sound mind,” though we know from the history of perceptions of mental illness that what constitutes a “sound mind” is not resoundingly agreed upon. For example, the U.S. heard the Paiute Wovoka’s visionary Ghost Dance and singing for peace and “becoming sound” again as “savage” and “insane,” and sent the 7th Cavalry to massacre Lakota children, women, and men in response. The misdiagnosis of “savage” has instilled a puritanical, restrictive worldview of what “being sound” means, and it’s been abused and amplified all the more in the metaphorically schizophrenic split between becoming “Indian, an unsound Indian,” and re-becoming a “sound indigenous human being.”
My thoughts here echo an epistemology of sound and being by the late John Trudell. In Neil Diamond’s 2009 documentary Reel Injun, Trudell theorizes on collisions between schizophrenic-like identities located in an expansive soundscape. He says:
600 years ago, that word ‘Indian,’ that sound was never made in this hemisphere. That sound, that noise was never ever made … ever. And we’re trying to protect that [the Indian] as an identity. … we’re starting not to recognize ourselves as human beings. We’re too busy trying to protect the idea of a Native American or an Indian, but we’re not Indians and we’re not Native Americans. We’re older than both concepts. We’re the people. We’re the human beings.
Following Trudell’s call for becoming the people again, and for resisting what he calls the genocidal “vehicle [that tries to erase] the memory of what it means to be a human being,” my attention, my ear bends toward asking about the roles of sound in human being-ness and toward the roles of listening in that ongoing process of becoming sound human beings, a process cognizant of the “cacophonies of colonialism,” as sounded forth by Jodi Byrd in The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, and a process also grounded in indigenous sonic traditions and modernity.
What I’m sharing is in support of an emerging multimedia research lab, podcast, and book project I call Sounds Indigenous, a title which affords considerable space in sonic clashes between how indigeneity gets heard and unheard, how it is sounded and unsounded. Sounds Indigenous involves listening for sonic sovereignty in indigenous borderlands. For me, it’s particularly located in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the 240,000 square miles of Comanche homelands known as la Comanchería.
As for method, Sounds Indigenous practices tubitsinakukuru, our word for listening carefully.
As I recently wrote elsewhere in a special indigenous-centric issue of Biography, “Nakikaru means listen, but to practice tubitsinakukuru is to listen closely and engage with the speakers and sounds, be they familiar or foreign, friendly or fierce, fictive or factual, or sometimes, in the eccentricities of humanity, all of the above.” It goes back to one’s beginning. As Muscogee Creek artist Joy Harjo says in her co-edited collection Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: “We learn the world and test it through interaction and dialogue with each other, beginning as we actively listen through the membrane of the womb wall to the drama of our families’ lives” (19).
In the context of colonialism, this project is about listening, too, through sonic dissonance. From the Latin word for “not agreeing in sound,” dissonance represents the disharmonius, that which lacks in agreement. But more importantly, it’s about using, not disavowing, the dissonance as audible ground from which to reimagine indigenous futures toward becoming sound. In an indigenous sound studies context, it means listening through Byrd’s “cacophonies of colonialism,” through ear-splitting “discordant and competing representations” of Indianness and indigeneity (xxvii). We know that what sounds indigenous often becomes sites of debate and critique, such as when hearing what Phil Deloria calls “the sound of Indian” (183) in Indians in Unexpected Places, be it the boisterous nonsensical grunts and ugs in cinema, the cadence of the tomahawk chop at sporting events, the clapping hand-to-mouth of cowboys-and-Indians televisual and school playground lore, or early ethnologists’ mis-hearings of indigenous songs across Indian country, all the performative made-up stuff of non-Native imaginaries that all too often makes up the popular “sonic wallpaper” of Indianness (222).
At the same time, Sounds Indigenous is also about the soundscapes, the sonic formations, of Comanches and other Natives. It’s about indigenous auditory responses, which includes not only the vocalized, the heard, but also sampling the “certain quality of being” that Africana Studies scholar Kevin Quashie calls “the sovereignty of quiet” in his study of the same title. Sounds Indigenous is about those auditory responses and expressive ways of sounding indigenous that reverberate through and against what my Mapuche colleague Luis Carcamo-Huechante calls acoustic colonialism, and what Ronald Radano and Tejumola Olaniyan call the “audible empire” (7): “the discernible qualities of [what] one hears and listens to—that condition imperial structurations.”
With that said, this is a nascent mix and remix of words in an always already failed search of communicating the ineffable: these are words in search of communicating holistically about sonic affect. Sonic affect is about far more than just “sound” or just “listening.” Sonic affect is also not just about the subjectivity of how certain sounds make us feel certain ways, but rather it is what deeply makes soundings possible and brings forth our expressions of and feelings about sound. Affect is not just emotion; affect is what allows us the capabilities to feel emotion.
Yet even with the ineffability of affect, “every word,” Trudell tells us, “every word has power” as we turn each word “into sound … into the world of vibration, the vibratory world, the vibration of sound. It’s like throwing a pebble,” he says, “into the pond. Something happens.” The “something” from words and other sounds may not be fully communicable in sonic expressions, but I’d like to think we know of the something when we hear it and feel it as human beings, even if it’s a recognition of seemingly unknowable mystery, especially in moments of what media scholar Dominic Pettman calls “sonic intimacy,” a process of “turning inward…to more private and personal experiences and relationships” in Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (or, How To Listen to the World), (79), such as seen and heard in this personal video I took with my phone during a sunset in early 2014 while sitting with my son Ira atop Mt. Scott, the tallest peak in the Wichita Mountains.
For me, Mt. Scott has long been one of the most remarkable sites in the world, a sacred site carrying a long history with Comanches but that for many may be just another tourist destination.
As a Comanche born in Lawton, Oklahoma, who grew up mostly just south of there in the Wichita Falls, Texas, area, I have crossed the Pia Pasiwuhunu, the Red River, innumerable times and visited nearby Mt. Scott, climbing its boulders with friends or driving on the roadway that snakes around it to the top.Once at the top, I, like my g-g-g-grandfather Quanah Parker, the most famous of all Comanches, have sat there: observing, listening, exploring, and praying. But as you may have heard from other folks’ voices in the background of the video with my son, it can be difficult these days to “get away” on Mt. Scott. You may hear tourists laughing, loud talking on cell phones, rocks being thrown, and the revving of Harley Davidsons or, better yet, Indian motorcycles in the now-spacious parking lot at the top.
The loudest noise, though, comes from nearby Fort Sill. Named after Joshua Sill who died in 1862 in the Civil War, it began in 1869 as an outpost against Comanches, Kiowas, and other Native Peoples. Now a military base that has been known to sometimes still go against us, Fort Sill is known for its Field Artillery School and, for those in the Wichita Mountains and Lawton where the base is located, known for its sonic booms of artillery testing, guns, bombs, missiles, and tanks as seen here in an old Fort Sill training film.
Over the decades, it’s become what some might consider elements of a naturalized and normalized soundscape. As long as I can remember, the sounds of artillery have been there, somewhere, in experiences of being in the Wichita Mountains; but not everyone interprets those sounds similarly. The author of the 2001 LA Times article “Military Booms Are Boon to Okla. Base’s Neighbors” claims you “would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t welcome the disruption.” They quote local residents saying things like “We do live with the boom-boom-boom of artillery fire 24 hours a day, but it’s very interesting about living here, you just don’t hear it anymore.” One former Fort Sill general-turned local banker says, “That’s the price you pay when you live in a community like this. To us, it is oddly comforting. It’s the sound of a healthy economy and a viable place to live.” Another Ft. Sill general adds, “At times the noise is bothersome. But it’s proof positive that we are still conducting our mission here. And the people of Lawton derive comfort from that.” A former mayor of Lawton says, “When I hear those guns out there popping, that’s the sound of freedom ringing in my ears …That’s the freedom bells ringing. Those are the guns that are going to be fired if we have to defend the United States of America.” Such rhetoric, spoken in the 21st-century, sounds rather reminiscent of Fort Sill’s origins in defense against the indigenous.
Still, it’s complicated, to be sure, made even more so by the fact that I come from a strong military family–of all Comanche families, Tahmahkeras rank second in having the most veterans and I’m proud of that, I’m proud of my relatives. Still, there’s something about the blasts hovering through the air and over our homelands. There’s a reminder, of imagined sonic memories of weaponry used against our Comanche ancestors, like “the world’s first repeating pistol, the” “‘Walker Colt’ .44 caliber revolver” that the Comanche Paul Chaat Smith says was “designed for one purpose: to kill Comanches.” As a Comanche elder recently told me in response to Fort Sill’s artillery explosions, “it’s not easily something you can overcome because it brings back the memories of over 150 years ago,” of what happened to the people.
In response to the militarized sonic booms, I’m intrigued by an idea sounded forth by four-time Comanche Nation chairman Wallace Coffey. In the early 1990s, Coffey wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney at a time when the U.S. Government was shutting down Army bases. In a 2010 interview with Coffey recalls telling Cheney “to close Ft. Sill down and give it back to the Comanches, and we will heal it. Instead of bombing this land, we will heal it.” As he told me in a conversation in the Wichita Mountains in June 2017, “We may not be the titleholders [over all our homelands now], but we are still the caretakers.”
It brings to mind an old story from the late 1860s, that illustrates how one culturally-informed Comanche back then listened to militarized sounds. As Chickasaw citizen and retired Ft. Sill Museum director Towana Spivey recounted in his email to me on June 10, 2017: when generals Sheridan, Grierson, and Custer went “to the Medicine Bluffs area,” long held as a sacred site but also is where Ft. Sill is now located, “the soldiers gathered to explore the imposing bluffs along the creek” and “noticed the echo effects when shouting or discharging their weapons in the basin in front of the steep bluffs.
They continued to fire their weapons to create a corresponding echo.” In response, Asa-Toyet, or Gray Leggings, a Comanche scout who accompanied them, “was,” Spivey says, “particularly horrified with their antics in this sacred place.” To Asa-Toyet’s hearing and sensibility, those “antics” may suggest what I’d call sonic savagery on the part of the soldiers. They wanted him to climb to the crest with them, but he told the soldiers he was not sick, thus “reflecting the traditional [Comanche] belief that there was no reason to access the crest unless you were suffering from some malady.”
Medicine Bluffs is sacred for many Comanches, such as our current tribal administrator Jimmy Arterberry who says, “Medicine Bluffs is the spiritual center of my religious beliefs and heart of the current Comanche Nation.” You can imagine, then, the opposition to when the U.S. Army, in 2007, sought to build a $7.3 million warehouse for artillery training. When they proposed building it “just south of Medicine Bluffs,” in which certain views would be obstructed and Comanche ceremony disrupted, word eventually got to Towana Spivey who curiously had been left out of communications. As detailed in Oklahoma Today, “The Guardian,” Spivey, a cultural intermediary and longtime educator to Ft Sill leadership about practically anything indigenous, intervened immediately. He talked with Comanches who were obviously against the proposed warehouse. He also tried to talk with certain army officials; but for that, he received a loudly written order that read, and I quote, “Do Not Talk to the Indians,” a blatant attempt to try to silence the indigenous who gets reduced to that category of Indian that Trudell critiques. The Comanche Nation soon sued the Army, and the Comanches won, thanks in part to Spivey, who had been “subpoenaed to testify for the plaintiff.” U.S. District Judge Tim DeGiusti ruled that the U.S. Army failed to consider alternate locations and that “post officials” had “turned a deaf ear to warnings” from Spivey. Those warnings, I’d add, were indigenous-centered by a Chickasaw and U.S. ally of the Comanches who recognizes us as Trudell calls forth: as human beings.
In the audible imaginary of sonic duels and dissonance between the Indian and the people/human beings, the list grows elsewhere in Indi’n Country. Consider when Greg Grey Cloud was arrested in 2014 for singing an honor song (not chanting, as some media outlets reported), but an honor song “to honor,” he says, “the conviction shown by the senators” “who voted against the Keystone XL pipeline, Grey Cloud sings even as self-identifying Cherokee, Senator Elizabeth Warren, calls for order.
Or consider, too, when just last year, indigenous honor song singers and their handdrums at Standing Rock were met by LRADs, Long Range Acoustic Devices, among other weapons.
The LRAD Corporation boldly claims its device “is not a weapon,” with the “not” in bold typeface, underlined, and italicized as if that makes it true. They prefer the description “highly-intelligible long-range communication device.” Following echoes of Indian hating from the so-called “Indian wars” of history, reports came in of police confiscating handdrums, suggestive of fearing the sounds and songs they do not recognize. Laguna Pueblo journalist Jenni Monet quoted Arvol Looking Horse who said police “took … [ceremonial pipes]” and “called our prayer sticks weapons.” Ponca activist and actress Casey Camp-Horinek was there, too, singing while surrounded by other elders, a circle of human beings. She later reflected that “I’ve never felt so centered and grounded and protected as I did at that particular moment.”
“Even the noise cannon,” she adds, “didn’t effect me.”
In closing, the sonic dissonance reverberates between sites such as indigenous honor songs in support of tribal and planetary well-being, and the militarized sonic responses—from artillery testing near Mount Scott in Comanche country to sound cannons and the confiscation of sacred drums in Standing Rock—that attempt to silence indigenous soundways. But no one can silence us, including, for example, the Kiowa Zotigh singers here and their honor song for Standing Rock. No one can fully silence us from sounding forth, in efforts toward becoming not unsound Indians but becoming sound human beings.
And by the way, the next time that Ira and I travel to the top of Mt. Scott, we will listen again … we may hear artillery explosions and other sonic reminders of colonialism, but what we’ll also hear are ourselves, breathing, sounding, and becoming Comanche, becoming Numunuu, as we call to the mountain in taa Numu tekwapuha, in our Comanche language. Remember, Mt. Scott is the colonizer’s name. . .but we also have our own names for it, names that historically sustained us as being sound human beings speaking the Numu tekwaphua, and names that can continue to help us become sound now and in the future. Udah, nu haitsi. Thank you.
Featured Image: Greg Grey Cloud escorted from the Senate gallery, image from the Indoan Country Media Network
Dustin Tahmahkera, an enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, is a professor of North American indigeneities, critical media, and cultural sound studies in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. In his first book Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), Tahmahkera foregrounds representations of the indigenous, including Native actors, producers, and comedic subjects, in U.S., First Nations, and Canadian television from the 1930s-2010s within the contexts of federal policy and social activism. Current projects include “The Comanche Empire Strikes Back: Cinematic Comanches in The Lone Ranger” (under contract with the University of Nebraska Press’ “Indigenous Films” series) and “Sounds Indigenous: Listening for Sonic Sovereignty in Indian Country.” Tahmahkera’s articles have appeared in American Quarterly, American Indian Quarterly, and anthologies. At UT, he also serves on the Advisory Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies program.
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Sonic Connections: Listening for Indigenous Landscapes in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles–Laura Sachiko Fugikawa
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.
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?’
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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*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)
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.
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.
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.
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.