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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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SANDRA BLAND: #SayHerName Loud or Not at All

It is customary that whenever I go to my Nana’s house I turn the car speakers as low as possible. She has super hearing. Sometimes I forget, and the following conversation takes place:

“What’s up Nana Boo?”

“I heard you before you got the house, girl. I told you about playing your music too loud.”

“It wasn’t too loud.”

“I heard you before I saw you.”

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t bring attention to yourself.”

 

Don’t bring attention to yourself.

 

Picture from The Feminist Wire.

Picture from The Feminist Wire.

Physically this is impossible. I am a black woman over six feet tall. My laugh sounds like an exploding mouse. I squeak loudly and speak quickly when I get excited. I like knock in my trunk and bass in my music. Don’t bring attention to yourself. I frequently heard this warning as a girl and well into my adult life. I rarely take it as a slight on my grandmother’s account – though she is the master of throwing parasol shade. She spoke to me with a quiet urgency in her warning. In the wake of the murders of Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and other black lives that vigilantes and mainstream media deemed irrelevant, I understand her warning better from the perspective of sound.

As a loud, squeaky black woman I am especially attuned to how my sonic footprint plays into how I live and if I should die. As a black woman, the bulk of my threat is associated with my loudness. My blackness sonically and culturally codes me as threatening due to the volume of my voice. This is amplified, as a southern black woman. I exist and dare to thrive in a country that historically and socially tries to deflate my agency and urgency. The clarity of my sentiments, the establishment of my frustration, and the worth of my social and cultural interventions are connected to how others hear my voice. It is not what I say but how I say it.

A woman waits at the Fulton Street subway stop in New York City on February 20, 2010.

A woman waits at the Fulton Street subway stop in New York City on February 20, 2010.

Black women navigate multiple codes of sonic respectability on a daily basis. Their sonic presence is seldom recognized as acceptable by society. Classrooms, homesites, corporate spaces, kitchen tables, and social media require a different tone and volume level in order to gain access and establish one’s credibility. Like other facets of their existence, the way(s) black women are expected to sound in public and private spaces is blurry. What connects these spaces together is a patriarchal and racially condescending paradigm of black women’s believed inferiority. A black women’s successful assimilation into American society is grounded in her ability to master varying degrees of quiet and silence. For black women, any type of disruptive pushback against cultural norms is largely sonic in nature. A grunt, shout, sigh, or sucking teeth instigates some type of resistance. Toning these sonic forms of pushback—basically, silencing themselves—is seen as the way to assimilate into mainstream American society.

In what follows I look at the tape of Sandra Bland’s arrest from this past summer to consider what happens when black women speak up and speak out, when they dare to be heard. As the #SayherName movement attests, black women cannot express sonically major and minor touchstones of black womanhood – joy, pleasure, anger, grief – without being deemed threatening. These sonic expressions force awareness of the complexity of black women’s experiences. In the case of Sandra Bland, I posit that the video of her arrest is not a video of her disrespecting authority but rather shows her sonic response to officer Brian Encinia’s inferred authority as a police officer. I read her loud and open interrogation of Encinia’s actions as an example of what I deem sonic disrespectability: the use of sound and volume to contest oppression in the shape of dictating how black women should or should not act.

The sonic altercation in the video (see full-length version here) sets the stage for Encinia’s physical reprimand of Bland, a college graduate from Prairie View A&M who hailed from Chicago. Bland is not physically threatening—i.e. she emphatically states she’s wearing a maxi dress—but her escalating voice startles and even intimidates Encinia. Bland is angry and frustrated at Encinia’s refusal and to answer her questions about why she was pulled over. Encinia’s responses to Bland’s sonic hostility are telling of his inability to recognize and cope with her anger. In fact, he refuses to answer her questions, and she repeats them over and over again while he barks orders. Encinia states later in the dashboard camera that Bland kicks him and thus forces him to physically restrain her. However, Bland’s vocal assertion of her agency is more jarring than her physical response to Encinia’s misuse of power.

The dashboard camera footage is indicative of their vocal sparring match. Encinia’s voice starts calm and even. He explains to Bland he pulled her over for failure to indicate a lane change. Bland’s responses are initially low and nearly inaudible. However, after Encinia asks Bland if she is “okay,” her responses are much louder.  She does not just follow orders but expresses her displeasure in sonic ways, while she stays in the car. His tone shifts when Bland refuses to extinguish her cigarette. Encinia then threatens to pull her out of the car for disobedience. He begins to yell at her. Bland then voices her pleasure in taking Encinia and his complaint to court. “Let’s take this to court. . .I can’t wait! Ooooh I can’t wait!” Bland’s pleasure in taking Encinia to court is an expression of her belief in her own agency. The act of voicing that pleasure is particularly striking because it challenges an understanding of courts and the justice system as hyperwhite and incapable of recognizing her need for justice. Her voice is clear, loud, and recognizably angry.

Picture from The New York Times

Picture from The New York Times

Her voice crescendos throughout the video, signifying her growing anxiety, tension at the situation, and anger for being under arrest. However, Bland’s voice begins to crack. Her sighs and grunts signify upon her disapproval of Encinia’s treatment of her physical body and rights. Once handcuffed, Bland’s voice is very high-pitched and pained, a sonic signifier of submission and Encinia’s re-affirmation of authority. She then is quiet and a conversation between Encinia and another officer is heard across the footage.

Many critiques of Bland center around her ‘distasteful’ use of language. One critic in particular described the altercation as “an African American woman had too much mouth with the wrong person and at the wrong time.” The assumption in those critiques is that she was not properly angry. Instead of a blind obedience of Enicnia’s inferred authority (read: superiority), she questions him and his inability to justify his actions. Sandra Bland’s sonic dis-respectability (dare I say, ratchet), is a direct pushback against the cultural and social norms of not only rural Southern society but the mainstream American (inferred) belief of southern black folks’ blind respectability of white authority and law enforcement.

Although Bland was a graduate of a southern HBCU, I do not want to assume that Bland possessed the social sensibilities that upheld this unstated social practice of blindly obeying white authority. Her death runs parallel to those of Emmett Till and Mary Turner. The circumstances of Till’s death swirled around his alleged whistling at a white woman – read as a sonic signifier of Till’s black masculine sexuality instead of boyhood – and disregard for white femininity, a protected asset of white men’s authority. Till, from Illinois like Bland, allegedly ignored his cousins’ warnings about the ‘proper protocol’ of interacting with white folks. Mary Turner, a black woman from Valdosta, Georgia, spoke out publicly against the lynching of her husband in 1918. She and her unborn child were also lynched in response to her sonic audacity. Before her death, members of the mob cut open her belly and her unborn baby fell on the ground; it was stomped to death after it gave out a cry. Turner’s voice disrupted white supremacy. Her baby’s lone cry re-emphasized it. Sound grounds much of the racial and gendered violence in the South.

"Sandra Bland mural" by Flickr user Robert Fairchild, CC BY-NC 2.0.

“Sandra Bland mural” by Flickr user Robert Fairchild, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Southern U.S. emphasizes listening practices as part of social norms and cultural traditions. Listening was an act of survival more so than vocalizing the challenges facing black folks. (Jennifer Stoever’s upcoming book on the sonic color line addresses how advertisements for runaway slaves, for example, mentioned whether they were good listeners, as a way to codify whether they were compliant slaves.). Consider my grandmother’s warning about not bringing attention to myself. In her eyes, by not bringing attention to myself I’m able to remain invisible enough to successfully navigate society’s expectations of my blackness and my womanhood. Silence and listening are tools of survival. Contrarily, Bland’s loud disapproval and emphatic use of curse words registered her blackness and womanhood as threatening. She was coded as less feminine and therefore threatening because of her direct verbal confrontation with Encinia. She was not quiet or polite, especially in the south where quiet is the ultimate and sole form of women’s politeness and respectability. The combination of these multiple representations of black women’s anger invoked Encinia’s hyper-authoritative response to regain control of the situation.

Black folks are increasingly pushing back against “being in their place.” Sandra Bland’s death is rooted in an unnecessarily escalated fear of black women literally speaking their truth to power. In a moment where black women are speaking on multiple wavelengths and levels of volume, it is imperative to single out instances and then implode outdated cultural and social practices of listening.

Featured image:”Sandra Bland is Her Name” by Flickr user Light Brigading, CC BY-NC 2.0

Regina Bradley  is a writer, scholar, and researcher of African American Life and Culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies. Dr. Bradley’s current book project, Chronicling Stankonia: Recognizing America’s Hip Hop South (under contract, UNC Press), explores how hip hop (with emphasis on the southern hip hop duo Outkast) and popular culture update conversations about the American South to include the post-Civil Rights era. Also known as Red Clay Scholar, a nod to her Georgia upbringing, Regina maintains a critically acclaimed blog and personal website – http://www.redclayscholar.com. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!

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Factual Dispersion, Poetic Compression

With words stepping backwards from the wave of news coverage, attempting to retrace a moment or point in time, to go back where things began, to the innocuous genesis of a single deliberate decision, the resentment or, in some camps, the war crime, within the continuous ebb and flow.  The stepping back breaks up the habit of our clear factual articulation – a clear factual articulation that, in its fact, becomes ignorable as it satisfies the need for fact and its pincer click of tiny precision.  This articulation now carries other words, carries them forward from the reversal of the day’s date stamped so firmly and authoritatively on the facts, as if justification itself.

Stepping backwards and moving forwards with the words of Syrian poets, women whose poems are oddly and noticeably not dated in the books recovered in translation from the British Library, despite the original words being imminently intelligible within the contemporary language of the particular place from where they were written – whether that be Syria, France, Lebanon or elsewhere. The necessary compression of meaning within each sentence of this poetry is in turn counterpointed against the fact of legal journalistic accuracy and its subsequent dispersal, its general thinning out, particularly in the face of reported death.

Poets:

Mona Fayad

Hala Mohamed

Maram al-Masri

Saniyya Saleh

Aisha Arnaout

Ghada Al-Samman

Salwa Al-Neimi

 

Artists

David Mollin

Salomé Voegelin

All images supplied by the artists

David Mollin’s work is concerned with ideas of contingency within the professionalized contemporary art world, and in particular with the effect of power consolidation and commodification and those elements of the work that disappear as a result of such a process. This has led to an increasing interest in the use of writing as a process of materialization of an artwork that fails to materialize. Mollin has co-founded with Matthew Arnatt the project 100 Reviews (Alberta Press and Greengrassi Gallery) and, with John Reardon, he co-edited ch-ch-ch-changes: Artists talk about teaching (Ridinghouse, 2009). Mollin works collaboratively on text-based sound work with Salomé Voegelin. 

Salomé Voegelin is an artist and writer engaged in listening and hearing as a socio-political practice. She is the author of Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound, Bloomsbury, NY, 2014 and Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum, NY, 2010. While her solo work focuses on the small and slight, unseen performances and moments that almost fail to happen, her collaborative work, with David Mollin, has a more conceptual basis, establishing through words and sounds conversations and reconfigurations of relationships and realities. http://www.salomevoegelin.net

Follow their collaboration at: https://twitter.com/mollinvoegelin

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On Whiteness and Sound Studies

white noise

World Listening Month3This is the first post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015.  World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us.  For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening as a political act, beginning this year with Gustavus Stadler’s timely provocation.  –Editor-in-Chief JS

Many amusing incidents attend the exhibition of the Edison phonograph and graphophone, especially in the South, where a negro can be frightened to death almost by a ‘talking machine.’ Western Electrician May 11, 1889, (255).

What does an ever-nearer, ever-louder police siren sound like in an urban neighborhood, depending on the listener’s racial identity? Rescue or invasion? Impending succor or potential violence? These dichotomies are perhaps overly neat, divorced as they are from context. Nonetheless, contemplating them offers one charged example of how race shapes listening—and hence, some would say, sound itself—in American cities and all over the world. Indeed, in the past year, what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line” has become newly audible to many white Americans with the attention the #blacklivesmatter movement has drawn to police violence perpetrated routinely against people of color.

"Sheet music 'Coon Coon Coon' from 1901" via Wikimedia, public domain

“Sheet music ‘Coon Coon Coon’ from 1901” via Wikimedia, public domain

Racialized differences in listening have a history, of course. Consider the early decades of the phonograph, which coincided with the collapse of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws (with the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval). At first, these historical phenomena might seem wholly discrete. But in fact, white supremacy provided the fuel for many early commercial phonographic recordings, including not only ethnic humor and “coon songs” but a form of “descriptive specialty”—the period name for spoken-word recordings about news events and slices of life—that reenacted the lynchings of black men. These lynching recordings, as I argued in “Never Heard Such a Thing,” an essay published in Social Text five years ago, appear to have been part of the same overall entertainment market as the ones lampooning foreign accents and “negro dialect”; that is, they were all meant to exhibit the wonders of the new sound reproduction to Americans on street corners, at country fairs, and in other public venues.

Thus, experiencing modernity as wondrous, by means of such world-rattling phenomena as the disembodiment of the voice, was an implicitly white experience. In early encounters with the phonograph, black listeners were frequently reminded that the marvels of modernity were not designed for them, and in certain cases were expressly designed to announce this exclusion, as the epigraph to this post makes brutally evident. For those who heard the lynching recordings, this new technology became another site at which they were reminded of the potential price of challenging the racist presumptions that underwrote this modernity. Of course, not all black (or white) listeners heard the same sounds or heard them the same way. But the overarching context coloring these early encounters with the mechanical reproduction of sound was that of deeply entrenched, aggressive, white supremacist racism.

"66 West 12th Street, New School entrance" by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

“66 West 12th Street, New School entrance” by Wikimedia user Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0

The recent Sonic Shadows symposium at The New School offered me an opportunity to come back to “Never Heard Such a Thing” at a time when the field of sound studies has grown more prominent and coherent—arguably, more of an institutionally recognizable “field” than ever before. In the past three years, at least three major reference/textbook-style publications have appeared containing both “classic” essays and newer writing from the recent flowering of work on sound, all of them formidable and erudite, all of great benefit for those of us who teach classes about sound: The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012), edited by Karen Bijsterveld and Trevor Pinch; The Sound Studies Reader (2013), edited by Jonathan Sterne; and Keywords in Sound (2015), edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny. From a variety of disciplinary perspectives, these collections bring new heft to the analysis of sound and sound culture.

I’m struck, however, by the relative absence of a certain strain of work in these volumes—an approach that is difficult to characterize but that is probably best approximated by the term “American Studies.” Over the past two decades, this field has emerged as an especially vibrant site for the sustained, nuanced exploration of forms of social difference, race in particular. Some of the most exciting sound-focused work that I know of arising from this general direction includes: Stoever’s trailblazing account of sound’s role in racial formation in the U.S.; Fred Moten’s enormously influential remix of radical black aesthetics, largely focused on music but including broader sonic phenomena like the scream of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester; Bryan Wagner’s work on the role of racial violence in the “coon songs” written and recorded by George W. Johnson, widely considered the first black phonographic artist; Dolores Inés Casillas’s explication of Spanish-language radio’s tactical sonic coding at the Mexican border; Derek Vaillant’s work on racial formation and Chicago radio in the 1920s and 30s. I was surprised to see none of these authors included in any of the new reference works; indeed, with the exception of one reference in The Sound Studies Reader to Moten’s work (in an essay not concerned with race), none is cited. The new(ish) American Studies provided the bedrock of two sound-focused special issues of journals: American Quarterly’s “Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies,” edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun, and Social Text’s “The Politics of Recorded Sound,” edited by me. Many of the authors of the essays in these special issues hold expertise in the history and politics of difference, and scholarship on those issues drives their work on sound. None of them, other than Mara Mills, is among the contributors to the new reference works. Aside from Mills’s contributions and a couple of bibliographic nods in the introduction, these journal issues play no role in the analytical work collected in the volumes.

"Blank pages intentionally, end of book" by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Blank pages intentionally, end of book” by Wikimedia user Brian 0918, CC BY-SA 3.0

The three new collections address the relationship between sound, listening, and specific forms of social difference to varying degrees. All three of the books contain excerpts from Mara Mills’ excellent work on the centrality of deafness to the development of sound technology. The Sound Studies Reader, in particular, contains a small array of pieces that focus on disability, gender and race; in attending to race, specifically, Sterne shrewdly includes an excerpt from Franz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism, as well as essays on black music by authors likely unfamiliar to many American readers. The Oxford Handbook’s sole piece addressing race is a contribution on racial authenticity in hip-hop. It’s a strong essay in itself. But appearing in this time and space of field-articulation, its strength is undermined by its isolation, and its distance from any deeper analysis of race’s role in sound than what seems to be, across all three volumes, at best, a liberal politics of representation or “inclusion.” Encountering the three books at once, I found it hard not to hear the implicit message that no sound-related topics other than black music have anything to do with race. At the same time, the mere inclusion of work on black music in these books, without any larger theory of race and sound or wider critical framing, risks reproducing the dubious politics of white Euro-Americans’ long historical fascination with black voices.

What I would like to hear more audibly in our field—what I want all of us to work to make more prominent and more possible—is scholarship that explicitly confronts, and broadcasts, the underlying whiteness of the field, and of the generic terms that provide so much currency in it: terms like “the listener,” “the body,” “the ear,” and so on. This work does exist. I believe it should be aggressively encouraged and pursued by the most influential figures in sound studies, regardless of their disciplinary background. Yes, work in these volumes is useful for this project; Novak and Sakakeeny seem to be making this point in their Keywords introduction when they write:

While many keyword entries productively reference sonic identities linked to socially constructed categories of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, citizenship, and personhood, our project does not explicitly foreground those modalities of social difference. Rather, in curating a conceptual lexicon for a particular field, we have kept sound at the center of analysis, arriving at other points from the terminologies of sound, and not the reverse. (8)

I would agree there are important ways of exploring sound and listening that need to be sharpened in ways that extended discussion of race, gender, class, or sexuality will not help with. But this doesn’t mean that work that doesn’t consider such categories is somehow really about sound in a way that the work does take them up isn’t, any more than a white middle-class person who hears a police siren can really hear what it sounds like while a black person’s perception of the sound is inaccurate because burdened (read: biased) by the weight of history and politics.

"Pointy Rays of Justice" by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Pointy Rays of Justice” by Flickr user Christopher Sebela, CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent Twitter conversation with me, the philosopher Robin James made the canny point that whiteness, masquerading as lack of bias, can operate to guarantee the coherence and legibility of a field in formation. James’s trenchant insight reminds me of cultural theorist Kandice Chuh’s recent work on “aboutness” in “It’s Not About Anything,” from Social Text (Winter 2014) and knowledge formation in the contemporary academy. Focus on what the object of analysis in a field is, on what work in a field is about, Chuh argues, is “often conducted as a way of avoiding engagement with ‘difference,’ and especially with racialized difference.”

I would like us to explore alternatives to the assumption that we have to figure out how to talk about sound before we can talk about how race is indelibly shaping how we think about sound; I want more avenues opened, by the most powerful voices in the field, for work acknowledging that our understanding of sound is always conducted, and has always been conducted, from within history, as lived through categories like race.

The cultivation of such openings also requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming whiteness of scholars in the field, especially outside of work on music. If you’re concerned by this situation, and have the opportunity to do editorial work, one way to work to change it is by making a broader range of work in the field more inviting to people who make the stakes of racial politics critical to their scholarship and careers. As I’ve noted, there are people out there doing such work; indeed, Sounding Out! has continually cultivated and hosted it, with far more editorial care and advisement than one generally encounters in blogs (at least in my experience), over the course of its five years. But if the field remains fixated on sound as a category that exists in itself, outside of its perception by specifically marked subjects and bodies within history, no such change is likely to occur. Perhaps we will simply resign ourselves to having two (or more) isolated tracks of sound studies, or perhaps some of us will have to reevaluate whether we’re able to teach what we think is important to teach while working under its rubric.

Thanks to Robin James, Julie Beth Napolin, Jennifer Stoever, and David Suisman for their ideas and feedback.

Gustavus Stadler teaches English and American Studies at Haverford College. He is the author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the U. S.1840-1890 (U of Minn Press, 2006).  His 2010 edited special issue of Social Text on “The Politics of Recorded Sound” was named a finalist for a prize in the category of “General History” by the Association of Recorded Sound Collections. He is the recipient of the 10th Annual Woody Guthrie fellowship! This fellowship will support research for his book-in-progress, Woody Guthrie and the Intimate Life of the Left.

 

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

Reading the Politics of Recorded Sound — Jennifer Stoever

Hearing the Tenor of the Vendler/Dove Conversation: Race, Listening, and the “Noise” of Texts — Christina Sharpe

Listening to the Border: “‘2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez — Dolores Inés Casillas

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