Editor’s Note: This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
We kicked things off three weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Two weeks ago, guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Last week, regular SO! writer Regina Bradley discussed the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.
Today’s post comes from CFP winner Lilian Radovac, who shares with us a critical photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford
Updated with edits as of 12:28 pm EST
October, 2013. I’m waiting for the 80. It’s already dark and bitterly cold for fall, and the bus is predictably late. As the line of people waiting lengthens, traffic rushes past on President-Kennedy and north along Jeanne-Mance, punctuating the larger roar of rush hour in Montreal.
Suddenly, a woman’s voice lifts up out of the din. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying at first, but then a single phrase escapes from the thrum of traffic: “…freedom and democracy…” I look around, trying to place the sound. It’s gone. Several minutes later, the voice rises again: “Tell us again about freedom and democracy!” This time, my ears get a lock on the words and I leave my place in the line to follow them to their source.
My feet bring me to the Promenade des artistes, a slim triangle of concrete that separates President Kennedy Avenue from De Maisonneuve Boulevard, and the sounds of Mégaphone. The promenade is the temporary home of the audiovisual installation produced by the multimedia studio Moment Factory, co-sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada and the Quartier des spectacles partnership. The installation is composed of three zones: to the west, a small outdoor amphitheater arranged around a large red megaphone; across the street, the University of Quebec at Montreal’s science pavilion, which doubles as a projection screen; and to the east, housed in a series of “event vitrines,” an audio exhibition of recordings by notable Quebec speakers who have “shaped public space in Montreal with their words.”
According to the accompanying press kit, Mégaphone is inspired by London’s Speaker’s Corner and Montreal’s interwar tradition of popular assemblies. Its stated goal is to “bring the art of public speaking back into the city.” It’s designed as an interactive experience, which encourages visitors to take to the stage during designated open mic periods and, by speaking into the megaphone, to “light up the city” with their ideas. Their speeches are first acoustically amplified, then processed by voice recognition software and projected onto the façade of the science building, which becomes a canvas for randomly generated keywords. Mégaphone is also timed to coincide with the run-up to Montreal’s November 4th municipal election, and features a program of scheduled speakers that includes an appearance by the city’s mayoral candidates.
As I wander through the empty amphitheater, I find myself thinking that it’s a strange place for a sound installation. The Promenade des artistes is sandwiched between UQAM’s science campus and the northern border of Place des Arts, a Lincoln Center-style performing arts complex that occupies several city blocks. Jane Jacobs would have called this a “dead place,” lost as it is between a set of bicycle lanes and the science building’s indoor food court, which draws pedestrian traffic away from the open space of the street. On the day of my visit, I’m the only person there. Beyond the Promenade des artistes lies the larger Quartier des spectacles, an ongoing culture-led regeneration project which, in an effort to cement the city’s “brand” as a creative city, has concentrated Montreal’s outdoor cultural activities into a single, sprawling site. Traces of the working-class neighborhood it displaced peek out from behind construction fences, quietly attesting to the area’s industrial past.
Still following the voice, I walk towards the line of event vitrines, where seven audio exhibits map the aural contours of an imagined community made real. The speeches on display tell a story of Quebec’s emergence from its colonial past, when the province’s French-speaking majority was dominated by the Catholic church and a minority Anglophone elite. Each voice, in its way, speaks to a period of enormous social transformation fuelled by the dream of Quebec’s independence: Irving Layton delivers a lecture from an amplified podium; Gilles Vigneault sings “Gen du pays” from a stage at Parc Mont-Royal; Pierre Bourgault gives a firebrand speech at the Third Congress of the Parti Québécois. Only the seventeenth century Wendat Chief Kondiaronk remains eerily mute, his voice buried in the memoirs of his colonial French counterparts.
Poet Michèle Lalonde’s voice, however, dominates the space of the exhibit. It’s noticeably higher in pitch than the drone of traffic, and when it rises to meet the words “freedom and democracy” it pierces the low rumble of passing buses and trucks, filling the husk of the surrounding streets. The poem she reads is well known in Quebec, and the version on display here is central to the province’s history and identity as a nation. Recorded at La nuit de la poésie in 1970, the poem was first read at a 1968 benefit performance to support imprisoned members of the Front de libération du Québec, one of whom was Pierre Vallières, the author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique.
Inspired by Vallières’ memoir, “Speak White” is a double appropriation: of the English admonition to Francophones to abandon their mother tongue and, simultaneously, of the revolutionary potential of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, with which the most militant factions of the Quebec independence movement aligned themselves. It is, as Sean Mills has observed, an uncomfortable alliance in a province that struggles to recognize its own racism and status as a settler colony, but in the poetic space of Lalonde’s recitation the words still shudder with subaltern rage.
[Read English translation]
The term “megaphone” is something of a misnomer. The voices of participating speakers are amplified using a hand-held microphone that is connected to a stationary loudspeaker, which actually makes the megaphone more of a rudimentary public address system. It’s an important distinction, since the aural uses of the megaphone are shaped above all by its portability. Megaphones are a mobile audio technology and therefore a nomadic one; like boomboxes and iPods, they’re designed to be easy to carry and to be used while moving from place to place. The public address system, by contrast, is rooted in space: the speaking subject is anchored to the microphone and to the apparatus of amplification, which is composed not only of cables and loudspeakers but also the architectural elements (podium, stage, seating) of the auditorium.
More importantly, the portable megaphone is intended to be used outdoors and in crowds. Thomas Edison’s acoustic megaphone, which he patented in 1878, was soon used at sporting events and to magnify the voices of political leaders at outdoor public events. By 1900, street hawkers began selling makeshift megaphones to the politicians’ audiences, and their wares contributed to a new and noisy public sphere. When the megaphone was married to the transistor and to battery power in the 1950s, the technology was seized by social movements around the world, which used it to appropriate and disperse the power of the individual public speaker. Among them were the student and labor unions that flourished in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which had opened up a space for the province’s democratization.
The year before Mégaphone opened, the promenades of the Quartiers des spectacles were crossed by hundreds and sometimes thousands of bodies that spilled out of Parc Émilie-Gamelin, where students and their supporters gathered for the nighttime demonstrations that became a hallmark of the Quebec student strike, or printemps érable. Each night at about 8:30 pm, we set off on marches that had no planned route and no final destination, walking for hours along streets that we claimed with nothing but our voices and the feet that carried them along. If you arrived late you could find the #manifencours on Twitter, or you could listen for the sounds of the crowd’s chants and the police helicopters that hovered constantly overhead, keeping large swaths of the downtown core awake until the early morning hours.
When the Liberal government attempted to break the strike with the reviled Bill 78, which required protest organizers to submit itineraries to the authorities in advance, the night marches dovetailed with a sudden explosion of casserole protests, which coalesced around autonomous popular assemblies organized at the neighborhood level. Within days, demonstrators fanned out across the city as roving bands of casserolières set off from Villeray, Mile End, Hochelaga, St-Henri and even staid, sleepy Outremont, erupting into cacophonous clangs and cheers as we found each other at the borders of our quartiers and merged into ever larger assemblages. If a city can light up with sound, then that is what happened here in Montreal.
These echoes of the printemp érable form the acoustic backdrop of Mégaphone, and the sounds of the installation are designed to bleed into listeners’ memories of the strike. But Mégaphone is as much about the management of acoustic space as a celebration of its potential. Walking through the Promenade des artistes, I’m struck by a palpable but unintended theme: containment. The voices on display, already tethered to their microphones, are further limited by a series of overlapping spatial and temporal boundaries. The stage is accessible only on certain days and during designated hours, and then only when not reserved for previously scheduled speakers. Like the Quartier des spectacles that surrounds it, the installation is segregated from the lived spaces of the city, out of earshot of most residents and removed from the rhythms of their everyday. As if to belabor the point, speakers are bound by the Mégaphone “code of ethics,” which permits “no tolerance for aggressive, obscene or hateful speech, or for any behavior that is not consistent with respect for public order [emphasis mine].” Presumably, the code does not apply to the Quebeckers whose commitment to radical politics earned them a place in Mégaphone’s pantheon of speakers.
With its endlessly wandering marches and casseroles, the printemps érables was willfully inconsistent with respect for public order and its tactics reflected the anti-authoritarian impulses of the Quebec student movement. Simply by walking together, noisily and spontaneously, we recreated our city as a utopian space in which citizens, not governments, would chart their own course. By contrast, Mégaphone constrains the mobility of political speech, fencing it off in time and space and stripping it of its collective character. In doing so, it subjects the auditory space of the public sphere to what Don Mitchell terms a process of liberalization, drawing it away from the field of autonomous action and back under the stewardship of the state.
Philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve (better known as Anarchopanda) made this connection explicit when he and a group of fellow activists took to the Mégaphone stage to denounce municipal bylaw P-6, which, like Bill 78, requires protesters to inform the police of their activities under threat of arrest and massive fines. While Bill 78 (later Law 12) was repealed after a national outcry, P-6 remains in effect and its enforcement is in large part responsible for ending the strike and for the continuing suppression of public protest in Montreal.
As I walk back towards the bus stop, my fingers numb inside my mittens, I consider how much Mégaphone feels like a memorial to the city’s noisy public sphere, which, for the moment at least, is safely confined to the past.
Sincere thanks to Jonathan Sterne, Erika Biddle, Magdalena Olszanowski, Ted Rutland, Liz Miller and the Tapas Gals for the conversations that contributed to this post.
Featured image: by Lilian Radovac
Lilian Radovac is a writer, organizer and doctoral candidate in communication studies at McGill University. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the cultural history of noise control in New York City, a chapter of which, “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” was published in Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies (John Hopkins, 2012). Her work has also appeared in Times Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.
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“Quebec’s #casseroles: on participation, percussion and protest”-Jonathan Sterne
“Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations”-Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
Editor’s Note: This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. The Sounds of the City series will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
We kicked things off two weeks ago with my critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe took readers last week on a soundwalk of Smithfield Square in Dublin, Ireland and specifically of the Smithfield Horse Fair, in order to illustrate how urban renewal disrupts city soundscapes and how sound reclaims those spaces. Next week CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal.
Today’s post comes from regular writer Regina Bradley whose post reminds us of the recent verdict of the Michael Dunn case, the “loud music case” when he shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a gas station. She discusses the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet) and hip hop.
Edited on Feb 17, 2014 at 9:35 am EST: the first published version of this post did not acknowledge Nina Sun Eidsheim as the coiner of the phrase “sonic blackness.” We have added a reference in the post to recognize the work Eidsheim has done in theorizing this concept.–Managing Editor Liana M. Silva-Ford
In a recent Chase credit card commercial a white woman pulls up to a gas station and pumps gas into her minivan while blasting loud music. Her windows rattle and the toys of her children vibrate to the beat. After pumping gas, the woman hops into her car, puts on a pair of shades, and bounces to the beat like a “cool mom.” In the context of the commercial, the white suburban mother is not threatening. The commercial reminds me that Jordan Davis’ life ended at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. His loud hip hop music was not cool; in fact, he and the music are perceived to be threatening.
The woman in the Chase commercial borrows what is instantly recognizable as sonic black (masculine) cool. Nina Sun Eidsheim, in her article “Marian Anderson and ‘Sonic Blackness’ in American Opera”, theorizes sonic blackness as the racialization of sounds that listeners perceive to be coming from a black body. Borrowing from her concept, I extend sonic blackness as the sound that are perceived as black that enter spaces where physical blackness could be readily refused. Of particular interest for this essay is the connection between black mobility, urban space, and sound. I focus particularly on hip hop as a mobile form of sonic blackness whose origins are based in the city. Hip hop reinforces conceptualizations of contemporary blackness as urban. In this context, sonic blackness collapses the absolute binaries in which blacks are frequently forced to exist, i.e. urban and rural, working class and middle class, silence and noise. Yet when it is situated in hip hop, sonic blackness can also be considered a disruption of suburbia, a dominant trope of white privilege at the end of the 20th century. Using examples from the contemporary cartoon show The Boondocks, I posit that the show’s use of hip hop underscores how the white suburban soundscape is constructed in contrast to black urban sounds.
America’s popular imagination portrays the suburbs as white, middle class, and quiet. Constructions of the suburbs in recent history have not strayed far from the idealistic neighborhoods of the 1950s and 1960s portrayed in shows like Leave It to Beaver. Take for example the inclusion of gated communities as the upper echelon of suburbs and white privilege seen in The Real Housewives of Orange County (which opens with the viewer ‘walking through’ opened gates into the Orange County community). I’d like to emphasize the connection between whiteness and quiet, as privilege in these types of spaces is present but often not visible or audible. Suburbs are the result of urban industrialism, anxiety of close association with an increasing minority community, and the need to sustain a romantic ideal of the American dream. A suburb’s physical parameter is a middle-class manifestation of manicured lawns, gates, and homeowner associations. At the level of sound, the suburbs’ class privilege is represented as the hum of lawn mowers, chirping birds, and screeching breaks of school buses. As Steve Macek points out in Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, And The Moral Panic Over The City, suburban sensibilities cling to an idealistic notion of a physically and sonically constructed white ambivalence to racial and class anxieties associated with cities. Any dysfunction associated with whiteness is quietly tucked away from public view.
White suburbia sustains its desirability because it is a physically and sonically segregated space. Yet white suburbia is also the site of black Americans’ most recent migratory efforts. In ways that northern cities signified opportunity for blacks in the early 20th century, the ideals of racial progress and class in the late 20th century have shifted to U.S. suburbs. Thoughts of the middle class in the black imagination amplify the suburb as a utopic space because of its initial lack of access. The suburb becomes the mountaintop of racial access and privilege.
Consider the premise for Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry examines in the play the high stakes of home ownership in a ‘good neighborhood.’ The Lee family leaves the Southside for the opportunity at a better life and more space for their growing family. As Liana Silva-Ford pointed in her discussion of A Raisin in the Sun two weeks ago, the Lee family’s decision to move into the Clybourn Park neighborhood disrupts the suburb as a space of white privilege and annotates the cusp of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, visual demonstrations of black protest that reach suburban areas are annotated by sonic markers of struggle i.e. the sound of attacking guard dogs, police officers screaming at protestors, spraying fire hoses, and screams and moans of black bodies under attack. The audio-visual representation of the struggle of integration collapses the notions of white suburbia as a site of ‘perfect peace.’ The above referenced sonic markers also destabilize classifications of black trauma as restricted to urban spaces like the inner city, which is believed to embody blacks’ realities.
Where Hansberry’s interrogation of space and access in Raisin in the Sun is an initial foray into constructions of white privilege vis-à-vis suburban communities, Aaron McGruder’s 21st century suburban space of The Boondocks pivots on the romanticized ideas of blacks in middle class spaces derived from the 1950s and 1960s. The show introduces viewers to patriarch Robert (Grandad Freeman) and his two grandsons, Huey and Riley Freeman, who have left the south side of Chicago for the white suburb of Woodcrest. McGruder incorporates sonic markers of race and class that collapse suburbs as white only spaces. Aside from lighthearted lounge music style piano riffs during dialogues that indicate whiteness, McGruder incorporates sonic elements of hip hop that interrupt white suburbia. Elements of sonic registers of hip hop, like heavy bass kicks and songs like “Booty Butt Cheeks” or “Thuggin’ Love,” disrupt the quiet of the Woodcrest community.
The clash of hip hop’s loudness with Woodcrest’s quiet demeanor is best demonstrated in the episodes “The Story of Thugnificent” and “The Block is Hot.” In “The Story of Thugnificent,” rapper Thugnificent decides to move to Woodcrest. His presence is heard before it is seen, a caravan of cars with bass systems playing “Booty Butt Cheeks” before he actually appears on screen. Thugnificent’s arrival is striking as he introduces hip hop as a literal and sonically disruptive element of black working class cultural expression. The disruption is celebrated, however, because of Thugnificent’s allure as a rapper. He gets a pass that Grandad Freeman questions because he sees Thugnificient as a threat to what he perceives to be as a delicate existence of his blackness in a white community.
Grandad Freeman’s vehement opposition to embrace “the homie” Thugnificent destabilizes notions of policing as a one-sided scare tactic by whites. Yet to repel Thugnificent’s physical and sonic presence, Grandad resorts to hip hop and records a diss record that demands Thugnificent to leave Woodcrest. The diss record parodies the sonic notes of a rap battle: Grandad starts the track with ramblings of “yeah” and “uh.” Where these terms are used in a rap battle to try to “catch the beat,” Grandad’s use of these words is an offset attempt to try to find something to say. The result of Grandad and Thugnificent’s rap battle on wax is a rise in physical violence against senior citizens in Woodcrest. The awkwardness of Grandad’s diss track parallels not only a generational dismissal of hip hop as an outlet of protest but the sonic awkwardness of hip hop being the voice of protest for a suburban space.
In the episode “Block is Hot,” a nod to rapper Lil Wayne’s same titled track (although he nor the song are mentioned anywhere in the show), Huey Freeman blasts rap group Public Enemy’s pro-black and anti-police brutality anthem “Fight the Power” to remind his neighborhood he is a black nationalist. He is also dressed in a black hoodie and black timberland boots. Huey is undeniably hip hop in a privileged white space. Huey’s physical apparel, a nod to the Black Panther party and the hip hop fashion affinity for wearing the color black is amplified by “Fight the Power.” Huey’s posturing can also be read as a homage to Radio Raheem from Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing because like Radio Raheem, Huey lugs around a large boombox to play “Fight the Power.” Particularly striking is the overlap of the urban hip hop masculinity Raheem signifies with Huey’s own hip hop posturing in Woodcrest. While Raheem remains in the ‘hood, Huey doubly signifies hip hop’s migration from the city into suburban areas as well as his own migration to Woodcrest from Chicago. Huey uses hip hop as a site of social-political resistance and as a way to remain attached to his urban roots. Blasting “Fight the Power” shows how Huey remains conscious of white privilege in Woodcrest. He recognizes the need to identify black agency – even if it is only emphasized through sound – while reflecting on the “new” suburb as a racially ambiguous space.
The most jarring use of sound to reflect on the racial politics of the new suburb is the shooting of Uncle Ruckus by police officers. The ricochet of the bullets can be heard against cars and other inanimate objects but the bullets miss their target, Ruckus. The gun shots mark an interruption of the suburban soundscape. Gun shots, sonic signifiers of power, death, and trauma, are also markers of black violence as an urban phenomenon. However, negotiations of power shift to speak to reclamation of white privilege in sonic and physical spaces . The gun shots inflicted upon black bodies in suburban spaces could also be read as a subversion of gun shots heard in hip hop. While the sound of a firing gun in the hip hop imagination is expected and acceptable, gun shots in white suburbia are disruptive and displaced because they contest its appearance as a quiet and respectable space. Further, the sonic significance of the bullets riddling everything around Ruckus is the messiness of the hit-or-miss surveillance of black bodies, particularly black men, as necessary in privileged white spaces.
The policing of black bodies in suburban spaces, especially over the past two years, begs the question of how suburban soundscapes serve as backdrops of 21st century racial anxieties and whiteness. The centrality of sound in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, and Jonathan Ferrell,– i.e. 911 tapes and banging on house doors – is critical in identifying race and space. Sonic markers of racial anxiety in their deaths devastatingly reemphasize the connection of race and sound in white privilege spaces. For example, Davis’ killer Michael Dunn stated to his girlfriend that he “hate[d] that thug music.” Unlike the suburban mom in the Chase commercial, Dunn is threatened by the sonic blackness and hypermasculinity associated with loud [hip hop] music. The negative connotations of hip hop as “thug music” and Davis’ mere presence as a young black man trigger a devastating response to the disruption of white privileged space.
As I work through my visceral response to Michael Dunn’s not guilty verdict for the actual slaughter of Jordan Davis, I think about the frivolity of the suburban mom in the Chase commercial and her enjoyment of loud music. The overlap of her whiteness, gender, and status as a suburbanite protect her from any inclinations of being a menace. She uses loud music as a sense of liberation – a premise for the Chase Freedom card being promoted in the commercial. Unlike Chase’s suburban mom, Jordan Davis’ use of loud music is not freeing – it contextualizes him in a rigid space of hypermasculinity and pathology that is all too often associated with hip hop culture. As I discuss previously, the traumas associated with black bodies that cannot be literally articulated take place in nonliteral spaces like sound. Utilizing sound is particularly useful in situating blackness in privileged white spaces like suburbs that displace their agency and significance because of racial anxieties associated with space and class.
Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
Featured image: “Dead End in the Burbs” by Flickr user Vox Efx, CC BY 2.0
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“Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death”-Regina Bradley
Editor’s Note: Cars. Trains. Festivals. Music. Noise. Sound. The concept of the city is inherently aural. Cities are always thought of in opposition to quiet, to stillness. However, representing cities as noisy is not without its problems; in fact, one thing we have tried to do here at Sounding Out! is question what ideas of quiet and noise carry with them. They are social constructions, like race and gender. We cannot talk about urban sounds in a vacuum.
Cities are an essential part of the scholarly work I do; cities are also an intrinsic part of who I am. So when I started thinking about what I wanted February Forum #3 to be about, I felt it was time to edit a series on city sounds. This month Sounding Out! is thrilled to bring you a collection of posts that will change the way you hear cities. Regular writer Regina Bradley will discuss the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy versus quiet, respectively), guest writer Linda O’ Keeffe will take readers on a soundwalk of the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, and CFP winner Lilian Radovac will share with us a photoessay on the sound installation Megaphóne in Montreal. The forum will prompt readers to think through ideas about urban space and sound. Are cities as noisy as we think they are? Why are cities described as “loud”? Who makes these decisions about nomenclature and why?
I’ll be kicking things off in the forum with a critical reading of sound in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play about African Americans in Chicago that still rings/stings true today. Take your headphones off and listen up because you might miss your train…—Liana M. Silva-Ford, Managing Editor
Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun starts with the Younger family waking up and getting ready for work. Ruth Younger wakes her son, Travis Younger, to get ready for school. Her husband, Walter Lee Younger, is as reluctant to get up as his son does. After a brief tense exchange with his wife, Walter Lee turns to the paper:
WALTER (…vaguely reads the front page) Set off another bomb yesterday.
RUTH (Maximum indifference) Did they? (Hansberry 26)
With those two lines, seemingly thrown in amid a marital spat, Hansberry evokes the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: the aural image, in italics, Or does it explode? Inserting this poem as an epilogue, together with these lines in Act I, Scene 1, foreshadow the race riots of the 50s and 60s. However, these lines could easily fall out of earshot of the audience, or get swallowed up in the tension between Ruth and Walter Lee. In fact, the power of Hansberry’s play lies not just in her focus on the complexities of African Americans’ lives in then-contemporary Chicago, but that much of the action happens off stage, outside of the apartment. The audience must pay close attention to actually hear the story of urban racial violence. Sonic cues become an alternative to talking directly about the racialization of space.
Broadway audiences will soon get the chance to relive those opening lines when A Raisin in the Sun comes back to theaters later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Diahann Caroll. Contemporary audiences will encounter the Younger family’s struggles in the Southside of Chicago. In the play, Lena (Mama) Younger receives a life insurance check after the death of her husband, which lays bare the aspirations and desires of the characters: Lena wants a new home for the family, Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and Walter Lee wants to open up a business. Lena decides to use the money for a down payment of a home in a working-class neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (This neighborhood later inspired the 2010 Bruce Norris play Clybourne Park.) The only problem is that the neighborhood houses only whites. However, Broadway (and Hollywood for that matter) frequently stages revivals; why is A Raisin in the Sun still relevant?
Robert Nemiroff, in the Introduction to the 1994 Vintage Books edition of the play, recognizes that part of the allure of Raisin is that race relations are just as strained as they were in the mid-twentieth century. However, according to Nemiroff the play also holds sway because it holds a mirror up to very human emotions that go beyond race (13-14). James Baldwin, on the other hand, believes its staying power lies in how it showcased the raw fear African Americans felt (and still feel) in a racist society. He mentions in his Introduction to Hansberry’s autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black titled “Sweet Lorraine“,
In Raisin, black people recognized that house and all the people in it—the mother, the son, the daughter, and the daughter-in-law, and supplied the play with an interpretative element which could not be present in the minds of white people: a kind of claustrophobic terror, created not only by their knowledge of the house but by their knowledge of the streets. (xii)
Baldwin values the context that African American theatergoers brought to the play. For them, the play would already have a soundtrack of terror to go along with it, a soundtrack that African Americans knew by heart. White audiences, on the other hand, would not; they more than likely had to rely on what was on stage. Instead of staging the racial violence on Chicago’s streets, Hansberry renders audible the contours of racialized urban spaces through the people who become the focus of that violence.
Hansberry’s play was inspired by her family’s own situation in moving to Woodlawn in Chicago, which was for the most part white and middle class until the 1950s when racially restrictive zoning ordinances were struck done. In this neighborhood they faced violence and anger from their white neighbors, and were ultimately mandated to vacate the area. Carl Hansberry, father of the playwright, would take this case to the Supreme Court, which later overruled the injunction. George Lipsitz discusses the sociohistorical context surrounding A Raisin in the Sun in his book How Racism Takes Place (2011). He focuses on racialized spaces, and Chicago in Hansberry’s play is a prime example of that. Lipsitz points out, “[m]ore than any other single work of expressive culture, it called (and still calls) public attention to the indignities and oppressions of racialized space in the United States at mid-century” (Loc. 2747). For Lipsitz, A Raisin in the Sun didn’t just represent how race operated in urban spaces but took a stand against it. He states, “Hansberry’s play staged a symbolic rebuke of the white spatial imaginary” (Loc. 2883). In my reading of the textual references to talking, coupled with Hansberry’s choice to stage the play inside the apartment at all times, they call audiences to not just look but listen to how spatialized racism affected African Americans.
It is important to point out the sounds that theater-going audiences in the 1950s, many white and middle/upper-class, would not have heard in the play. A Raisin in the Sun evokes bombings (as seen in the quotation that started this piece), protests, and racial slurs. Although these sounds would be evocative and almost expected in a play about race and urban space in the 1950s, Hansberry stays away from those sounds. The only sounds Hansberry inserts in the stage directions are the sounds of music, children playing on the street, doorbells, and an alarm. In fact, the alarm clock opens the screenplay: “An alarm clock sounds from within the bedroom at right, and presently RUTH enters from that room and closes the door behind her” (24). The presence of alarms, in addition to the ring of the doorbell, is indicative of the busy city life: apartment buildings need bells to announce the arrival of someone downstairs, and alarms coax workers to get up. However, they are the only sonic indicators that Hansberry points out in her play. These sounds makes the apartment seem common, homely; they do not give way to what is happening in Southside Chicago—or in the United States, for that matter—at the moment.
The indications of the urban violence and racism outside of the Younger’s apartment door are in the interactions between the characters. However, it is not just in the events they describe but also in their speech. In that sense, when Hansberry inserts rhetorical cues such as “talking” and “listening,” they do not just refer to plot lines but also as a call for audience members to listen to what is being said (and what is not being said) in the play. For example, Hansberry introduces the three main characters in terms of their diction, their voices. Although this is to be expected in a playwright’s directions to the director, it is also an indication of the importance of speech in this play. Hansberry describes Walter Lee as “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits–and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment.” Walter constantly vocalizes frustrations about being a black man in America—particularly his frustrations that his family second-guesses his aspirations. His voice carries the stern accusation against racism, but he seems unsure.
Beneatha and Lena also seem wary in their tone. When Hansberry describes Beneatha, she mentions
her speech is a mixture of many things; it is different from the rest of the family’s insofar as education has permeated her sense of English—and perhaps the Midwest rather than the South has finally—at last—won out in her inflection; but not altogether, because over all of it is a soft slurring and transformed use of vowels which is the decided influence of the Southside. (35)
Beneatha’s voice shows a confluence of speech patterns, but also a struggle. The description brings to mind respectability politics, which judge others based on their appearance or their speech patterns. When it comes to Lena, Hansberry describes her as such: “Her speech, on the other hand, is as careless as her carriage is precise—she is inclined to slur everything—but her voice is perhaps not so much quiet as simply soft.” (39). As with Beneatha, Mama’s voice signals a tension: carelessness versus precision. Her softness makes way for the hard truth often in the play. The tension in their voices point to the stress of experiencing racialized urban space. Walter Lee’s experience of racialized space comes from the point of view of a chauffeur for a white businessman, Lena experiences it as a Southern migrant (also, someone who fled the racial violence of the South only to find it again in the North), and Beneatha sees it in her interactions with black men: George Hutchinson, the upper class African American and Joseph Asagai, the international student from Nigeria.
The characters also reference talking in their dialogue. There always seems to be someone who does not want to listen or who feels they are not being heard. For example, when Walter Lee asks Lena about the insurance check that’s supposed to arrive, Lena chastises him: “Now don’t you start, child. It’s too early in the morning to be talking about money. It ain’t Christian” (Hansberry 41). Mama prevents Walter Lee from starting another conversation about his business ideas. In another scene, Walter Lee is annoyed that Ruth dislikes his late-night chat sessions with his buddies in their living room: “the things I want to talk about with my friends just couldn’t be important in your mind, could they?” (27). Later in the play, after Lena finds out Ruth put a down payment for an abortion, she tells Walter, “Son—I think you ought to talk to your wife…” to which he responds, “I can talk to her later.” I read these thwarted efforts to speak and be heard, as vocal metaphors for how African Americans were being ostracized and ghettoized in cities, especially when I consider that the play is set in Chicago.
However, the most pressing example of how talking is representative of racial relations in urban spaces is the visit of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Although violence had become an unsanctioned form of policing African Americans in urban space, in the play Hansberry opts instead to represent that violence through the presence—and the voice—of Karl Lindner. Initially, Lindner has the attention of Ruth and Walter Younger, and they listen to him talk about the virtues of Clybourne Parks’ neighbors. He gains their sympathy by invoking their sense of equality: “we don’t try hard enough in this world to understand the other fellow’s problem” (117). However, Lindner soon reveals his intentions: he comes bearing an offer to buy the house back from the Youngers to keep them from moving to the neighborhood. The Youngers show shock, to which Lindner replies, “I hope you’ll hear me all the way through” (118). His request is the request of the privileged though, and tries to make it seem like the Youngers are being unreasonable. In Lindner the audience hears the threat of white supremacy.
In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry focuses on rendering the city audible through the characters. Listening brings a deeper engagement with what is happening in the lives of the characters. Talking marks the bodies of the characters as sites of struggle, as microcosms for what is happening in Chicago in the 1950s—and what would happen later, as Lipsitz discusses in his book. In depictions of the city as noisy, it is often forgotten that part of that noise comes from human bodies, from people. Hansberry breaks through that noise by toning down the hum of the city on stage and focusing on making her audience listen to people. Perhaps a revival of A Raisin in the Sun can make a different generation of Americans tune in to how urban space continues to be racialized today.
Featured image: “VCRasin__DSC7414_Panorama” by Flickr user kabelphoto, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Liana Silva-Ford is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!.
“Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil”-Leonardo Cardoso