Spaces of Sounds: The Peoples of the African Diaspora and Protest in the United States
The slaves who were ourselves had known terror intimately, confused sunrise with pain, & accepted indifference as kindness. – Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
Sanford. Baltimore. Chicago. Staten Island. Charlotte. Cleveland. Oakland. Austin. Los Angeles. The Bronx.
Despair in the United States is nothing new. It is neither an emotion confined to the neatly-drawn borders of this land nor is it experienced more acutely by any one group of people. The vast discrepancy between the results of the popular vote and the electoral college’s selection of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president of the United States amply reveals despair to be an sentiment viscerally experienced by a wide swath of people in this country, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.
Such despair has been ignored, however, by those who have caused and who continue causing the suffering of peoples of both indigenous and, later, African descent. We are taught that men from what we now recognize as Europe arrived in this hemisphere in the late fifteenth century, settling initially on a strip of earth in the Caribbean Sea that would become the first site of massacre and genocide, acts which unleashed, if one lends credence to the narrator of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the fukú, the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” The narrating voice himself characterizes the curse not in the actions of death, but in the “screams of the enslaved, [..] the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began […]” (1). The fukú resonated through the sounds that these human beings made.
Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. – Toni Morrison, Beloved
The State’s unwillingness to hold George Zimmerman responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin–and its subsequent refusal to hold any police officer accountable for the hundreds of deaths they have caused–has galvanized the United States in the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children alike have taken to the streets, as #BlackLivesMatter, a true and succinct sentence, has roused ghosts of the past who have never left us, who have always been present, accompanying us on this journey.
This post is not a reflection of the music that has served as a soundtrack to these protests, though there are articles that have done so, such as this one, this one, and this one. These pieces do not include the extensive list of articles that address perhaps the most widely-viewed piece of protest music thus far, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, a scarce offering of which can be found here, here, and here. Instead, it is an essay inspired by the sounds of the protesters themselves, the noises made by the minds, bodies, and spirits of the men, women and children who have taken to public spaces and sometimes commercial zones in order to confront and object to the protections applied to those who kill men, women, and children, often of African descent.
Listen to Los Angeles in 2013. . .
. . .to Houston in 2014. . .
. . .to New York City in 2014. . .
. . .and to Charleston in 2015. . .
. . .
In his pivotal Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach characterized New Orleans and London as urban centers marked by two simultaneous, consistent acts: appropriation by white people and white power structures of the cultures of the peoples they have violently marginalized, and then, at the same time, a clear distancing from those very cultures and peoples. Although now in its twentieth year of publication, Roach’s theorization of the circum-Atlantic world remains vastly underutilized in scholarly circles—particularly in sound studies, where it should have special resonance– and has become increasingly critical to our understanding of this historical moment, as it “insists on the centrality of the diasporic and genocidal histories of Africa and the Americas, North and South, in the creation of the culture of modernity” (4). With this configuration, Roach accomplishes two feats simultaneously: first, he decentralizes the United States as the focal point of studies about the so-called New World, instead, placing on equal footing all of the histories and cultures of the Americas. For this scholar of the literatures of the Americas, particularly those written by men and women of African descent, Roach’s is a critical gesture that facilitates comparative work across national boundaries.
Second, and most importantly, Roach emphasizes the role of murder, rape and the destruction of whole cultures indigenous to the American and African continents in the foundation of the nations of this hemisphere. Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps the most recent writer to remind us that the most potent legacy of such modernity, racism, “is a visceral experience, that is dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (Between the World and Me, 10). That which we know as “modernity,” itself a deeply flawed construct that remains in need of serious revision, was born of broken backs, mutilated limbs, hushed middle-of-the-night tears of indigenous and African peoples. Moans and sighs, whispers and wails, cries and screams, they are the musical score of this hemisphere’s American experiment.
The slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience & unremembered rhythms –Ntozake Shange
In the face of a populace accustomed to ignoring the wailing of mothers who have buried their children, who have disregarded their dignity and the weight and shape and taste of their loss, men, women, and children have mobilized. They have made manifest that which communities of peoples of African descent have spoken of and have documented since the founding of this nation. As Roach has utilized the term performance, the literal rituals of mourning by communities of African heritage not only commemorate those who have recently passed but they also invoke the spirits of those who have long borne witness to such violence. Throughout his study, Roach distinguishes between a European heritage that begins to segregate the living from the dead during the Enlightenment (50), and more traditional cultures, particularly African ones, where spirits mingle with their human counterparts. While written texts may not, and often do not, adequately commemorate the loss of lives deemed marginal to the larger society, performance itself – chants, wails, songs – serve not only to memorialize but also as gestures of restoration.
Protesters and activists are no longer satisfied with the well-established decree that we should wait for a distant moment for a more perfect realization of the United States’s many promises. No, instead, they have identified this as the historical moment in which those oaths are to be fulfilled. They have walked, marched, and stomped through streets, on sidewalks, parks, churches, filling malls and transportation hubs with their bodies as testimony. They have repossessed and redefined spaces once thought of as simply neutral, transparent space as Katherine McKittrick refers to it in Demonic Grounds, revealing the fault-lines of difference based on class, race, gender, and sexuality in this society (xv). They have done so manipulating sound, both recycling chants used through the decades to protest injustice and, at times, simply occupying space, without a word uttered.
The silence waged in the 2014 protest in Grand Central Terminal after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner does not represent erasure, but rather a purposeful demonstration of the willful humanity of those unwilling to forget.
They quiet themselves. They replace the sounds of unfettered pain and grief with its absence, until all that you hear is the mechanized announcement of train schedules. The contrast is stark: the moment highlights what Claudia Rankine has identified as the condition of black life in Citizen, that of mourning (145), against a backdrop of technological advancement, that which has been built on the backs of and through the physical, emotional, and intellectual labor of black life. Here, the members of this community enact what has been called a “die-in”: simulating the physical positioning of bodies in caskets, they force onlookers to confront an uncomfortable truth about the history of this country and of the nations of this hemisphere.
All of us walk on land soaked in the blood of those who have made our lives easier and more convenient. The men and women at Grand Central make manifest what Roach terms surrogation: in the chasm left by death, they offer a replacement, one that both evokes those who have died and disturbs the complacency of survivors themselves (2). The performance serves to confront those who dare say that the violence of genocide and enslavement of past generations should remain in the past; no, these men and women and the spirits they invoke respond. Time is not linear, as we have been taught. For past, present, and future are temporal constructs used to service oppression and domination; this will no longer do.
Here, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. – Toni Morrison
We bear witness to the reclamation of grief, of lives cut short at the hand of a government charged with protecting those human beings who inhabit its borders, at least theoretically. While, as Roach surmises, “memory [may be] a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2), we hold space to those dedicated to not forget, to instead excavate the silences, breathe life into those histories, remembering that the stories we have heard, the pages we have read, were once human beings. We create “counter-memories” as challenge and testimony, as a sacred pledge to those who are no longer present physically in this realm (Roach 26). We recall the cultures and practices of those who lived before the written form was a tool of exclusion, when remembrance was a practice of community.
American culture, in the hemispheric sense, incorporates all such rituals, across generations; as Roach notes, it is performance that “works on behalf of living memory, by bringing the parties together as often as necessary” (138). No longer consigned to the past, the spirits of those killed by the state are revived, their existences in the human plain celebrated. They are not defined by how they died but instead by how they lived. While literacy of the written form can separate, sound and gesture more effectively bypass the fictions of difference based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality. Cities of the Dead amplifies how “performance can articulate what otherwise may not be properly communicated” (161).
It’s so magic folks feel their own ancestors coming up out of the earth to be in the realms of their descendants – Ntozake Shange
We say their names. We say their names: Eleanor Bumpers. Anthony Báez. Sean Bell. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Tyisha Miller. Oscar Grant. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Tanisha Anderson. Renisha McBride. Eric Garner. Yvette Smith. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Korryn Gaines. Akia Gurley. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Micah Jester. Deborah Danner. Walter Scott. Michelle Lee Shirley.
The list, tragically, grows, and still we say their names. We do so as an act of remembrance. As an offering. As peoples of African descent around the world do in times of ceremony, in the name of ritual. We remember those who have come before us, who have birthed this current historical moment of awakening here in the United States. We say their names.
And, as the sounds of their names said aloud echoes, we pray. Ashé.
Vanessa K. Valdés is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York; she is the editor of Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012) and The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and the book review editor of sx salon. She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014). The title of this essay is inspired by Josh Kun’s Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, where he writes that his book is “focusing on the spaces of music, the spaces of songs, and the spaces of sounds” (25).
Featured Image “Freedom Marchers” by Flickr User Keoni Cabral, Photoshop processed digital image from the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia (CC BY 2.0).
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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka–Kristin Moriah
Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely
Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka
I don’t worry about the look of it so much. Choreography comes later, when I’m putting together a piece. I’m into the sound; for me, when I’m hittin’, layin’ it down, it’s all about the sound. –Savion Glover, My Life in Tap
It has been a little over a year since Amiri Baraka passed, and still I hear the echoes of his presence. I am especially attentive to the ways his work has been carried on by those involved in recent black uprisings in Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore. Powerful political poetics that have emerged from these events include work by Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine and the many contributors to blackpoetsspeakouttumblr.com.
And yet, part of what I’ve witnessed in the streets, actual physical spaces of public protest against police violence and systemic racial oppression, is an example of what Thomas DeFrantz has termed “corporeal orature,” or the ability of bodies to resonate throughout public space and shift political discourse. In these moments, the body talk of protesters is not simply the sound of clattering feet through city streets, but a commitment to the ways in which physical gestures can speak truth to power. I am especially interested in connecting Baraka’s legacy to the larger conversation about the aural kinesthetic that Imani Kai Johnson has proposed, and in teasing out the various dimensions and potentials embedded in that category.
For me, Savion Glover exemplified the lingering sound of Baraka’s spirit in his tap dance at his memorial service. Whenever I listen to the recording—which still brings tears to my eyes—I am reminded of the abundant sense of joy, sadness, and love that characterized Baraka’s service. Listening to Glover’s dance is an aural kinesthetic experience, like watching a comet pass across the night’s sky. I am reminded, too, of the way I clamored to record that moment, to keep a piece of the poet alive on my iPhone even after his public passing. And indeed, that performative sound of feet tapping, that measured excess of the body produced through movement, has kept Baraka alive for me; like his groundbreaking work, it is powerfully resistant to the proper rubrics of any one discipline except, perhaps for the study of sound itself.
So, this post then, is about tap dance and its ability to sound out Baraka’s name and life. But in a larger context, the intricate vibrations of Glover’s performance facilitate a deeper understanding of the relationship between sound and mourning, and a kind of mourning that is particularly African American, that is to say, American. It is a mourning that exists beyond the word, written text, or image and a sound practice that enables the bereaved to make a joyful noise and a mournful one at the very same time. So I ask, how do you write a eulogy with the body? How do you perform an embodied love? What does Black love and a reverence for Black life sound like? Sometimes, the answer is tap.
Audio Clip of Savion Glover’s Dance at Amiri Baraka’s Funeral, 18 Jan 2014
The dance explodes on stage like a burst of light. It begins with something approximating a drum roll – and then hard slow taps, hammering away like someone at a typewriter, I imagine, or a train gaining steam.
It is coming.
Slow, insistent and strong, with a little riff now and then, a little picking up of speed here and there. It is coming on louder now, that explosive thing, the tension you are noticing. He is doing the thing. And then there is that skillful, smooth, strong tap. Glover is at work, y’all.
As a tribute to Baraka, Glover’s dance bears numerous stylistic implications. Among them, I understand the rhythm of Glover’s tap as the rhythm of writing, an aesthetic that complicates the way his dance can be understood as a manifestation of the black vernacular. Sketching out the early connections between her son’s artistry and the percussive taps of the keyboard, Yvette Glover says. “‘I was working for a judge, as an assistant, when I was pregnant with Savion…And when I would type, and the carriage would automatically return, he’d walk, he’d follow it, in my stomach. You could see him move” (39). He does it still. In the audio clip, Glover’s footwork evokes the dexterity of Baraka’s language, all the while telling a story of its own.
But what about the intensity of the dance, its crescendo toward the end of the service, a flurry of percussive steps beside Baraka’s coffin? Baraka himself reminds us this particular musicality is so necessary here. In his discussion of “Afro-Christian Music and Religion” in Blues People, Baraka notes that in Black diasporic religious services, “the spirit will not descend without a song” (41). Glover’s dance takes place at a moment in the service when emotion exceeds the power of language, but not sound. He uses his body as an instrument of sound in its fullest sense. His performance is a choreography of embodied sound: full-on and at-once body poetry, mourning and tribute.
Elucidating the use of his body as an instrument of sound, Glover declares:
It’s like my feet are the drums and my shoes are the sticks[…]My left heel is stronger, for some reason, than my right; it’s my bass drum. My right heel is like the floor tom-tom. I can get a snare out of my right toe, a whip sound, not putting it down on the floor hard, but kind of whipping the floor with it. It get the sounds of a top tom-tom from the balls of my feet. The hi-hat is a sneaky one. I do it with a slight toe lift, either foot, so like a drummer, I can slip it in there anytime. And if I want cymbals, crash crash, that’s landing flat, both feet, full strength on the floor, full weight on both feet. That’s the cymbals. So I’ve got a whole drum set down there (19).
Combining his body’s drumbeat with the tic of Baraka’s keystrokes, Glover embeds the pattern of Baraka’s life in this tap dance, communicating it with the kind of deep and reverential love you are taught to have for your elders when you are young, appropriate and deep.
But as powerful as his body-poetry is, Glover’s silences are also key. In those inaudible spaces, Glover spreads out his arms, offering up the dance in a gesture of expansive love; the immensity of the silent gestures mirroring the immensity of Baraka’s life. He holds it out as a gift towards the audience, bows his head, too.
In moments of sound and silence, the audience calls out to Glover the way they would a preacher. At these moments, the dance becomes a call and response akin to the way Baraka’s life’s work was a call and response. A call to respond. A call to take what was given to you and make it mean. Listeners to the dance are called up out of themselves. We are changed by the dance and by the listening.
Tap tap tap.
Glover’s performance shows us how his specific blend of African and European dance traditions exists in a spiritual and artistic dimension. There is a religious explanation for this, too. In African Dance, Kariamu Welsh-Asante explains the function of the African funeral dance in definite terms:
All African dances can be used for transcendence and transformational purposes. Transcendence is the term usually associated with possession and trance. Dance is the conduit for transcendent activities. Dance enables an initiate or practitioner to progress or travel through several altered states, thereby achieving communication with an ancestor to deity and receiving valuable information that he/she can relate back to the community. Repetition is key to this process as it guides the initiates, or dancers, through the process of the ceremony. The more a movement is repeated, the greater the level of intensity and the closer a dancer gets to the designated deity or ancestor. Transformation means to change from one state, or phase, to another (16).
Glover certainly brought us close to Baraka. And yet, I would go a step further to suggest that this is, above all, blues dance. As such, it reveals continuing relevance of social dance and movement to Baraka’s political legacy. Baraka and Glover work directs us towards the propulsive nature of black social/percussive dance forms. These sonic gestures clarify the ways black life matters, impacts the public sphere and policy. The politicized nature of Black Arts Movement performances and the performative elements of contemporary Black protest are still linked through sound. Politicized Black aesthetics continue to offer us multiple opportunities to witness the convergence of sound and movement. Ras Baraka, affirms this in his own eulogy for his father:
Have you seen black fire it burns deep it never goes out you can try and extinguish it but it never goes out it never goes out it never goes out only up or out as in broad as in multiply as in blues black base of the fire dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone dancing flickering at times but never all the way gone…
The power of the dance, of the Black Movement to move is still with us.
Featured Image, Screen Capture of Savion Glover dancing by JS
Kristin Moriah is the editor of Black Writers and the Left (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974 (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, 2014). Her critical work can be found in Callaloo, Theater Journal, TDR and Understanding Blackness Through Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Moriah is completing a dissertation on African American literature and performance in transnational contexts at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research has been funded through grants from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada, the Freie Universität Berlin and the Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative. She is a 2014-15 @IRADAC_GC Archival Dissertation Fellow and spring 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Sometimes she tweets via @moriahgirl.
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