Tag Archive | Fred Moten

The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom

Image by Flickr User Pere Ubu

Image by Flickr User Pere Ubu

Sound and Pedagogy 3In teaching the many interrelated and complicated aspects of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the Black Arts Movement, the challenge for me is to help students understand the “facts” of this period, and to simultaneously destabilize the teleological historical narrative these “facts” seem to suggest.  In a pedagogical context, sound helps fill in the gaps that fall outside of the knowledge produced–and contained within–certain archival accounts of black cultural and political history. While crucial, having students listen to the gaps, can be daunting, especially in our current historical moment, as the decades-long push against identity politics has been solidified by the recent (re)election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.  This point demands more elaboration than I can provide here, but the critical pedagogical issue it raises within the province of black studies, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider black political culture outside of the sedimented lines of American pluralism and black radical thought.  

I use sound as a pedagogical tool to help outline a middle ground–what Frantz Fanon refers to in The Wretched of the Earth as “zone of hidden fluctuation” (166)–based upon articulations of resistance and identity that refuse to be frozen in time.  Building on Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of anti-anti-essentialism in The Black Atlantic, an idea of black consciousness that is flexible and moves between the insufficient terms of “essentialist” and “anti-essentialist,” I use specific pedagogical examples to suggest that teaching about race and sound is a rich, evolving, and productively interactive continuum.   The auditory sense opens up new terrains of knowledge and dynamically expands the possibilities for students to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.

The recorded presence of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, represents an important aural site for engaging in reflexive pedagogy, because King’s tonality–the resonance of his voice–creates a certain familiarity and is pivotal to the construction of the American myth of the radical transformation of the civil rights movement and the idea of post-civil rights racial equality.  For many students, King’s sound signals the dream of, and the pathway towards, a unified America.  Conscious of how this idea of King reflects a linear understanding of civil rights as simply a desire for inclusion, I direct students’ attention to the sound of King’s last recorded speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968.  Given the evening before his assassination, this speech resounds with King’s deepening critical perspective on black struggle through its haunting concluding notes. I point out to my classes that King’s final years (1965-1968) were marked by his increasing focus on ideas of black resistance outside of the Civil Rights mainstream, including his  critique of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and his radical rethinking of the possibilities for black economic and political self-determination.

Martin Luther King in 1968, Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Martin Luther King in 1968, Image courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Centered on the economic injustice and dehumanization of Memphis’s striking black sanitation workers, King’s speech details the need for the Memphis black community do more than simply boycott municipal entities, but rather articulate their resistance by boycotting prominent national brands such as Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola.  Against this background, I play segments (particularly the final minutes) of King’s speech, entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

The acoustic dimensions of King’s final speech resonate with a social and political complexity that troubles the sonic memories many students have of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  The much more intimate and less overtly majestic soundscape of Memphis’ Mason Temple underlines King’s shift from national icon back to local, community activist.  The frequent audience shifts–applause, extemporaneous interjections, and silence–create a reverberating sonic energy that accumulates throughout the speech.  Rather than relying strictly on a call-and-response interpretation of the interactive exchanges between King’s voice and the audience’s response, I have students consider the non-linear ebbs and flows in King’s sound in this latest of moments (as Fred Moten would say, the totality of King’s tonality). For example, as King’s audience considers the weight of his analyses and what it means to articulate black resistance as “a dangerous unselfishness” that “puts pressure where it really hurts,” I identify moments of uncertainty, hesitation, and contemplative reflection that mark a non-linear interactive sonority between King and his audience.

Listening to King’s final thoughts offers a disturbing and disruptive emphasis on the stakes of breaking with entrenched modes of activist thinking. He concludes the speech with a series of prophetic thoughts on mortality as a cost of making a stand against “our sick white brothers.”  Set within the historical and ideological context I have sketched above, the delivery distinguishes the sound of King’s words.  As we listen I draw attention to King’s expression of a lack of fear in anything, any man, as King seems to convey an eerie foreknowledge of his murder and his irreverence in its face.

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” –Listen to the concluding two minutes

The apocalyptic sound of King’s concluding notes to this political sermon leaves much to contemplate.  From the mention of the potential threat posed to his life by “our sick white brothers,” through the speech’s last line, there is a tonal, timbral shift in his voice and demeanor. Through sound and posture, and the reaction of the audience to those factors, King’s affect seems to convey something more momentous occurring beneath the event’s surface dynamics.  King projects a confrontational edge through the sound of fearlessness in the face of mortality.  Did he know he was going to be killed shortly after giving this speech?  It’s a question that the peculiar tonality of his concluding lines raises for students.  If so, what does it mean to use the sermon as a site of prophetic, aural documentation of the fact that a force of transformation exists beyond the flesh and blood of leadership, a force that assassination can’t kill?  In the speech’s final synesthetic moment, I have the students listen and watch the shift that occurs in King’s demeanor as he closes, and the way that this shift culminates in an almost ecstatic moment as he delivers the final line: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” His defiant turning away from the microphone is crucial as it amplifies the meaning of the voice, letting those watching know that, much like an emcee, King has just “served” white power with a delivery that will outlast the sniper’s bullet the following evening.

Nina Simone, Image courtesy of Flickr User GlingG

Nina Simone, Image courtesy of Flickr User GlingG

I want to briefly point to two other examples that show additional ways in which sound complicates ideas of racial identity and expression during the 1960s.  When I teach Nina Simone’s composition, “Mississippi Goddamn,” (recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1964), I ask students to consider the relationship between the distinctive sound of her voice and the ironic and critical elements of her lyrical meaning as this interaction creates a complex idea of radical black consciousness.  Composed in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone offers a musical, and more broadly sonic meditation on white supremacy.

Most students find the timbre of Simone’s voice, its grain (as Roland Barthes would say) and depth, immediately striking.  Her unique sonority and its context, greatly influence attempts by students to understand her reference to the song as simply a tune: “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn” she says, and “This is a show tune, but the show for it hasn’t been written yet.”  Clearly it isn’t simply a tune, and the caustic quality of lines such as, “Oh but this country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” creates a critical depth through the sound of Simone’s commitment to a black radical perspective.  What does it mean, for instance, that Simone projects such sarcasm and biting critique to a predominately white audience at Carnegie Hall?  How might we hear the specific grain of her voice in this setting?  How does Simone’s projection of critical black sonic resistance, emerge at the conjuncture of anti-black racism and the beginning of legislative efforts under the Johnson administration to rectify racial inequality through civil rights bills?  What can be taken from the simultaneity and contrast that Simone projects her sound within?  I pose such questions to my students as a way of considering what it means to be committed to critical thought and social transformation that falls outside of the dominant lines of American national consciousness, and how the sound of such commitment, heard in the pitch and tenor of Simone’s voice, matters as a different kind of historical documentation.

In considering how the sound of music can offer an intervention within the formation of black political consciousness in the Black Arts Movement, I often use the 1966 recording of Amiri Baraka’s signal poem, “Black Art,” as it set to the experimental musical sounds of Sonny Murray’s ensemble (Murray-drums, Albert Ayler-tenor saxophone, Don Cherry-trumpet, Henry Grimes, Lewis Worrell-bass).  Having first read the poem, students then are able to hear it set to– and against–the unconventional instrumentation of Murray’s ensemble.

The musicians create an unconventional sonic context for Baraka’s reading that de-emphasizes and re-situates the apparent dimensions of black rage that seem to arise from verse that can “shoot guns,” through an almost carnivalesque, comedic, and off-kilter sound that troubles the linear expectations one might have of instrumentation amplifying the words on the page.  The dissonance between page and sound allows for useful pedagogical opening, in that it underlines the non-conformist, avant-garde aspects of the movement, and the fine line that artists such as Baraka were imagining between the intensity of black radical consciousness and the ability to articulate that standpoint outside of the expected forms of black cultural nationalism.

Image Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Image Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

As these examples have shown, I incorporate sound into my pedagogical framings of black cultural and political identity as an opening through which students may expand their understandings of black consciousness and black political culture well beyond stagnant ideas of racial authenticity, while still preserving an understanding of the transformative and often radical possibilities that have been projected through black expression during the period.  It is the open space of sound that invests the project of black radical thought with the uncanny spontaneity of experimentation.  Having students understand ideas of expansiveness, asymmetry, and non-linearity as central to black cultural expression and critique–even as artists refuse to sacrifice an expressed political commitment to black resistance–begins to suggest ways for students to contemplate the intersection of identity politics with the unexpected, fantastic elements of expression that lie outside of more recent flattened diagnoses of black nationalism.  Teaching at the intersections of race and sound opens up new terrains of knowledge, dynamically expanding students’ abilities to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.

Carter Mathes is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University.  He has completed a book manuscript entitled, Imagine the Sound: Experimental Form in Post-Civil Rights African American Literature, that focuses on the relationship between sound and literary innovation during the 1960s and 1970s.  He is co-editing a volume of essays on Black Arts Movement writer and critic Larry Neal; and also has essays in print or forthcoming on Toni Cade Bambara, Peter Tosh, and James Baldwin. At Rutgers, he regularly teaches classes focusing on African American literature, Twentieth-century literature, music and literature, and experimental writing.

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

Well, if you don’t believe in shouting,

That’s alright with me

Some folk don’t believe in shouting,

That’s alright with me…

Doubt and ignore it,

But I belong to the Lord’s crew.

David said rejoice in the Lord,

And that’s the way we Christians do.

If you don’t believe in shouting,

That’s alright with me.

–Dorothy Love Coates & the Gospel Harmonettes, “That’s Alright with Me”

A handy catch-all term, “shouting” is actually a euphemism encompassing a range of ecstatic worship behaviors.  These can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning.  Certainly, there were men who shouted in the days of my childhood in church; there are men who shout today.  The only shouts I can recall and even imitate to this day, however, are those of the women.

There is, in fact, a longstanding association between women and shouting.  Perhaps because of the pronounced emotionality involved in the practice, the shouting sphere tends to be prefigured as feminine and in this bears great relevance to women.  I am interested in the significances of shouting among black Christian women of struggling populations.  In my view, shouting is not only a religious practice for these women, but is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them.  I argue that shouting has worked to codify the disruption of male-dominated services by women who have so often faced sharp sanctions by black church patriarchy.  I also contend that shouting places its female practitioners and their observers within a sphere of public ecstasy and visual and auditory pleasure, which makes mischief for notions of what is proper for Christian women and for the entire church community.

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The Shout, the Sound, and the Shriek: Black Feminine Disruption

In a 2011 post for Sounding Out! entitled “Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices,” Ashon Crawley posits the existence of a black church “public zone,” which serves as the conceptual, holy ground upon which “sound, song, and subject [function] as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics.”  I’d like to track Crawley’s public zone into the shouting sphere, the very heart of ecstasy within the black worship experience.

Although culturally codified—even expected and welcomed—within the church community, the shout functions primarily as a disruption.  The faces, bodies, and voices of shouting black women disrupt the flow of the service.  A shout takes time and has the power to alter the program.  Regarding such moments, worshippers—most often women and gay men—often proclaim in retrospect, “Baby, there was no more order!” This disruption of order through the use of the body and the voice has a distinct place within the Christian black feminine tradition of resistance to oppression.

Image by Flickr User Steve Schwartz

In the essay, “The Restorative Power of Sound,” womanist Roxanne Reed has examined the function of gendered sound within black Christianity.  For Reed, the feminine “wordless cry, holler, moan, or wail” achieves “primacy over the written text,” “suggests a historical time with relying on a defined chronology,” and is legitimated by an African “ancestral heritage” which presages black musical forms (2).  This distinctly feminine worship sound claims space from “patriarchal privilege,” which has often extended to black folk preaching, a tradition which excluded most black women for decades after slavery.

The sound of the black feminine in worship is thus a symbol for black women’s triumph over historically masculine arenas of writing, history, and form. The shout and the gendered worship sound can be placed in critical triangulation with Fred Moten’s “shriek,” as theorized in In the Break (2003)  An expression of the distinct suffering of the black female, the shriek is a primal “phono-photo-porno-graphic disruption” of spirit and matter, and other binaries (14).  The shout, the feminine worship sound, and the shriek all take center stage as black female performances which disrupt oppressive categories and assert the black woman’s voice as triumphant.

Shouting as Public Ecstasy, Scopophilia, and Sonophilia

Many observers have noted the shout’s resemblance to sexual ecstasy.  The shout is often expressed through the sounds, movements, and facial expressions commonly associated with sex.  Some shouters close their eyes and moan.  Some hug themselves around the waist or bend over the pew in front of them, rubbing their own shoulders, bellies, or thighs.  Some roll about the floor, hollering or speaking in tongues.  Some whisper His Name, as in closest intimacy to a lover.  Some dance with abandon before the altar or in the aisles before collapsing, spent and panting.  Some quiver quietly in deepest distraction.

Shouters in the throes of their ecstasy are closely observed by all within the church community.  Members of church communities often mark shared remembrances by who shouted, when, and how.  Even young children can be called upon to reproduce the shouts of various church members. The conspicuousness of the shout provides reason to consider it as spectacle containing pleasure for both the shouter and those who gaze upon her.

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Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”  discusses “scopophilia” as a phenomenon occurring in “circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at” (587).  In the moment in which a shout goes forth, those shouters who are aware of being watched—not all are—and their gazers may be said to enter into mutual pleasure from being watched and from watching.  For the observer, the pleasure arising from the sight-based stimulation is often compounded by the narcissism of the ego which seeks to identify with its source.  This may explain why in highly charged church moments, shouts become highly communicable—“thriving in concert,” as Zora Neale Hurston once phrased it.  Looking upon another in worship ecstasy can be understood to reinforce one’s own relation to the Holy and to stir desire to engage that relation through shouting.

There is sufficient cause to assign  what I call a  “sonophilic”aspect to shouting as well, as shouting never fails to take place but within a context of sound.  This sonophilic component should be understood as the means by which the sounds of ecstasy coming from a shouter provide stimulation and identification in the listener, who may in turn become a shouter.  It must be noted, however, that the sonophilia can emanate from sources other than the shouter.  Shouts are often roused by a complex network of sounds.  Within a service, preaching and verbal exhortations, prayers, congregational chants and songs, and instrumental music designed to buoy sermonic delivery or to capitalize on swells of emotion often work in tandem to provide the sound-based pleasure essential to shouting.

Image by Flickr User Steve Schwartz

A Final Shout-Out to Shouting

From West Africa to North America, from slavery to emancipation, from the eighteenth century into the present day, the black ecstatic in the form of shouting has served several important purposes for black women.  Black women’s general and persistent preoccupation with the relationship between the spiritual and the sensual, the cornerstone of black female intellectualism in my view, was first and foremost expressed in the practice of shouting.  The shout can be understood as the primary site upon which black women made the spiritual physical and rendered the sensual holy.

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Furthermore, in eras in which black women were customarily denied the right to preach and were granted but limited authority within church communities, the shout communicated a woman’s ability to engage the Holy.  This proven ability undoubtedly helped to open doors for the thousands of black women who now preach and pastor all over the country. Shouting has also provided much needed relief for the unique pressures of the black female in North America, absorbing and transforming her hurts and frustrations and replacing them, down through the centuries, with the hope and strength vital to her survival.

Featured Image Credit: Flickr User Steve Schwartz

Shakira Holt is a thirteen-year classroom veteran and currently teaches high school English in Los Angeles County. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California, and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. She is deeply concerned about the intersections of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and politics in the public sphere. She is a lazy poet, a latent novelist, an intermittent blogger, a retired songwriter, and a reluctant karaoke singer. A licensed Baptist minister, she is but slowly working her way back to the pulpit. “I Love to Praise His Name” is her first published piece.

Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death

“Many men wish death up on me/ blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/ I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/ and niggas tryna take my life away” –50 Cent, “Many Men (Death Wish)”

After hearing about the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot to death by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I grappled with the urge to grab my godsons, nephews, cousins, brothers, and husband and never let go. I grappled with the Du Boisian question of the color-line, redressing it to consider “what does it feel like to be not only a problem but a target?” With these thoughts in my mind, I especially grappled with listening to the audio records of the 911 calls documenting the death of Trayvon Martin, just released late Friday March 16thby the Sanford police department.

I have mixed reasoning as to why I listened to the tapes. Part of me was just being nosy, but there was a deeper, far reaching curiosity stemming from my southern roots. As a Georgia girl, I was raised by Georgia men. My grandfather vividly recounted horrific stories of lynchings and beatings that happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” My mindset, like that of many, shifted to thinking about Trayvon’s death as a lynching. These tapes gave sonic urgency to a historically silent crime. In a word, Trayvon’s desperate screams gave voice to the countless men and women before him who died at the hands of white vigilantism.

As I listened to the distraught callers—and Trayvon’s final screams and pleas for his life—my mind became a mosh pit of emotions. Pissed, my mental playlist shuffled to 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Death Wish).”

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I imagine Trayvon walking as the haunting piano and strings at the start of “Many Men” accompany his steps. He anxiously questions Zimmerman– “Why are you following me?” – in a similarly anxious way as 50 Cent can be heard asking “what’s taking homie so long, son?” and the shot rings out. As Trayvon screams and falls, the hard hitting boom fills the silent void. His lifeless body lays face down in the dirt, a lone piano softly signifying vulnerability as 50 Cent’s chorus starts: “many men wish death upon me/blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/and niggas tryna take my life away.” Situating Trayvon Martin’s final moments in a song by 50 Cent is discomforting, yet speaks to the reality and imaginative scripts of black masculinity as violent. The physical gunshot to Martin’s chest echoes the allegorical shots heard in the “Many Men” track and those in songs like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya,” as another example, simultaneously blur and re-enforce black death as fantasy and normative. The 911 calls documenting Trayvon Martin’s death heard in concert with 50 Cent’s song sonically reify (gun) violence as a dominant discourse of black male identity. Indeed, Trayvon, I know who shot ya and gave you a death wish. I cannot, however, understand why.

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The sonic surveillance of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s run-in—documented by the numerous accounts of neighbors who heard something but did not go outside—presents a juxtaposition of expected black male identity with the vulnerability of a horrified child forced into a criminalized space of black masculinity. In Zimmerman’s 911 call–listen via the Huffington Post here–he nonchalantly and at time heavily sighs about Martin’s blackness and its associated threat – “he’s black,” “he looks suspicious,” “he’s up to no good.” The passivity of Zimmerman’s voice reflects his bridging of (young) black masculinity as threatening. The panicked callers’ voices, however, represent reprieve and reinstate Trayvon’s humanity. The Trayvon Martin 911 recordings, then, are a mixtape of his final moments, sampling the voices of the various callers to construct Trayvon’s fatal narrative. Ultimately, the callers give voice to the vulnerabilities that Trayvon was deemed unable to evoke or possess by default as a black male.

50 Cent by Flickr User Frank MeeuwsenI use the word “mixtape” here to argue that the frequencies of trauma in which the (white) listener situates Trayvon Martin’s death must be heard within a larger understanding of sound as a commodified and racialized space. Ultimately, the recordings of Trayvon’s death are a sonic reflection of a long history of white America’s treatment of black bodies as capital. In negotiating the black (male) body as a commodity – which is historically and culturally significant – sounding the black male body as a commodity contextualizes this moment of expected black masculine performance for nonblack listeners. It needs to be noted how pathological black masculinity is profitable and mutually invested in by black men and white consumers alike. Briefly referring back to 50 Cent, he performs and is validated by the violence his narrative possesses. He knowingly invests in the exaggeration of his experience – he really was shot – and builds his image upon that paranoia. In In the Break, Fred Moten discusses the sonic commodification of blackness as “not what the commodity says but that the commodity says or, more properly, that commodity in its ability to say, must be made to say” (9). Situating black rappers’ narratives and, extensively, black men’s narratives as a commodity speaks to how the ambiguity of such narratives relegate blackness to a position of profitable, essentialized discourse. Moten suggests sounding blackness as a commodity is an effort to address these ambiguities, linking the privilege of speaking and constructing black (masculine) narrative, not content, as culturally and capitalistically recognizable and significant.

Trayvon’s political agency is invested in the violence placed upon his body by public scrutiny as a black man before there is any vulnerability as a child. Thrust instead into the position of ‘suspicious’ black man in a predominately white middle-class gated community, Trayvon the child bears the public scripts of expected black masculine performance, which are both visual and sonic. These expectations of popular culture and public opinion distort Trayvon’s sonic imprint, rendering him unable to vocalize and physically relay his desperate need for help.

As Mark Anthony Neal points out in a his March 19th New Black Man post “Hearing Trayvon Die” linking hearing Trayvon Martin’s death to a scene of a grieving Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) from the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Waters’s pain is heard but not seen: “part of the reason that Jeffrey Wright’s howling had to be experienced off screen is that we have little understanding of Black males, as vulnerable, in pain, under duress, in terror and confronting death.” The impact of the lack Neal describes emphasizes the necessity for a sonic imposition of such vulnerabilities. In this case, the agency of this need is heightened by the audience being forced to listen to Trayvon’s frantic screams for help on tapes, thus humanizing him before racializing his body.

Yet it is Trayvon’s alleged screams – which I undoubtedly believe ARE his screams– that also sonically invoke his humanity. On the recording, heart-wrenching screams for help are silenced by the forceful pop of a gunshot, the silence signifying multi-layered historical and cultural indicator of Trayvon’s worth as a black boy in American society. Trayvon’s screams vocalize the agonizing silent demise of the murdered black boys before him. . .Oscar Grant. . .Amadou Diallo. . .Emmett Till. His screams are an echo of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester’s screams, recorded in his 1845 Narrative, acknowledgement of the cruelty and continued viability of longstanding—even foundational—racial prejudice and violence that exists within the contemporary ‘postracial’ American agenda.

The Million Hoodies Union Square protest in New York against the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by Flick'R User David Shankbone

Moreover, Trayvon’s scream also concisely signifiy the ongoing “upheaval” and chaotic existence of black men that Moten suggests “pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity” (1). Trayvon’s screams amplify a tragic dimension of what I theorize as “sonic cool pose,” where black masculinity is only cool if accompanied – instrumentally, lyrically, and otherwise – with violence. In this regard, the sonic signifiers that mark death—like the gunshots and screams that introduce 50 Cent’s “Many Men,” for example—are Trayvon’s. Both built upon the traumatic condition frequently faced by men and boys of color, Trayvon and 50 Cent’s lived experiences can be heard as sonically interchangeable despite obvious differences in class position. Through sound and the American popular imagination, black manhood is virulently fluid. There is a universal, stereotypical understanding that black masculinity resorts to identical markers of lived experience. This awareness is especially heightened and dominant in sound, where 50 Cent’s shooting on the corner parallels Trayvon’s shooting in a gated townhome community.

The release of the 911 audio of Trayvon Martin’s death is a powerful intervention in maneuvering black masculinity and violence in American (popular) culture. There is a delicate and simultaneous reading of the recordings as a sonic realization of black masculine violence and a fetishizing of a violated black male body. The sounds they contain amplify a continued American investment and interest in the black pathological narrative while doubly intervening as an alternative reading of such negotiations of black manhood. Whether sounded across a courtyard in a gated suburban neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens—or in the isolation booth in a recording studio—these frantic and desperate screams are sonic imprints of his social-cultural relevance. They may bleed into one another, but they won’t fade away.

R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).

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

In the beginning there were no words.  In the beginning was the sound and they all knew what the sound sounded like. –Toni Morrison, Beloved

How were Truth's words heard? By whom?

A conversation in my Black Feminist Theories class on the two versions of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech from the Ohio Women’s Convention—the one published in 1863 that renders her words in a black southern dialect or the 1851 version that does not—elicited the following story about listening. A black male student was student teaching/observing in a classroom — the teacher was white, the student teacher black.  The exercise he observed involved transcribing speech and then reading it back.  A black male student in the classroom spoke and the white teacher and black student teacher each transcribed the speech and read their transcriptions aloud.  The white teacher’s transcription/recording was in dialect, the black student teacher’s was not. The student teacher maintained that what and how the white teacher heard the black student was not, in fact, either what or how the black student spoke.

Discussions like these have spurred me to meditate more deeply on sound. And now that I’ve really begun to consider it, texts have become much noisier places; the white spaces and black marks becoming places for reading and hearing.  Thinking more deeply about sonic affinities and communities has helped me really begin to understand how sound shapes sight and sight shapes sound.

An example: Since reading Fred Moten’s In the Break, in particular “The Resistance of the Object,” it’s not only impossible for me to read the scene of Captain Anthony’s beating/rape of Aunt Hester in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative without hearing Abbey Lincoln’s hums, moans, and screams, it is not possible for me to read the entire text without populating it with sound, even as those sounds are, in my imagining of them, not always specific.

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Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that I am aware that the world that the text references is a world filled with sounds peculiar to it, many of which may no longer be present in our contemporary world.  At the same time, I try to bring at least some of those sounds—talking drums, field hollers, whips cracking, the sounds of chains, etc.—and approximations of sounds into the classroom when I teach Douglass’s Narrative and My Bondage and My Freedom (as well as when I teach other texts).

In “The Word and the Sound: Listening to the Sonic Colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” (2011) Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman writes, “The emphasis Douglass places on divergent listening practices shows how they shape (and are shaped by) race, exposing and resisting the aural edge of the ostensibly visual culture of white supremacy, what I have termed the “sonic colour-line” (21).  Stoever-Ackerman riffs on Elizabeth Alexander’s “Can you be BLACK and Look at This: Reading the Rodney King Video” (and Alexander riffs on Pat Ward Williams’sAccused, Blowtorch, Padlock”) to ask, “Can you be WHITE and (really) LISTEN to this?” or alternatively, “Are you white because of HOW you listen to this?” (21).

Pat Ward Williams's "Accused/Blowtorch/Padlock" (1986), Courtesy of the Artist and the New Museum, New York

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In his review of Shane White and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech (Beacon Press, 2005) in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Urban History, Robert Desrochers contrasts the abolitionists who were attuned to how to make a white audience hear the sounds that surrounded and produced the (performances of the formerly) enslaved, to the “Virginia patriarch who failed to mention the singing of his slaves even once in a diary that ran to hundreds of manuscript pages” (754).  Given these examples of the ways that many white ears had to be systematically attuned to hearing slavery’s sounds as well as the understanding that, “the very things that made slave sounds distinctive—chants, grunts, and groans; melismatic, repetitious, and improvisational lyric play; pitch and tonal inflections and cadences; timbral variations, polyrhythms, and heterophonic harmonies—struck whites mostly as strange, inappropriate, wrong” (754)—the answers to Stoever-Ackerman’s questions may be respectively “no” and “yes” (or several combinations of no and yes), particularly if we engage “whiteness” as an ideology and not simply (or not only) a “raced” description of those people constituted socially and legally as (presumably) white.

It was with these kinds of questions of sound and sonic whiteness on my mind (especially this question of who hears, who doesn’t hear, and then again what is and isn’t heard) that I read and was brought up short by Helen Vendler’s recent November 24, 2011 New York Review of Books review of Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. In this piece, Vendler takes Dove to task for what she considers the anthology’s over-inclusiveness (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading”), the “accessibility” of the poems (“short poems of rather restricted vocabulary”), and the appearance of a large number of black and other non-white poets in the latter part of the twentieth-century. In short, from Vendler’s perspective, Dove is choosing “sociology” and complaint over artistry; mixing the wheat and the chaff.

Vendler writes, “Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.”

And Vendler on Dove on Hart Crane: “sometimes one wonders whether Dove is being hasty. She speaks, for instance, of ‘the cacophony of urban life on Hart Crane’s bridge.’ But the bridge in his ‘Proem’ exhibits no noisy ‘cacophony’; its panorama is a silent one. The seagull flies over it; the madman noiselessly leaps from ‘the speechless caravan’ into the water; its cables breathe the North Atlantic; the traffic lights condense eternity as they skim the bridge’s curve, which resembles a ‘sigh of stars’; the speaker watches in silence under the shadow of the pier; and the bridge vaults the sea. The automatic—and not apt—association of an urban scene with noise has generated Dove’s ‘cacophony.’”

Why does Vendler insist on silence where Dove joins sight and sound?  That Vendler imagines silence and takes Dove to task for attaching cacophony to the city scene in the bridge poem is a struggle over meaning, over epistemology and ontology.  How is Vendler registering not only the poem but also the entire text differently?  This isn’t the only instance of Vendler’s insistent sonic “whiteness” whereby and wherein the reading of the poem, the anthology, and the anthologizer herself are disciplined.

Can you hear these poems? Image by Crossett Library Bennington College

Speechlessness though, is not soundlessness, and it seems to me that Dove locates herself on the bridge (and in the soundscape of the contemporary written poem) such that she hears the water, the seagull, and the leap and curve and flap of gull and man. As Dove herself responded (also in the New York Review of Books), “A cursory sweep over just the section [Vendler] excerpted in my anthology yields a host of extraordinary sounds: what with trains whistling their “wail into distances,” chanting road gangs, papooses crying—even men crunching down on tobacco quid—my gasp of surprise at Vendler’s blunder can barely be heard.”

In Vendler’s remarks and Dove’s response we might read the kind of cultural dissonance that continues to both construct and give insight into how different communities of readers and listeners are formed and the ways they are and aren’t racialized.  By the end of the review, Vendler wants to be heard by those whom she imagines as the anthology’s likely readers: she wants to turn to them and “say,” to “cry out,” that there are better poems than those included here. For the sounds that in this anthology that Vendler hears most often in the “minor” poems, in the “minority” poets, and the “minority” anthologizer, are simplicity, noise, and needless complaint. And Vendler and Dove have been here before – see Vendler on Dove and Delaney on Vendler and Dove.)

But despite the debate putting poetry front and center and enacting ways that it matters, Vendler’s critique and Dove’s response are each conservative, though in quite different ways.  Neither Vendler nor Dove in the review, anthology, and defense of the anthology imagines the inclusion of spoken word, hip-hop (see Howard Rambsy II), and other forms of contemporary rhyme and verse that speak to a broad range of audiences across race, sex, and class.  The inclusion of rap might further change the tenor of the conversation, opening up in important ways the debate over what counts as poetry, and expanding how black musical and poetic forms are heard and by whom.

Christina Sharpe is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Tufts University where she also directs American Studies.  Her book Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects was published in 2010 by Duke University Press.  Her current book project is Memory for Forgetting: Blackness, Whiteness, and Cultures of Surprise.

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