Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all include assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, and let’s listen to Shakira Holt‘s playlists, compiled by three of her high school graduates. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
This past school year, in my roles as a high school teacher who likes what music can do for the classroom environment and as a Link Crew Coordinator who oversees student leaders as they host a mixture of freshman-only and schoolwide events, I frequently found myself sternly censoring black female student contributions to musical playlists. Although I emphasized the criterion of “clean” with increasing exasperation, my students just did not seem to get it. Strangely overlooking “ni**a,” “f***,” and “s**t,” they brought me songs, which, if played, would have gotten me called into the principal’s office, literally. When they triumphantly approached me with “clean” versions, they typically cast not a moment’s thought towards the lyrical content of drugging, drinking, fighting, and sexing, topics no less hazardous for campus play. Clearly, my students and I were working from battling notions of “clean.”For them, “clean” was a concept fully bound up in and therefore fully resolved by language alone; in their view of things, to excise the problematic language was to expel the problem. For me, however, “clean” also included ideas such as “not sipping, smoking, popping, or shooting anything,” “not beating, kicking, hitting, shooting, or stabbing anyone,” as well as “not offering a play-by-play of actual or desired intimate activity.” Then there were some of the songs’ seemingly innocuous but just as troubling projections of sad, turbulent, co-dependent visions of love which often turn on the most toxic, tired iterations of normative gender expectations and almost always wound me up to deliver long, moralistic speeches on relationships.
Feeling every bit the forty-year old school marm that I am, I remain abundantly clear on my objections to these songs for general classroom and campus use. However, I confess that my effectual silencing of these young women never sat quite right with me. It nagged me with worries over what I was really refusing to hear, to make space for by shutting off the voices of these young black women in this way.
However outré, daring, or trouble-making I may fancy myself as a scholar and thinker, when placed within the K-12 context, I am, it turns out, your average, workaday campus censor. I hypocritically feign alarm at cussing. I fake-clear my throat with loud ahems whenever that blue talk ventures into the X-rated. While I fully respect the creativity and naughtiness of student-to-student speech and spend a good bit of time pretending not to hear what is meant to be conversation among peers, there is a limit I feel compelled to enforce. Whenever the volume grows too loud for me to pretend not to have heard or when the word choice becomes spectacularly adventurous, the expectations of the classroom/campus setting demand my intervention. Dutifully, I step in as judge and censor.
Nor is this a singular feature of schools. Places and spaces of all kinds depend heavily upon the extent to which both occupants and itinerants adhere to place-based expected modes of behavior and speech. It is important to note that even when enforced and observed by people of color, these behavior and speech norms remain overwhelmingly middle-class and white in origin and character, which can lead to interesting, sometimes alarming, and even deadly implications for people of color who enter “allegedly public” spaces without observing these norms, as Jennifer Lynn Stoever points out. In the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line: Race & the Cultural Politics of Listening, Stoever argues that in failing to act or speak in ways that reflect the place-based expected modes of behavior and speech governing such spaces, people of color frequently run the risk of falling prey to what she calls “white Americans’…implicit, sometimes violent, control over…an ostensibly ‘free,’ ‘open,’ and ‘public’ space” (2). This risk, as Stoever illustrates, often exposes non-compliant people of color to condemnation, confrontation, and even bodily harm.
The collision of place/space, race, and gender is a natural element of life in the U.S. and has become a regular and needful facet of contemporary national discourse. In a brilliant analysis of this collision as it took place in the 2013 George Zimmerman trial, Regina Bradley explores how the presence of Rachel Jeantel laid bare the way in which enforcement of place-based norms is often racialized and gendered. Rachel Jeantel is the young black woman whose body, comportment, and speech set off waves of derision and controversy as she testified in court regarding the last living moments of her close friend, Trayvon Martin. Bradley recalls how critics ignored Jeantel’s anguish, her grief, and her trauma in order to train excessive focus on her “refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom.” The courtroom’s “cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood” demand overt demonstrations of respect, if not outright intimidation, passivity, and general humility in tone and demeanor which would typically compensate for any deviations from Standard American English speech norms. Jeantel’s speech played only by the rules of what Brittney Cooper has called “her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom” as created by her “Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages—Haitian Kreyol…Spanish, and English—that she speaks,” and not by the rules of SAE. Thus lacking both the gentle mien expected of black women in court and an acceptable mainstream speech pattern, Jeantel suffered a broad range of brutal racist, classist, and sizeist critiques centering not only on her attitude and her speech, but also on her weight, her skin tone, her hair, and her general unfitness for public consumption.
Like the courtroom, the K-12 classroom and campus are place-based contexts that possess their own “expected cultural and aural scripts.” These scripts prescribe and police such speech elements as volume, tone, syntax, diction, and content. Like courtrooms and other spaces, the K-12 classroom and campus can easily become oppositional, and sometimes downright antagonistic, towards the young black female people who occupy these spaces while speaking their “own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom[s].” The idiosyncrasies of their idioms can so completely transgress the K-12 cultural and aural script that these young black female people often lose the right of being heard altogether, of achieving any attention at all beyond opprobrium for their transgressiveness. Bradley writes pointedly of Jeantel, “Her emotionally charged question ‘are you listening?’ jolted not only [George Zimmerman’s attorney, Don] West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?” I find overwhelming resonance here because when I reframe my students’ playlists and song choices as alternative types of “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” I must also reframe myself as an agent of what Bradley calls “hyper-respectability,” a source of censure and scorn. I must then answer Jeantel and Bradley’s questions honestly: For most of the year, I was not listening to my black female students. Too preoccupied with listening for speech that matched the cultural and aural scripts of the K-12 classroom and campus, I repeatedly silenced idiosyncratic black girl idiom, enacting an all too-frequent response to black female voices.
This sin against my students becomes even clearer when I consider it in the context of terms set forth by Robin James in “How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence.” James discusses at length how music criticism can inflict great violence upon “black women’s cultural and creative work” by “recentering [white] men as authorities and experts.” When white men are recentered as omniscient, innately generic, and consummately universal arbiters of culture and artistry, cultural and creative work emerging from outside of their personal and cultural frames of reference become subjected to filters, demands, and expectations often inapplicable or inappropriate to the work but especially to the black female experiences and vantage points from which that work arises. Hence the “epistemic violence” of which James’ title speaks. Without difficulty, I can replace James’ “black women’s cultural and creative work” with Cooper’s “idiosyncratic black girl idiom,” or even have my own go at it with “black female vision and voice.” I can then also substitute James’ “recenter[ed white] men with “recentered elder/teacher/agent of hyper-respectability.” Having done so, I arrive once again at the epistemic and ontological violence I enacted upon my students—for good reason, of course, but to the same unfortunate end.
My intention is not to intimate that I should have green lighted their every choice and let their music go blaring from the loud speaker at lunch while high school kids enjoyed our classic recess days, during which big kids actually had fun at lunch, dancing and tossing the football (girls, too!) and jumping double-dutch. In retrospect, I see now that there was a way to keep that aural space PG-13 AND to listen deeply to the songs that mattered most to these young women, to hear not only what the songs were saying to them but more importantly to hear what they were saying through the songs. I am saddened that I could have been generating ways throughout the year to center and amplify the very black female student voices I stifled and silenced far too often, for far too long.
This post is an attempt at redemption for all my huffy exasperation and my quickness to relieve them of the aux cord this school year. Enlisting the help of the three seniors (now graduates) who bore the brunt of all my aux cord snatching, I have set about putting things right. I asked them to compile playlists of their top five songs, along with the lyrics. I then asked these young women either to come in and speak with me about their songs or to submit written commentary about the music they chose. I took off all restrictions and encouraged them to select whatever songs their hearts desired.
When I first imagined the critical value of engaging in this project, I figured that I might be able to mine their playlists and commentaries for some Patricia Hill Collins-esque crystallization of black female thought as it exists at this moment, late in the second decade of the new millennium, among high school seniors on the cusp of black womanhood in a country which remains steadfastly anti-woman, anti-black, and anti-black woman. That is indeed a worthy project and one which deserves completion. For this post, however, I simply want to listen to my students at long last. I want to listen closely, and I want to listen deeply. I want others to listen to them, too.
Attending fully to the thoughts and words and feelings of black female people, is but one means of expressing a form of love I call philogynoir. Clearly, this term plays with and off of Moya Bailey’s misogynoir, which she defined upon its 2010 inception as a “the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture.” Philogynoir is my attempt to rise to the challenge of naming, which Bailey identified as essential to addressing social ills. She told Mic.com last year, “I think we have to refine language in a lot of different ways so we can actually come up with solutions that help the communities we want to address,” she said. “When you use language that’s generic or unspecific you can get at some of the problem, but not all of it.”
If misogynoir calls out racist-sexist hatred aimed squarely at black women so that that hatred can be challenged and ultimately eliminated, then the concept of philogynoir provides a name for conscious gestures of love towards those same people—words, acts, and artifacts of acknowledgement, admiration, and adoration which have the potential to neutralize and ultimately undo the effects of the hatred. Deep listening, as I imagine it, in its potential to affirm, to humanize, to dignify, and to amplify, can be activated as a powerful form of philogynoir.
Other than the chance to redress my teacherly wrongs, the greatest honor I experienced in this philogynoir project was the opportunity to attend to the hurts of my students by listening to their distress, their agony. To be sure, their playlists and commentaries demonstrate that the idiosyncratic black girl idiom is highly equipped to express a full range of feelings, thoughts, experiences, and yearnings, so I hesitate to make any move which might define and confine the black female experience or its idiosyncratic idiom only in terms of pain and trauma, especially when there is such little space for black girl pain beyond its most fetishized pop culture iterations. The pain and the trauma are there, however, and deserve witness and respect.
I call attention to the pain and the trauma in my students’ idiosyncratic black girl idiom because it is precious. These are sacred hurts, holy injuries—not because they were inflicted by a deity, but because where they touched the lives of these young women, they became creative forces, shaping the signs and symbols by which these young women will know and be known, by which they will call and be called. There is tragedy here, yes, and terrible misery—but there is also mystery and great, thrilling, healing power, as well. My fervent wish for these young women is that with time, they will come to embrace the mystery and to know healing in every hurting place. My prayer is that they will each, in time, wield that creative force of their own accord to make something beautiful and lasting in the genius of their own idiosyncratic black girl idiom.
What follows are the playlists, with commentary, of these three young black women (whose names I have changed), both bespeaking and spoken in the “idiosyncratic black girl idiom” of each individual young woman, articulating each unique voice and vision and innately honoring the experiences that have shaped them. I have included no critiques of the songs or even of their commentaries. For the time being, these playlists represent a sacred line in the sand across which I will not venture with critique.
I am simply listening now. I’m listening to them, and I’m listening for them…in solidarity and in love.
- Long Song Away by Kevin Ross
This whole song is jazzy, especially the intro. It’s about a girl in the rush of it all. I connected to it because I had so many responsibilities at home. I never had time for fun. My life was joyless. I was like a robot. I finally had to have a conversation with my mom and let her know that she would have to let me live a little and be young. There had to be some kind of fun in my life. This song is about slowing down and just letting the record play.
- Confidently Lost by Sabrina Claudio
This song speaks to me. I’ve been lost before and I got to a place where I was comfortable with my lostness. I love the part about “I don’t need you to find me cuz I’m not hiding anything.” This is a good soul/R&B song about how hard it is to figure out what will bring you fulfillment but that’s not a bad place to be. Being lost is not necessarily anything negative. It means you’re going somewhere.
- Redbone by Childish Gambino
This song makes me want to put on some skates and roll-bounce to it. A lot of people like the groove on this song, but they miss the deeper meaning. It’s telling people to wake up and be known for who you are. It has a lot of references to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the dangers involved in being black. When he says “scandalous” and “creep up on you,” he’s talking about police brutality and racism, especially with the president we have now, and when he says “greenlight,” that’s a code for “wake up” as in “be woke.”
- Location by Khalid
This one is about early teenage love and it’s talking about how we are all too attached to our electronics, so when he says “send me your location,” he’s talking about using the electronics as a way to get to face-to-face communication.
- Put It On Me by Jah Rule feat. Lil Mo & Vita
I like this song maybe because I was born in them days. It’s about a thug and his ride-or-die chick. I like the part when he says, “Every thug needs a lady.” But this song actually means more to me than just the song. In my family, I have many family members who have ties to gangs. I’m looking out for my little brother and doing everything I can to keep him from that life. One of the things we do is perform in the house. We always do this song, like we act it out and everything. So I always think of my brother when I hear this song, especially the part where he says, “Where would I be without you?” I’m that person for my brother. If I wasn’t there for him, he’d be in a gang. I also have a close friend who used to be affiliated, but she’s not anymore. I think about her on the part where it says, “A tear for a tear,” because when she cries, I cry.
- Coming Out Strong by Future & The Weekend
I chose this song because it reminds me that no matter what, I can never give up on myself even if I’m in a bad position in life.
- Do For Love by TuPac
I like this song because it tells a story and the way TuPac loves the girl and never gave up on her….I wish someone could do the same for me.
I chose these two songs by this particular singer because she talks about love in a different aspect compared to everyone else these days. Her take on love is different, like it’s more thoughtful and more mature. It’s not just sex and drama.
- Candy by Cameo
I chose this song because I just have to have some funk in my life. LOL
- Ride of Your Life by Tinashe
I like the beat of this song and it’s kind of catchy in a way.
- Habits (Stay High) by Tove Lo
I chose this song because after my first love broke my heart, I developed bad habits because my heart was traumatized.
- Kiss It Better by Rihanna
I wish someone could kiss my heart better, but it seems like everyone is the same.
- Party Monster by The Weekend
After my bad habits formed like having sex with no love interest hoping it would make me feel better some type of way….This song talks about sex, drugs, and waking up next to someone and not really knowing them.
- The Letter by Kehlani
“‘The Letter’ by Kehlani is featured on her album You Should Be Here. It was released in April of 2015. The song speaks on a loved one who abandoned Kehlani at a young age. She references her mother, and it goes through the motions of abandonment and feeling unwanted. In the song, she says,
Why bring me into the light?
Must have done something
To make you want to run and hide
Why oh why didn’t you just live your life?
And every girl needs a mother, and dammit, I needed you.
I chose this song because it was the first time I felt like I could personally and truly relate to art. My mother left my life when I was 15. Similar to Kehlani in the song, I had so many things going on in my head for years. But then I heard the song…and it said everything I didn’t know how to say at the time. I blamed myself like she did for a while, and I questioned her motives every day. My mother left during a crucial stage of my childhood, and it’s something I still don’t know how to recover from. The experience in this song plays a role in my story because it showed me that I’m not the only one, and that I had a choice to let the loss make me or break me. I chose for it to make me stronger.”
- Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac
“Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac was featured on his album Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.Z. which debuted in February of 1993. This song talks about a lot of issues in today’s society but particularly women’s roles. He speaks on rape culture and women’s rights.
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women — do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up
I chose this song because it relates to my womanhood. Tupac speaks on our lesser value in today’s society and our mistreatment. Women are allowed to be raped without any repercussions and we are constantly STILL fighting for our own rights, even today.
- 1st of Tha Month by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
“1st of Tha Month” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony is featured on their 1999 Eternal album. The song centers around receiving welfare checks in lower income areas and how the community rejoices.
Wake up, wake up, wake up
It’s the 1st of the month
So get up, get up, get up
So cash your checks and come up
I chose this song because I know that feeling, of not having much to eat all month. Sometimes you could feel that emptiness and you resort to doing things you wouldn’t normally do if you weren’t put in that situation. Getting those checks brought solace to my household. That economic struggle made me who I am, and made me appreciate so much. But the 1st of the month… The whole hood would feel that deposit.
- Weary Blues by Louis Armstrong
“Weary Blues” by Louis Armstrong was released in the year of 1925 and is featured on his Jazz Collected album, collaborating with Hot Five and Hot Seven. The song feels like soul. With the rhythm, all the way to the emotion, you can feel celebration. I chose this song because it reminds me of Louisiana itself. It reminds me of Mardi Gras, the crawfish, the Southern lingo. It reminds me of my Southern culture which plays a huge role in my life.
- Wishing by Edo G feat. Masta Ace
“Wishing” by Edo G and Masta Ace is featured on Edo G’s album, My Own Worst Enemy, which released in 2004. The song speaks about problems reflected in the system, that need to be addressed. Being lied to by presidents, lack of healthcare, blacks being murdered, drugs, and many other issues. In the first verse Masta Ace says,
I wish the president would stop lying
Black babies would stop crying
And young brothers would stop dying
I wish the police would stop killing
Politicians stop stealing and acting like they not dealing
When they know they got bricks in the street
I’ve chosen this song, because it speaks about problems that often are ignored that go on within my community. It also speaks about political corruption, which is something I care about. These issues affect me as an American because they are American issues. Being black and low income, you are subjected to a lot of different deprivations. This song highlights them and throws up a red flag. For change.
Featured image: “Afro Punk Fest 2013” by Flickr user J-No, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Shakira Holt is a lifelong Los Angeles resident and teaches literature on the secondary level. 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. o
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
This April forum, Acts of Sonic Intervention, explores what we over here at Sounding Out! are calling “Sound Studies 2.0”–the movement of the field beyond the initial excitement for and indexing of sound toward new applications and challenges to the status quo.
Two years ago at the first meeting of the European Sound Studies Association, I was inspired by the work of scholar and sound artist Linda O’Keeffe and her compelling application of the theories and methodologies of sound studies to immediate community issues. In what would later become a post for SO!, “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” O’Keeffe discussed her Smithfield Square project and how she taught local Dublin high school students field recording methodologies and then tasked them with documenting how they heard the space of the recently square and the displacement of their lives within it. For me, the idea was electrifying, and I worked to enact a public praxis of my own via the ReSounding Binghamton project and the Binghamton Historical Soundwalk Project. Both are still in their initial stages; the work has been fascinating and rewarding, but arduous, slow, and uncharted. Acts of Sonic Intervention stems from my own hunger to hear more from scholars, artists, theorists, and/or practicioners to guide my own efforts and to inspire others to take up this challenge. Given the exciting knowledge that the field has produced regarding sound and power (a good amount of it published here), can sound studies actually be a site for civic intervention, disruption, and resistance?
In the forum we will catch up with Linda O’Keeffe‘s newest project, a pilot workshop with older people at the U3A (University of the Third Age) centre in Foyle, Derry “grounded in an examination of the digital divide, social inclusion and the formation of artists collectives.” Artist Luz Maria Sanchez will give us privilege of a behind-the-scenes discussion of her latest work, “detritus.2: The Sounds and Images of Postnational Violence in Mexico.” We will also hear from artist, theorist, and writer Salomé Voegelin, who will treat us to a multimedia re-sonification of the keynote she gave at 2014’s Invisible Places, Sounding Cities conference in Viseu, Portugal, “Sound Art as Public Art,” which revivified the idea of the “civic” as a social responsibility enacted through sound and listening. Today we begin with longtime SO! community member and writer, Christie Zwahlen, Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, who argues that any act of intervention must necessarily begin with self-reflexivity and examination of how one listens. If you decide that a community is in need, can you still hear what they have to say?
Community engagement is an important piece of Sound Studies 2.0, the latest iteration of the field that moves beyond discovering and justifying sound as an object of study and toward a politics and praxis of intervention. New knowledge about sound and listening can both be produced through and actively inform community-based work. Likewise, sound studies can inform the theory and practice of community engagement in meaningful ways.
Listening plays a critical role in the field of community engagement, insofar as our work is undertaken in response to community-articulated needs. Though needs can be expressed through various modes, listening to residents and community partners remains crucially important to our work as practitioners. As has been reiterated countless times, the strength of relationships is what drives and sustains community-based work and enables collaborative endeavors. Yet, as important as listening is to this work, it is rarely, if ever, discussed in sonic terms. We know that listening both produces and perpetuates power inequity, yet have neglected to examine how listening mediates our understanding (or lack thereof) of community needs.
Thus, as Jennifer Stoever’s recent Sounding Out! post argues for the importance of a civically engaged sound studies, I am also arguing for the importance of a sonically informed community engagement praxis, one that demands self-reflexivity about our own listening practices as we attempt to identify community needs. What does “need” sound like? To whom? How has the state of being “in need” been sonically constructed by dominant modes of listening and the sonic color-line? How can we, as Community Engagement practitioners, guard against the compulsion to hear needs articulated in the absence of their verbal expression? In other words. what do we hear–or not hear–when we listen through the power-laden filter of “neediness”?
Like Sound Studies, Community Engagement is considered a relatively new field. Often equated to a movement within higher education, it has built steam on the strength of its learning outcomes for students engaged in Service-Learning and other high impact learning experiences. Furthermore, many higher education institutions explicitly prioritize working with their communities towards positive public outcomes in their mission statements, positioning outcomes for community residents as equally important to student learning.
Both research and practice have taught us that community engagement is most effective when based on community-articulated needs. Projects should address genuine needs as voiced by the community. As Barbara Jacoby writes in Service-Learning in Higher Education, “an effective [service-learning] program allows for those with needs to define those needs” (42). This central tenet of community engagement praxis issues a power check on community-campus partnerships and attempts to shield community members from the sometimes arrogance of University “experts” who falsely believe in their ability to speak on behalf of Others, re-enacting the very processes of silencing and oppression this work seeks to eliminate. Community voices are often stifled in unequal research or “service” encounters and are also often mis-heard by what Stoever calls the listening ear, which hears non-normative speech as an indication of need. Furthermore,the idea that need can be self-identified implicitly speaks to the recognition that visual markers of social difference affect our opinions and perceptions of others–particularly when those Others are from marginalized communities. Because of this, the voices of community residents are often figured as the gateway to “pure” knowledge about community needs.
While the concept of “voicing” needs in community-engaged work is broader than its sonic meaning (e.g. referring to the collection of data via surveys, needs assessments, other written communications, etc.), meeting face-to-face and speaking with community residents is still considered a best and necessary practice in the development of mutually beneficial relationships. The material “touch” manifested through the vocalic body connects us in ways that email, needs assessments, and other forms of digital communication cannot compete. Of constant concern to community engagement practitioners is how we can better respond to community-articulated needs and how best to inform ourselves of their existence. Missing from the discussion, however, is an interrogation of how listening shapes the way we hear needs articulated. What does someone in need sound like, or rather, what has our culture determined what someone in need sounds like? Are we hearing needs articulated where they do not exist? As much as the field of Community Engagement prioritizes listening in its praxis, the process itself is not understood as a material one. If we are basing our work on the voiced needs of community residents, how can we do this well without investigating our own listening practices or acknowledging at the most basic level that listening is a social process, not just a physiological one? Delving more deeply into these questions can help us to develop a sonically-informed community engagement praxis, one which takes into account our own biased ears as we engage with community members.
To think through the damage that mis-hearing need can do, I want to examine the case study of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was a key witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial in July, 2013. Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the teenager whom Zimmerman stalked and shot to death as Martin walked home from the corner store to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida. Many commentators placed blame for Zimmerman’s acquittal on Jeantel’s voice and use of African American Vernacular English, which were denigrated and dissected by courtroom officials, the media, and the Twittersphere. When the trial was over, a self-dubbed “village” of mentors descended on Jeantel, determined to provide her with a plethora of services that she, in fact, resisted. Krissah Thompson’s Washington Post article “For Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, a ‘village’ of mentors trying to keep her on track,” details Rachel Jeantel’s “transformation” after the George Zimmerman trial. A prime example of the way certain voices and bodies are figured as expressing need without ever saying a word, this “village” of mentors inferred from Jeantel’s voice a great longing for help.
As courtroom officials and many in the social media cosmos painted a sonic image of Jeantel as untrustworthy and unintelligible, Karen Andre–an African American lawyer and old friend of Jeantel’s lawyer Roderick Vereen–was thinking about what she could do to help the young woman she heard and saw on the stand. Taking the lead in Jeantel’s cultural makeover, Vereen is referred to as the “village elder.” Since the case ended, he has made Jeantel his project, despite, as Thompson reports, their expectations “differing wildly.”
As Karen Andre watched Jeantel’s testimony on television, she contacted Vereen directly to offer herself up as a mentor, because “simply, it looked to her as if the young woman needed one.” But it was not only Jeantel’s appearance (which was itself highly criticized) that motivated Andre to contact Vereen. Regina Bradley uses the term “sonic ratchetness” to describe Jeantel’s testimony and its reception as “an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.” It was this sonic ratchetness which signaled to Andre that Jeantel needed assistance–assistance becoming the “respectable” black woman to which she undoubtedly aspired. Though many spoke out in defense of Jeantel, the degree to which negative portrayals of her were accepted as fact further evidence the pervasiveness of the sonic color-line in guiding our response to black vocalics–as deficient, non-normative and indicative of need. In essence, through her speech, Jeantel has been characterized and interpreted by many (including members of the black professional class) as a charity case.
On Jeantel’s “progress” thus far, Vereen remarks, “her word choice was terrible [during the trial]. She didn’t know how to communicate or express herself clearly. Rachel has learned to confide with adults. She has become very open now.” As a black professional operating daily within the cultural norms of the U.S. court system, Vereen hears Jeantel’s use of African American vernacular as objectionable. By emphasizing her improved proficiency with white heteronormative discourse and increased “openness” as major accomplishments vis a vis her “progress,” Vereen highlights Jeantel’s manner of speech as both a determinant of need and a barrier to her functioning within the normal parameters of American social life. Vereen “helps” Jeantel by disciplining her speech to conform with normative white speaking and listening practices.
When asked about the public commentary surrounding her and her testimony, Jeantel says she “had to laugh it off.” Suddenly interrupted by Rose Reeder, another village mentor, who urges, “No. Be Honest,” Jeantel concedes that she was angry about being judged. Reeder’s censuring here evidences the ways in which Jeantel is silenced by the “assistance” being provided her. Interrupting Jeantel in this manner forces her to disclose personal information, at the risk of seeming like a liar. In capitulating to her mentor, Jeantel gives up a very basic right of expression. In effect, Jeantel’s improved “openness” to adults (thanks, village!) functions to silence and distort her authentic voice.
“I think the thing that moved me most,” says Tom Joyner, another of Jeantel’s mentors and host of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, “was when the attorney kept asking her questions and she kept saying, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ And it occurred to me, ‘Yeah, not only was that attorney not listening to her, but I think that none of us were listening to the Rachel Jeantels of the world.” Ironically, Joyner who has offered to pay for Jeantel’s tuition at any historically black college of her choosing, is not listening well either. As the Washington Post piece also highlights, Jeantel and her Creole-speaking mother were rarely (if ever) consulted as to what types of aid were actually needed or desired (if any). Instead, Joyner and the village interpreted Jeantel’s voice alone as adequate evidence of need sans investigation.
What Joyner and others hear and what Jeantel is actually asking for continue to be incongruous. Jeantel would like to pursue a career in fashion. Joyner’s foundation refuses to pay. Vereen’s prescription is for Jeantel to attend Florida Memorial, a small historically black university in Southern Florida. As to whether the “village teachings” actually worked, Vereen condescendingly avows, “We took her to the water, and now the rest is up to her.”
The manner in which Jeantel has been forcibly coerced to abandon her “sonic ratchetness” (at least in public), provides an important warning to those of us engaged in work which advances the “public good.” It should lead us to question whose good we are enacting and how our ideas about the public good are informed by what we hear and mis-hear.
As is often the case in community-based work, it is fruitful to return to Kretzmann and McKnight’s asset-based community development (ABCD) model in thinking through an ethical course of action. The ABCD model focuses its attention on a community’s assets instead of its needs or deficiencies, empowering even the least empowered members of a community to use what skills and talents they possess to work towards changes they desire. Viewing alternative modes of articulation as an asset (vs. an indicator of inherent need) may prove useful in staying attentive to our listening practices as they relate to marginalized communities. Though denigrated as improper speech, culturally specific modes of articulation convey meaning in their distance from the norm. These modes of articulation are complex in their practical and historical constitutions. Both in what is said and not said, we must acknowledge that our listening ears fabricate meaning beyond the verbal, and that sonic constructions of Otherness can distort and inform how we hear needs articulated.
Featured Image: MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Mass Communication Specialist 1st Kim Williams talks with a student while painting a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released) 110519-N-NY820-275
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“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