*Dedicated to the love we hear in our mothers’ accents. This post is co-authored by Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
The Cinco de Mayo season showcases troubling instances of Spanish being mocked. Corporate ‘merica profits from Drinko de Mayo when menus advertise “el happy hour”; words like “fiesta” and “amigo” are overused; and Spanish hyperanglicized for laughs (one of the worst: “COM-PREN-DAY”). These acts of linguistic privilege, according to Jane Hill, elevate whiteness in public spaces. What is heard as playful for the dominant ear is simply an acoustic representation of the racist appropriation of mustaches, sombreros, and sarapes.
CinKO de Mayo(naise)
Fiesta like there’s no mañana
Said no Juan ever
That said, bilennials have struck back.
Last year, the Latino digital platform, we are mitú, published a list that resonated with its young, bicultural readers, those long accustomed to hearing Spanish Accented English (SAE) as part of their everyday speech: 17 Popular Brand Logos If They Looked The Way Your Parents Pronounce Them. This humorous phonetic play in the face of complaints about foreign accents being unintelligible or moral indignation over immigrants who do not learn English with native-like proficiency re-directs our attention to digital, engaged Spanish-English bilingual communities. Like Chicana/o listening practices, these digital memes, gifs, and lists embrace how these accents invoke sounds of survival, solidarity and place making.
Con Fleis (Corn Flakes)
The witty Buzzfeed-ish list re-spelled English-language global logos in Mexican, immigrant styled phonetics to reflect how said stores, brands, and social media sites are heard within Spanish-dominant or bilingual speaking communities. The absence of letters (Cosco) and/or the substitution of letters (Gualmar) induce an “accented” non-English dominant speech, dislodging standard rules about English-language spelling and pronunciation. Readers chuckled at seeing immigrant, ESL (English as a Second Language), phonetic speech in print – a tactic Sara V. Hinojos refers to in her media writings as a visual accent, or a visual vocabulary based on sound.
In order to “get” the humor behind the wave of memes and gifs that use Spanish Accented English (SAE), Chicana/o readers rely much more on their listening ears than their eyes to understand how these accents are voiced in print. Here, listening to accents operates as a popular form of literacy, one that registers the audible, racialized experiences of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Of course, the use of creative, rasquache forms of humor have long been a hallmark aspect of Chicana/o humor. Yet listening to these digital literacies, especially within the contemporary “build the wall yet eat the taco” era, help make these accents legible.
Certainly, some vocal accents are audibly more patent to select ears than others. Accents work to socially and geographically locate speakers; for instance, often racially indexing Spanish Accented English speakers as Mexican (regardless of nationality), immigrant (regardless of citizenship), and/or poor (regardless of occupation). Sociocultural linguists remind us that accents, word choice, vocal tone and other sound qualities of language are a part of a larger Bourdieu-ian rubric of linguistic capital. Social psychologists consistently demonstrate that listeners make “moral, intellectual, and aesthetic judgments of others based on language use and accent alone.” For scholars of race and sound, accents comprise part of a sonic color line; a socially constructed aural boundary that aligns accented English speech as non-white and non-accented (or Midwestern) English as white. Vocal neutrality, like whiteness itself, operates invisibly as privilege usually does.
Effectively “reading” a visual accent does not privilege a bilingual speaker but rather an accented listener, one raised or surrounded by immigrant speakers. The humorous phonetic play of a visual accent symbolically challenges the capitalist logic that a “neutral accent” or non-accent in English holds immense Western value. For those of us with accented speakers in our families and communities, accents function as emotional markers; vocal or vernacular archives that trace an individual or family’s migration, travels and/or histories. As Denice Forham shares poetically about her Puerto Rican mother’s accent, “even when her lips can barely stress themselves around English, her accent is a stubborn compass, always pointing her towards home.” For our families, accents evince the affective labor entailed in retraining tongues, in learning new idioms, and general struggles to converse in Inglish.
(when your grandmother wants to motivate you)
Using the name of a popular Mexican sweet bread (conchas) as a substitute for “conscious” upsets Western, phonetic understandings of “scious” in favor of a phonetic, Mexican stand-in. Concha, a sea shelled shaped sweet bread, associated with female genitalia and used in digital Latino communities has become a symbol for body positive inclusion; an insistence to not feel “self conchas” when eating (see Nalgona Positivity and SOMAR ATX). These memes privilege an accented listener, a feminist sensibility, as well as a panadería connoisseur.
The mega-for-profit-English-teaching-colonial organization, known as Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), explains that the lack of distinction in the Spanish language between a short and long vowel – for instance ship/sheep – causes miscomprehension for assumed-yet-never-named native English listeners. Those learning English as a Second Language are encouraged to first reorient their own ears to listen to the subtlety between pull/pool before grasping the complexities of yacht/jot. The communicative burden lies on the accented speaker rather than the non-accented listener. The visual accent places the onus on the English-dominant listener, effectively excluding them.
Trico Tri, Japi Jalogüín!
(Trick or Treat, Happy Halloween!)
Despite the fact that the United States represents the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Spanish maintains a racialized, classed and “second-tiered” status within the United States imaginary (see Bonnie Urciuoli; Jane Hill; Jonathan Rosa; and D. Inés Casillas). These disparaging attitudes are evident when Spanish is prohibited in work places; when bilingual education and English Language Learner (ELL) programs are eliminated at ballot boxes; or when public school teachers are removed from posts based on their “heavy accents.” Institutional efforts to tame bilingual, accented tongues are less about speech and much more about accommodating the dominant, white listening ear.
According to Jennifer Stoever, the listening ear refers to dominant listening practices. Listening, she argues, is an embodied cultural practice that influences one’s position to power. “As the dominant ‘listening ear’ is disciplined to process white male ways of sounding as default—natural, normal, and desirable—alternate ways of listening and sounding are deemed aberrant and, depending upon the historical context, as excessively sensitive, strikingly deficient, or impossibly both.” Therefore the dominant listening ear not only tunes out “other” sounds but also treats them as illegitimate because they deviate from what sounds “normal” (read: white).
Cálmate Carnal, Tey Quirisi
(Relax Friend, Take it easy)
Gail Shuck found that white, native English-speaking college students construct an ideological distinction between Us and Them; gesturing to a sonic color line. Compellingly, she reported how American tourists in Mexico would describe native Spanish speakers as “heavily accented.” Yes. The communicative proficiency of Spanish by Mexicans in Mexico continued to be scrutinized by native English-language listeners.
Cinco de Mayo has versed us too well on the visual markers of racism like oversized sombreros, felt mustaches, and cheap beer pursuits, all a part of the commercial exploitation of Mexican communities in the U.S. But then phrases such as “Grassy Ass” or “No Problem-o” are heard bitterly as recurrent reminders that our language and accents are policed with the same fervor as our bodies. The inventive use of the visual accent archives how we listen, privileging the accented ear. The loving jest that enwraps these digital literacies reminds us to never lose our accents.
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.
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En Espanol siguiente.
Post by Nancy Morales. Translation by Martha Unzueta-Perez, firstname.lastname@example.org
My recent experiences—both inside and outside the academy—as a U.S. citizen with an “ivy league education” make it crystal clear to me that I am a brown mujer who will always be criminalized by the state regardless of how many “privileges” I acquire or believe to have obtained through my “hard work.” I cannot continue my path toward self-determination without acknowledging that the privileges I acquire will not guarantee my protection, let alone my liberation. In other words, people of color are perpetually vulnerable regardless of their education, wealth, and/or social status. In “Speaking in Tongues: A letter to Third World Women Writers” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Gloria Anzaldúa explored this notion in her letter to third world women writers, where she expressed that we have never had any privileges and we never will (165). Anzaldúa makes this statement not to foreclose our dreams but rather to enable our liberation; in essence, we have nothing to lose by imagining other ways of being. If we were to perform as the imagined ideal U.S. citizen under the hetero-normative standards (racial, gender, and sexuality, including sonic markers of citizenship), it would always be at the expense of displacing each other. Privilege is too often misunderstood as a form of protection from displacement and a claim of worthiness as human beings.
Amplifying and extending the resonance of Anzaldúa’s powerful declaration, my scholarship is personally healing because I seek to understand the very modes of knowledge production: how meaningful research is undertaken and actualized, particularly by and for immigrant communities, by exploring how these groups help us imagine new and yet unknown territories wherein our differences are valid. Los Jornaleros del Norte, Radio Ambulante and other immigrant rights folks provide examples of imagining other ways of being, including the production of sonic markers of citizenship that are not state-sanctioned. In other words, they are doing the work of knowing themselves better in order to respect and understand each other. Often, some of the most crucial knowledge production happens through the materiality of sounds and the material impacts of listening practices, both dominant and resistant.
Citizenship is (mis)understood as a privilege that guarantees protection by the nation-state. The current nation-state’s dominant discourse of national security creates draconian federal, state, and local legislation that belie immigrants’ differences. Rising anti-immigrant rhetoric attempts to homogenize both Latinas/os and immigrants as criminals. In other words, such discourse is used to justify the nation-state as the reference point for recognizing a legitimate community. The Department of Homeland Security’s agenda deems who may be tolerable and who is deportable, even if you are a U.S. citizen. Distinguishing, for example, between exceptional students who “deserve to be here” and those who do not, creates a hierarchy of immigrants. Consequently, public discourse over the worthiness of recognition and belonging creates limitations that categorize immigrants in restrictive ways. Similarly, attacks on bilingual education and ethnic studies attempt to displace Latinos as foreign and “alien” within US territories.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?” provides sonic examples of discrimination to reveal how citizenship is further constructed through sound. The dominant listening ear, as Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman coins, reveals:
how racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through popular culture. As a result dominant groups use sound with impunity to forge “reasonable suspicion” about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them (5).
More importantly we learn that sonic markers of citizenship are just as unreliable as biological/physical ones i.e. racial profiling. One may have an accent or speak Spanish but that doesn’t prove or disprove their citizenship status. However, what we understand more prominently is the various ways brown bodies are displaced through structural racism such as sonic markers of citizenship.
In order to more fully understand the legacy of the U.S. conquest of Latin America and the Caribbean—of which contemporary anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant rhetorics are an extension—we must recognize how colonizers use language as a weapon that can shame, humiliate and further colonize people of color. bell hooks testifies to this notion in “Teaching New Worlds/New Words” from Tongue-tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education: “standard English is not speech of exile. This is the language of conquest and domination in U.S.” (255). We often begin to think that we can acquire privileges of upward mobility, class, citizenship or race as our source of protection, particularly through linguistic “passing” (Anzaldúa,“Linguistic Terrorism” Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 217). However, as Anzaldúa explains in “How to Tame a Wild-Tongue” from Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza: “Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself” (81). Deborah Vargas’s 2012 book Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (University of Minnesota Press) also explores these issues and comes at an important moment to continue to learn how the power to push the boundaries of heteronormative standards can be understood in Chican@-Laitn@ culture. By dis-placing the dominance of standard English and acknowledging the multiplicity of languages they speak and seek to listen to, Chican@s-Latin@s can begin to acknowledge their wealth of knowledge as meaningful instead of meaningless.
Meaningful Sounds: Dignity and Respect
It is important, then, to recognize the critical work that immigrant rights communities create that push the boundaries of the dominant listening ear, particularly through the inclusion of the vocal materialities of people of color. Such immigrant rights groups mobilize the sounds of immigrant voices not as a neoliberal way of “proving their worthiness” but, like Sebastien de la Cruz, the San Antonio-area ten-year-old who sang the national anthem at game three of the 2013 NBA finals in his mariachi outfit, they use sound to create and amplify fair representations that vocally resist the dominant binaries of foreign/citizen, illegal/legal.
Los Jornaleros offer the people their talent and their love with their music of resistance and struggle
Los Jornaleros del Norte is a musical group that formed out of the struggles of day laborers. They are part of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) where they realize their cultures and languages as forms of resistance. They sing songs in Spanish at protests, rallies, on the radio and in all other public spaces.
In this clip, Los Jornaleros interject their voices to denounce deportations, wage theft and to energize (im)migrant families’ wishes and desires. Through live performances and Internet circulation, this group amplifies the actual voices of people directly affected by immigration enforcement policies and refuse to be silenced by the dominant American listening ear.
In addition, organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and Education for Fair Consideration (E4FC) use various organizing tools to amplify the voices of immigrant communities. Alongside and in solidarity with E4FC, a network of artists, writers, and filmmakers, including Favianna Rodriguez, actively fight for just immigration reform using sound. These artists are crucial to the defense and protection of immigrant rights and for changing dominant discourses about immigrants as unworthy. For example, La Santa Cecilia, an L.A. band committed to social justice issues, collaborated with NDLON to produce a song in Spanish wherein the music video showcases people affected by un-sound immigration policies.
“ICE/El Hielo”—a multilingual play on the acronym of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—combines visual imagery of immigrants with a multiciplicity of langages, musical styles and vocal tones to help us understand the trauma and pain that immigrant communities endure on a daily level due to the dominant discourse of national security that homogenizes Latina/os and (im)migrant communities as less than human. [Note: The song can also be heard on Sounding Out!’s annual free downloadable mix for 2013. Click here—JSA]
Practices like La Santa Cecilia’s encourage Latinas/os and immigrants—who are often spoken about instead of directly spoken to— to participate in public spaces, including digital spaces. Digital spaces, I believe, can become potential safe spaces that allow Latina/os and immigrant communities to produce their own sounds and to therefore make an alternative claim to belonging that is not predicated upon speaking “Standard” English and/or being “real” American citizens. Through digital outreach, E4FC encourages undocumented youth to share their immigrant stories sonically connect immigration issues on a global scale.
While musical interventions are effective, I use the remainder of this post to address the more nuanced ways in which Latina/o and (im)migrant communities add the sound of their voices to global discourses through storytelling, music, and language(s) in beautiful (though sometimes painful), telling ways. Immigrant communities produce and circulate sounds meaningful to them to contextualize and reveal their differences within Latina/o communities. In other words, they push the boundaries of citizenship through methods of self-organizing that sounds dignity and respect for each other. I argue that sharing their perspectives and stories—here and elsewhere on the Internet—captures more than just a sound bite. The sound of “everyday voices” mobilized against—and remarking on—the nation-state’s attempts to mark immigrant communities as vulnerable exerts an impactful and profoundly material agency.
For instance, Voces Móviles (VozMob), a collaboration between the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California/ Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) uses SMS technology to document immigrant workers’ voices online.
VozMob enables day laborers and other immigrant communities to use their cell phones as a tool to share their perspectives and become narrators of their own stories via text, images and video. Users upload their content directly to the VozMob webpage where you can read, see, and/or listen their daily experiences. In this video clip Luis Valentán shares his perspective as a day laborer about immigrant rights.[vimeo http://vimeo.com/84067495]
Rejecting the label of a “Dreamer,” Valentán sounds differences within immigrant communities by encouraging others to recognize that they are “Doers.” He also pushes the boundaries of an immigrant rights framework that values and respects people who strive for a better life in the face of limited opportunities.
Radio Ambulante also creates a digital space for the voices of people from Latin America and the U.S. It is the first Spanish-language radio program that tells stories where culture and belonging have no borders. The programmers broadcast various thematic episodes highlighting stories that explore differences by using speakers’ primary language(s). This approach, as heard in the November 2013 episode “la palabra prohibida,” enables diverse listeners to hear people who share, and more importantly, complicate notions about cultures, origins, and perceptions of belonging.
In “la palabra prohibida,” the broadcasters make no attempt to profile the episode’s participants as fitting the “good” or “bad” dichotomy of the immigrant narrative. Instead, Radio Ambulante creates a sonic medium that juxtaposes voices to make human complexity material for its listeners.
Click to play Radio Ambulante, “la palabra prohibida” episode
It is crucial to continue to understand the power of our voices, housed in their expression and their sound. (Im)migrant communities have a wealth of knowledge in their lived experiences, and they tell it well through these digital and public spaces, showing us how knowledge is produced not only through words and sounds, but in the powerful relationship between them. By further amplifying immigrant voices in new sites, both “traditional” and digital, I continue the important work they have begun, helping us to realize where and when the power of our sounds resonates as a catalyst to mobilize people beyond perceived borders, where we all have the right to migrate and the right to just be.
Featured Image by Flickr User Claudia A. De La Garza, 5-6-06
Nancy Morales is a faculty lecturer for the Latina/o Studies minor in the Center for the Study for Culture, Race and Ethnicity (CSCRE) at Ithaca College. Morales has research interests in U.S third world feminist theory, immigration policy, labor relations, critical ethnic studies, cultural and sound studies. She focuses on how Latina/o workers and immigrant workers have been excluded from the ranks of the working-class because of their racial, cultural, gender and immigration-status differences. She received a B.A. in Social Psychology from UC Santa Cruz and a Master’s from Cornell’s Institute for Public Affairs with a minor in Latina/o Studies. Morales has done research for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) in order to further explore how race and gender become necessary for understanding workers’ struggles within the Immigration, Labor, and Civil Rights Movements.
Óyeme Voz”: Comunidades Latinas y Inmigrantes de EE. UU. Resuenan Ciudadanía y Pertenecer
Post by Nancy Morales. Translation by Martha Unzueta-Perez, email@example.com
Mis experiencias recientes—tanto dentro como fuera de la academia—como una ciudadana de Estados Unidos con una educación “Ivy League” lo hace muy claro que soy una mujer de color que siempre va ser criminalizada por el estado sin importar cuantos “privilegios” adquiero o creer haber obtenido a través de mi “trabajo duro.” Yo no puedo continuar mi camino hacia la autodeterminación sin reconocer que los privilegios que adquiero no me garantizaran mi protección y mucho menos mi liberación. En otras palabras, las personas de color son perpetuamente vulnerables sin importar su educación, riquezas y/o estatus social. En “Speaking in Tongues: A letter to Third World Women Writers” en This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Gloria Anzaldúa explora esta noción en su carta a escritoras del tercer mundo, donde expreso que nunca hemos tenido ningún privilegio y nunca lo tendremos (165). Anzaldúa hace esta declaración no para anular nuestros sueños sino más bien para hacer posible nuestra liberación; en esencia, no tenemos nada que perder al imaginar otras formas de ser. Si fuéramos a actuar como el imaginado ciudadano ideal de Estados Unidos bajo las normas hetero-normativas (racial, genero y sexualidad, incluyendo señales sónicas de la ciudadanía), siempre seria al costo de desplazarnos el uno al otro. El privilegio a menudo es mal entendido como una forma de protección de desplazamiento y una reclamación de merecimiento como seres humanos.
Amplificar y extender la resonancia de la poderosa declaración de Anzaldúa, mi trabajo académico me ayuda personalmente a sanar porque yo busco a entender los modos de producción de conocimiento: cómo la investigación significativa es emprendida y actualizada, particularmente por y para las comunidades de inmigrantes, al explorar cómo estos grupos nos ayudan a imaginar nuevos y aún desconocidos territorios donde nuestras diferencias son validas. Los Jornaleros del Norte, Radio Ambulante y otras personas de los derechos de inmigrantes proporcionan ejemplos de imaginarse otras formas de ser, incluyendo la producción de señales sónicas de la ciudadanía que no son sancionados por el estado. En otras palabras, están haciendo el trabajo de conocerse mejor para respetarse y entenderse. Frecuentemente, alguna de la producción de conocimiento más importante ocurre a través de la materialidad de los sonidos y los impactos materiales de las prácticas de escuchar tanto dominante y resistente.
La ciudadanía es (mal) entendida como un privilegio que garantiza la protección por la nación-estado. El discurso dominante actual de la nación-estado de la seguridad nacional crea una legislación draconiana federal, estatal y local que desmienten las diferencias de los inmigrantes. La creciente retórica anti-inmigrante intenta homogeneizar tanto los latinos e inmigrantes como criminales. En otras palabras, tal discurso es utilizado para justificar la nación-estado como un punto de referencia para reconocer una comunidad legitima. La agenda del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional considera quien puede ser tolerable y quien puede ser deportado, aún si usted es un ciudadano estadounidense. Distinguir, por ejemplo, entre los estudiantes excepcionales que “merecen estar aquí” y aquellos que no, crea una jerarquía de los inmigrantes. Consecuentemente, el discurso publico sobre el merecimiento de reconocer y pertenecer que categorizan a los inmigrantes en maneras restrictivas. Similarmente, los ataques contra la educación bilingüe y los estudios étnicos intentan desplazar a los latinos como extranjeros y “alien” en los territorios estadounidenses.
El artículo “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?” de Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman proporciona ejemplos sónicos de discriminación para revelar como la ciudadanía se construye aún más a través del sonido. El oído dominante, como Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman revela:
Como las normas racializadas sobre el sonido existen y circulan a través de la cultura popular. Como resultado grupos dominantes utilizan el sonido con impunidad parar forjar una “sospecha razonable” sobre el estatus de la ciudadanía de cualquier persona que se escucha diferente a ellos y que crea, consume y aprecia los sonidos de manera diferente a ellos (5).
Más importante nosotros aprendemos que las señales sónicas de ciudadanía son tan poco fiables como los biológicas/físicas, es decir discriminación racial. Uno puede tener un acento o hablar español pero eso no demuestra su estatus de ciudadanía. Sin embargo, lo que nosotros entendemos de manera más prominente es las diferentes formas en que la gente de piel morena es desplazada a través del racismo estructural tal como señales sónicas de la ciudadanía.
Para entender más completamente el legado de la conquista de EE.UU. de America Latina y el Caribe—de cual la retórica contemporánea anti-terrorista y anti-inmigrante son una extensión—nosotros debemos reconocer cómo los colonizadores utilizaron el lenguaje como un arma que pude avergonzar, humillar y colonizar aun más a la gente de color. bell hooks atestigua a esta noción en “Teaching New Worlds/New Words” del Tongue-tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education: el ingles estándar no es el habla de exilio. Este es el lenguaje de conquista y dominación en los EE.UU.” (255). A menudo empezamos a pensar que podemos adquirir privilegios de movilidad hacia arriba, clase, ciudadanía o raza como nuestra fuente de protección, en particular “pasando” lingüísticamente (Anzaldúa, “Linguistic Terrorism” Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 217). Sin embargo, cómo Anzaldúa explica en “How to Tame a Wild-Tongue” de Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza: “Hasta que yo pueda tener orgullo en mi lenguaje, no puedo tener orgullo en mi mismo. Hasta que yo pueda aceptar como legitimo el español chicano tejano, tex-mex y todos los otros idiomas que hablo, No puedo aceptar la legitimidad de mí mismo” (81). Deborah Vargas’s 2012 libro Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (University of Minnesota Press) también explora estas cuestiones y llega a un momento importante para continuar a aprender como el poder de empujar los limites de las normas hetero-normativas pueden ser entendidas en la cultura chincan@s-latin@s. Al descolocar el dominio del ingles estándar y reconocer la multiplicidad de los lenguajes que hablan y buscan escuchar, chican@s-latin@s pueden comenzar a reconocer su riqueza de conocimiento como significativo en vez sin sentido.
Sonidos Significativos: Dignidad y Respeto
Es importante, luego, reconocer el trabajo crítico que las comunidades de derechos de inmigrantes crean que empuje los límites del oído dominante, particularmente a través de la inclusión de las materialidades vocales de la gente de color. Tales grupos de derechos de inmigrantes movilizan los sonidos de las voces de los inmigrantes no como una forma neoliberal de “demostrar su merecimiento” pero, como Sebastien de la Cruz, el niño de diez años de edad de San Antonio que canto el himno nacional para el tercer juego de la final 2013 del NBA en su traje de mariachi, ellos utilizaron el sonido para crear y amplificar una justa presentación que vocalmente resiste binarios dominantes de extranjero/ciudadano, ilegal/legal.
Los Jornaleros ofrecen a la gente su talento y su amor con su música de resistencia y lucha
Los Jornaleros del Norte es un grupo musical que fue formado de las luchas de los jornaleros. Ellos son parte del National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) donde ellos realizan sus culturas y lenguajes como formas de resistencia. Ellos cantan canciones en español en las protestas, en mítines, en el radio y en todos otros espacios públicos.
En este clip, Los Jornaleros interponen sus voces para denunciar las deportaciones, el robo de salarios y energizar los deseos de las familias in(migrantes). A través de actuaciones animadas y la circulación de Internet, este grupo amplifica las voces actuales de la gente directamente afectada por las políticas de inmigración y se niegan a ser silenciados por el oído dominante Americano.
Además, organizaciones como el National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) y Education for Fair Consideration (E4FC) utilizan varias herramientas de organización para amplificar las voces de las comunidades de inmigrantes. Junto y en solidaridad con E4FC, una red de artistas, escritores y cineastas, incluyendo Favianna Rodríguez, luchan activamente para una reforma de inmigración justa utilizando el sonido. Estos artistas son cruciales para la defensa y protección de los derechos de inmigrantes y por cambiar los discursos dominantes sobre inmigrantes que son vistos sin dignidad. Por ejemplo, La Santa Cecilia, una banda local en Los Ángeles comprometida a la cuestiones de justicia social, colaboro con la organización NDLON para producir una canción en español en el que el video musical muestra las personas afectadas por las políticas poco acertadas.
“ICE/El Hielo”—una obra de teatro multilingüe sobre las siglas de la Oficina de Inmigración y Aduana d EE.UU. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)—combina una imagen visual de inmigrantes con una multiplicidad de lenguajes, estilos musicales y tonos vocales para ayudarnos a entender el trama y dolor que las comunidades de inmigrantes perduran a diario debido al discurso dominante de la seguridad nacional que homogeniza a las comunidades latinas y (in)migrantes como menos que humanos. [Editor’s Note: La canción también puede escucharse y descargarse en el mix anual gratuito de Sounding Out! para el 2013. Haga clic aqui—JSA]
Prácticas como la de La Santa Cecilia animan a los latinos e inmigrantes—que a menudo se habla de ellos en vez de directamente hablar con ellos— a participar en espacios públicos, incluyendo espacios digitales. Los espacios digitales, yo creo, pueden convertirse en potenciales espacios seguros que permite a las comunidades latinas e inmigrantes a producir su propio sonido y por lo tanto hacer una reclamación alternativa a pertenecer que no se predica al hablar en ingles “estándar” y/o ser un ciudadano americano “real.” A través del alcance digital, el E4FC anima a la juventud indocumentada a compartir sus historias de inmigrantes sónicamente para conectar los temas de inmigración a un nivel global.
Mientras intervenciones musicales son efectivas, yo utilizo el resto de este articulo para hablar sobre las formas más matizadas en la cual las comunidades latinas e de (in)migrantes agregan el sonido de sus voces a discursos globales a cuentos, música y lenguaje(s) en maneras bellas (y a veces dolorosas) de contar. Las comunidades inmigrantes producen y circulan sonido significante a ellos para contextualizar sus diferencias entre las comunidades latinas. En otras palabras, ellos empujan los límites de la ciudadanía a través de métodos de auto-organización que se escucha con dignidad y respeto para uno al otro. Yo sostengo que compartir sus perspectivas y historias—aquí y en otros lugares en el Internet—captura más que una picadura de sonido. El sonido de “voces cotidianas” movilizadas contra—y comentando sobre—los intentos de la nación-estado para marcar las comunidades inmigrantes como vulnerables causa una impactante y profunda agencia material.
Por ejemplo, Voces Móviles (VozMob), una colaboración entre La Escuela de Annenberg en Universidad del Sur de California (University of Southern California’s Annenberg School) y el Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (Institute of Popular Education of Southern California – IDEPSCA) utiliza la tecnología SMS para documentar la voces de los trabajadores inmigrantes en la Internet.
VozMob permite a los jornaleros y otras comunidades inmigrantes a utilizar sus teléfonos celulares como una herramienta para compartir sus perspectivas y convertirse en narradores de sus propias historias vía texto, imágenes y video. Usuarios suben su contenido directamente a la pagina Web VozMob webpage donde uno puede leer, ver y/o escuchar sus experiencias diarias. En este videoclip Luis Valentán comparte su perspectiva como un jornalero sobre los derechos de inmigrantes.[vimeo http://vimeo.com/84067495]
Al rechazar la descripción de “Soñador,” Valentán sonora las diferencias entre las comunidades inmigrantes al animar a otros a reconocer que son “Hacedores.” El también empuje los limites de un marco de derechos de inmigrantes que valora y respeta a las personas que luchan por una vida mejor que enfrentan oportunidades limitadas.
Radio Ambulante también crea un espacio digital para las voces de la gente de América Latina y de EE.UU. Es el primer programa de radio en español que cuenta las historias donde la cultura y pertenecer no tienen fronteras. Los programadores transmiten varios episodios temáticos destacando historias que exploran diferencias mediante el uso del lenguaje primario. Este enfoque, como se escucho en el episodio de noviembre 2013 “la palabra prohibida,” permite a oyentes diversos a que escuchen a personas que comparten y, más importante, complican las nociones sobre culturas, orígenes y percepciones de querer pertenecer.
Radio Ambulante, “la palabra prohibida”
En “la palabra prohibida,” los locutores no hacen ningún intento a perfilar a los participantes del episodio como una en la dicotomía “buena” o “mala” de la narrativa de inmigrantes. En cambio, Radio Ambulante crea un medio sónico que yuxtapone las voces para hacer material de complejidad humano para sus oyentes.
Es crucial continuar a comprender el poder de nuestras voces, que se encuentran en su expresión y su sonido. Las comunidades (in)migrantes tienen una riqueza de conocimiento en sus experiencias vividas y lo dicen bien a través de estos espacios públicos y digitales, enseñándonos como el conocimiento se produce no solo a través de palabras y sonidos sino en la poderosa relación entre ellos. Al amplificar aún más las voces inmigrantes en nuevos sitios, tanto “tradicional” y digital, yo continuo la importante labor que han iniciado, ayudándonos a realizar donde y cuando el poder de nuestros sonidos resuenan como un catalizador para movilizar a la gente mas allá de las fronteras percibidas, donde todos tenemos el derecho a migrar y el derecho de ser.
Nancy Morales es profesora en la especialización de estudios latinos en el Centro para el Estudio de Cultura, Raza y Etnicidad (Center for the Study for Culture, Race and Ethnicity – CSCRE) en el Colegio Ithaca (Ithaca College). Morales tiene intereses de investigación en la teoría feminista del tercer mundo de EE.UU., política de inmigración, relaciones labores, estudios étnicos críticos, estudios culturales y de sonido. Ella se centra en cómo los trabajadores latinos y trabajadores inmigrantes han sido excluidos del los rangos de la clase obrera por sus diferencias raciales, culturales, del genero y el estatus inmigrante. Ella recibió su licenciatura en psicología social de la Universidad de California Santa Cruz y su maestría del Instituto de Negocios Públicos de la Universidad de Cornell (Cornell University) con una especialización en estudios latinos. Morales ha realizado investigaciones para la Red de Organización Nacional de Jornaleros (National Day Laborer Organizing Network – NDLON) y para la Alianza Nacional de Trabajadores Domésticos (National Domestic Workers Alliance -NDWA) para poder explorar más a fondo cómo la raza y el género son necesarios para comprender la lucha de los trabajadores dentro de la inmigración, labor y el movimiento de derechos civiles.
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Editor’s Note: Sound Studies is often accused of being a presentist enterprise, too fascinated with digital technologies and altogether too wed to the history of sound recording. Sounding Out!‘s last forum of 2013, “Sound in the Nineteenth Century,” addresses this critique by showcasing the cutting edge work of three scholars whose diverse, interdisciplinary research is located soundly in the era just before the advent of sound recording: Mary Caton Lingold (Duke), Caitlin Marshall (Berkeley), and Daniel Cavicchi (Rhode Island School of Design). In examining nineteenth century America’s musical practices, listening habits, and auditory desires through SO!‘s digital platform, Lingold, Marshall, and Cavicchi perform the rare task of showcasing how history’s sonics had a striking resonance long past their contemporary vibrations while performing the power of the digital medium as a tool through which to, as Early Modern scholar Bruce R. Smith dubs it, “unair” past auditory phenomena –all the while sharing unique methodologies that neither rely on recording nor bemoan their lack. Last week, the series began with Mary Caton Lingold‘s exploration of the materialities of Solomon Northup’s fiddling as self-represented in 12 Years a Slave. This week, Caitlin Marshall treats us to a fascinating new take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s listening practice and dubious rhetorical remixing of black sonic resistance with white conceptions of revolutionary independence. —Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Harriet Beecher Stowe: novelist, anti-slavery agitator, antebellum DJ? In 1852, Stowe penned one of the most famous works of fiction in American history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A sentimental work, the novel dramatized the lives of fictional slaves searching for freedom. Eager to achieve a national hearing of her anti-slavery agenda, Stowe’s novel required a voice that could “speak” in morally efficacious tones against slavery. To stage this voice, one that hinged on a sonic appeal to inter-racial sympathy, Stowe sampled and mixed two powerfully persuasive, if diametrically opposed, cultures of speaking and listening in the United States.
The first of these cultures revolved around revolutionary American understandings of political rhetoric. According to Jay Fliegelman, this tradition of republican oratory drew upon 18th century philosophical principles to recast Declaring Independence as a speech act. In his Declaration, Jefferson announced the ‘self-evidence’ of an American people by performing a nationally specific common sense in two important ways. First, he displayed a breed of American moral feeling in direct contrast to that of the colonial British; second, he did so through an oratorical style that inaugurated a common, American modality for articulating and hearing truth. The felt and sounded show of a common ‘self’ evidenced Americans’ natural rights to independence, and installed a markedly white revolutionary acoustics of freedom.
Stowe’s second sample was a misappropriation of a new mode of hearing in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. As Sounding Out! Editor in Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued in “The Word and the Sound: Listening to the Sonic Colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative,” Douglass’s narrative was a direct attempt to bend and subvert what she terms “the sonic colour-line” (21). An acoustic schema that racialized sound and recruited the ear in black subjection, the sonic color line was epitomized by the republican oratorical tradition wherein meaning was linked to white articulation, and meaninglessness to black utterance, heard simply as ‘noise.’
Contrastingly, the reformed sonic model presented in the Narrative sought to position black sound as a site of meaning and resistance, and challenged Northern readers to question and remap both their hearing of such sounds and their ethical relationship to black meaning. Jonathan Cruz, in Culture on the Margins, terms this new mode of hearing “ethnosympathy” and defines it as an “interpretive ethos of pathos” (3). Importantly, Stoever-Ackerman highlights that Douglass did not seek to cast black sound as “a sentimental appeal to truth,” but “rather [as] a challenge to dominant notions of truth produced and disseminated through the ear” (31). Stowe however, did not hear Douglass’s message so subtlety, and like many Abolitionists, was quick to commandeer black sound for a white social justice platform wherein it served as the innately moral (and romantically racialized) sound of sentimental suffering. Thus, it was this mishearing of the strains of black resistance that Stowe remixed with the white tones of revolutionary independence to spin a brand new soundtrack for the antebellum era. I term this soundtrack the acoustics of passing.
A vocal melodrama (a literal speech act) in black and white, the acoustics of passing was an amalgamated grid of sonic intelligibility invested in the political power of voice that encapsulated the seemingly antithetical (to white America) tones of republican virtue and black experience, and was deployed by Stowe to narrate the fantastical passage of African Americans from bondage to freedom. Composed first through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and propagated later in her paternalistic relationships with black female artists, Stowe’s acoustics was ostensibly a powerful tool in the fight against slavery, but was ultimately used by the author to recapitulate her whitewashed vision of America.
Stowe’s acoustics appear in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in novel’s first passing scene: George Harris’s Spanish masquerade. Stowe frames this scene prominently with the fugitive slave advertisement that George’s master, Mr. Harris, has posted. Many scholars have pointed to the way in which the visual organizes the practice of passing, but it is important to note that in this scene, the oral/aural is equally emphasized as key to a passing performance; Mr. Harris, for one, notes in his advertisement that George’s keen eloquence and literacy are the fugitive’s distinguishing features. Moreover, the advertisement seems to warn, in combination with George’s European complexion, he is rendered seemingly indistinguishable from a white man. Mr. Harris expects George to attempt such a passing ruse, and therefore clearly identifies the marks that will testify to George’s slave status. George
is deeply scarred on his back and shoulders; has been branded in his right hand with the letter H (95).
Contrary to Mr. Harris’ predictions, however, George enters the roadhouse disguised as a Spanish gentleman. To pull off this guise George darkens his skin and hair. In the essay, “Spanish Masquerade and the Drama of Racial Identity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Julia Stern argues that George’s third term identity, “nonblack, nonwhite,” is radical because it upsets the logic of the antebellum racial dichotomy. However, we should note that this dark masquerade allows Stowe to symbolically align George, a mixed race man, with both his black and white parentage. In darkening his skin George pays tribute to his slave mother, while by adopting a well-known Anglican slaveholding surname, Henry Butler, George references his absentee father. Thus, the Spanish disguise is Stowe’s reminder that George is passing for who he claims to be.
Yet before George can break from the tavern on his way towards Canada, he must reveal himself to his former employer, Mr. Wilson, who, George believes, has recognized him. In the long speech that follows, George must convince Mr. Wilson to discard a juridical sense of right in favor of an ethical one. Carefully arranged through Stowe’s acoustics of passing, George’s oratory presents equal parts white republican sentiment and black pathos, sentimentally persuading Wilson (and a listening America) of the moral justice in permitting him to pass to freedom.
Well aware that her readers at home would have been reciting the text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud, Stowe is careful score George’s speech for both sonic whiteness and blackness–leaving intertextual clues that act like dynamic musical notation to indicate how George’s performance should sound. To begin, Stowe spells out her source material for George’s speech by directly citing Jefferson’s “Declaration” in a footnote to George’s opening salvo. Stowe wants readers to hear George’s speech as the realization of the American Republican promise. Americans, Stowe argues, are in a state no better than the British of the 1770’s: like the tyrannical father/monarch King George, Americans are “deaf to the voice of justice & of consanguinity.” A lengthy address, George’s monologue is an account of the domestic crimes of slavery, and, like the Declaration, is a complaint of personal injury at the hands of a nation that has been as negligent in looking after its blood kin as has George Harris’s father. Concluding with the passionate exclamation, “I’ll fight for my liberty to the last breath I breathe! You say your fathers did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!” (102), George’s Declaration claims the rhetorical, and therefore natural, rights that are his white, paternal inheritance.
The sonic difference in George’s speech however, is the pathos of it, the “tears, and flashing eyes, and despairing gesture,” here meant to index the orator’s audible black suffering. Though setup as racially inscrutable in this scene, Stowe takes great pains to ‘out’ George’s hidden blackness. Not only does Stowe symbolically darken George to cite his mother’s race, but she draws attention to the black body through repeated citation of his scars. This figuration of speaking wounds was prevalent in the popular imagination of Stowe’s day, and represented the white fantasy that black speech was the ‘playback’ of slave experience as recorded in the grooves of the traumatized and marked black body. Frederick Douglass, for example, recounts in My Bondage and My Freedom that he was first introduced as a speaker to the Abolitionist lecture circuit as a “graduate from the peculiar institution…with my diploma written on my back!” (359).
Miraculously, at the climax of George’s sonically mixed oration, Mr. Wilson is overcome with a revised sense of justice, one consonant with George’s bid for freedom. In this overdetermined acoustic schema, Stowe aligns progressive white ethos and republican sentiment with the distinct sounds of black pathos, and positions any mode of hearing contrary to this inter-racial sonic sympathy as un-Christian, un-patriotic, and detrimental to the future of the Union.
Yet Stowe’s acoustics of passing is decidedly supremacist. To begin, George’s mixed sound is haunted by the specter of forced conception and familial alienation ubiquitous to slavery. Additionally, while Stowe deploys the acoustics of passing towards an anti-slavery platform, her sonic schema ultimately preserves the social and political function of whiteness. Thus, while George’s sonic blackness is essential for playing out the moral justice of Stowe’s cause, it is this same audible blackness that permits Stowe to ultimately write the political problem of inter-racial integration off to Liberia with the entire Harris family.
Herein is the problem of Stowe’s acoustics: its sonic inter-racial sympathy at once promised speakers of color the agency of a sounded path to freedom (that which George performs and narrates) while ultimately deploying white practices of containment. And Stowe indeed dramaturged the lives of several mixed race artists through these acoustics, most notably the Dramatic Reader, Mary Elizabeth Webb and the concert vocalist Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield.
As I continue to investigate the careers of women of color like Greenfield and Webb, I think about how Stowe’s acoustics could have empowered and constrained their bids for resistance, rights and recognition.
Featured Image: “Representative Americans” Image of Harriet Beecher Stowe surrounded by characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1893, Remixed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Caitlin Marshall is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. A vocalist herself, Caitlin applies her practice-based knowledge of voice towards the study of what it meant to ‘sound American’ during the nation’s first independent century. Focusing on ‘Othered’ American vernaculars at the intersections of race, disability, gender, and ethnicity, her dissertation, ‘Power in the Tongue’: Crippled Speech & Vocal Culture in Antebellum America, takes seriously the metaphor of voice in American democracy, and works at the confluence of Performance, Sound, and Disability Studies to mobilize speech impairment as a broad material and theoretical category for investigating how American citizenship was established as an exclusionary vocal limit in the antebellum era.
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