Tag Archive | sonic color-line

The Acoustics of Passing: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Supremacist Remix

purple beecher

Sound in the 19th3Editor’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. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Harriet Beecher Stowe. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

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.’

Image of Fredrick Douglass speaking in England regarding his experiences as an American slave

Image of Fredrick Douglass speaking in England regarding his experiences as an American slave

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. 

 Tailpiece illustration by Hammat Billings for Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Illustrated Edition. Original Designs by Billings; Engraved by Baker and Smith. (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853). George Harris, Mr. Wilson. Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia.


Tailpiece illustration by Hammat Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Illustrated Edition. Original Designs by Billings; Engraved by Baker and Smith. (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853). George Harris, Mr. Wilson. Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia.

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.

Freedom to Africa. Headpiece illustration by Hammat Billings for Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Illustrated Edition. Original Designs by Billings; Engraved by Baker and Smith. (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853). Courtsey of Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia

Freedom to Africa. Headpiece illustration by Hammat Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Illustrated Edition. Original Designs by Billings; Engraved by Baker and Smith. (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853). Courtsey of Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia

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.

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

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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How Svengali Lost His Jewish AccentGayle Wald

Listening to the A. D. White House: Cornell’s Society for the Humanities’ Year in Review

Today, Society for the Humanities Director Timothy Murray sings us back home with a meditation on the soundscapes of study at the A.D. White House this year, closing out our spring “Live from the SHC” series covering new research on  “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.”  The 2011-2012 Fellows have got to say goodbye for the summer–and sadly beyond–but we all hope that  next years’ Fellows (2012-2013 Theme: Risk @ Humanities) enjoy all the good vibrations we will leave behind, and that you, Dear SO! readers, have enjoyed our broadcast!  Our summer series, “Tuning In the Past,” on radio and legacy of broadcaster Norman Corwin, featuring  Neil VermaShawn VanCour, and Alex Russo begins at the end of June.  And, of course, every Monday in between and beyond,  we’ll keep giving you something you can feel.  –JSA, Editor in Chief (and 2011-2012 SHC Fellow)

Many thanks to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman for hosting “Live from the SHC” on Sounding Out!  What a fantastic experience it’s been to have Jennifer screening and tweaking Sounding Out! from her garret office overlooking the gardens behind the A.D. White House, the Cornell home of the Cornell’s Society for the Humanities.  Readers of “Live from the SHC” have read various strains of this year’s focal theme, “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.”  The aim of this year’s residential research project was to contemplate and analyze the resonance of historical and contemporary representations, movements, ideas, and negations of sound.

From Left: Tim Murray, Eric Lott, Tom McEnaney, and Marcus Boon, Image by Renate Ferro

Open to study of the broadest cross-cultural range of contexts and media that cross the boundaries of time and space–from East and West/South and North–the Fellows’ research delved into the complex ways that sound abounds in visual, textual, and aural realms.  From “voicing” to “listening,” sound shaped the framework of our critical and philosophical analyses of the body, affect, and social publics.  Sound came to be appreciated for its shaping of the parameters of psycho-cultural imaginaries, social practice, religious ritual, and political regulation throughout history and across the globe.  Just as sound differs in the global context of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, not to mention the specificities of ethnic difference and cultural diversity, “voice,” “hearing,” and “listening” frame the humanities disciplines in relation to their aesthetic properties and political ramifications.

From Left: Eric Lott and Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Image by Jeanette Jouili

The Fellows found themselves reflecting on several key issues. Which criteria differentiates natural from artificial sounds?  Does sound challenge disciplinary distinctions between the visual and the oral/aural/tactile? Can the loud noises of industrial culture be distinguished from the synthetic sounds of electronic music, the stammerings of performance and the vibrations of philosophical manifestos? It should come as no surprise to followers of Sounding Out! that sound marks the passage of time, the correlation of the aural to the movement of the body in dance and performance, the sonic promise of cartographic projects of social movements and migrations, and the cultural and ethnic specificities of acoustic fields and rhythms in the age of sampling and mixing, not to mention the gender, racial, and ethnic import of voice and spoken narrative.

Adding vibrant texture to our year-long discussions were the three weeks spent in extended dialogue with the Society’s Senior Invited Fellows.  Emily Thompson (The Soundscape of Modernity) charted the histories of the architectonic sounds of cinema houses as well as the untraceable wealth of the historical sounds of New York City as its peripheries morphed from country estate to urban zone.  Brandon LaBelle came from Norway to take us on a journey of artistic imagination and phenomenological hopefulness as he cruised his writings on Acoustic Territories and Site Specific Sound while sampling the background noises of his multimedia installations.  Then Norie Neumark, fresh off the release of VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media (co-edited with Ross Gibson and Theo Van Leewen), arrived from Australia to follow up on our 2003 online seminar on Sound Cultures.  She reminded us of the deep history of sound studies down under, while focusing our attention on voicings and her own multimedia art practice that blends spoken narrative, synthetic noise, mouthed breath, and shocks in the ear. [The “Live From the SHC” logo is a piece from Neumark and Maria Miranda’s “Shock in the Ear”–ED].

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Various other visitors throughout the year included multimedia artists Mendi and Keith Obadike whose “not” Afrofuturism walked us through their exciting series of performance works,“Four Electric Ghosts,” Caitlin Marshall from Berkeley who  brought cyborg speech to life with her prosthetic soundings, and renowned choreographer William Forsythe, whose four-hour choreography piece  “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time“–performed amidst amidst over 150 hanging pendulums–combined dance and environment as a means of physically manifesting the process of thought.  Marjorie Garber from Harvard rode our acoustic wave to reflect on the future of the humanities while Norma Coates came down from Western Ontario to sensitize us to the mixes of pop sound and culture.

Brock Labrenz performs William Forsythe’s “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time” at Cornell University’s Rand Hall on March 3, 2012. Image by William Staffeld / AAP

In listening back to the echoes of the year past, rather than here retracing the specific projects of our Fellows (you can consult the critical tales already Sound[ed] Out! by Damien KeaneTom McEnaney, Nina Sun EidsheimJonathan Skinner, Eric Lott, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, and Jeanette Jouili), I find myself sampling the sounds, noises, and glitches that provided unexpected reverbs for the academic writing happening behind closed office doors throughout the A. D. White House.

Nina Sun Eidsheim, Image by Renate Ferro

Sounds of glee, delight, and play first arrived on the scene at the end of August with gaggles of laughing and screaming kids running wild and climbing trees in the gardens, surrounded by bemused adults and envious dogs. Accompanying partners brought to the mix the diverse soundings of African film, suspicious packages, software beats, performance art, critical geography, and real estate hawking.  No wonder the assembled Fellows strayed so readily, if not unconventionally, from the promised strictures of already exceptional research projects that brought to our weekly seminar table the street sounds of Egypt, Turkey, Korea, early modern Germany, contemporary Islam, American hip hop, contemporary art, circuit bending, gaming, German, Irish, U.S. and Latin American radio, voices of performers, animals, and posthumans, urban soundscapes, and, here making a loud call out to one Stoever-Ackerman, sonic color-lines.

Marcus Boon Rocks the Spring Workshop After Party–Image by JSA

Resounding throughout the year to give cadence and timbre to our serious ponderings were the spontaneous soundings that seemed always to give ample depth to the provocative interstices of intellectual life.  There were the noises of glitch, circuit-bending, and Guitar Hero that stretched and extended the purpose of music and machinics.  There were spontaneous voice lessons that turned anxious performers into wild choreographic objects.  Singing above in the hidden alcoves–when not streaming through the high Victorian ceilings of the A. D. White House–were our flying mammal friends whose echolocation extended beyond the reach of our mere human ears.  Then were the sudden noisy reminders of the vulnerability of our corporeal organs.  Who could forget the reported imaginary of the crunch of human leg against car as two of our Fellows found themselves under assault from a crazed pizza delivery guy – luckily no lasting damage?

Our fellows will carry away the subliminal lacings of the lighter sounds of improvisation and camaraderie.  There were the poundings of feet and slappings of bodies dancing late into the night after hours of laborious conferencing to the beats of DJs Marcus Boon, Art Jones, and Earmuffs.

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At the end of the year, Fellows grooved to the beat of Tom McEnaney playing bass with The Vix Krater out at the Rongo in Trumansburg, NY (down the road from the home of Moog),  before retreating to the bowels of the A. D. White House basement for another dusty, late night jam session with drums, synthesizer, guitars, bass, and various acoustics, led by the ultimate sound blogger herself, the guitar heroesse, Jenny S-A. [Well, I’m learning.  So far I know E-Minor. It was Trevor that really broke my strings in! –ED].

(From left) Damien Keane on bass, Michael Jonik, Trevor Pinch on Guitar and Moog, Image by JSA

And, yes, there was always the accompaniment of the clinks of glasses and bottles bearing the liquid life blood of any noisy crew.

The French philososopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, reminds us in Listening (2007) that the shared space of noise and sound entails “a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject or to itself, all simultaneously.  Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ‘in me'” (7).   What resounded and referred this year at the Society for the Humanities was the very immaterial and inchoate touch of sound, which is a-live in intensity and force.  But who would have imagined the intensity of the noise of referral that remained so constant throughout the year to envelop the solid academic work of our Fellows in the wilding vibrations of jouissance?  Indeed, perhaps the best lesson of the year, at a moment when the humanities finds itself threatened and in transition by the supposed certainty of metric and assessment, is that the Society’s scholarship in sound was driven by the relentless noise of referral and the unpredictable delight of the commune.

From Left: Renate Ferro, Ladi Dell’aira, Sarah Ensor, Jeanette Jouili, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Brian Hanrahan, and Norie Neumark, Image by JSA

Featured Image Credit: Brandon La Belle, Duck Duck Goose Installation, Ausland, Berlin

Timothy Murray is Professor of Comparative Literature and English and Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. He is the Cornell Principal Investigator of the Central Humanities Corridor, generously supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and he sits on the International Advisory Board of the Consortium of the Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and the Steering Committee of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). He is Co-Moderator of the empyre- new media listserv and the author of Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (Minnesota 2008); Zonas de Contacto: el arte en CD-ROM (Centro de la imagen, 1999); Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video, Art (Routledge, 1997); Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera, and Canvas (Routledge, 1993); Theatrical Legitimation: Allegories of Genius in XVIIth-Century England and France (Oxford, 1987). He is editor of Mimesis, Masochism & Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought (Michigan, 1997) and, with Alan Smith, Repossessions: Psychoanalysis and the Phantasms of Early-Modern Culture (Minnesota, 1997). His curatorial projects include CTHEORY MULTIMEDIA and Contact Zones: The Art of the CD-Rom.

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

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

How were Truth's words heard? By whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Illegitimate to Illmatic: On Tiger Mothers, Ethnoburbs, and Playing the Violin While Dreaming of Nas

“Don’t tell me you’re still listening to that shit.”

“I told you, I like it.”

“This is why we have so much trouble with you.”

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“Listen to that cursing…it’s nothing but garbage!”

“What are you doing?”

“All of these CDs are going in the basement. No more rap until you start listening to your parents! Now, go practice your violin!”

Growing up, exchanges like these were common between my Korean American mother and me—a multiracial Korean Euro-American. In her eyes, there was no such thing as enough violin practice. Rap—the vulgarity! The noise! It was turning me into a juvenile delinquent! She was convinced I had it in me to be the next Korean-American classical music virtuoso, the next Sarah Chang—if only I would practice more scales and stop trying to imitate “black men shouting.” (However “conversational” the rap world considered Nas’s flow, my mother still heard yelling.)

 

Violinist, Sarah Chang

It’s not that I didn’t like classical music—I watched Amadeus on loop until the VHS squealed—but my mother, like the mothers of most all my Asian friends, insisted on it consuming a fairly large chunk of my life. While immensely diverse in its makeup, most of the Asian population where I lived was either Korean or Chinese, and were forced by their parents to learn violin, piano or cello. Not only was it criminal to play an instrument other than one of these; but, whichever one (or two) you chose, you had better be the best at it.

Author and Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, recently incited an online firestorm when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from hercontroversial new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she recounts calling her daughters “worthless” and “garbage” if they couldn’t perform a piece of classical music up to her exacting standards. University of Hawai’i at Manoa Professor, Mari Yoshihara’s study, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music(2008) describes similar instances of “tiger mothering,” such as virtuoso violinist, Midori Goto’s, mother, Setsu Goto, who (it was rumored) was so strict that it forced Midori into a mental breakdown and an eating disorder. Many would likely agree that “Tiger Mothering” such as this is morally questionable (and in some cases abusive), but I should note that instances like these are only part of a much bigger picture. Scores of students and performers would no doubt concur with Dr. O’C’s recent SO! account of the potential for classical music praxis to have ameliorative effects. Despite this, however, classical music training seems to have become a central tenet of “Tiger Mother” methodology. In all the kerfluffle over Chua’s book, no one has been asking the most foundational question: Why is it so important to Asians and Asian Americans that their children play classical music?

Amy Chua, (CC) Larry D. Moore

In a recent interview on why she chose classical violin and piano for her children, Chua fancifully suggests that classical music is the antidote to materialism. She says that “classical music all about depth” and calls the violin and piano “very respectable instruments.” Indicative of more than just a love of classical music, Chua’s statements imply that other forms of music lack comparable artistic value and require less cultivation to perform and enjoy. In a similar vein, the Asian-descent classical musicians interviewed in Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore divulge their belief that playing classical music anchors one to a high social stratum. Acknowledging the contradiction between classical music’s high cultural status and its mostly poor compensation, the musicians identified social factors such as educational attainment and musical taste and ability as more important determining factors of class standing than income. Yoshihara thus links the importance Asians and Asian Americans place on classical music praxis to class consciousness and the production of cultural capital.

Class consciousness no doubt accounts for some of the zealousness exhibited by Tiger Mothers with regard to their children’s classical music training, but it’s not the only thing that keeps them roaring. Chua’s Battle Hymn illustrates that, in addition to class consciousness, the pressure to study classical music stems from an intra-racial expectation to perform Asianness adequately. Chapter 5 of Chua’s memoir, titled, “On Generational Decline,” is her cut-and-dried summarization of how subsequent generations of Chinese Americans become lazier as they’re allowed to revel in the comforts of middle class life. Chua chooses classical music for her children because it is “the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.” Constructed as an appeal to Chinese Americans, Chua essentially argues that classical music training is key to an Asian person’s cultural and racial legitimacy. Unwilling to relinquish “the high cultural tradition of [her] ancient ancestors,” she expects her children to uphold a racially and culturally endorsed standard of melody-making that reinforces Asian gender norms and encourages other Asian parents to do the same.

One of Ellicott City’s Korean Shopping Plazas, photo by Barbara Fisher

In Ellicott City, Maryland, the wealthy, culturally diverse “Ethnoburb” of Baltimore where I grew up, Asian American classical musicians abound and Asian American rappers are few. Here, (where the community-wide motto is “Choose Civility”) Asian youth gained a sort of “cred” for mastering the violin or piano, and this pressure to “prove” oneself along racial lines was something I always felt—particularly as a teen of mixed race. It was probably the biggest reason why I didn’t quit the violin until I graduated from high school. I hated it, but resentfully continued attending orchestra and private lessons in the fear that I would lose the meager amount of “cred” I’d built up. It hardly mattered, though. There was no chance of me getting into an Ivy League school or playing Carnegie Hall—I listened to rap and sometimes didn’t do my homework. In short, I would never be a “Super Asian” (a term coined by my Indian music stand partner and me), and as any Asian kid knows, if you’re not the best, you needn’t bother trying. None of the “Super Asians” had any interest in rap, and one even joked that I was a “chocolate-filled twinkie” for wearing a Pelle Pelle jacket to practice one week.

Wolfosonian Museum, Unknown Artist

People who looked like Sarah Chang were supposed to be in the business of making melodies, not rhymes. Chang performing a violin concerto is a comforting scene, a sonic image that reaffirms a familiar cultural narrative of femininity and class stature associated with Asianness in the US. A result of the gradual process of East Asian modernization (instigated by Western Imperialism), classical music was initially adopted by the people at the behest of the state, eventually becoming a integral part of middle class life in East Asia and a social marker of bourgeois womanhood that functioned to situate women vis à vis the domicile. Uncomfortable defining myself in this way (and feeling, also, that I never truly could), I gravitated towards something more “disruptive” that would allow me to show a different face to the world.

Rap became a vehicle for me to explain myself in more hybrid terms. On drives into Baltimore City, I heard it bellowing from the windows of the West Side’s crumbling row homes. The loud, curt, interjections! The spontaneity and candor! This loudness was initially what drew me in, but eventually I realized that rap had just as much profundity as anything classical you could throw at it. Listening to rap, I was finally on offense. It was a medium that spoke to me, because it made me feel capable of speaking back. And there was an entire legion of disaffected youth who seemed to feel the same way.

Nas performing in 2007

Despite this popularity, however, critics of rap maintain that the sounds that (predominately African American) rappers produce are nothing more than “noise.” In Black Noise, Tricia Rose observes that despite (and perhaps because of) rap’s widespread popularity and cultural relevance, it is often pitted as classical music’s polar-opposite—“unintelligible yet aggressive sound that disrupt[s the] familial domain” (63). Against charges that rap lacks “depth,” purveyors of hip hop (despite their hefty salaries) often accrue little to no widespread artistic acclaim. Evidence of what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman terms the “sonic color-line,” this demotion and “Othering” of non-white sounds into “noise” (discussed further in her recent SO! post) has historically functioned to both generate and underwrite public attitudes about race, class and gender and to create dominant ideas about listening that she dubs “the listening ear.”

It seems that dominant modes of listening have everything figured out. If you look like this, you sound like that. But, what about people who look like me? What are we supposed to sound like? With which sonic cultural productions am I supposed to ally myself, and do I have a choice in the matter? How does “the listening ear” interpret a biracial Korean Euro-American or any person of mixed race heritage? Was there a distinction to be heard? I was sure there was, but didn’t quite know how to voice it.

For most of my life I have lived on the precipice of Asianness and something else, leaving me to feel—at times—confused, demoralized and illegitimate. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant famously note in their seminal work, Racial Formation, “Without a racial identity [in America], one is in danger of having no identity.” Acutely aware of my difference, I searched for ways of being heard as a multiracial subject in a fiercely stratified, race-conscious society. In the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, Michael Omi notes that within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Disruptive to fixed notions about race, it is often a challenge for multiracial subjects to be recognized or understood by the state or the ear.

Rap assisted me in my effort to be heard as a multiracial person. While my Asian friends in All-State Orchestra were polishing their four-octave chromatic scales for the judging panel at Julliard, I was conscientiously studying Rakim’s flow and the RZA’s beats, hoping that one day it might make sense for me to show my face at a rap battle, if only as an observer. After the realization that Nas wasn’t the reason I could never be a “Super Asian,” my mom returned my copy of his masterpiece debut, Illmatic. As previously, I spent the hours before bedtime reciting the lyrics to Nasty classics like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” moved by every skillful turn of phrase: “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian/half man-half amazin,” I would repeat over and over until I got the cadences just right. Whatever the hell he was talking about, I was sure it applied to me.

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