The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.
Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.
In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’
My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.
Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.
As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.
I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.
The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.
In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife. Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands]. The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.
“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?
In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.
Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives
Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.
Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.
The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.
Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.
Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:
Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?
Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.
[Both men laugh.]
“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu
Featured Image: The author listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author
Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
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The US presidential campaigns in 2016 were escorted by a number of songs regarding the person who was recently inaugurated as president. These songs served mostly as a kind of dystopic, fear-indulging, angsty “comedy music”—to reference Frank Zappa’s 1971 “Dental Hygiene Dilemma”—with a perverted thrill, or functioned in the retro manner of balladesque storytelling in songform. Performance art band Pussy Riot’s rather blunt “Make America Great Again” falls in the former category, while many examples from the brave and radiating 30 Days, 30 Songs project fall in the latter, summoning indie-rock icons as Death Cab For Cutie, R.E.M., Bob Mould, EL VY, Jimmy Eat World and Franz Ferdinand.
Lesser known tracks like “Trump,” produced by German DJ and producer WestBam, used a collage with sampled footage organized on a 4/4-beat to uncover Trump’s lies and remodel them into articulations of the vocal intentions of this subject: “We need drugs. We need crime.” However, as horrific and uncanny as this video seems, this subject as head of government then figured only in an unthinkable, impossible world.
In June 2016, Los Angeles rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle apparently sensed the horrible threat so creepily approaching the Oval Office, releasing “Fuck Donald Trump,” which produced a long string of versions, extensions, and new parts in the months afterward: “Don’t let Donald Trump win, that nigga cancer / He too rich, he ain’t got the answers / He can’t make decisions for this country, he gon’ crash us / No, we can’t be a slave for him.” In this song, before the votes were cast, the rappers and the Angelenos in the video address the urgency of a pending openly white supremacist government and the need to publicly resist it. For very good reasons, these musicians did not put the subject now in power into the box of a neglectable funny weirdo candidate. They recognized the threat as being as serious and imminent as it really was. “Fuck Donald Trump / Fuck Donald Trump / Yeah, nigga, fuck Donald Trump/ Yeah, yeah, fuck Donald Trump.”
In the week before the inauguration, artists released a string of music videos that struck very different tones from 2016. A comedy? No more. A gruesome, colorful story to tell? Too vague, too meek. “Hallelujah Money,” sings Benjamin Clementine in the song by the ever-so dystopic anime-band Gorillaz. The new song—the band’s first release in almost 7 years—is a freaked out lament, engendering bewilderment and prayer, taking on a sonic persona that cries out to The One & Only God Of Mammon – the lyrical subject is here the governing subject: “And I thought the best way to perfect our tree / Is by building walls / Walls like unicorns / In full glory / And galore.” In the video, the KKK marches along, the pigs in George Orwell’s animal farm blare, a lone and deathstruck cowboy meditates on the horizon behind Clementine, swinging in distorted rhythms and harmonies. In the end, Clementine burns his hair in a gigantic megaton-explosion while praying for money, praying for the last credible authority: “Hallelujah money (Past the chemtrails) / Hallelujah money (Hallelujah money).”
An angered, revolutionary will also stokes the song “Smoke ’em Out,” released on Jauary 17th, 2017 by a feminist trio consisting of sisters Sierra Casady & Bianca Casady (known as CocoRosie) and transgender singer Anohni (also known as the lead singer for Antony and the Johnsons). The song matches solid beats with serene pizzicatos, creating a surprisingly catchy melody of intriguing courage and uplifting collective resistance: “Burning down the house / The dead girl shouts / Smoke em out!”
Rhythmically demanding and just as sonically unforgiving comes “I Give You Power” by the Arcade Fire featuring Mavis Staples, an amalgamation of anger and the will to move ahead, to transcend current limitations of micro politics into a desired and imagined near future. The song opens with a flat electronic beat that builds up to a fat bulldozing bass sequence with added effects over which Mavis Staples’s multiplied voices lament and demand and call out in grief and angry bewilderment. The song merges disco, soul and funk with traditions of protest chanting, topped off with church organ chords. The music video reveals nothing beyond an older analog mixing desk operated now and then with calm sensitivity and deep knowledge of how this production tosses and turns: bright and glaring lights flicker over the image of the desk.
The Brooklyn-based Sateen, in contrast, perform “Love Makes The World” in a lavish scenery replete with luxurious flashing red gowns of large ruffles. They sing in the woods and in a brick underpass, while joined and complemented by a series of queer singers, dancers & personae presenting themselves, their love and their resistance in public and in private situations. Angelic voices sing over the cycling and motorized club beats, providing electronic sounds of hope whose joyful alien flavors are often in tension with the song’s lyrics: “How can we progress: / When we’re ruled by racists?”
The first music video, however, that drew my attention to this prolific phenomenon of songs against the US’s new governing subject was a cover of Morrissey’s “Interesting Drug” (1989), released by the notorious OK Go:
This time OK Go does not flatter us with their usual acrobatic and meticulously choreographed video performance, but rather present plain white-on-black-text between brief seconds of footage and screenshots of “the bad people on the rise” now in charge of the US, images ready to become the memes and gifs of a resistance movement. The music video ends with an explicit call to action–“It’s a difficult time but fear and anger aren’t the answer. Work to make a better world” followed by a list of five civil rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Immigrant Defense Project and Planned Parenthood, headed by an unmistakable imperative: “Volunteer and donate.”
Discovering this song and video, I soon stumbled across yet another song that struck me first of all as a very clever and all too obvious marketing move, Green Day’s “Troubled Times,” which of course resonates with the band’s hit record “American Idiot” about the George W. Bush presidency.
“What good is love and peace on earth / When it’s exclusive.” In the visual style of traditional black and white newspaper collages—with splashes of red that summon Schindler’s List–the band animates the contemporary pandemonium of hatred, racism, sexism and plutocratic sadism to stage yet another traditional Green Day pop punk song, though one with a rather less disruptive, and much more forlorn note. I have to note a ertain awkwardness here, as the business model of lining up with this protest movement seems rather obvious, and many sections of these lyrics and the video’s imagery seems more cliché than genuine. Are these times really only structurally and anonymously “troubled? Are there no actual wrongdoers, criminals and hatemongers to be named, accused, and condemned? Roger Waters truly unexpected—and much more direct—recent live performance of “Pigs” in Mexico City in October 2016 comes to mind, with its massive projection of KKK & TRUMP-imagery as icons of hate – reinvigorating the political urgency present in a song from 1977.
Still, the song by Green Day might get airplay on nationwide rock radio unlike many of other songs of resistance, and by this it could actually succeed in its overstated mission.
The most aggressive and decidedly agitprop-productions come from Moby and Fiona Apple. Collaborating with Michael Wahlen, Apple recorded a chant for the massive Women’s March on Washington (and the many simultaneous marches occurring across the US and the world) the day after the inauguration:
With lines like “We don’t want your tiny pants / Anywhere near our underpants” Wahlen and Apple revive the protest chant traditions of the 1960s with its mean, challenging, and unforgiving humor. Late last year Apple already released a joyful yet sadistic little piece in the style of a sentimental Christmas carol that keeps “Trump’s nuts roasting on an open fire (…) Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas: Donald Trump, fuck you.”
In contrast, Moby merges his 1990s rave skittishness with an unrepentant love for precisely-targeted guitar punk riffs in “Erupt & Matter.” Original footage of demonstrations, resistance gatherings, and a selection of the absurd and terrifying authoritarian and nationalist figures of our time – first Erdoğan, Farage, Assad, then Duterte, Trump, Wilders, Le Pen, Petry, Hofer and many more – alternate with classic performance shots of Moby and his band The Void Pacific Choir, generating a sentiment of accelerating urgency: “WE DON’T TRUST YOU ANYMORE. WE DON’T TRUST YOU ANYMORE.”
But the anger against sclerotic oligarchies and a condescending establishment is ironically mimicked by exactly the most unsettling and authoritarian protagonists of various nationalist parties worldwide. Even as Moby’s aggressive protest chant becomes an infectious and intriguing earworm, does he render such a revolutionary impetus dubious? Pondering this reminded me of the Atari Teenage Riot line from 1995: “Riot sounds produce riots.” (Atari Teenage Riot 1995)
In the first few weeks of January alone, several consortiums have launched protest song campaigns to ensure that songs like these will just keep coming. On inauguration day, the platform “Our First 100 Days” was launched. Here, one new protest song will be released on every day for the first one hundred days of the current president’s administration, with all profits raised from the sales of songs by groups such as PWRBTTM going, as their website states, “directly to organizations working on the front lines of climate, women’s rights, immigration and fairness.” Paste Magazine expanded its “30 Days, 30 Songs” campaign for the long haul, offering up to 1000 Songs in 1000 Days— one song a day for every weekday of Donald Trump’s term.
However, as I write these last lines, the global public is remixing the resistance in its own lightning-fast ways. The recent public sucker-punch of white supremacist neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has already become a legendary object of meme culture. Folks have synched this clip to multiple—and diverse—soundtracks that invite repeated viewings, from Celine Dion’s “My Heart WIll Go On,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” to Frank Zappa’s “Black Page #2”. . .and the list continues.
Singing the resistance in the 21st century poses a truly complex task. Artists must sonically navigate a wide array of musical aesthetics—some geared toward more immediate public appeal, while others evoke more erratic and dissonant affects—and keep an eye toward combining sound with impactful media events and artifacts, while never forgetting to consider the critical question “How Does it Feel?”
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Holger Schulze is full professor in musicology at the University of Copenhagen and principal investigator at the Sound Studies Lab. His research focuses on the cultural history of the senses, sound in popular culture and the anthropology of media. Recent book publications are: American Progress (2015), Sound as Popular Culture (2016, ed.) and Krieg Singen: Singing The War (2017, ed.).
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