February 19, 2018
Summary Synthesis Report #1
Summary: The concept of “visibly black bodies with audibly ‘black sounds’” (Stoever 133) as a sonic image that white producers, managers, and listeners reinforced lies at the core of the establishment of the sonic color line and, from a larger perspective, how socioeconomic politics travel through the sonic medium.
Synthesis: Stoever defines the sonic color line as “the process of racializing sound – how and why certain bodies are expected to produce, desire, and live amongst particular sounds – and its product, the hierarchical division sounded between “whiteness” and “blackness”. (Stoever 7) The clearest example of this we have discussed is the comparison between Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and African-American singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Lind’s importance to white audiences lied in her role as a model for what a white voice was supposed to sound like and how the person attached to that voice should sound like, to which Greenfield was an “opposition” to. Greenfield, who sang some of Lind’s repertoire, was perceived as noise that was invading white spaces. While words such as “angelic” were used to describe Lind’s voice, “manly” and “disgusting” were used to describe Greenfield’s voice. In another instance, John Lomax controlled blues singer Lead Belly’s image using racial stereotypes to control the sound that Lead Belly would evoke. According to Stoever, “Lomax’s costuming staged Lead Belly in the visual protocol of lynching, which, in turn, altered white Northern listeners’ experience toward the threatening sonics they imagined emanating from a ‘to-be-lynched’ body… Lomax hoped the sound of his racialized performance, and the sound of his racialized performance would confirm his visual display of race, gender, and regional identities, activating the feedback loop between racialized sight and sound.” (Stoever 194) The resulting reaction to this image would be one of fascination, or fear, or anger, or rejection, and anything in between. Beyond physically describable traits, this extended to the sounds that black musicians made throughout history. Jimi Hendrix referred to a collective group of politically minded musicians who were recognizing the changing tides of society and politics and actively speaking on it and referencing it in their music. Paul Gilroy wrote, “The electric church was all around us then; it was inseparable from the revolutionary upsurge of that moment. The traditional celebrations of Afro-Baptism had been profaned and adapted to the task of community defense. Under the banners of black power and anti-colonial solidarity its irregular services began to alter the political mentality of black Britons and to transform our understanding of our emergent place in the postcolonial world.” (Bull & Back 325) In this instance, we see that black musicians were inextricably linked to the sociopolitical messages their music reflect, and the black listeners who shared those political ideas were linked to them.
Attaching these aesthetic qualities and descriptors to definition of race allowed white society to identify itself with the white aesthetic, as well as identify and separate itself from the black aesthetic. These practices and perspectives on visual race and audible race are crucial for understanding how race functioned in these time periods and the effects of those functions on today’s society. As Mark M. Smith wrote in chapter seven of The Auditory Culture Reader, “Taking seriously the sensory history of race and racism helps us appreciate just how unthinkingly race is made, how racism is learned, and how the ideology of race and racism have arisen historically… Once we begin to understand that people sensed their worlds – heard sounds they did not want to hear, had to smell smells they did not want to smell, used the putatively premodern, proximate, nonvisual senses to invent “modem” racial stereotypes – we begin to understand the historically conditioned, visceral, emotional aspect of racial construction and racism.” (Bull & Back, 101) Ultimately, the function of race not just as a visual phenomenon but as a holistic sensorial experience is used to categorize and divide populations, and use that division for anything from political to economic gain and everything in between.
Questions: Other senses such as smell and touch were mentioned as factors to defining race, but how did they interact with the other senses to create a full definition of a race? Were there examples of people who were subjected to these divisions that also embraced them and used them to their advantage? Conversely, how were these divisions resisted by both white and black populations? In what ways did other races face the same treatment?