19 February 2018
In Chapter 4 of The Sonic Color Line, Stoever analyzes the musical relationship between Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and John Lomax, as well as the writings of Richard Wright, to discern how the sonic color line evolved after the Great Migration and in response to the perceived threat of black masculinity and racial violence during the early 1900s. In terms of Ledbetter and Lomax, Stoever argues that Lomax developed a persona for Ledbetter that would be an auditory representation of black stereotypes. Stoever writes, “Lomax’s relentless marketing of Ledbetter as a “to-be-lynched” body pressured the sonic color line’s dynamics toward characterizing black male voices as dangerous and hypersexual to ‘match’ the visual framing of their bodies as inherently criminal, sexual, and strong” (Stoever 195). Stoever also argues that Ledbetter served as a “walking archive” of slavery by using “inarticulate” lyrics and folk style music of “black misery.” In terms of Richard Wright, Stoever argues that his writings served as representations of how black men and boys used the sonic color line as a way to try to evade racial violence. Stoever writes, “Wright’s literary soundtrack amplifies how black boys came to understand the codes of the sonic color line as lifesaving yet paradoxically self-destructive” (Stoever 212). Stoever also argues that Wright’s works emphasize the way sound and listening create racialized spaces. Stoever writes, “Wright often uses aural imagery to show how the sonic color line provides segregated space with a distinct affect while exposing the listening ear as a racialized spatial protocol, extending white privilege to control over common soundscapes” (Stoever 220).
In Chapter 3 of The Sonic Color Line, Stoever discusses how the white listening ear shaped what was acceptable in music in terms of black musicians. Stoever writes, “White listeners used black singers and storytellers as sonic experiences of collapsed time, capable of momentarily conjuring a preserved antebellum soundscape to vibrational life” (Stoever 141). This is similar to how Stoever argues Ledbetter was portrayed to white listeners in the early 1900s. In order to present an unthreatening representation of black people, white listeners chose to reject sounds of protest and accept sounds reminiscent of slavery and white supremacy. In both Chapter 3 and 4 of this book Stoever argues that throughout history black musicians were used to perpetuate existing black stereotypes, rather than be seen as serious musicians comparable to white musicians.
Similarly, in Chapter 2 of the Sonic Color Line, Stoever outlines the appearance of stereotypes in regards to black sonic identity. Stoever writes, “Minstrelsy’s aural practice involved distorted dialect, exaggerated intonation, rhythmic speech cadences, and particular musical instruments such as the banjo and bone castanets allegedly lifted from ‘the plantation’” (Stoever 84). This is similar to Ledbetter’s expectation to meet the expectations of the racist listening ear. He was forced to sound inarticulate while singing folk songs about “black misery” in order to reminisce the days on the plantation. In Chapter 2 Stoever also discusses the connection between the body and sound. She writes, “The antebellum sonic color line naturalized the socially constructed, historically contingent relationships between the voice and the body, suturing the two together as essentially raced entities via the listening ear” (Stoever 130). In Chapter 4, Stoever argues that the promotion of Ledbetter alongside lynching photos affected how white people made connections between black men’s bodies and Ledbetter’s voice. Stoever argues, in both chapters, that stereotypes for how black people should sound were tied closely to how black people looked.
In the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line Stoever briefly discusses the idea of white ownership of public spaces. She uses the example of a white man killing a black teen at a gas station because the black teen would not turn down his hip-hop music. Stoever writes, “Without ever consciously expressing the sentiment, white Americans often feel entitled to respect for their sensibilities, sensitivities, and tastes, and to their implicit, sometimes violent, control over the soundscape of an ostensibly ‘free,’ ‘open,’ and ‘public’ space” (Stoever 2). Stoever uses both modern and past examples to describe this incidence of believed white ownership of public space, and the unfortunate violent actions that arise from it. In Chapter 4 of The Sonic Color Line Stoever again discusses this idea in regard to Wright’s work. She argues that black people had to be cautious of their sonic presence in public places, as whites dominated even common areas. This point also roughly relates to a point made in the Introduction to The Auditory Culture Reader. The authors write, “Sensitivity to the urban auditory is often class-based and culturally influenced. Cultures with strong notions of ‘private space’ as a form of entitlement are more prone to complain about the noise of others” (Bull and Back 10). The authors also make the case that people feel entitled to sonic space, and that this entitlement can be class-based. Therefore, one can make the connection that white elites believed to own public space over the supposed lower class black population.
In Chapter 7 of The Auditory Culture Reader, Smith discusses the formation of racial stereotypes in senses other than sight. He writes, “The slaveholders also cast blackness in sensory terms both to justify and to explain exploitation” (Smith 102). These stereotypes were meant not only to separate black and whites, but to justify a belief that blacks were somehow of lesser value than whites. This is similar to the argument made in Chapter 4 of The Sonic Color Line about the reason segregated neighborhoods. In both instances, whites consciously developed stereotypes for black people in order to justify discrimination.
- Can there be a way to determine who owns sonic space – either public or private space? Is there an effective way to regulate the sounds of public or private spaces?
- How are these stereotypes, or new stereotypes, are still used today in order to “justify” current race relations?
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