ENGL 320: Sonic Studies
19 February 2018
The Challenges Black Artists Faced SSR#1
In chapter 25 of The Auditory Culture Reader, Bull and Back bring awareness to the struggles and the issues black artists faced and still currently face due to a myriad of reasons. One reason was, “music…a structure of feeling that might function to make wrongs and injustices more bearable” (Bull & Back p.324). Politics were involved with a lot of music and many people used this as a way to justify their actions. For example, in The Sonic Color Line in chapter 4, Stoever explains how there was visual objectification and sonic commodification, which revealed how the sonic color line sought to limit black voices (p.194). Many whites thought it was a privilege to have black artists when in reality many black artists were made to be marketable. Lomax represents this example through his interactions with Lead Belly, but it can be seen with many other black artists throughout history (Stoever p. 194). Because of this history, many black artists struggled.
In the introduction of The Sonic Color Line, Stoever shows one of the struggles black artists may have faced due to the sonic color line. For example, “The Jubilees and Chesnutt succeeded in shifting definitions of “authentic” blackness away from blackface performance; however mainstream American media outlets appropriated their representations to shore up a new sonic image of blackness focused on sounds of suffering” (Stoever p. 26). This means that white Americans changed the meaning of black artists’ music to what they wanted. This was a commonality that occurred with black artists and black music and made it challenging for them.
Chapter 7 of The Auditory Culture Reader discusses the way slaveholders treated their slaves and that the black person (their slaves) employed sensory characteristics that separated them from whites. This chapter also brings awareness to the separation black artists would face; “the late nineteenth century saw the legal consolidation of this desire to establish separate spaces for black and white, and even in the driest legal document we find senses playing pivotal roles in segregating streetcars, restaurants, theaters, and all manner of public accommodations well into the twentieth century” (Bull & Back p. 102). Segregating theaters was not the ideal for black artists since this limited opportunities for them. Being separated because of the way they “smelled, looked, tasted, etc.” provided evidence for whites to justify segregation and halt success for black artists.
The Sonic Color Line details the way whites controlled the details of listening in order to favor them. Chapter 1 says “Jacobs further explores the differences between white listening practices and those developed by slaves, using rich description to detail the white supremacist assumptions enabled by and encoded in the sonic color line, revealing them as specific sonic symbols of American patriarchy and white supremacy rather than universal affective experiences” (Stoever p.58). This created a racialization of listening that would, in turn, make it difficult for a black artist to escape the white supremacist assumptions.
The introduction of The Auditory Culture Reader discusses an audition of a black man to the audition of a white man. The one critique given to the black man was to sing in his “natural” voice (Bull & Back p. 17) meaning the black man did not sound the way he was supposed to. Continuing, Bull & Back say, “you can’t segregate the airways” (p. 17). This meant people could not control the way they sound, but whites were still separating blacks because of their sound. Also, their sound became another medium for supporting segregationist views. This rationale is the “listening ear,” which in this case adjoins (fictional) racial content to specific kinds of sounds. This artist was judged for his voice not sounding black enough through the “listening ear” creating an issue to succeed.
Another artist that had issues with not sounding black enough was Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who is discussed in chapter 2 of The Sonic Color Line. Stoever says “The sonic color line divided white women from black women, and the listening ear amplified perceived differences in the face of abolition and women’s rights activism, devaluing Greenfield’s voice and appearance while representing Lind’s soprano as the embodiment of the tenets of upper-class Victorian femininity, even as her performances immanently subverted them” (p. 88). Jenny Lind was a white artist in the same time period. The chapter reflects their different experiences due to their differences in skin color. Both of the artists had similar sounds, but because Greenfield was black, she was treated differently. Many criticized her because of her “whiteness” which was reflected in her singing voice. She was also criticized because of her “blackness” which was reflected in her skin color. She was not “enough” of either color so she had difficulties as an artist.
Chapter 3 of The Sonic Color Line discusses the Jubilee singers and Charles Chesnutt. The Fisk Jubilee Singers challenged America’s sonic color line and altered the dominant listening ear (Stoever p. 133). This, however, was not without risk, “but only through dangerous performances that risked affirming the listening ear by constructing new sonic representations of “blackness” (Stoever p. 133). The chapter also talks about conservation of the music and artists throughout time and how it showed the hardships faced. Remembering what people went through to be black artists and to change the way black artists were viewed is an important part of history.
In conclusion, the struggles black artists faced throughout time is highlighted in both The Sonic Color Line and The Auditory Culture Reader. Racism, slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and more challenged black artists in ways white artists would never have to encounter.
- Does criticism for not sounding “white” or “black” enough still occur today? Why has this not evolved to not be an issue?
- When people audition, are people still turned away because of the way they look? What strategies are in place to prevent this from happening?
- How much history has been erased due to the fact whites changed many things to be what they want rather than what it was?
Word count: 1030
Bull, Michael, and Les Back. The Auditory Culture Reader. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. New York University Press, 2016.