Interview Series: Jennifer Stoever, The Sonic Color Line

by Jarek Ervin on December 1, 2017

Jennifer StoeverThe Sonic Color Line

In The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Practices of Listening (NYU), Sounding Out! Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Lynn Stoever (SUNY Binghamton) excavates an archive that spans a century of audio-visual materials, performance reviews, and African American literature to present the relationship between the sonics of race and the historical racialization of listening. Stoever engages black performers and writers as theorists of listening to demonstrate how listening can serve as a mode of decolonization. In August, Maria Murphy (University of Pennsylvania) spoke with Stoever about the politics of voicing and listening, sound studies, and how Colin Kaepernick hears the national anthem.

Maria Murphy: Your book focuses on a multitude of sounds across a broad time span: 1846-1945. With the concept of the sonic color line—what you call “race’s audible contour”—you trace the ways certain sonic and listening practices play a significant role in processes of racialization, gendered projections, and class assumptions. What is the genealogy of this concept?

Jennifer Lynn Stoever: The term “sonic color line” comes from the work of W.E.B Du Bois and his profound interventions into American discourse about race, which demonstrated how the very discourse itself framed and perpetuated racism in the nineteenth century. His compelling question at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, “how does it feel to be a problem?” demonstrates how the counter discourse was constructed, to always emphasize that blackness and black people themselves were America’s racial problem. He’s writing in 1903, and identifies the problem of the twentieth century as the systemic problem of the color line.

Now we’re a hundred years down the line into critical race theory, and Du Bois’s work provided an opening to counter and dismantle the system of race. At the time, he was deploying methods from science, reason, and sociology to demonstrate how racism can be logically countered. Part of this discourse conceived of race as a visual entity—a veil—enacted in signs that separate waiting rooms and drinking fountains, but was also expressed metaphorically, as a veil that has been placed over black life by white supremacy. To use the visual term, it’s a very illuminating argument.

I became interested in apprehending the arc of his intellectual thought in his later works, such as Dusk of Dawn (1940). It’s in the second autobiography, on the cusp of World War II as the world erupted into global battles over white supremacy, that Du Bois is profoundly depressed and begins questioning everything he had done in his life up to that time. In this work, he addresses race as something we can’t see—it’s not a veil that’s mysterious and opaque, but rather a plate glass wall, that, for all intents and purposes, we cannot see. This transparent wall hermetically seals off the interactions and communications between black and white people, with an extreme unwillingness to hear on one side—the white side of the color line—which, in effect, creates a kind of echo chamber.

The intervention in my book is to name how racism works through listening, revisiting Du Bois’s theories to unpack the relationship between race and sound. I began to think about how he shows that the color line is not solely a visual entity, but that it also has to do with sound and other forms of perception. It is the relationship between the sonic and visual that enables racism to continue, morphing and changing, and adapting to each historical moment.

MM: Another analytic you use is the listening ear, which manifests as a disciplined and essentialized form of listening, regarding the sonic color line as naturalized and embodied. It seems like, by delineating the ways sonic and listening practices uphold racial divisions, you shift the emphasis of sound studies toward listening.

JLS: I tell my classes this all the time. I think a more appropriate designation other than sound studies would be “listening studies.” That’s where I see scholars at work in the humanities making one of our strongest interventions.

What’s most powerful about sound studies, I believe, is the assertion that sounds are not separable from our bodies. Our bodies produce sound. Our bodies are the surfaces that receive these waves, materially, and the medium by which we translate and transduce them into meaning. This is where the “listening ear” enters, and where my work intervenes, in the moment where these physiological responses meet the culturally conditioned response—the point where we begin to make meaning of these sounds.

For a long time, we’ve been conditioned to think of listening as natural and biological, without interrogating how these listening interpretations came to be. Over the last twenty years especially, we’ve moved toward unsettling vision and understanding it as a selective sense. This notion is indebted in part to excellent scholarship on the gaze, coming from feminism, critical race theory, and also scholarly attention to the senses. The general example here is that we have eyelids; we can close our eyes, but it’s the notion that we cannot close off hearing, that listening is an act without agency that I want to address. Yes, our bodies are always inevitably perceiving, but what I’ve come to think about is the way that we develop filters psychologically, and sometimes even physiologically, to not hear things—to recognize how listening becomes very habituated and very much informed by powerful systems of understanding.

I use the “listening ear” to talk about the way hegemonic listening practices have developed and driven the sonic color line. It is an ideological mode of listening, propelled by white supremacy, which has been dominant in the U.S. since its founding. The listening ear informs how we hear race and ideas about race that fracture what may seem to be an external, unitary listening practice, but is, in fact, the imposition of a white supremacist take on sound. We learn these modes of listening in a variety of ways that overdetermine how we interpret sounds. A lot of the book is about deconstructing the listening ear by examining all the methods by which we learn how to listen, and at the same time, recognizing that these interpretations aren’t universal or natural but learned and habituated.

As a result of this listening ear, we stop imagining that people can hear any other way. For example, the expectation that accompanies the pledge of allegiance: when you hear the pledge, you’re supposed to stand up and be reverent and believe that this physical practice of listening is constitutive of being American. We’re seeing this play out with Colin Kaepernick and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This song is supposed to fill you with these patriotic feelings. Kaepernick’s response, a silent response, still speaks. He is showing us how he listens to that song, and what he hears when he takes a knee. This is a profound rejection of the response of the listening ear, and Kaepernick’s response to that song speaks volumes and visually shows us the agency that people actually have with listening. We can resist the impositions of the listening ear in a variety of ways. The book takes up various historical moments to show how these dominant perspectives emerged and proliferated, but also documents the resistance to these perspectives, which have themselves expanded.

MM: In many case studies you address how voice carves out spaces delineated by the sonic color line. Among other examples, you analyze Fredrick Douglass’s account of his aunt Hester’s screams, reviews of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield’s wide-ranging operatic voice, and Lena Horne’s vocal defiance of sonic stereotyping in broadcasting. You provide accounts of how audiences and critics would strain to match voices and bodies visually and aurally, but also how these same audiences would bifurcate voice from body to rationalize their understanding of race and sound. Can you speak about how these contradictions are parsed out?

JLS: That contradictory duality is at the center of American popular music. In terms of the careers of Jenny Lind and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, two opera divas of the 1850s, their bodies and voices became the site where white elites debated about race and gender. At this historical moment, the white abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement are also taking place, so the nation is in a moment of crisis as white elites realize they are losing hold of the control that has ensured their power. At this point, listening, in some ways, becomes weaponized to reinforce notions of whiteness, and, in this case, matching the white feminine body with a pure sound that emanates from the body.

When the formerly enslaved Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield inserts herself into this world, what’s so badass about her, is that she basically says: “I’m going to tour the big cities; I’m going to sing the same repertoire in the same performance spaces as the white opera sensation Jenny Lind.” This is politically powerful, in the sense of bringing a black woman’s voice into spaces that have been acoustically constructed for a particular kind of “white” singing. Black listeners were extremely moved and motivated by her talent and her boldness, and also by her ability to withstand so much of the abuse the system marshalled against her. A lot of those venues were segregated and black audiences couldn’t easily come to hear her. In the book, I talk about how black people would often stand outside the concert venue and try to listen to her. One of the reviewers called it the “curbstone sofa.” Hearing Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield in this way comprised a decolonized listening practice, as her voice traveled across the sonic color line by traversing the boundaries of the segregated concert venue.

What becomes encoded at this time for white elites, was not just the effort to reconcile voice and body, but a conditioned response when this understanding was challenged. I call it “racial surprise.” Of course, this phenomenon has made so much money for the music industry, at least on the basis that it’s exciting when the voices of white artists don’t match their white bodies, and this surprise is exaggerated and capitalized on. In the case of Greenfield, however, I consider the racial surprise as the conditioned response of the listening ear that protects the system. Essentially, racial surprise underscored the ideal that white voices match white bodies and sound like [fill in the blank], and racialized others can try to imitate them but they’ll never possess them. And while voices that seemingly cross the sonic color line are titillating, the listening ear ensures that, ultimately, they will never threaten white identity.

For example, looking through many nineteenth-century press materials showed me how little white elites actually listened to Greenfield’s voice. She was never truly critiqued for her singing, unlike the critics who would attend several of Lind’s performances before writing a review. Meanwhile, the write-ups for Greenfield were almost never in the music section—they’d be in the amusement section of the paper. They were much shorter. They refused to give her voice the same deep listening and criticism. Most of the actual criticism of Greenfield’s voice comes from black papers. By only being able to hear race in her voice, the white press refused to actually critique her according to their own standards. That’s another way that the listening ear reinforces itself—to withhold that kind of attentive listening.

MM: It’s striking that even with regard to Lind, where critique is deployed, it’s in order to consolidate whiteness.

JLS: Absolutely. She was from Sweden, and, as Gus Stadler has discussed in his book Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the US, 1840-1890, her Nordic identity was key to her success in the U.S. at that historical moment. Her manager P.T. Barnum drew on these characteristics to promote her in the country. Behind the scenes, she had a lot of business acumen and savvy; she let Barnum portray her this way publicly because it was, of course, unbefitting for women to do so on their own. And she wanted to keep her reputation as a kind of a representation of true womanhood, because it was very profitable. The deepest irony is that, as she is marketed for her Nordicness, she becomes America’s first big “pop star.” Greenfield’s the singer who is actually American. She is born on a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, and subsequently lived in Philly for many years.

MM: You also talk about how the relationship between Alan Lomax and Lead Belly similarly cultivated a particular persona for Lead Belly. One image you deconstruct in the book is from Life Magazine, which features a close-up of Lead Belly’s hands with the caption “these hands once killed a man.” In this case, there is not an effort to match voice and body but rather an effort to cultivate—both aurally and visually through timbre, affect, and even the appearance of his hands—a different persona altogether.

JLS: In this example, and in Lomax’s configuration more generally, we see a link between sounds of black musical playing and black voices, especially black masculine voices, regarded as dangerous. This is the perfect example of how the media shapes the listening ear. So here, the media and marketing impact does not just link the blues with black masculine bodies, but links these bodies with violence. It’s that same configuration of violence that I address in that chapter to show the white justification for lynching. So through that filter, Lead Belly’s voice is portrayed in written descriptions as a very deep, bass voice despite the fact that he sang in a tenor range. This voice ends up being heard through racialized violence. In our contemporary moment, we see how this habitual practice translates into law enforcement, certainly, with perceptions of physicality, including the automatic association between certain racialized sounds and voices with violence.

With this image of Lead Belly, you can see the creation of that representation and how sound, violence, and bodies are connected through the listening ear all in one image—and then marketed that way! I wanted to show how much of that perception of Lead Belly was driven by Lomax’s ideas about black music, and that later these ideas were encoded in the Library of Congress and the very practices of music collection. These ears were in a position to shape how the rest of us hear and think, and determine archivally what was preserved and what was discarded.

MM: One of the most compelling contributions you make in your book is to identify an important weakness in the sonic color line—a potential area to exploit in order to dismantle its power. This weakness manifests in the sonic color line’s circular logic, which results in what you call a feedback loop. The listening ear and sonic color line reinforce each other, but on very shaky ground. In the book, you delineate many ways that black performers have worked against this circular logic. As listeners, how can we work against these feedback loops that reinforce the sonic color line?

JLS: I wrote the book precisely to intervene in the feedback loop that gets us stuck considering which comes first—the sound of race or the look of race? There is a very richly detailed but unspoken language and perceptual frame for thinking about sound. We cannot pretend that laws that are color blind are equal, because we don’t have any conversation to think about, for example, how racial profiling happens through tone of voice, accents, or types of music. We still fixate these processes legally and culturally on vision.

In the book I try to show examples where sound has radically different meanings and perceptions between racialized peoples, to disrupt this loop and take apart entrenched notions of silence and noise that are deeply embedded with assumptions at the intersection of class, race, and gender. I do this by engaging African American speakers and writers who have been discussing the connection between listening and race over the last two hundred years, asking: How can we decolonize? How do we de-center the listening ear that tells us we don’t belong and that tells us we shouldn’t be protected—that tells us that the sounds we make aren’t beautiful and valuable? It’s not just about calling attention to racist listening practices. At the same time, we must take a step beyond that and proliferate the diversity of responses and modes of sonic knowledges. The disciplinary, dominant listening ear is not the only way, or even the best way to listen. Recognizing and mobilizing one’s own agency to change how we listen is key to breaking down the sonic color line. ♬

Jennifer Lynn Stoever is Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University and Co-Founder and Editor-in- Chief of Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog. Her articles on sound, music, race, and listening have been published in American Quarterly, Sound Effects, Modernist Cultures, Radical History Review, and Social Text among others and she has an article forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies entitled “Crate Digging Begins at Home: Black and Latinx Women Collecting and Selecting Records in the 1960s and 70s Bronx.” She is the author of The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening in America (NYU Press, 2016).

Maria Murphy is a Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research addresses the relationship between sound technologies and body politics through the work of multimedia artists Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, and Karen Finley. Maria is also interested in developing creative spaces for hands-on research. She is the co-founder of Listening (to) Cyborgs: A Media Archaeology Workshop on Sound Technologies.

Photo: Jonathan Cohen and Binghamton University.
Book Cover: David Oliviera for Camille Norment Studios, Design by Lisa Force.

Share on

Previous post: