This episode, we talk with Jennifer Lynn Stoever–editor of the influential sound studies blog Sounding Out!–about her new book, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (NYU Press, 2016). We tend to think of race and racism as visual phenomena, but Stoever challenges white listeners to examine how racism can infect our ears, altering the sound of the world and other people. We discuss the history of American prejudicial listening since slavery and learn how African American writers and musicians have pushed back against this invisible “sonic color line.”

Works discussed include Richard Wright’s Native Son and music by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), Fishbone, and Lena Horne.

Additional music by Graeme Gibson and Blue the Fifth

[low humming playing]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[COMPUTERIZED VOICE]

Episode 5.

 

[CRIS]
Ears racing.

 

[low humming and contemporary music fades in]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Race. We think of it as a visual phenomenon.

 

[CRIS]
But race has sound too.

 

[DIFFERENT VOICES GIVING GREETINGS]
Hey guys, welcome back. Hi sisters. Hey Jim, (inaudible). Hey everyone. Hey!

 

[CRIS]
When you heard those voices, did you give them a race, a class, perhaps some kind of assignation of character and if so, why do we do this? Where does this discriminating ear come from?

 

[MACK]

I’m Mack Hagood,

 

[CRIS]

and I’m cris cheek.

 

[MACK]

Today on Phantom Power we listen, to race or to put it more correctly, we examine how we are always listening to race. Our guide is Jennifer Lynn Stoever, Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York Binghamton. Stover is the author of the “Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening” a book that argues that white racism depends just as much on the ear as it does the eye. She shows how listening has been used since slavery to distinguish and separate black and white and how African American artists and critics like Richard Wright Leadbelly and Lena Horne have identified, critiqued, and push the boundaries of this sonic color line.

 

[techno-like music and a choir play in the background, then fade out]

 

[MACK]
Cris, when I spoke to Jennifer, she reminded me of a story that really shows how high the stakes of this kind of listening can be.

 

[JENNIFER STOEVER]
You know, I talk  in the opening of the book about the case of Jordan Davis.

 

[piano music fades in]

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

It happened November 23rd, 47-year-old Michael Dunn told investigators he felt threatened at a gas station. Parked side by side with an SUV full of teenagers, the alleged gunman complained they were playing their music too loud.

 

[JENNIFER]
Jordan and his friends are playing hip hop at the gas pump. They were driving they had their music on. They were getting gas. Gas stations in theory (are) a transitory shared space where we all come in with our music we pump our gas and we leave.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Detective say Dunn confronted Davis who was in the backseat and told him to turn the music down.

 

[JENNIFER]

The white man at question felt a proprietary access to the soundscape both it if he decided it was too loud, is too loud for everybody there, that his sensibility should be catered to. That there is a way that a gas station should sound and hip hop is not part of that. And when they said no, he saw that as as aggression.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Dunn’s attorney says his client thought he saw a gun so he pulled his own weapon and started shooting.

 

[last line echos a few times]

 

[JENNIFER]
Shot into the car.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

Firing at least eight shots.

 

[JENNIFER]

And killed a young man.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Investigators never found a gun and the teen’s car.

 

[ethereal music plays in the background]

 

[MACK]
In her book, Jennifer Stoever has a term for the way Michael Dunn heard Jordan Davis at that gas station back in 2012. The listening ear.

 

[ethereal music cuts out]

 

[JENNIFER]
The listening ear helps us get at what’s really happening in a case like that. The listening ear is a term that I use to think about the way that racialized listening practices come about the way that they accrete over time. I was also trying to think of about how whiteness in the US has become aligned with citizenship, what it means to be a full citizen with all of the rights and privileges there of and have them be respected. And you know, that this has become soldered to not just a white visuality, but a white way of being in the world. And where does this white way of being come from?

 

[ethereal music returns to the background]

 

[JENNIFER]
At times, it’s a form of distancing. It’s a way of habit, drawing a line between what is music and what is noise, and putting, say, hip hop on the other side of that line.

 

[cut to snippet of Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News]

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

Now I submit to you that you’re going to have to get people like Jay Z, Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers to knock it off.

 

[JENNIFER]

And then not just doing that, but then associating the sound of hip hop with a long history of stereotyping of black masculinity as dangerous as outsized as…

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

Listen to me, listen to me. You gotta get where they live, alright? They idolize these guys with the hats on backwards.

 

[JENNIFER]

And then the sound itself becomes a stand in for talking about black masculinity, and excluding black men from neighborhoods from equal treatment under the law.

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

And the terrible rock rap lyrics and, and the drug and all of that.

 

[JENNIFER]
Our moment is shifting now. And I think, you know, we are having more overt racial threats. But say, three years ago, conversations were being had through these sonic codes, and so part of what the book is to kind of expose, you know, when we talk about hip hop as being loud, and as being culturally, when we hear these conversations about about hip hop, what are we really talking about?

 

[BILL O’REILLY]

It’s these gangsta rappers, and it’s the athletes, it’s the tattoo guys.

 

[JENNIFER]

So the listening ears also very, for white people, white men, in particular, the very kind of proprietary. It’s about the imposition of power.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[MACK]
I think the thing that I appreciate the most about your book is that it addresses this racial dynamic, this kind of judging by listening that white people do. Something that I think any American really no matter what their politics are, they would at least admit that this does exist, right?

 

[JENNIFER]

Yes.

 

[MACK]

But when it gets discussed at all, which is pretty rarely, it generally gets reduced to this debate about Ebonics and so called standard speech, but what you seem to be arguing in this book is that we use a prejudicial and even, you know, white supremacist form of listening that involves way more than accent or dialect and that this actual type of listening is central to American racism itself. So maybe could you talk a little bit about your concept of the sonic color line and what that does?

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, thank you. I think that’s a really excellent interpretation of my work. I think that why I chose that title drawing on Dubois’ concept of the color line was the way in which the sonic color line brings together and helps us understand the linkages between the prejudicial listening, that happens in terms of speech, in terms of musical production, musical taste, musical desires, and also the way in which we think about soundscapes and space and really the sonic color line ultimately becomes a way to understand how we create spaces that are exclusionary. America is free and we have these legal protections in terms of space, but if experiences of race and racism are internalized through the senses, we all walk and experience space in very, very different ways.

 

[FEMALE NEWS REPORTER]

11 women kicked off of a wine train and Napa Valley after complaints they were being too loud, but the women say they we’re not booted for being rowdy. They say they were kicked off for being black.

 

[news transition sound]

 

[WOMAN KICKED OFF TRAIN]

We made it ya’ll. Look it us; we ready to get on the wine train.

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

What started as a joyful event for 11 African American book club members quickly grew sour even before they left the Napa wine train station.

 

[WOMAN KICKED OFF TRAIN]

And she said to us, “I’m going to need to lower your…the noise level needs to come down a little bit because you’re being offensive to some of the other passengers.”

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]

So 45 minutes into the trip, they were told they had to leave and would be escorted off the train. And when that happened a further indignity.

 

[WOMAN KICKED OFF TRAIN]

We had to walk all the way through all the additional five cars to be able to get off the train. So they took us and they paraded us through every single car with all the passengers watching us. It was humiliating, degrading, and that’s the part that I will never, ever ever forget.

 

[JENNIFER]

It can say that it’s open, and that it’s diverse, and it’s accessible, but because of the way that experiences of sound can be fractured, can be very different. These spaces can be very actively exclusionary toward people of color in ways that can be, hidden or covered over and, and so I kind of started there. Trying to understand where we’re at, in the contemporary moment, but then needing to go back historically to document and trace that.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[MACK]
And so, we tend to think about sound as something that just is.

 

[JENNIFER]

Yes.

 

[MACK]

And something sounds a certain way, but what you’re really emphasizing here is that we all listen through these ideological filters. So, as a guitar player, I think about this sometimes in terms of like, effects pedals.

 

[JENNIFER]

I like that metaphor.

 

[MACK]

We listen through these different distortions and delays, and we don’t really realize that we have these things in our signal chain. We think we’re listening to a clean natural signal, but there’s no such thing as that. I think a couple of questions for me come to mind. First, what do you want white people to do with that knowledge? I guess we could just start there. What kind of intervention would you like to see your book make with white folks?

 

[JENNIFER]
That’s a really important question. I mean, first, as you put it, just this calling attention to the fact that listening is not a natural process for folks that work in sound studies, it seems very basic. in some ways, that’s the foundation of our field. I’m going to paraphrase Hari Kunzru. I just finished teaching the book White Tears with my class. There’s a point where he says, “whether or not you believe in race, race finds you.” I think this is part of it, that the book is written to counter color blindness, and the ideology of color blindness, that if you don’t see race, quote, unquote, that it doesn’t exist, that there’s a certain element of white people, often very liberal white people that no longer believe in race. Race has been proved as a scientific fiction for over 100 years now, but the materiality of racialization is everywhere around us, and so getting white people to not imagine themselves at the center of the human experience. That the way that they hear is not the way everybody hears, and that the way that they hear is impacted by race is impacted by this idea of what whiteness is, and how to inhabit whiteness. One of the ways I think that sound, at least in terms of producing white racial identity works more powerfully than vision is because it allows a feeling of whiteness, that it makes whiteness and race real for white people rather than an abstraction. The way we talk about visuality in race is often that whiteness is invisible, that race is marked onto other bodies, but with sound and hearing in white ways, and sounding in white ways, it actually makes it this very material experience, and because it’s been so associated with Americanness.

 

[orchestra plays out of an old radio]

 

[MALE RADIO ANNOUNCER]

The ear is the human organ, the public speaker is most likely to try to impress as he makes a speech.

 

[radio static]

 

[JENNIFER]
And naturalize this way. The white way of hearing has been in America for many decades, if not a century and a half or more, the way to be as a human.

 

[MALE RADIO ANNOUNCER]

People can be interested in new ideas when those ideas are expressed in well selected words, but did you ever consider how many jobs depend on your ability to express yourself to a group of people? Whether it’s the former owner of project, or a judge on the bench, or a salesman, it’s important to be a good speaker. And when you speak well, you get along better with people. Whether it’s persuading them to come along and have fun at a wiener roast, or trying to be a better citizen at school or in the community.

 

[JENNIFER]
And so challenging that and getting an opening of multiple perspectives and multiple interpretations of the same sound is really important.

 

[static continues on a loop]


And even the idea say, of a quiet neighborhood as the goal.

 

[upbeat music plays through the old radio]

 

[MALE RADIO ANNOUNCER]

The suburbs.

 

[JENNIFER]

there’s a way that race and class meet in that, and that brownness, blackness is associated with noise and sound, and the way that neighborhood soundscapes are policed.

 

[nature sounds with kids yelling and playing]

 

The way that noise complaints are called on neighbors that often start a whole chain of potentially dangerous legal implications and problems.

 

[nature and kid noises fade out as ethereal music fades in]

 

These conversations need to be opened up, not imposed based on a white middle class sensibility. So really, kind of shaking up and realizing the partiality of white listening for white listeners. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult to do, and I work on that in my teaching all the time.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[CRIS]
As a literary scholar, one of Stoever’s techniques is to engage with African American literature as a storehouse of historical sound. One example being a close reading of Richard Wright, author of Uncle Tom’s Children, Black Boy and Native Son.

 

[JENNIFER]
I’ve come to think of certain kinds of music in particular as being sonic traces of listening experiences and DJ’s as communicators of ways of listening. I realized when I dropped into Richard Wright’s Native Son, I was receiving similar transmission of listening practices.

 

[man imitates an alarm clock as upbeat jazzy music fades in]

 

[CRIS]
An alarm clock clang in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently. This is the first three lines of Native Son. All establishing the scene through sound.

 

[JENNIFER]
Bigger Thomas moving through the streets of 1940s late 1930s segregated Chicago. We were, as readers, invited to listen as hard as we can to how bigger heard the city and realizing that many of his cues and many of the most important metaphors and imagery in the book comes through sound. That Bigger can walk across the street from his extremely noisy apartment complex in the tenement I should say kitchenette really in the in Bronzeville, in South Side, and then move across the street to the Dalton mansion in the very wealthy, white neighborhood in Hyde Park, and everything becomes quiet.

 

[upbeat jazz fades out and ethereal music fades in]


This seems very natural. We’ve come to naturalize that inner city neighborhoods are noisy that wealthy neighborhoods are quiet but what Right does is to show us that it’s the overcrowding of the neighborhood that makes it noisy. It’s the lack of protection or controls on industry and conditions of segregation create that metallic noisiness something that Laura Toledo calls “environmental racism.” That’s where the factories get put. That’s where the incinerators are. When he moves across the street that this quietness is not a natural state of affairs, but it’s extremely constructed, and that buffer is set up so that the residents do not encounter or have to think about the black neighborhood down the street, but they in fact own the building that Bigger lives in. That invites us to think about that these two spaces are connected that the sonic color line appears as a division but it’s really this link that we need to pick up and hear between these spaces.

 

[ethereal music fades out as mellow techno music fades in]

 

[MACK]
Hey everyone, its Mack Hagood. Here at Phantom Power, we are so fortunate to have generous funding from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among other things, this means that we don’t have to implore you to buy a new mattress or join a sock of the month club. If you’re a regular podcast listener, you know what I’m talking about. So luckily, we don’t have to do that. We do however, have one small ask. Just go to iTunes and leave us a review and a rating. We’d really appreciate it. It’s a great way for the people who are funding this show to know that folks really are listening to it, and it’s also a great way for more people to learn about phantom power. Thank you.

 

[mellow techno music fades out]

 

[CRIS]

We’re going back now to Mack’s conversation with Jennifer Stoever, author of the Sonic Color Line out on NYU press. As Jennifer mentioned earlier, her book attempt not only to explain racialized listening in America, but also to trace its history. She does so by assembling a historical archive of texts, slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, newspaper reviews of black and white opera singers in the 19th century, the writing of WEB Dubois and Richard Wright, musical recordings, radio dramas featuring the Jubilee singers, Lead Belly, Lead Better, and Lena Horne. By examining these as texts, Stoever shows how the sonic color line evolved and how African Americans documented, theorized, and resisted America’s dominant cultural politics of listening.

 

[MACK]
There are these different moments that you point out where it becomes really important to listen for race to people who are invested in racial divisions, because the paradigm of the visual ality of race actually gets undermined. The first of these occasions in the book has to do with just the mere fact that so many white slave owners were raping the African American women on their plantations and having mixed race children. Then we get into the one drop conception of blackness and all of this where it becomes difficult for people to discern by the eye what race someone is, right?

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, And, the fugitive slave law I think was also part of that too, when the nation in the 1850s at the same time was then, the entire nation was turned into essentially slave territory, in part by that act. It also caused a discernment of can you detect if someone’s slave or free by listening? Those two things I think working together began to create this language of what blackness sounds like.

 

[ethereal music fades in]

 

[MALE NEWS REPORTER]
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was telling people privately that Barack Obama’s campaign would be helped because he was, quote, a light skinned African American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one. Should he resigned?

 

[WOMAN ON NEWS]

I don’t think so. The President has accepted the apology and it would seem to me that the matter should be closed.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[JENNIFER]
Blackness and race and sound were then associate and then also at the same time, then what does whiteness sound like?

 

[MACK]
This sonic color line at this point, it’s doing more than just defining and judging what it means to sound black. Also, it’s this subliminal process by which whites are figuring out what it means to sound white without without even consciously thinking about it.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, yes, absolutely. this happens a lot in music and studies of music that when we talk about race and sound, it’s about blackness, it’s about brownness, it’s about the other as having a racialized sound.

 

[MACK]
The sonic color line is doing other kinds of work. Now it’s not simply a way of sort of disciplining and identifying black bodies and black voices. It also becomes this way of essentializing them, like this way of making them exotic of sexualizing them, making them profitable to white people. I’m thinking here about the great musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.

 

[country music out of an old radio plays]


His relationship with the folklorist and record producer John Lomax. Can you talk a little bit about their relationship, those two men?

 

[JENNIFER]

Well, I actually want to start with with Lead Belly, and he actually hated that nickname and that’s why in the book I most often talk about Ledbetter and use his name because that nickname was given to him in prison. Lomax insisted on it because he saw him being you know his imprisonment as a kind of racial authenticity. John Lomax was a folk collector and grew up in Texas and he would travel. He worked for the Library of Congress and various other organizations and saw himself as the great preserver of black folk culture.

 

[country music fades out]

Lomax quite disturbingly saw prison as a way of preserving folk culture. He would often travel to prisons because the convict system, which really is an extension of enslavement, and a new form of enslavement, where black men would be picked up for petty crimes, quote unquote, vagrancy,
etc, etc, and then in prison for inordinate amounts of time and then used on a chain gang as labor.

[folk singinging starts]

 


He would see them as they were segregated and cut off from the radio and all of these modern technologies that he felt were ruining the folk culture. He didn’t like blues and jazz that were being played on the radio or mass produced through records. He actually saw these kinds of musical exchanges as corrupting this kind of purity but then what does it mean? So little concern for the men that were producing these, and he just saw them as producers of music, not human beings. He didn’t do anything to try to dismantle the convict lease system and so when he says he met Lead Belly there and you know quote unquote discovered him as a great talent.

 

[folk music cuts out]

 

He would often force Lead Belly to perform in prison gear that actually in my research I found hadn’t been used in the state of Alabama for a decade because even the government at the time found it to be dehumanizing. Lomax felt that he was, and this is where the essentizing comes in and this is part of the naturalising of criminality with blackness, was constructing a racial image. He felt he was reflecting it and representing it, but it was a very dangerous thing to do.

 

[MACK]

This was the early days of something that persists to this day, which is white men sort of assessing and determining what authentic black musical culture is.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, I’m feeling a kind of possessiveness and ownership over this authentic image.

 

[MACK]
Yeah, yeah, I mean, I hear it today of lamenting that African American people have turn their backs on the music of John Coltrane or whatever, in favor of hip hop. I mean, this is still something you hear all the time.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes. And I mean, even  in hip hop, what is the real hip hop and real hip hop is political, and hip hop uses samples.

[Lead Belly music plays through an old radio]


Lead Belly was an incredible musician. He had, as it’s been reported, over 500 songs committed to memory. He really viewed himself in the tradition in the south of what’s called a song stir that he would travel from place to place that he would be very attentive to his audience and play songs that they would relate to that and he would switch this depending on where he was. He very much wanted to be a pop star in the vein at the time of Gene Autry and had his own goals and desires and really wanted to cross musical boundaries, but was bound through a contract with Lomax until 1939. This contract, actually prefigures what are called 360 deals now in the music industry where Lomax had control over where he played. Lead Belly couldn’t book shows without Lomax’s permission, in addition to the fact that Lomax made the lion’s share of the profits. This idea that he controlled Lead Belly’s entire image and doing anything that Lomax would deem inauthentic was him really exerting this, back to the listening ear, this proprietary ownership over Lead Belly, the person not just Lead Belly, the music. The music becomes a way to express this desire and need for control and containment of black music and through this kind of fetishising.

 

[Lead Belly’s music fades out]


That I think is what really shifts from the 19th century into the 20th century is that consumption of blackness for the white listening ear becomes about a certain kind of pleasure that in the 19th century was a different experience. There was almost immediate dismissal of black music as noise, where in the 20th century if it’s noise for many people, it has profitable currency because of the sonic color line and because of the pleasure for white listeners of transgressing without losing their position in the racial hierarchies of the US.

 

[MACK]
Ledbetter goes on to be covered by pretty much I mean, it’s astounding how influential his music was. Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin did a version of his song “Gallus Poll.”

 

[cover of Gallus Poll plays then fades out]


If you listen to Led Belly’s original…

 

[Original Gallus Poll plays]

 

It kind of blows Jimmy Page away and he’s doing it on a 12 string guitar which seems so difficult.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes.

 

[Gallus Poll continues then fades out]


There’s been a lot of discussion in England about the skiffle revival and that that was part of the circulation of Lead Belly’s music to England George Harrison sites him as who also plays the 12 string, plays the 12 string sometimes as an influence in that regard as well and none of which monetarily are enough. Lead Belly has very poor health and died young. He was very much on the economic edge his whole life and so he never really saw any kind of… I mean props are amazing but you cannot eat props though.

 

[MACK]
It is interesting because Lomax was attracted to Lead Belly because he heard something from the past or at least he thought he did, but Lead Belly’s influence shows that he was playing something from the future. Even into the grunge era like a Nirvana covered “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and if you just listen to the guitar part on that song it just sounds so modern.

 

[Nirvana song plays then fades out]

It completely makes sense that a band like Nirvana would use it and Cobain said that Lead Belly was very influential on the band and I’m of the same generation is as Cobain and I remember being in high school and sort of obsessively listening to Lead Belly in Robert Johnson records in high school and hearing something that felt really true to me and or in vital, painful authentic. This is where I get some confusion because is this a way that white men have found empathy in resonance with black experiences or is it actually a reinstantiation of the sonic color line a way of marking what is supposed to be an authentic black sound? I’m just asking for a friend here.

[Mack and Jennifer laugh]

 

[JENNIFER]
There’s some question about…the sonic color line is about the commercializing of and the capitalizing of black pain. What happens when you turn black pain into a commodity and I think that’s really central to this authenticity is a form of arrest and a form of limitation of forcing a kind of boundary. It’s also a way of bracketing. If you can bracket that power from the past, then it erases the contemporary connections and it’s a challenging question like I say in the book. I actually dedicate at the beginning the book to fishbone.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, I love fishbone.

 

[JENNIFER]

Oh, I love them too. They were as I say in there, my first and funkiest is critical race theorists.

 

[fishbone plays]

 

Through fishbone and the way that  listening to fishbone opens up my ear to not just many different kinds of music, but the potential and the fusion and connection between them. That’s the very reason why the music industry failed fishbone in the sense. It was never consistently ska or funk or heavy metal. The band really found these points of intersection and merging of the sounds that we can’t label you and therefore we can’t sell you.

 

[fishbone ends]


So music has that potential and because it has that potential to open up listeners ears.

 

[ethereal music fades in]


That’s why the sonic color lines there. It’s to contain that power that music has.

 

[ethereal music fades out]

 

[MACK]
I want to skip forward to this second moment when the listening ear and this sort of listening for race becomes very important. So there was the earlier stage during slavery and trying to discern if you couldn’t discern visually what race someone was trying to listen for race. Then we get into this new era where we get the scientific knowledge that race really isn’t biological.

 

[JENNIFER]

Yes.

 

[MACK]

Yet, this sort of ironically, actually seems to recharge the sonic color line. So you’ve mentioned color blindness earlier in our discussion, but can you kind of talk a little bit more about what color blindness is, when it began, and how it kind of amped up the the listening ear.

 

[JENNIFER]
Color blindness is the belief and it’s the reigning racial formation of the US and the late 20th century and up through our contemporary moment is the idea that race can be fundamentally ignored.

 

[WOMAN ON REALITY TV SHOW]

Call me crazy but I just don’t see race.

 

[JENNIFER]

The metaphor for color blindness is that if we cannot see skin color as a factor, then it follows that a race free society or society free from racism will emerge.

 

[WOMAN ON REALITY TV SHOW]

I guess I’m just the least racist person here.

 

[MAN ON REALITY TV SHOW]

Ok.

 

[JENNIFER]

This is impossible and, as a matter of fact, that creates and enables a new layer of racism to emerge. In fact, the more dangerous one because then you can no longer talk overtly about race.

 

[MAN ON TV SHOW]
You’re only telling yourself that so you don’t have to think about racism or confront your own prejudices.

 

[JENNIFER]

The only way that the colorblindness could take root as an ideology is that the race has to transfer and move somewhere else, and that if sound allows racism to do that.

 

[TV static]

 

If racial profiling is only thought of as a visual entity, what does it mean to stop a car because of the kind of music that’s playing, or what does it mean to use accents to determine citizenship?

 

[TV static fades out]

 

[MACK]

This notion of color blindness it’s an ostensibly liberal move, right? I mean, but it really turns blackness into a choice that’s the wrong choice. Something to be listened for, it becomes “well are you going to join the great middle class standard way of being or aren’t you?” and if you choose not to there’s something wrong with you.

 

[old timey music plays in the background]

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, World War Two and the Cold War was an essential part of this realignment of kind of body and and voice that what we think of color blindness as a 90s thing or even a 70s thing that color blindness was part of the effort by the American government to recruit people of color to the armed forces, that there is a kind of inclusion that’s offered through color blindness that if race is no longer a factor than everyone can be American but at the same time, skin color no longer bars you and visual appearance no longer bars you from being American, but  maybe everyone can sound quote unquote American. Then it becomes about this kinds of disciplining, of the voice disciplining of listening to hear and have those kinds of middle class sensibilities and this idea of kind of standardization through voice speech, music, musical taste. It starts in that Cold War moment.

 

[MAN #1 ON TV]
Well, since you want to talk so very badly, I guess I’m not going to have much trouble getting you to talk into this machine. Alright now, who’s going to be the first to try this out, huh? How about Moralis? What’s the matter with Moralis?

 

[MAN #2 ON TV]

Sure, Moralis, he loves to talk.

 

[MAN #1]

Now  Tomita, suppose you step up here and try it.

 

[MAN #2]

You against Morales because you don’t talk good english?

 

[MAN #1]

That has nothing to do with.

 

[MACK]

one of the things that I think is so interesting about your writing on this is that you connect this to the technology of the radio and so this is another one of those things where just like listening, we generally think that technology is neutral but you really think a lot about the way that radio fed into color blindness and this standardization of speech.

 

[JENNIFER]

There are very few representations visually, literarily, in the radio research on black listenership and then thinking about well, wait a minute, there’s this overlying, very entrenched discourse on the 30s and 40s as the Golden Age, quote unquote, golden age of American radio.

 

[sound of radio tuning into a station]

 

[MAN ON RADIO]
From a humble beginning in a Pittsburgh garage, to the sumptuous studios of the national radio networks in New York, Chicago and Hollywood. These are the years we refer to as the golden age of radio.

 

[song plays on the radio]

 

[JENNIFER]
It’s important to understand how and why that came about, and how and why it’s also seems to perfectly align with the worst and most segregated both legally and de facto in US history. So how can we then refer to, or think about this as a golden age, given this level of exclusion? The Make America Great Again, campaign, I think, is very much tied to these nostalgic images of white radio, listening in the 40s and 50s.

 

[radio music fades out as ethereal music fades in]


How were black artists actively excluded from the radio, and not just actively excluded, but their performance and their representation, tightly controlled, and the fact that the belief in technology as neutral as just something that is and  thinking about radio itself. There’s a huge discourse about radio as blind and connecting that to color blindness, that you can’t see race over the radio, and that it’s this open, equitable space. A lot of the Cold War propaganda was saying exactly that. Thank God our airwaves are free and open. They’re not like Germany, but also it really ignores the way in which racial hierarchy was driving the industry and the way that the industry was thoroughly segregated down to separate musicians unions for black and white musicians. Black musicians, did not get nearly as much work as white musicians.

 

[ethereal music fades out]


Many, many people, when I give presentations or teach are surprised to find out how black actors, the dialect was scripted for them. Many black actors were quote unquote, taught this way of speaking by white producers. That there again, I think that price of admission of getting working roles on the radio with having to speak in dialect and this very dialect that no one speaks. Having to speak this white, imagined language of what black sounds like.

 

[radio show fades in]

 

[MAN ON RADIO]
Take it easy. Take it easy. Don’t get so excited.

 

[WOMAN ON RADIO]

Yes, but Mr. Marlin, you know what…

 

[MAN ON RADIO]

I love you, relax. Now go out and come in again.

 

[WOMAN ON RADIO]

Yes sir.

 

[sound of woman leaving the room, audience laughing.]

 

[WOMAN #2 ON RADIO]

Now Marlin, that’s ridiculous.

 

[MAN ON RADIO]
Well, she’s got to learn to control herself. This will be good for her.

 

[WOMAN ON RADIO]

Mr. Marlin, may I speak with you sir?

 

[audience laughter]

 

[MAN ON RADIO]

Yes Bueller. Now you see what I mean?

 

[WOMAN #2]

Yes, go ahead Bueller.

 

[WOMAN #1]

Well, when you hear what happened, I was down at the grocery store.

 

[audience laughter]

 

[JENNIFER]
Again, normalizing and naturalising it for a huge swath of American listeners. Microphones weren’t weren’t colorblind as so many of the radio industry executives seem to feel, but the belief that they were is really telling, and it’s shaped a lot of how we’ve come to understand race through sound that way.

 

[MACK]
Well, in fact, the invisibility of the performer charges the racialized listening. You listen more closely for race because you don’t know. You can’t see what race the person is.

 

[JENNIFER]

That’s exactly it. One of the great fears of radio producers was that black performers would be indistinguishable from white performers. That’s why Wonderful Smith was fired from the “Red Skelton Show”, because it was a sketch show, and he was slipping in and out and changing character so often, and that this racial boundary, this aro ratio boundary could not be reliably maintained. He was also himself asserting his agency and constantly challenging it.

 

[MACK]

Which shows colorblindness to be a lie, because the whole premise here is that if you will just, pay the price of admission and speak correctly and behave in a bourgeois middle class way, then we will ignore your race  and all will be good. Then you get performers who actually do this, and then that becomes so threatening to white identity that they have to be fired.

 

[JENNIFER]

In fact, the dialect from the very beginning and Gavin Jones is a scholar that has been working on this for many years, and white southerness and black southerness sounded alike, almost indistinguishable, and that’s exactly where the dialect comes in. To separate the sense of white and black, to draw those boundaries and to enforce and to create the sense of a difference.

 

[slow, jazzy music plays as a woman starts to sing]


Lena Horne. She’s middle class New York, Brooklyn. She was one of those artists that challenges the sonic color line and really challenging this enforcement of what blackness sounded like.

 

[song continues]

Lena Horne’s voice posed a dilemma, in that her voice fit neither of the kind of stereotypical white nor stereotypically black.

 

[different jazz song plays]

It was this voice that challenged both of those imposisions. It had a kind of racial fluidity. Lena Horne had a kind of, many people described it as a kind of coldness to her voice, that she was aloof. Yet, even with this, the white press tried to racialize Lena as a blues singer, and she was definitely not a blues singer by any stretch. What does it mean again, that this listening ear then has to label her according to this racialized music genre, and black listeners heard Lena Horne as a beautiful singer. What does it mean then to kind of think about and discuss the beauty of her voice in relation to her body. There’s a very different discourse about Lena Horne’s voice in the white press, and the black press.

 

[jazz song continues, then ends]

The sonic color line is not about accuracy. It’s not about an accurate description of diverse racial identities. It’s actually about the reduction of race to the idea that there can be this firm boundary between blackness and whiteness, and then other racial identities then have to contend with these polls.

 

[ethereal music fades in]

 

[MACK]
The racial makeup and dynamics of the country are a lot more complex than this, and yet this is where we always seem to come back.

 

[JENNIFER]
Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. This isn’t to say that this is the only Sonic color line or that race and sound does not impact Asian Americans and indigenous peoples. As a matter of fact, and this can be a point of solidarity in terms of organizing against racism and an equity but yet, like you said, here we are again. How do we jam the signal of this black white binary and the inequity, it’s wreaked on all of us?

 

[ethereal music continues, then fades.]

 

[upbeat techno music plays]

 

[CRIS]
That’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks again to Jennifer Lynn Stoever. You can learn more about the Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talk about the Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you to rate and review us on Apple podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook or give us a shoutout on Twitter as PhantomPod. Today’s show featured music by Grim Gibson and Blue the Fifth. Our interns are Natalie Cooper, Nicole Keshock, and Adam Witmer and a special thanks and bon voyage to Nicole who is graduating. Thanks for your great work on the new website. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center the National Endowment for humanities.

 

[upbeat techno music fades out]

 

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