Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature

Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature

by Nicole Brittingham Furlonge


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609385613
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Series: New American Canon Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 206
Sales rank: 1,266,838
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Nicole Brittingham Furlonge is the director of teaching and learning and chair of the English department at Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire. 

Read an Excerpt


"Our Literary Audience"

Listenership in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Sterling Brown's "Ma Rainey"

In 1973, Alice Walker, then just twenty-nine years old and still nine years from publishing The Color Purple, set out to Fort Pierce, Florida, to find Zora Neale Hurston's unmarked grave. Walker's essay "Looking for Zora" chronicles this challenging search for Hurston's resting place. Determined to recover this lost genius of the African American literary tradition, Walker assumes the fictional role of Hurston's niece. By doing so, not only does she build a quick trust with the townspeople she interviews, but she also develops a comfort in the role. As Walker shares, she moved "completely into being Zora's niece, and the lie [came] with perfect naturalness to my lips." She goes on to assert that "as far as I'm concerned, she is my aunt — and that of all black people as well."

Walker eventually locates her cultural aunt's grave by listening for it. Then, when she returns to the area with a monument salesperson and attempts to locate the grave a second time, she describes to him the necessary process of discovery through listening: "You'll have to go out there with me. ... And take a long pole and 'sound' the spot. ... Because there's no way of telling it's a grave, except that it's sunken." As they search for the gravesite, Walker calls out, "Zora! I'm here. Are you?" expressing in a sense her desire for Zora to hear and know that someone is searching for her. It is this sounding, this investigation through close, attentive listening, that leads Walker twice to Hurston's unmarked grave — a site almost completely obscured by vines and weeds and withholding any clue that anyone of importance, let alone one of the key figures in the African American literary tradition, is buried there. Walker literally listens and figuratively calls us to listen in memoriam for one of our cultural geniuses.

It is apt that Walker employs active listening as a strategy to find Hurston's gravesite, for listening was central to Hurston's practice as a writer and an anthropologist. This, too, was the case for poet Sterling Brown, whose poem "Ma Rainey" salvages a folk and a folk culture whose contours were threatened by racism and flood. In Inventing the New Negro, Daphne Lamothe notes similarly that "the almost seamless continuity between the folk culture [Brown] observed and the poetry he wrote suggests that Brown's poetry, like an ethnographic narrative, aspired to Brown's desire to record the folk in his poetry because of the threat of losing those very folk and the folkways they live, practice, and perform." Though not a trained ethnographer, Brown conducted ethnographic fieldwork during his three years at Virginia Seminary. Like Hurston and Jean Toomer, Brown draws on "his observations," Robert Stepto notes, "to produce a written vernacular literature that venerated black people of the rural South instead of championing the new order of black life being created in cities and the North. ... valu[ing] and practic[ing] listening as he wrote poetry about the folk in the American South." Brown was concerned with developing an audience for African American literature that could effectively appreciate the place and sounds of the folk in this literary tradition. He was what I term a listening poet. This generalization regarding poets is quite apt in Brown's case. He understood that his engagement as a poet with southern folk and their culture was a multisensory, and particularly a sonic, collaboration.

For both Brown and Hurston, then, listening becomes a central means of gathering knowledge about the folk and folkways of which they write. Writing poetry and fiction for them becomes a means of transcribing that knowledge gained through the sensual experience of listening. Brown and Hurston work to narrow the perceived gap between oral and written and between the poet and novelist and the folk in order to engage with the multivalent nature of language, whether print or spoken.

It is into the ways in which their writing cultivates a listening readership — a listenership — that this chapter tunes. While Hurston and Brown are invested in recording the folk in their writing, they are also interested in recording in writing how they listen. They are listening writers, or what Peter Szendy refers to as arrangers, "listeners who have written down their listening." Szendy writes of arrangers,

I love them more than all the others, the arrangers. The ones who sign their names inside the work, and don't hesitate to set their name down next to the author's ... it seems to me that what arrangers are signing is above all a listening. Their hearing of a work. They may even be the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them. ... I love to listen to someone listening.

While Szendy is talking about musical arrangements and their transcription to the page specifically, I find his idea useful when examining authors like Hurston and Brown. Both are writers who collect and then arrange in print stories and songs in ways that preserve folk culture while also representing the folk in new ways. In particular, I read Brown's "Ma Rainey" as a literary text as transcription. In transcribing their hearing onto the page, these writers aim to provide reading instruction particularly for their black listenerships. Hurston's novel and Brown's poem position and provoke readers to do what I term listen in print. Listening and reading as both print decoding and cultural recording practices intertwine, then, providing opportunities for collaborative and performed multisensory cultural engagement to occur. At the end of this textual listening are epiphany for Pheoby, self-verification for Janie, a socially resonant performance for Ma Rainey, and a momentary soothing for Ma Rainey's audience.

Zora Neale Hurston's Ethnographic Listening

In a 1935 interview with Alan Lomax, Hurston explains her approach to ethnographic fieldwork, an approach that embodies the value she placed as anthropologist and writer not merely on orality but on aurality — that is, on listening, responding, and listening again. First, Hurston sings in this interview a song she refers to as "You May Go but This Will Bring You Back," a song she collected in Eatonville, Florida. Then she describes her process of learning and collecting songs in the field:

I learn them. I just get in a crowd with the people if they're singing and I listen as best I can. And I start to joining in with a phrase or two and then finally I get so I can sing a verse. And then I keep on until I learn all the songs, all the verses. And then I sing them back to the people until they tell me that I can sing them just like them. And then I take part and I try it out on different people who already know the song until they are quite satisfied that I know it. And then I carry it in my memory.

Hurston listens and then sings the song back to the people. The people then listen to her and provide feedback on her performance. Then she repeats the process until she is confident she holds the song in her memory. And in this recording, we witness listening as a relational process.

This recording amplifies Hurston's practice of what I refer to as a listening ethnography, a practice that itself enacts the idea of listening to someone listen. The term "listening ethnography" draws from Sarah Pink's work on sensory ethnography, what she describes as "a process of doing ethnography that accounts for how this multi-sensoriality is integral both to the lives of people who participate in our research and to how we ethnographers practice our craft." While Pink focuses mainly on visual practices, Hurston brings to the fore the sonic life of an ethnographic practice. Hurston's listening ethnography and her comments regarding it reflect such a sensorial collaboration in the field between those she is collecting material from and her self as an anthropologist. As Daphne Brooks asserts,

For Hurston, singing not only operates as a mode of embodied cultural documentation, but it also upsets the putative boundaries between scholar and cultural informant, individual and community, folk culture and modernity, and gendered spaces of work and play. Above all else, it encourages readers to listen (again) to Hurston's vocals so as to recognize the centrality of sound as an epistemic tool in her rich, lively, and diverse career as a cultural worker.

Brooks continues to describe Hurston's "ability to, like Edison's queer little late-Victorian instrument, both record and play back the sound around her." Hurston's cultural negotiations demonstrate the dynamic relationship between voicing or sounding and listening. In this way, she reveals an awareness that she cannot sing — that she will never know if she has learned the song effectively — unless she listens well to the original performers of the song and to their feedback on her own performance. Hurston's listening and sonic archiving in the field amplify one of her major concerns as a writer and a collector of black folk culture: how to preserve, record, and transmit this culture.

Practicing and performing a listening ethnography function as Hurston's response. Her listening ethnography emphasizes the reciprocal and aurally inflected relationship among questioning, researching, collecting, and searching. Because this recording in the field captures Hurston not only as she records a folk song but also as she demonstrates and reflects on her process of listening ethnography, it provides a template for reading literature of and about the folk. If listening is a process Hurston practices in order to preserve, record, and transmit black folk cultural meaning in writing, then it follows that at the center of the reading of that writing is listening. Hurston's aural fieldwork and aurally inflected writing in Their Eyes Were Watching God, I suggest, challenge us not only to listen as we read but also to consider how listening is intertwined with reading. While critics frequently identify Their Eyes Were Watching God as a "speakerly text," Hurston's listening ethnography calls us to think about models of listening as we read. If, as Brooks asserts, Hurston's "performances underscore [her] critical acuity in the realm of listening, performing, and, by extension, arranging the sounds that she encounters, stores, and 'carr[ies] ... in her memory' out in the field," how then does this sonic acuity resonate in her writing? How does that resonance inflect how we tune in to her writing? What if we read Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, as a text of Pheoby's listening?

Listening for Pheoby

Poetic in its expressive economy, the omniscient narrator's description of the role Pheoby plays in Janie's storytelling might seem a mere statement of fact. After all, the opening moment of Their Eyes Were Watching God features Janie, not Pheoby, returning to the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida. After a one-and-a-half-year absence, she must have a story to tell (and it is, indeed, her story we learn throughout the novel). The opening scene in the town suggests as much as Janie returns at sundown, "the time to hear things and talk" when the townspeople, transformed from "tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences" during the workday into "lords of sounds and lesser things," sit on the porches beside the main road, "their ears full of hope" to hear a good tale. Yet Janie continues walking "straight on to her gate," returning the porchsitters' "good evenin'" with "speech [that] was pleasant enough" but did not meet their desire for a story.

Once Janie slams the gate behind her, the porch talk recommences. We listen as four women out of the group of porchsitters converse about Janie: Pearl Stone, Mrs. Sumpkins, Lulu Moss, and Pheoby Watson. The first three women chastise Janie in her absence — both for her relationship with a younger man, Tea Cake, and for her refusal to talk to them. Pheoby, on the other hand, verbally reprimands these women, reminding them that "nobody don't know if it's anything to tell or not. Me, Ah'm her best friend, and Ah don't know." Pheoby then leaves her porch to carry a hot meal to Janie and, as we know, listens hungrily as Janie tells her story. Despite, however, the straightforward brevity of this remark —"Pheoby's hungry listening helped Janie tell her story"— what Hurston describes in this line is quite striking. In order for Janie to tell her story, she must have a listener. And not just any auditor. With Pheoby as model, we observe that the listener must be curiously hungry, aware of her uncertainty, and committed to listening openly, attentively, and perceptively to someone else's story.

A tall order, certainly. Yet Pheoby is well cast for this role — something her neighbors' listening in contrast makes quite clear. If we return to the big road for a moment, we witness the porchsitters waiting with "ears full of hope" for Janie's story. While they, too, are listening, their desire to hear is laced with a hungry judging. Their hunger is, as Saidiya Hartman decodes in a different context, an assertion of black need that positions the body "as a literal vessel of communication, attending to unmet longing and expressing dissent." In this opening scene, Hurston attributes hunger to various sources: economic, psychological, racial, material. All this hunger — generated from the workday's systemic refutation of the porchsitters' humanity — is present as Janie returns to town. As they watch Janie walk into town, the porchsitters "chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed them with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song." Their ears are "full" already of their need to reconstitute their own humanity, rendered null and "senseless" as they worked all day in the field. In this context, Janie's story is inconsequential. They "know" who Janie is because they know their own hunger. Figuratively and cannibalistically feasting on their own thoughts and memories, they find their own cruel song in momentary pleasure and power.

Pheoby, however, positions herself as an eager yet patient, willing, and attentive listener. It is no small matter that while the porchsitters remain on the big porch, Pheoby is willing to admit "Ah don't know" and to "go there tuh know there"— to leave her porch to visit Janie and catch up. In this move, Pheoby models a notion of friendship as a practice, as what Danielle Allen describes as "a series of hardwon, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences of personality, experience, and aspiration." Pheoby does not make assumptions even though — or perhaps because — she knows Janie well, thereby clearing the way for new, emergent information. As she sits with Janie, "eager to feel and do through [her], but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity," she also "held her tongue for a long time, but she couldn't help moving her feet." At the same time, Janie, "full of that oldest human longing — self revelation"— speaks into the attentive silence Pheoby provides. As Kate Lacey recognizes, communication involves a relationship in which "speaker and listener are mutually interdependent." Think of Janie's metaphor, "mah tongue is in mah friend's mouth." But as Lacey asserts, "it is the openness of the listening position — on either side — which produces the space in and across which communication can take place." Hurston's text demonstrates this openness when, in response to Janie's comment, "To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin' they mouf on things they don't know nothin' about ...," Pheoby quickly responds, "... so long as they get a name to gnaw on they don't care whose it is, and what about, 'specially if they can make it sound like evil." Typographically, the ellipses allow Pheoby's thoughts to pick up where Janie's leave off in a way that demonstrates her alliance with her friend. Pheoby finishes her friend's sentence, helping to establish that she and her friend are communicating on common ground.

It also matters that this is, in fact, not the first time Janie chooses to confide in Pheoby. We know that she and Janie have been "kissin'-friends for twenty years" and that Pheoby has served as Janie's confidante in the past. As Joe Starks's wife, Janie grows tired of being abused and belittled in public and decides one day to take him to verbal task on the front porch of their store. In doing so, she effectively robs "him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish." Janie feels justified in her public critique of Joe and questions why he becomes "so mad with her for making him look small when he did it to her all the time? Had been doing it for years." Joe grows ill following the episode, and the town gossips that Janie has "fixed" Joe. When Joe refuses her beef-bone soup, a "stunned" and "hurt" Janie seeks out her friend, Pheoby, who insists that Janie ignore the town's gossip. Following Joe's death, Janie and Pheoby visit each other periodically and spend time fishing together. Pheoby is close enough to Janie that she knows that "a Sanford undertaker was pressing his cause" for marriage to Janie, "and Janie was listening pleasantly [to Pheoby] but [was] undisturbed," suggesting that one can listen to another without consensus existing as a result or a precondition of engagement. Note, too, that this brief mention of Janie's listening to Pheoby reminds us that they are friends in conversation whose aim is not necessarily consensus. Instead, the aim is a communication at the center of which is listening.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

"Attuned to It All": Embodied Listening and Listening in Print 1

1 "Our Literary Audience": Listenership in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching Cod and Sterling Brown's "Ma Rainey" 19

2 "To Hear the Silence of Sound": Vibrational Listening in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man 41

3 When Malindy Listens: Audiographic Archiving in Gayl Jones's Corregidora 59

4 "If I Allow Myself to Listen": Slavery, Historical Thinking, and Aural Encounters in David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident 81

5 "New Ways to Make Us Listen": Aural Learning in the English Classroom 107

"All Living Is Listening": Toward an Aurally Engaged Citizenry 119

Notes 121

Bibliography 147

Index 163

What People are Saying About This

Herman Beavers

“At a time when the American body politic has devolved into a set of repellant polarities, in which the disdain for voices that offer alternative ways to embody citizenship operates at a fever pitch, Race Sounds endeavors to challenge the assumption that acts of reading involve the attenuation of sound. The project’s most insistent aim is to fashion a line of inquiry that seeks to alter our understanding of African American literary production as a process of mere inscription by insisting that reading is a simultaneously visual and sonic practice.”

Cornel West

“This book is the most sophisticated and subtle treatment of listening to the sonic dimension in African American literature we have. The profound relation of music to text in the black tradition is brought to life in a persuasive and powerful manner. Furlonge has made a major contribution to our understanding of black humanism.”

Salamishah Tillet

Race Sounds is a provocative and innovative meditation on listening as an interpretive, creative, and civic act that is foundational to twentieth and twenty-first century African American literature and American political culture. Furlonge’s book wrestles with our most treasured writers in order to reveal how listening is both an African American literary trope and actual communal practice that provides a deeper, more intimate engagement with racial difference. Furlonge persuasively and beautifully argues that these writers demand that their audiences read, borrowing from jazz lexicon, with ‘big ears,’ and create a new, more democratic world of readers and citizens in the process.”

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