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Literary & Sonic Resonances

Within and beyond the prototypical genres of slave and neo-slave narratives, authors including James Baldwin, Arna Bontemps, Octavia Butler, Aimé Césaire, Michelle Cliff, Junot Diaz, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Gayl Jones, Frances Harper, Paule Marshall, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison, (among many others) offer literary works that pulse with the affective, social, political, and sonic resonances of Transatlantic slavery. We are also able to audit the persistence of slavery’s sonic-social arrangements by listening to key instances of anti-Black extra-legal violence. The murders of Jordan Davis, Elijah Al-Amin, and Aidan Ellis in 2015, 2019, and 2020, respectively—wherein in each instance, rap music was cited as the cause for attack—unearth echoes of how slavery, as Radano asserts, constructed the “relationship between [Black] sound and property,” to mark “slave music [as]…a part of the human property that slaveholders owned.”[1] Slavery’s racial codification of Black sounds as property created what Stoever terms “sensory legacies” of sonic control whereby “sound and listening enable racism’s evolving persistence.”[2] This session will examine the role acoustics played in constructing “the relations of chattel slavery [that] served to enhance whiteness by racializing rights…and granting whites’ dominion over blacks,” by studying how literary works represent these relations, as well as how contemporary interactions reproduce the sonic, social and affective relations of chattel slavery.[3] By engaging with literary and sonic resonances in this manner, this session will comprehensively engage with echoes of slavery that simultaneously preserve potent cultural memories and open sites for critically interrogating the transmission of affective, social and political inheritances that sustain slavery’s violent anti-Black logics in our contemporary moment.


[1] Ronald Radano, “On Ownership and Value.” Black Music Research Journal 30, no.2, 2010, 363-369.

[2] Jennifer Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 5.

[3] Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Slavery, Terror, and Self-Making in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 24.