Vol. 2 Issue 1 Spring 2021
Third Stone Stacey Robinson, Grandmaster Flash
Table of Contents Volume 2, Issue 1 | Spring 2021 Editor’s Corner: Sound Carries Julian C. Chambliss
Recalling the (Afro) Future: Collective Memory and the Construction of Subversive Meanings in Janelle Monae’s Metropolis-Suites 3 Anders Lijedahl Mapping the Sonic Imaginary; Stacey Robinson’s Visual Codex Julian C. Chambliss and Stacey Robinson Give Me Liberty or Give Me (Double) Consciousness: Literacy, Orality, Print, and the Cultural Formation of a Black American Identity in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Octavia Butler’s Kindred Aisha Matthews
Continuing the Conversation Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm Bennett Brazelton
A Critical History of Adonis’s “No Way Back” Marvin J. Gladney
Grandmaster Flash, the Sound of Afrofuturism Stacey Robinson
Book Review: A River Called Time Rochelle Spencer
Editor’s Corner: Sound Carries Julian Chambliss, Guest Editor The challenge for anyone considering Afrofuturism at this moment is the powerful ways collective activism is changing what we know. Countless scholars and artists have moved "Afrofuturism" from the fringe to the public square. We have gone from struggling to understand the definition of Afrofuturism to seemingly seeing it everywhere. Yet, it is worth considering that Mark Dery's definition for Afrofuturism in 1994 was built upon an ideological framework of speculation. Dery’s definition, “might, for want of a better term,” be Afrofuturism. 1 Others, Alondra Nelson, Ytasha Womack, Reynaldo Anderson, Rasheedah 1
Phillips, have expanded on this definition, reflecting the reality of a black speculative practice that embraces possible liberation paths in the context of western modernism.
The expansive nature of the Afrofuturism dialogue today means the effort to provide a fuller narrative must take multiple approaches. The engagement with a black speculative past, present, and future in the context of Afrofuturism opens the door to meaning recovery of black figures that contributed to black speculative practice that we might not initially describe as Afrofuturist. Still, we can easily understand it to be so. In this way, this issue consideration of sound might seem, at first glance,
expansive yet at the same time, if we open eyes and ears coherent. George E. Lewis writes that our view of Afrofuturism has been “bound up with science fiction, but broaden the conversation allows a “wider range of theorizing about the triad of blackness, sound, and technology. 2 What Lewis suggested is reflected in this volume. The relative maleness of the Afrofuturist sound canon, with names such as Sun Ra or Afrika Bambaataa, is displaced by considerations of Grace Jones and Janelle Monáe. Rethinking Jones's accomplishments through an Afrofuturist lens, but in conversation with Monáe, suggests a tradition of black female Afrofuturist sound we can see and easily expand. Stacey Robinson's work examines this traditional Afrofuturist canon, but as his interview clarifies, he seeks to create a more holistic history of blackness expressed in sound. His art and interview in this issue highlight an established link between Hip Hop and Afrofuturism. Yet, he is
Mark Dery, ed., “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 1994), 180. 2 George E. Lewis, “Foreword: After Afrofuturism,” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 2 (May 2008): 142, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1752196308080048.
careful to offer a critical assessment of the potential for transformation offered by Afrofuturism. Robinson's vision has already made a mark on how our collective consciousness imagines Afrofuturism. Whether working on comics such as I Am Alfonso Jones or Hip Hop's history, his work provides a catalog of black pasts and futures. 3 Recovering the past and forging the future is impossible to ignore in Afrofuturism. A concern with chronopolitic and its intersection with liberation is a crucial part of how Afrofuturism seeks to reshape our thinking. The past is not the forgotten and oral practice communicates the trauma that marks the African American experience and shapes our sense of diaspora. It should come as no surprise that an issue dedicated to sound would consider orality, memory, and community questions. Afrofuturist practice lives through oral tradition passed down from ancestors, arming the next generations with tools to survive.
Browse the ZORA! Festival Academic Conference: 2020-2021 Afrofuturism Syllabus Collections
The Afrofuturism Syllabus is an excellent resource for educators, researchers, activists, and creatives. The collections contain open educational resources and interviews with content experts on Afrofuturism.
Tony Medina, I Am Alfonso Jones (New York: Tu Books, 2017).
Dr. Julian C. Chambliss, our guest editor, is Professor of English with a joint appointment in the History Department at Michigan State University and the Val Berryman Curator of History at the MSU Museum. Dr. Chambliss is a scholar engaged with real and imagined spaces and public and digital humanities. To learn more about Dr. Chambliss’s work, see read his book Cities Imagined, listen to his podcast Every Tongue Got to Confess, and visit his website: julianchambliss.com
RECALLING THE (AFRO)FUTURE: COLLECTIVE MEMORY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF SUBVERSIVE MEANINGS IN JANELLE MONÁE’S METROPOLIS-SUITES Anders Lijedahl Everywhere, the “street” is considered the ground and guarantee of all reality, a compulsory logic explaining all Black Music, conveniently mishearing antisocial surrealism as social realism. Here sound is unglued from such obligations, until it eludes all social responsibility, thereby accentuating its unreality principle. (Eshun 1998: -4 1)
When we listen to music in a non-live setting, we do so via some form of audio reproduction technology. To most listeners, the significant part about the technology is not the technology itself but the data (music) it stores and reverberates into our ears (Sofia 2000). Most of these listeners have memories tied to their favourite songs (DeNora 2000) but if the music is at the centre of the history of a people, can the songs themselves be seen as a form of recollection? In this paper, I suggest that sound reproduction technology can be read as a storage of memories in the context of Black American popular music. I will turn my attention to the critical potential of Afrofuturist narratives in the field of memorytechnology in order to focus on how collective memory is performed as Afrofuturist technology in Black American popular music, specifically in the music of Janelle Monáe. At play in the theoretical backdrop of this article are two key concepts: Signifyin(g) and collective memory, the first of which I will describe in simplified terms, while the latter warrants a more thorough discussion. After the introduction of those core concepts, I move onto a presentation of the narratives in Janelle Monae’s music and its foundation in Afrofuturism. Finally, when reading two music videos, “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “PrimeTime”, I apply what Alexander Weheliye calls “thinking sound” in order to explicate how the lines between individual and collective memory can blur and evaporate. Thinking sound is “[the] interfacing [of] historically seemingly disparate texts in order to excavate their intensities (which only emerge in the process of juxtaposition and re-contextualization), much as DJs treat records in their mixes” (2005: 73). “You can edit me, but the booty don’t lie”, Monáe raps on “Q.U.E.E.N.” (Monáe 2013f: 5:40). Referenced in her statement is the centrality of bodied expression in Black American cultural history and the ways those expressions has
In the introduction of Eshun 1998, he counts pages in reverse. What would usually be page ‘i’ is here page ‘-10’, page ‘ii’ is ‘-9’ and so forth.
historically been met with abject dismissal. The reason the booty “don’t lie” is because the meanings conveyed through “the booty” persists despite the dismissive “editing”. It persists by means of Signifyin(g), a concept most notably investigated by Henry Louis Gates in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism from 1988. The term describes the long tradition of covert and subversive communication found in West African and Black American cultures. Signifyin(g) is an intracultural form of signification and interaction that exploits the gap between the denotative and figurative meanings of words, as well as the gap between signifier and signified, to transfer a meaning that purposefully circumvents people who are not members of a given culture. If you know the cultural codes, then you know, and if you do not, then you will be fooled or left confused and act accordingly. Put differently, dismissal does not latch on to Siginifyin(g) practices because the critiques levelled at, for instance, twerk or booty dance (such as allegations of objectification of women) fail to address the actual, that is, culturally coded, significance of such dances. Although Signifyin(g) is only mentioned sparingly throughout this article, the practice it describes lies as a theoretical undertow for this entire text. In Afrofuturist music, meaning is communicated from in between the signifier and the signified and from in between the denotative and the figurative meaning of words, which makes Signifyin(g) one of the genre’s main modes of communication. Collective memory is often understood as something other than a form of individual memory. Best described as a shared pool of information in the memories of members of a social group, the term has a long tradition within the study of cultural traumas, such as the Holocaust or chattel slavery. James E. Young prefers the term “collected memory”, as “societies cannot remember in any other way than through their constituents’ memories” (1993: xi). Other notable scholars such as historian Amos Funkenstein attest that groups or objects are unable to have memories—only individuals can remember (1989). Young and Funkenstein argue that collective memory should be seen as a sum of internal individual memories, while sociologist Maurice Halbwachs contends that “there is no point in seeking where memories are preserved in my brain or in some nook of my mind to which I alone have access: for they are recalled to me externally” (1992: 38). The argument against Halbwachs and the term “collective memory”— not the concept itself, but its status as actual memory—is that it frames the individual as “a sort of automaton, passively obeying the interiorized collective will” (Fentress and Wickham 1992: ix). Yet there is a significant difference between remembering and the isolative act that his critics call memory. Halbwachs writes, “it is not in memory but in the dream that the mind is most removed from society” (1992: 42), implying that the dreamer (the isolated rememberer) is unable to rely directly on the frameworks of collective memory, while individuals who are awake have the means to reconstruct memories from
people and groups around them (Sutton 2012). In other words, the issue is whether “memory” is an apt term for what critics see as a form of intracultural (historical) narrative. I adopt my understanding of collective memory from Halbwachs by viewing memory as a matter of how minds work together in society and how their operations are structured by social arrangements. Since “it is in society that people normally acquire their memories [and it] is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories”, the concept of collective memory goes beyond the traumas of slavery and centuries of oppression (Halbwachs 1992: 38). By recognizing collective memory as more than just a sociological concept, Halbwachs’ understanding of the term leads to a broader cultural or inscribed embodied memory in which “our modern devices for storing and retrieving information … all require that [bodies] do something that traps and holds information, long after the human organism has stopped informing” (Connerton 1989: 73). Put differently, memories are inscribed between bodies, and reproductive technologies allow these memories to be accessed and reinscribed to new bodies after the original body stops communicating. Instead of applying memory theory directly, I engage with the music and the subject of memory from different angles to highlight the diversity and significance of recollection in Black American popular music. Memory theory thus serves as a theoretical framework that binds the technological, performative, and musicological approaches together. Rather than use memory theory to discuss whether a collective memory is a ‘real’ memory or not, I show that Black and Afrofuturist praxis disrupts, short circuits, and deforms the entire premise of the question. Looking through the prism of race, sound, and technology enables a reinterpretation of the term “collective memory” as actual memory within the discourse of Black American popular music. LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE AFROFUTURIST NARRATIVES Afrofuturism is difficult to pin down, as it exists in several forms—aesthetic movement, political framework and praxis, artistic frame of reference, and academic discourse—that all intersect and overlap. There are as many definitions as there are Afrofuturists, but common ground can be found. Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, broadly defines the term as “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation” (2013: 9). In this context, I would describe it as an aesthetic that draws on science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and Black mythological and folkloric traditions (e.g., Yoruban, Akan, Igbo, Mandé, Vodou/hoodoo, Dogon, and ancient Egyptian mythology) in order to renegotiate perceptions of past, present, and future and navigate these temporalities
simultaneously. Put plainly, when Afrofuturists address the future, they also address the past and present. Memory, as a concept, is thus upset because it is no longer necessarily tied to the past. This is the case with Janelle Monáe, although her focus is aimed more toward Black American history and less toward a mythological pre-American homeland. Monáe presents Afrofuturist narratives in her five Metropolis-Suites, some of which I will analyse and interpret in this article. The stories are told mainly through three albums, Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2008a), The ArchAndroid (2010a), and The Electric Lady (2013c). Monáe claims that an evil group called the Great Divide, who uses time travel to oppress and hinder equality, sent her, who is part android, back to our present from the year 2719. With a strand of Monáe’s DNA, the group’s members create Cindi Mayweather in this future. Cindi is an android from the city of Metropolis who was built with a “rock-star proficiency package and a working soul” that made her a worldwide superstar (Monáe 2008b). However, Cindi falls in love with a human, Sir Anthony Greendown, an act punishable by death, as we are told on the track “March of the Wolfmasters”: “You know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly…. Fun rules today: No phasers. Only chainsaws and Electrodaggers!” (Monáe 2008a). Forced into exile, she founds an underground revolution to create equality for all. Cindi turns out to be the prophetic ArchAndroid whom—in a direct quote from Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction film Metropolis—Monáe calls “the mediator between the mind and the hand, which is the heart” (quoted in Andrews 2010). The double narrative of Cindi and Monáe 2 is told via several forms of media. Most of the story is presented through the sonic, visual, and lyrical elements of the music, but other elements of the narrative unfold through interviews, album liner notes, promo images, music videos, and posts on social media. When I write “narrative” in this article, I thus reference not only the actual plots but also the means by which they are told. I take the stance that the stories contained in Monáe’s works should be understood as both literal and figurative statements. This demands some elaboration. In the parts of Afrofuturism that I excavate, literal and figurative modes of inquiry are symbiotic. The critical potential of Afrofuturism would be severely weakened if one focused on only one of those aspects. For instance, if one understands Monáe’s androids solely as being figures for the oppression of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities and women, then it is just that: a metaphor. It is not
Note that there are other narrative layers in the story, such as that of present-day Monáe being an escaped inmate of the Palace of the Dogs Asylum, and the fact that most of the story is framed in letters from the asylum warden, Max Stellings. As Ytasha Womack notes, “her music’s mythology has a mythology” (2013: 75)
real. There is a gap between the signifier (android) and signified (oppression) and the one cannot explain the other. Yet, if one understands Monáe’s claim to androidhood solely as literal then the statement loses critical potential. She will be an android and nothing more. The robot will not be able to connect to the social issues that she wants to engage with. However, when the two modes of questioning (literal and figurative) embrace one another they both become intensified. For instance, when Monáe claims to be an android one has to acknowledge a few things. First, Monáe is Black which means that the androidal ontology becomes embedded with Black history, culture, and existence. Second, because she is an android, Black history, culture, and existence becomes infused with the technology and thingliness of the android. In “Many Moons” androids are sold at an auction to the highest bidder. Such a perspective aligns well with the way in which Black subjects has been positioned as “western modernity’s nonhuman other” (Weheliye 2014: 31). Building on political scientist C. B. MacPherson, Weheliye argues that Black Americans were always androidal and posthuman. MacPherson defines the liberal subject in Western Enlightenment tradition as “the proprietor of his own person, or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. . . . The human essence is freedom from the will of others, and freedom is the function of possession" (quoted in Weheliye 2002: 23). This relegates chattel slaves to somewhere outside “human essence”, and thus implicitly conceptualizes them—and their descendants—as “nonhuman”. In relation to the Enlightenment tradition and its heritage, then, the chattel slave is in closer proximity to a contemporary harvesting vehicle than to the farmer operating said machine, but such an insight requires a both literal and figurative line of inquiry into the relationship between Blackness and the android. The androids in “Many Moons” are thus not just robots and chattel slaves in the coffles are not just human slaves. Robots are auctioned off like slaves, and slaves are sold off like robots, i.e., things. Put simply, Afrofuturism allows one to perceive Black Americans as the most literal iterations of the nonhuman, because they were never allowed into the human category to begin with. These insights result in a renegotiation between what is considered “real” and what is considered “fiction”. Afrofuturist scholar Tobias van Veen designates the negotiation between literal and figurative as the epistemological condition of Afrofuturism: “Afrofuturism itself arises from a set of historical conditions—the trauma of slavery…., but also through a shared set of non-Western belief systems and occult beliefs—that question the supposed impermeability between reality and fiction, precisely from [a perspective of] irreal conditions” (van Veen 2013: 13, original italics). Being an android or a nonhuman is “irreal”. Nevertheless that is categorical reality for the chattel slave as he or she does not belong to the category “human”. As such, the real becomes fictional or “irreal”, but the fictional
also becomes real. The negotiations between reality and fiction ingrained in the relationship between literal and figurative provokes questions about who writes history and what counts as facts. An Afrofuturist line of questioning allows a positionality exterior to history, because history itself is a real fiction/fictional reality; a narrative written by someone which produce a supposed objective “reality”. As Professor Griff of Public Enemy states on “Countdown to Armageddon”: “Peace! Armageddon, it been in effect, go get a late pass” (Public Enemy 1988). Referenced is the fact that for Black Americans, the apocalypse happened a long time ago with Middle Passage. Everything after 1619 is a postapocalypse. Post-apocalyptic literature, movies, and TV series are way off in their imagining the end of the world as a future event. In the words of Afrofuturist jazz innovator and philosopher Sun Ra: “It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?” (Coney 1974: 00:00:08-00:00:30). Afrofuturism thus provokes a reconfiguration of history where new perspectives are enabled. Eshun would call Monáe’s music sonic fiction, which is a way to explore narratives and histories by de-theorizing sonic media. He writes, “Like a headmaster, theory teaches today’s music a thing or 2 about life. It subdues music’s ambition, reins it in, restores it to its proper place, reconciles it to its naturally belated fate” (Eshun 1998: -4). Here, music being “[restored] to its proper place” refers to signification, that is, to music as carrier of stable meanings, e.g. statements akin to “these notes means this thing and nothing else”. The detheorization of sound mentioned by Eshun, which is really an argument for the multiplicity of possible meanings in music, is similar to an argument made by Weheliye. Weheliye argues that interpretation of sound historically has been treated as signification, which “does not offer much in the way of theorizing the endemic difference between reading the score or listening to a recording” (2005: 36). Put differently, music—especially black music—is also something other than language and should be interpreted as such. Therefore, I suggest an interpretation of Afrofuturist music that perceives its narratives as an oscillation between the literal and figurative aspects of Afrofuturism. When Monáe states that she has been sent back from the future and has a superstar android clone in that future, one must interpret all sides of the statement. On the one hand, it can be seen as an autobiographical figure for life lived as a black woman in the United States; on the other, to de-theorize and reach the other side of Enlightenment tradition theory and really understand the depth of the figure, one must perceive this statement as literal truth. Put differently, interpreting Afrofuturist narratives should be done from a singular, equalized epistemological point of departure.
ROBOTIC PRESENTS On April 13th, 2015, a man tweeted Monáe, “girl stop being so soulful and be sexy … tired of those dumbass suits … you fine but u too damn soulful man” (Gorenstein 2015). The tweet objectifies black female bodies, framing them as commodities. The tweet becomes a complex statement because it is aimed at Janelle Monáe—a cyborg, an android, a time traveller, a Black woman. The message was delivered in a cyberspace; a technological space where the body— the entire basis of the stereotype—is cut off from the rationality of the mind. This separation of rationality and embodiment mirrors what Lindon Barrett calls the “signing voice” and the “singing voice”, “where the former represents the literacy of the white Enlightenment subject” and traditional structuralist signification “and the latter metonymically enacts blackness, embodiment, and subhumanity” (Weheliye 2005: 37). By not only having a body but by being a body, black subjectivity appears as the antithesis to the Enlightenment subject. The flinging of bodied stereotypes toward Black women in a disembodied cyberspace reproduces the supposed dichotomy between signing- and singing voices. It enacts Monáe’s blackness as “embodiment and subhumanity” within a disembodied ‘rationalised’ space and bars her from “the literacy of the white Enlightenment subject”. To the tweet, she responded, “sit down. I’m not for male consumption”, thus refusing to be commodified (Gorenstein 2015). By telling him off, Monáe reminds him of the history of oppression and exclusion faced by Black woman, while claiming her body as exclusively her own; it does not belong to her builders/objectifiers. The tweet aimed at Monáe played on stereotypes of black women where they are framed as Jezebels (promiscous, sexually voracious), Sapphires (domineering, “angry Black woman”), or wise but less physically attractive Soul Sisters. The “soulful” stereotype is often projected onto performers such as Nina Simone or Aretha Franklin in the way they are framed as asexual soothsayers, and the “sexy” stereotype is mapped onto performers who play with traditionally feminine physical traits such as Rihanna, Cardi B, or Donna Summer. Hortense Spillers refers to such stereotyping as “naming”. She writes, “’Peaches’ and ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Sapphire’ and ‘Earth Mother, ‘Aunty’, ‘Granny’, God’s ‘Holy Fool’, a ‘Miss Ebony First, or ‘Black Woman at the Podium’ […]. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented” (1987: 65). Put differently, these stereotypes—these reductive representations of a Black woman—are not individual to Spillers, but rather made to represent all Black women in America. Therefore, the interpellation of Black women via such names constitutes a collective memory. By recalling a collective memory shared by Black American women—the memory of being “named”—she refuses to be what Fentress and Wickham called “a sort of automaton, passively obeying the
interiorized collective will” in the beginning of this paper (1992: ix). This automaton claims agency. On Twitter, Monáe’s name is “Janelle Monáe, Cindi” thus illustrating the connection between Cindi and Monáe. The reigning power structures and The Great Divide force(d) stereotypes on Black Americans and the androids, and in her reply Monáe is telling them that they have to deal with the consequences of those actions, and that those old stereotypes belongs to the androids now to do with as they please. Cindi is the living embodiment of the consequences the signing voice have for perceptions of Black American culture whose primary cultural signifier is the singing voice (Barett 1998: 59). She has been built, owned, and produced, but when she, by means of her singing voice, Signifies upon her makers who are constituents of the signing voice, she is punished severely. She is also punished for amplifying the fact that the two voices can be bridged. An android falling in love with a human and singing about it transcends the border between the two voices, precisely because it is an act of both signification and embodiment. The notion of singing is especially important in Black American history because music was the primary way to insist on Black American humanity up until the latter half of the 20th century (Radano 2013; Cruz 1999). Only through music and sound, could Black Americans bring with them a humanness that whiteness could fetishize, commercialise, and stereotype, but not deny nor own (Radano 2013: 311). This supposed dichotomy between signing and singing relates to the technological history of blackness. Mark Dery, the cultural critic who first coined the term Afrofuturism in 1993, writes: African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind). (1994: 180)
By being abducted to foreign lands and later being forced into the notion of blackness—thus becoming the new alien—Black Americans were kept in a constant state of otherness by technological means. Monáe’s figure of the android as an oppressed entity and Weheliye’s nonhuman Black American are made perfectly clear by the word “robot”, which derives from the Czech word “robotnik” 3 and means “forced labor”, “corvée”, or “slave”. This leads to the implied, though never explicitly spoken, point of Weheliye and other Afrofuturist scholars: posthumanism is nothing new; it has been around ever since the first slaves were taken but was described only after technology began to affect white 3
First used in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek in 1921.
bodies with devices such as telephones, radios, and cameras. As such, the black body is always already a robot, an android. Monáe’s android thus works as a figure for the oppressed in society, and she names it a new other. For her, androids are not an if but a when, as she makes clear in an interview with Okayplayer.com: Computers will have mapped out our brains, and basically be able to duplicate our senses; how we feel; how we speak, and I think that they’re gonna be the new minority. . . . Androids will be the new black, the new gay, the new woman, and I’ve always wanted to be on the right side of history with androids, which is why I speak positively about them. (2014: 01:53–02:18)
Here, her android—and, by implication, her entire narrative—takes on a more literal form. Monáe presents her android as real, and if that statement is understood literally, then the android can no longer be considered to reside only in the realm of fiction; it has now migrated towards the territory of reality. This reality is a socially and historically constructed one, but one with real consequences. When she states “androids will be the new black,” she is effectively equalizing the history of the category “Black” and the (future) history of the category “android”. Being a character in her own narrative—one who is familiar with androids—she has a memory of these future events, the androids as subhuman. This is an inverse memory, meaning one of the future; it is a collective memory of a past as slaves being mirrored in the future android and vice versa. When artists such as Michael Jackson “remember[s] the time” (from “Remember the Time,” Jackson 1992), the sound of Afrofuturist memory constructs an equivalence between time travel and collective memory and frames it as something that is specifically Black precisely because of the clash between past and future narratives found in Afrofuturist music videos. Monáe’s suppressed android and its figurative other (present-day Black folk) remember back and forth in time. Jackson’s collective recollection of a mythological past—where his own future-ness grants him magical powers in the music video—mirrors Black American history and the ways in which racialized subjects have been forced into opposite temporalities simultaneously: that of the past and that of the future. Monáe brings these aspects out of the narrative of the albums and into the real world. In a 2014 interview, the following interaction takes place between The Guardian’s Paul Lester and Monáe (Lester in italics): You once said: “I’m part-android.” Has that revelation haunted you? No. It’s true. I am part-android. Really? Absolutely.
In a metaphorical sense, you mean? In the sense that we are all wired up to some big theological or epistemological mainframe? Or in the literal sense that you’re partmachine? Oh yeah. I am rewarded with singularity. My mind works at an exponential rate. But you don’t have actual electrical cables running under your epidermis, do you? I am the Electric Lady. Have you listened to my album, The Electric Lady?
Here, Monáe establishes herself as an actual android from her own narrative. Her answers take on a different meaning when considering the question posed to her just before the questions quoted above: “Are you the lovechild of David Bowie and Fritz Lang?” to which she replies, “The lovechild? My mother is a black woman from Kansas” (Lester 2014). This statement on its own is a wake-up call for the journalist trying to place Monáe in a white context. She follows up on this statement of having human origins by stubbornly claiming that she is part android and rewarded with singularity, embodying an oscillation between the human and the nonhuman and the way they intertwine. She proudly insists on her heritage as a Black American woman as she simultaneously enacts her origin—a collective, embodied memory—as a racialized subject from the future. The conclusion here should not be that Monáe is deluded or eccentric, but that to be both born and raised in the real world by real people while being an android is entirely possible, because androids exist—just look at Monáe. SIGNIFYIN(G) GRAMOPHONES It’s hard to stop rebels that time travel. But we on the Time Council pride ourselves on doing just that. Welcome to the Living Museum, where legendary rebels from throughout history have been frozen in suspended animation. Here in this particular exhibit, you will find members of Wondaland, and their notorious leader, Janelle Monáe, along with her dangerous accomplice Badoula Oblongata [Erykah Badu]. Together they launched Project Q.U.E.E.N., a musical weapons program in the twenty-first century. Researchers are still deciphering the nature of this program and hunting the various freedommovements that Wondaland disguised as songs, emotion-pictures, and works of art. (Monáe 2013f: 00:00-00:52)
This speech by the announcer at the Living Museum opens the video to “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Monáe’s first single from The Electric Lady (2013c). During the speech, a passage from the second movement of Haydn’s 1761-1765 Cello Concerto no. 1 in C (Hob. VIIb/1) is playing. This classical reference is complemented by a fly on Monáe’s coffee cup and a skull on the gramophone— vanitas motifs that, like Haydn, are an integrated part of Western history and cultural tradition. Here Monáe and the rest of her Wondaland crew are the real vanitas motifs. The fly is on Monáe’s cup, and the skull gramophone belongs to
her (as seen in the “Electric Lady” music video [Monáe 2013b: 01:13]). Even before the song has begun, the video has identified it as a song of protest: the vanitas-skull’s pointy gold tooth, serving as the needle on the gramophone, literally inscribes rebellion against the vanity, arrogance, obliviousness, and oppressiveness of Western tradition into the disc. To interpret the gramophone, I juxtapose Monáe’s song and video with Adorno’s 1934 essay “The Form of the Phonograph Record” [Die Form der Schallplatte]. In this essay, Adorno writes, “The phonograph record is an object of that ‘daily need’ which is the very antithesis of the humane and the artistic, since the latter cannot be repeated and turned on at will but remain tied to their place and time” (2002: 278). For Adorno, the gramophonic record can, in theory, be repeated an infinite amount of times and in an infinite amount of places 4. It lies outside the realm of the human and of the arts, both of which are tied to a specific single event and place. Like a flash drive, the phonographic disc is a memory device. Adorno (2002) continues: There is no doubt that, as music is removed by the phonograph record from the realm of live production and from the imperative of artistic activity and becomes petrified, it absorbs into itself, in this process of petrification, the very life that would otherwise vanish. 5 (279)
When the record is put on in the video (Monáe 2013f: 00:47), Monáe awakens from her petrification; from the way she was “suspended in animation” as described in the intro to the video. Here the disc enacts precisely the opposite of Adorno’s petrifying scenario: Instead of enacting a “process of petrification”, the gramophone and the union between needle and disc remove or reverse the petrification-process. This is not ‘art’ in an Adornite sense; it is technological music. What is “suspended in animation” (cf. the introductory speech) or petrified by the phonograph, however, is Haydn, whose music stops the instant the gramophone begins to play. Haydn—here, serving as figure for Western Enlighenment tradition—has never had his identity and music technologically instrumentalised and externalised the way Black Americans have. Adorno posits, “The dead art rescues the ephemeral and perishing art as the only art alive” (2002: 278). Like the gramophone disc, Monáe is not connected to a single temporality For the sake of the argument, I do not differentiate between the gramophonic disc and the digital file. While a disc or cylinder certainly loses fidelity over time, for Adorno, it was ‘eternal’ just like a digital file (in theory) is. 5 It should be mentioned that Adorno does see the critical potential of the phonograph, although it is not relevant here. He continues, “The dead art rescues the ephemeral and perishing art as the only one alive. Therein may lie the phonograph record’s most profound justification. … For this justification reestablishes … an age-old … relationship: that between music and writing” (2002: 279, original emphasis). 4
or spatiality but exists in many at once because of her narratives, because of her status as both android and non-android, and because of her split personality (narrative Monáe versus ‘real’ Monáe). Thus, Monáe’s “dead art”, her music, is revealed as the only art that is still alive because of its Signifyin(g) nature. It exists between levels of meanings and communicates via the gramophone because that object is also “suspended in animation” by both moving and not moving. Or perhaps it is, rather, suspending in animation as a result of being both descriptive and prescriptive: the former by simply fulfilling its function by playing music, thus petrifying Haydn, and the latter by animating the characters in the video, thus both petrifying and awaking simultaneously. As such, the object—the gramophone—is no longer just an object, as it gains agency in its critical potential for rebellion. When the specific gramophone is seen in the “Electric Lady” video (which, plot-wise, takes place before “Q.U.E.E.N.”), it establishes that moment as being important to the narrative. You can imagine the supplementing text for this artefact at the museum in “Q.U.E.E.N.”—that it was vital for the rebel movement. This reveals the Signifyin(g) gramophone not just as memory-technology but also as being related to memory itself. The gramophone is a collective memory. Moreover, it is a time machine that gives physical form—sound waves—to these memories because it allows these events to be moved in space and time. However, it diverges from regular memory by not having a specific point of origin. A record has no single point of origin because a recording is made in many sessions and manipulated by technology; thus, the record’s point of reference is the act of playing it, the memory of an origin, and its temporal displacement. This type of recollection, the rootless memory, mirrors the history of Black Americans, whose roots were corroded by the institution of slavery; slavery, in turn, was reshaped into the new point of origin. Monáe replants these roots in (an) American (hi)story by means of technology. As Weheliye writes, “African American history is ‘in the Mix,’ and it appears as a groove that indexes both the indentations found on the surface of phonograph records and those somewhat more elusive grooves in the vernacular sense” (2005: 73). THE SOUND OF ROBOTIC MEMORY The song “PrimeTime” is, according to the liner notes, inspired by “Cindi’s favourite memories at the Electric Sheep Nightclub” (Monáe 2013d). The video informs the viewer that it stars “Janelle Monáe as Cindi Mayweather” (Monáe 2013e). Monáe’s claim of being part android melts the barrier between her and Cindi, thus rendering the interviewer’s question (“but you don’t have actual electric cables under your epidermis, do you?” [Lester 2014]) redundant because the performer—the real Monáe—is androidic in nature. What separates Cindi
from other characters in popular music is that she is not an aspect of Monáe. While she is based on Monáe’s DNA, Monáe always refers to Cindi as her own person, with Monáe existing as a character in the narrative alongside Cindi. I would like to use “PrimeTime” as an example of how robotic memory sounds: a relatively slow beat of 100 bpm with electronic drums, a present attack in the bass drum, and a clear delay-plugin on the very tight snare that lies on top of a four-chord progression (||: G# | Fm | Cm7 | D# :||). Everything is covered in reverb and delay, sonically mirroring the concept of recollection by means of sound waves copying themselves through time while decaying like memories. The amount of reverb and delay as well as the differences in vocal timbre in the chorus create cluster-like harmonies in the sonic background, where one sung phrase in the choir and groove echoes into the next. Some of the vocal tuning is slightly off and there are a sub-bass kick drum and relaxed mid-range synths, establishing a smooth but cluttered soundscape. If this is the sound of robotic memory—which it is, according to the liner notes—it is surprisingly similar to cultural and historical perceptions of human memory as dreamlike, decaying, ethereal, and mystical. The stereotypical notions of a robotic voice are not present in Monáe’s vocals. There are no obvious vocal effects other than reverb and delay, and the warm timbre and mellow rhythm of the melody are at a stage where it is impossible to distinguish robotic voices from real human voices. This opens up a radical, albeit familiar, potential narrative: not that androids and humans are equal to each other, as reflected by similar soundscapes, but that culture itself is both a possibility and a reality for the technological nonhuman entity. In this case, an Afrofuturist form of artificial intelligence (A.I.) is sonically able to “retain information and reconstruct past experiences, usually for present purposes [which] is one of the most important ways by which our histories animate our current actions and experiences” (Sutton 2012: 1). While Sutton is not talking about A.I. or anything even remotely posthuman, the quote also applies to the gramophone discussed earlier, which both retained Monáe and gave agency to the entire song. This allows the sonic aspect of the memory (i.e., the sound of the particular song) to be seen as media interface, as technology, and as materiality before it is seen as human. The song acts as a sonic memory of an oppressed past that serves to connect other individuals who share in similar collective memories. In this way, robotic memory is the sonographic negative of a slave song. It is not the only way to prove humanity (cf. Radano), but it is a way to insist on something else. Just like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the “PrimeTime” video opens with a key moment that forces an interpretation of the rest of the events on the screen and in the speakers. At the Electric Sheep Nightclub, Cindi programs a black gynoid (female android) dancer to twerk (the other choices are “ratchet”, “motor booty”, and
“burlesque A/B”) at 100 bpm and activates her by pressing a red button on the gynoid’s left temple. In other words, she accesses a digital memory storage device and makes the gynoid act out these the information provided by the data/recollections. The dance, the tempo, and the sonic and visual fluidity that govern the video form a collective memory that Monáe is able to access and enable but is unable to transform. This act embodies a rigid, primitive presingularity that determines how androids act. The narrative in the video centres on Cindi, who is working as a waiter at the Electric Sheep Nightclub. She flirts with a male guest (played by Miguel), and they sing about getting out of their current situation. At around the 02:45 mark another patron puts his hand on Cindi’s waist/hip-area with obvious sexual intent, to which she responds by slapping his hand away and chastising him. After her boss comes over to tell her to calm down, she quits on the spot. The Electric Lady is a prequel album, and this song, as noted, contains Cindi’s favourite memories. This is her rock star myth, her origin story. Cindi is the oppressed android who fought against the system and gained a voice by becoming a world-famous artist. As mentioned earlier, however, Cindi was built with a “rock-star proficiency package” (Monáe 2008b). Her memory of starting from the bottom and fighting her way to rock star status is part of her programming. The uniqueness of the rock star can easily be replicated and installed in other androids, thus encouraging or forcing a specific behavioural pattern, and rebellion is not achieved solely by “making it.” Simply getting to the top was obviously the Great Divide’s plan all along. CONCLUSION: THE REINSTATEMENT OF COLLECTIVE MEMORY AS MEMORY The notion of time travel within Black American culture is already linked to collective memory. For centuries, people have been forced into two different temporalities: that of the embodied, primal, noble, ‘rhythmic,’ and savage past on the one hand, and the science fiction nightmare of forced sterilisation, branding, and technological experiments on the other. The sound of this divide is Black American music, which is inherently tied to notions of humanity and nonhumanity. In Monáe’s works, each song is a memory because it is laid out in narratives, told by a time traveller, as though the events in the narrative have already taken place in the future. By constructing herself as a technological entity (part android), Monáe herself becomes a collective memory storage device, like the Signifyin(g) gramophone that kick-starts her soul in “Q.U.E.E.N.” (Monáe 2013f). All of the videos from The Electric Lady have these storage devices at their outset: the gramophone in “Q.U.E.E.N.,” the music that only begins after Cindi pushes Start on the gynoid in “PrimeTime” (2013e), the eight-track
cartridge in “Electric Lady” (2013b), and the live concert in “Dance Apocalyptic” (2013a). Although obvious, it is worth noting that this music—not just the videos—is an impossibility without a collective memory playback device such as a stereo or a computer. In the case of Monáe, Afrofuturist music thus has memory not just as a concept but also as a condition, as the music is the direct result of a playback by means of a collective memory device 6. Cindi’s whole notion of self and the root to her rebellious nature is conjured and exists only as a built-in memory, as seen and heard in “PrimeTime.” That does not mean that her recollection is fictional or unreal, however. It is a memory in the sense that it is individual—as Funkenstein, Young, and Fentress and Wickham describe it—since Cindi does remember whether it actually happened or not. Nonetheless, the collective and embodied part is not erased just because the rock star proficiency package and working soul are installed within her body and are duplicable. If one accepts Cindi and the android as a figure for Black Americans, Monáe’s new other steps in as an androidized subject constructed through a technological and sonic collective memory that blurs the reality/fiction divide. Through the scope of Afrofuturism and sonic fiction, collective memory is reinstated as real memory because it is individual to Cindi, and because Cindi the android should be taken literally. These collective memories both navigate and blur the different narratives and histories of Black American pasts, presents, and futures. REFERENCES Adorno, Theodor W. “The Form of the Phonograph Record.” Essays on Music. 2002. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 277–82. Andrews, Gillian. “Janelle Monáe Turns Rhythm and Blues into Science Fiction.” Io9. 2010. Accessed April 10, 2020. http://io9.gizmodo.com/5592174/janelle-monae-turns-rhythm-and-bluesinto-science-fiction Barett, Lindon. Blackness and Value: Seeing Double. 1998. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. Coney, John. Space is the Place. 1974. Movie. Accessed April 10, 2020. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCalqwsicls
Many questions still need to be answered. For example, an examination of social media as a collective memory bank would greatly benefit Afrofuturist and popular music studies, as Afrofuturist music rarely only employs sonic technology, but integrates it with other media. Also helpful would be an investigation of how and if music works differently as a cultural memory device in diasporic cultures.
Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. 1989. New York: Cambridge University Press. DeNora, Tia. Music In Everyday Life. 2000. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press. Dery, Mark. Mark Dery, ed. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” 1994. Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 179–222. Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. 1998. London: Quartet Books. Fentress, James and Chris Wickham. Social Memory. 1992. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Funkenstein, Amos. “Collective Memory and Historical Consciousness.” History and Memory. 1992. 1 (1): 4–26. Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory Of African-American Literary Criticism. 1988. Oxford: Oxford University Press Gorenstein, Colin. “‘Sit Down. I’m Not for Male Consumption’: Janelle Monáe Slams Sexist Internet Commenter.” Salon, April 14, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2020. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/14/sit_down_im_not_for_male_consumpti on_janelle_monae_slams_sexist_internet_commenter/ Halbwachs, Maurice. Lewis A. Coser, ed. “The Social Frameworks of Memory.” On Collective Memory. 1992. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 37–89. Jackson, Michael. “Rember the Time.” 1992. Music Video. MJJ Productions Inc. YouTube. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeiFF0gvqcc Lester, Paul. “Janelle Monáe: ‘It’s True. I Am Part-Android.’” The Guardian, April 2, 2014. Accessed April 10, 2020. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/apr/02/janelle-monae-interviewdavid-bowie-prince Monáe, Janelle. Metropolis: The Chase Suite. 2008a. CD. Bad Boy Records. ———. Metropolis: The Chase Suite. 2008b. Liner notes. Bad Boy Records. ———. “Many Moons.” 2008c. Music Video. Bad Boy Records. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZyyORSHbaE ———. The ArchAndroid. 2010a. CD. Bad Boy Records. ———. “Tightrope Feat. Big Boi.” 2010b. Music Video. Bad Boy Records. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwnefUaKCbc
———. “Dance Apocalyptic.” 2013b. Music Video. Bad Boy Records. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaMBagakSdM ———. “Electric Lady.” 2013b. Music Video. Bad Boy Records. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPFgBCUBMYk ———. The Electric Lady. 2013c. CD. Bad Boy Records. ———. The Electric Lady. 2013d. Liner notes. Bad Boy Records. ———. “PrimeTime feat. Miguel.” 2013e. Music Video. Bad Boy Records. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oxls2xX0Clg ———. “Q.U.E.E.N. Feat. Erykah Badu.” 2013f. Music Video. Bad Boy Records. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEddixS-UoU Okayplayer.com. “Janelle Monáe answers ‘The Questions’”. 2014. YouTube. Accessed April 10th, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buzOqIdABUs Public Enemy. “Countdown to Armageddon”. 1988. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. CD. Def Jam Records and Columbia. Radano, Ronald. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert, and Richard Middleton, eds. “Music, Race, and the Fields of Public Culture.” The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction. 2011. New York: Routledge, pp. 308–16. Sofia, Zoë. “Container Technologies.” Hypatia. 2000. 15(2): 181–201. Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics. 1987. 17(2), pp. 64-81. Sun Ra. Sutton, John. “Memory.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012, Winter ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Accessed April 10th, 2020. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/memory/ Van Veen, Tobias C. “Vessels of Transfer: Allegories of Afrofuturism in Jeff Mills and Janelle Monáe.” Dancecult DC. 2013. 5(2): 7–41. doi:10.12801/1947-5403.2013.05.02.02. Weheliye, Alexander G. “Feenin”: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music.” Social Text 2002. 20(2): 21–47. doi:10.1215/0164247220-2_71-21. ———. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-modernity. 2005. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ———. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. 2014. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. 2013. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. Young, James Edward. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. 1993. New Haven: Yale University Press.
MAPPING THE SONIC IMAGINARY: STACEY ROBINSON’S VISUAL CODEX The sound of Afrofuturism, like all things connected to black speculative practice, is not easily codified. In his effort to capture the meaning of black speculative practice, Mark Dery’s definition of Afrofuturism 1 relied on examples drawn from comics and hip hop. In some ways, Stacey Robinson’s work and career offer a living embodiment of the transformative power of both endeavors. Stacey Robinson completed his Masters of Fine Art at the University at Buffalo and currently serves as Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His art speculates futures where Black people are free from colonial influences. Stacey’s collected works reside at Modern Graphics in Berlin, Bucknell University, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Along with John Jennings,
Stacey is part of the collaborative duo ‘Black Kirby,’ which explores Afro Speculative existence via the aesthetic of Jack Kirby. In our conversation, I asked him to reflect on the intersection of speculative practice and sound found in his art. Julian Chambliss [JC]: I see your work exploring a pattern of innovation and intervention by black music pioneers. The subjects here: Ra, Coltrane, Clinton, Flash, and Outkast represent pivotal points of black sound innovation. Can you talk about your choices in this series and how they reflect your vision of Afrofuturism and sound? Stacey Robinson [SR]: The pieces in this series are all parts of a much larger series looking at distinct elements to my burgeoning Black liberation through sound theorizations. I choose to make art that jumpstarts the Black imagination, thus Black conversations. I have to “make” the work to begin asking the questions myself though. The choices to create work about these individuals specifically come from examining the unique pivots, accelerations, and
legacies of these artists through their praxis, thinking about how they created these tangible cultural points. As I’m just now documenting the theoretical approach to my critical making practice, I’m clearly seeing the nexus of Black thought that has influenced the direction of my work for the last 40 years. With the George Clinton piece, for example, I’m thinking about healing in music, taking me back to when I learned that healing myself from a cold took place from sweating out the cold/flu, etc. while wearing a sweatshirt, taking medicine, and sleeping under blankets, all listening to certain types of music, which for me were always lyrically and sonically cohesive to healing. The text within the piece cites Parliament's “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” from their 1976 album Mothership Connection gives the context. That’s an ancestral practice spanning various cultures. The George (Clinton) is from my Talking Heads series (yup, named after the band) is meant to inspire thoughts around discussion of health. If
intersectional thought is not considering mental, spiritual, emotional, financial health as part of our pleasure, gender, and sexuality conversation, then what are we actually Afrofuturing? I’ve had far too many conversations with Black smart people who aren’t considering the implications of many sorts of inclusivity. To give one example of my recent discussions, people have asked me countless times “`where are the fat people in Wakanda?” Referring to Marvel Studios’s Black Panther movie. My discussion around Black Speculative discourse has to now discuss obesity as it’s medically categorized, a disorder that should not exist but does due to overwork, genetically modified foods, and stress to name a few root causes. This is a root cause of diabetes. Thinking intersectionally, dialysis ain’t politically pleasurable for anyone; dialysis doesn’t care about our gender politics; dialysis will ignore our sexuality parameters, etc. How many Big Mamas, and Pop-Pops have we sent off into the after-life missing limbs as they quoted the Book of Acts 10: 13-15? We have to be more thoughtful in
our critiques, our analysis, and our inclusivity. As Audre Lorde stated, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is selfpreservation, and that is an act of political warfare. 2” As it’s been remixed, “Self care is a revolutionary act.” In this legacy it is imperative that we think of commandeering our good health not only as a revolutionary act, but also an Afrofuturist act. We’ve become very comfortable dismissing the liberation calls to action in our cultural histories and forecasted futures. I believe we are asking the wrong questions about Wakanda in reference to health, liberation, nationhood, and more. Instead of asking where the fat people are in Wakanda, for example, we should be asking how they avoided the disorder of obesity in their culture, or how they overcame it. Within the movie what we may find is that in Wakandan culture there are less work hours assigned per week for its citizens, allowing for more stress free lifestyles and exercise. We may find that Wakandan food is not genetically modified. We may also find that many Wakandans grow their own food. What we definitely notice in the movie is that their
spirituality, health, science, art and nation cultures are a cohesive unified practice. The Kimoyo Beads we saw were used in a multitude of ways that represented that. Furthermore, if attending doctor visits were a regular part of our “popular” culture as Black people, and if we as smart Black intellectuals thought and spoke more holistically about liberated Black futures, we’d readily include topics of health to our public and literary discussions on futures. I’m not suggesting that topics of health don’t appear at all in our discussions, they often do, but they are regularly B, C, and D level topics. If we are not consistently, and publicly discussing health according to: better diets, exercise, mental, spiritual, financial, etc. in our thinking of future building then we are relegating the prosperity and success of our futures to career advancements via academic, or public intellectual standards which many times is built on the sacrifice of our health. Within these regular visits to our physician we logically wouldn’t dismiss our doctor using intersectional, pleasure or
any other political rhetoric when they tell us to break up our understandably busy day with exercise, drink more water, eat more vegetables, and consider a plant-based diet. We wouldn’t say “Doctor you’re fat-shaming me,” or “Doc your being hypermasculine, patriarchal, homophobic, misogynist, and toxic in your critique of my health, therefore I’m going to “cancel” you on social media.” In reference to my art practice, it works to a similar philosophy made public through the traditions of many of my favorite political thinkers. For example, Malcolm X who lived in his honesty, then lived again in his honesty as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, whose belief systems were practiced publicly then transformed publicly as we witnessed his honesty in real time. I serve to build a better world through my multifaceted art practice to live as publicly in as much sincere honesty as I possibly can, with the willingness to transform when I learn of better more applicable freedom systems. I believe we have a responsibility to our past,
present and future to do more, and better, by at the very least widening our discourse and living more public, holistic examples for those who watch us. JC: Sound and visual artists, especially those associated with Afrofuturism share traits linked to innovative intervention in techniques and drawing inspiration from the cultural legacy of blackness. How does your work attempt to capture this legacy? SR: My visual art practice is always in a state of becoming, always at an apex of what it is at the time whether I know what the end means or not. If it’s not at that level of inquiry, I know it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m at a point in my practice where I’m once again looking into the roots of modern music, the scholars I grew up on, and the artists I collected. All these possess particular elements for me to extract. As Saul Williams said with ‘Coded Language’, “Whereas, breakbeats have been the missing link connecting the diasporic community to its drum woven past…” I’m working to extract and break the code in our language to understand
what they all are cohesively. Primarily and specifically my work intervenes on a level inspired by Emory Douglas’s Political Artist Manifesto it states: #6 Create art of social concerns that even a child can understand, #7. The goal should always be the make the message clear, #9. Create art that challenges the colonization of the imagination. My work also intervenes by looking to begin to define Blackness and Black liberation. Ironically I also theorize that we can’t define our Blackness inside of a space we currently reside, where the descendants of those who colonized, displaced, and enslaved our ancestors nor benefit from the generational wealth through labor, inventions, and intellectual property of our past contributions. My own theorization is an innovation of Black time travel, rooted in my intersections of beliefs that we’ve brought across the middle passage like the Bakongo Cosmogram for example, and systems we’ve created inside of western colonialism as celebrational and communal remembrances
from our ancestral home like the Nguzo Saba, to contemporary systems of the Black Power Movement like the 12 Jewels from the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths. These operate with Hip-Hop’s 4 primary elements, my own, calling, family responsibilities, and community obligations. In tandem with this thinking, innovation, and intervention is also a thinking of invention. I believe Blackness looks and sounds like a particular thing. There is a legacy of traditions I work in. You see Pedro Bell, Overton Lyod, Ernie Barnes, Romare Beardon, Sylvia St. James, and Emory Douglas as visual shout outs in my work. The Grandmaster Flash explores his contribution to music through his redesign and repurpose of technology to meet his vision of creating a neverending space of dance through what would later be known as the beat break. I believe that functions as an infinite cosmogram that I want the audience to explore when they make their deep dives into the past to excavate more stolen, misplaced, and hidden legacies. I hope the audience thinks about various design disciplines
and looks at our existing and their emerging art and theoretical languages to create what White supremacists have consistently destroyed, our personhood and safe, brave spaces. JC: As a visual artist, your work operates at the intersection of practice and theory. I know your work is inspired by a critical race design studies approach that is dependent, in some small way, on visual anthropology to understand the black experience. How do these works align with that critical framework? SR: Paraphrasing on the Book of James 2:17, Faith without works is dead. I put work behind my belief system. I believe Black liberation exists as a functioning algorithm. Just as White supremacy is a philosophy supported by a functional ideology of racism, enforced in religion, primary through higher education, neighborhood (many times militarized) policing, government legislature, and popular culture. My spiritual calling is to excavate that algorithm from where it’s buried, under all our miseducation and hidden his/herstory.
The Black experience is not singular. Our skin tones have functioned as technological vehicles of escorting white supremacist fears and fantasies in their same contradictive inescapable imaginings. What accompanies the melanin foundation of all earth’s inhabitants is the Black founded creations of civilization including medicine, philosophy, mathematics, language, religion, music, agriculture, and more. Locked in our DNA are Henrietta Lacks’s healing cells, slavemaster’s forced inclusion, and our ability to survive under hundreds of years of colonial influence with the lack of restorative justice. With Black DNA are the key holders of White people’s fears and fantasies to unlock what Dr. Frances Cress Welsing described in her book The Isis Papers 3 as White people’s fear of “genetic annihilation.” Sun Ra with a Harriet Jesus Piece imagines the foundational Afrofuturist practitioner as a pyramid ship taking us to a location of self-discovery on the “other side of time.” Inspired by Harriet Tubman, a gold rope chain hangs around Sun Ra’s neck, her icon is our
reminder of Sun Ra’s mission to free Black people just as he sought to in his 1974 film Space is the Place. JC: What do you hope the public will think about after encountering these images? SR: My main hope is when people view my work that we honestly think and discuss how we can liberate ourselves from oppression. I believe freedom looks, tastes, smells, feels, and sounds like a very particular thing. As a visual artist working in the tradition of my inspirations like Emory Douglass, Synthia Saint James, Romare Bearden, Cheik Anta Diop, Chancellor Willams, John Henrik Clark, my great grandmother, my mom, my aunt, my children, and the women who entrusted me with the primary bulk of my record collection to name a few, my goal is to present a visual aesthetic that speaks a language of Black self- created holistic liberated futures. I hope the future examines it, critiques it, remixes it, adds to it without changing the heart of it. I think as Black public intellectuals and academic scholars we collectively
have an unbalanced relation to Black intersectionality. The topics of pleasure, gender, sex, pop cultural critique, and even Afrofutures are hot topics we should explore (and secure our public and academic carriers with). But until we define what our freedom is, contract our relationships with outer and inner influential nations, define our liberation parameters, and seriously discuss what Black nationhood means, Blackness will always exist as something outside, in addition to those intersections that have already been defined, and now being redefined. Excluding defining what Blackness is within intersectionality means relying on what is defined by our oppressors definition, Blackness being the antithesis of Whiteness with all its philosophically White supremacist, and systemically racist implications. It also means relying on the oppressor’s consistently failed moral and ethical code in hopes that it’ll align with ours. Therefore I want our audience to challenge our Black intellectual arguments. If we are not reaching the community then what we do
academically is only self and campus serving. I want our audience to be inspired to make their imaginings of Black liberated futures starting with themselves. I don’t want my audience to rely on me to make what they don’t see here. I also want the audience to research my work before resting on an assumption that what they see is the totality of my commentary. I hope the audience will converse topical issues like racial profiling as what it is, racially based, not gender, pleasure, or sexually based. Those other bases are connected first to Blackness. For example, the storming of the capital on January 6, 2020, was an assassination attempt by hundreds of White people who I imagine identified across sexual and gender spectrums, yet unified under White supremacy because they understand what a BIPOC governing power looks like through new equitable legislation. Ultimately though, I’m thinking about a future generation when I’m making this work. I’m specifically working in the traditions of our elders and ancestors when making this work; in a contemporary
contextualization, I’m using very accessible digital and traditional mediums while theorizing with a future generation in mind that I’ll only interact with in the after-life. The audience of the future will take what they need from my work. I believe they will use what is good for them as they define their existence. The John Coltrane a portrait originally for the Burchfield Penney Museum in Buffalo NY, is a sacred geometry practitioner who inspired the God EMCEE Rakim through a pattern of complex notes which theoretically could not be played simultaneously on the saxophone. Just as what was imagined as impossible with existing technology, I want the audience to build upon that thinking, to see the possible, to imagine better, more equitable tomorrows. As I’m [thinking through] this, I’m traveling through a sound collage of music spanning One Nation Under a Groove, The Best of Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, and Louie Vega’s Lockdown Sessions on Worldwide FM. via Twitch TV. My critical making practice works in a tradition of sonic
residences that extract from the African spirit. Most of my inspirational sound experiences are part of my album collection, my MP3 DJ library, and cross referenced discoveries. They visually align along a tradition of authors, historians, psychologists, sociologists, and systems makers that concern themselves with Black freedom through their unique practices. I want the audience to hear the sound and feel healing through the visual aesthetics.
Moving forward I’m taking a much deeper dive into some of my more obscure favs. Figures I need to spend more time with who aren’t always mentioned in Afrofuturism. Grace Jones, Missy Elliot, and Jean Grae are not an afterthought but require a much deeper dive into their catalogues, and commentary. Again, I am making art of the inspirational greats as I excavate their thoughts. These works in progress represent a few of the newer portraits that I’m still considering, crafting, and communicating.
Grace Jones The Grace Jones portrait is a work in progress that as many of [my] newer works represents a state of becoming, transcendence and evolution. As I’m making this work, I’m refamiliarizing myself with her catalogue. Still my fav work of hers is “Operattack” from her 1985 album Slave to the Rhythm. This piece is a House music/Disco classic. I first became familiar with this work in 1990, in my house music, club dancing days. The echoed scream of “Slave” continuously overlapping, reverberating at points becomes inaudible when intermingled with the words ``annihilating rhythm” which in various pitches at the end becomes horrific in a sense and leaves us there with no resolve. At the central point of her performance, Jones then goes into what seems like a series of vocal thrusts; listening to it, I feel a sense of pain in her a cadence reminiscent of a chain gang laying miles of train tracks in rhythm while surviving the moment. The chant becomes faster, almost becoming a different sound through the layered staccato. The stereo sound production bounces back and forth through from
both ears, while the following “Dance to the Rhythm” command reverberates much deeper yet calls to much higher. The vocal thrusts return to then do the same. There is so much more layered depth to Jones’s work. For example, her performance in the 1992 film Boomerang leaves us with classic quotables of her irresistible sexual power, but my favorite part was always her arrival to the party that draws the attention of the guests as the helicopter lowers a crate the opens to reveal her exit a chariot drawn by 4 White men wearing bondage-style leather, led by her lashing them with a whip. This control of not only men but white men glitches the sexual politics of race, gender, power, and fantasy. In another, Jones give birth to her selfnamed perfume “Strangé” a fragrance that represents the “essence of sex.” The scene, a commercial within the film art directed by multifaceted artist Geoffrey Holder, is a mix of horror and fantasy that in today’s viewing could be categorized as Afrofuturist. Missy Elliott This work in progress represents Missy Elliott
through a Romare Bearden-style collage that seeks to be as strange as her music video aesthetics. The artistic legacy of Missy is unmatched. Her unique videography parallels her lyrical prowess consistent with science-fiction themed aesthetics. Among her most popular of approaches is the bending of time, space, place, and gravity combined with motifs that honor classic Hip-Hop elements: with an overwhelming sense of fun and community. You feel her approach to the pioneering Hip-Hop principles of Afrika Bambaataa’s ideas of “Peace, Unity, Love and Having Fun.” Missy consistently reaches back to the upcoming generation, centering a young girl soloing her agency and defining power. While many artists rest in the idea of rapping, Missy exemplifies HipHop as a cultural power. Finalizing the work will point to these ideas as her legacy while leaving room to imagine what she can become and what message she will have for us. Jean Grae Another lyrical powerhouse, Grae (born Tsidi Ibrahim) is
positioned as another lyricist who when I categorized Hip-Hop greats according to gender would like Missy, appear in my top 10 of dopest Hip-Hop artists. Her homage to Marvel Comics’s X-Men character Jean Grey, aka the Phoenix, explores Grae’s personification of herself as the Phoenix. This work in progress piece shows Grae, collaged with Grey, as the Dark Phoenix, at the height of Grey’s power status when she possessed the power of the comic Phoenix Force. Her personification inspired by comics falls into a legacy of emcees who rebirth themselves through comics-based personifications. Other rappers who have reinvented themselves include MF DOOM, Ghostface Killer (aka Tony Starks), Method Man (aka Johnny Blaze), and many others. In the piece, the screw-faced lyricist wields a spell of two Sankofa, the Ghanaian adinkra symbol meaning “to go back and fetch it, “which represents going back to fetch our stolen, buried, and appropriated legacy through knowledge
education. Sankofa symbols face each other as a double entendre, representing existing in past, present, and future simultaneously. The Phoenix’s “Dark Sankofa” spell when cast on haters will...well stay tuned. End Notes 1 Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 92, no. 4, Fall 1993, p. 735-738. 2 Lorde, Audre A %urVt oI /iJht࣯ (VVayV. Firebrand Books, 1988. 3 Welsing, Frances Cress. The Isis (Yssis) Papers. 1st ed., Third World Press, 1991.
GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME (DOUBLE) CONSCIOUSNESS: LITERACY, ORALITY, PRINT, AND THE CULTURAL FORMATION OF BLACK AMERICAN IDENTITY IN HARRIET JACOBS’S INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL AND OCTAVIA BUTLER’S KINDRED
Aisha Matthews Read alongside the generic construction of slave narratives, the history of 19thcentury American print culture recounts the cultural formation of the soon-to-be African American consciousness. Given literacy’s presentation as a crucial means of liberation for antebellum slaves and, just as critically, as the catalyst for positive identity formation (albeit, primarily in male slave narratives), the acts of reading and writing were inherently political, just as print culture itself was and still is a fundamentally politicized field that intersects with and participates in the maintenance of hegemonic power structures. In fact, it has been argued that “Literacy provides manifest testimony of the mind's ability to extend itself beyond the constricted limits and conditions of the body… to enter into literacy is to gain important skills for extending oneself beyond the condition and geography of the body” (Barrett, 1995, p. 419). In this light, it would seem that literacy has been construed as the mark of meaningful subjectivity for Blacks—who have historically been confined to the “condition and geography of the body”—since America’s inception. The highly gendered reality of literacy in practice, however, undermines such universal application of the concept. For the enslaved Black woman, the political implications of literacy often took on a different meaning, complicated by language’s simultaneously liberatory and oppressive potentialities, as well as the experiential limitations of both written and spoken language. In truth, then, by balancing the oral traditions of Afro-diasporic cultures and the Western primacy of the written word, the generic conventions of slave narration both make and unmake the subjectivity of early Black Americans. But while male slave narratives frame the attainment of literacy as the fundamental source of Black liberation from bondage, female slave narratives, like Harriett Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), demonstrate the ways in which both spoken and written language are used to control, manipulate, and corrupt the sexuality of enslaved women. The enslaved woman, in particular, is required to write herself into being through the very linguistic structures that also facilitate and justify both her enslavement and her involuntary induction to vice. Jacobs constructs the Black female slave as subject (instead of object) through her narrative self, Linda Brent, and in doing so, shifts the linguistic locus of power from the hegemonic dominance of white slaveowners to the underclass of slaves, both individually and collectively narrating themselves into fully realized personhood. Nonetheless, this recognition of shared humanity and the establishment of Black subjectivity is still
overwhelmingly influenced by white cultural values and traditions (in this case, namely abolitionist rhetoric). The force of white cultural influence created various unharmonious Cartesian dualities—most notably, the formation of a double consciousness, but also the well-established dichotomies between body and mind and between human and animal—within the mind of the newly-formed Black subject, which remain present even in contemporary African American culture. In response to the tension inherent in such dualistic constructions, the neoslave narrative, which in many senses picks up where the antebellum slave narrative leaves off, reflects the cultural shift in African American identity formation between the 19th- and 20th- centuries, while placing a premium on the reality of slavery’s ongoing legacy across the span of more than a century to our postmodern moment. As Lindon Barrett (1995) argues in “African-American Slave Narratives: Literacy, the Body, Authority,” “A text—verbally or otherwise constructed— speaks to rituals of identity formation, to the way a multiplicity of personal and social identities are culturally maintained” (p. 417). This means that the transformation of narrative language into the rhetoric of individual identity can account for both oral and print traditions. Neo-slave narratives—which are most commonly defined as, “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (Bell, 1987); “contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative” (Rushdy, 1999, p. 3); and narratives that “illustrate the centrality of the history and the memory of slavery to our individual, racial, gender, cultural, and national identities” (Smith, 2007, p. 168)—revisit slavery through speculative tropes that upset the linearity of temporality and the stability of bodies, both to create and bear witness to the linguistic reclamation of Black American identity, as well as— somewhat antithetically—to insist upon the reality of slavery’s ongoing legacy in our postmodern moment. Where antebellum slave narratives focused on literacy, family, and community, neo-slave narratives make use of the postmodern, postructuralist methods of deconstruction to examine the “purity” of said values and to challenge the dominant narrative of slavery, underscoring the extent to which our social systems still operate upon many of the same racist mechanisms, ideologies, and values inherent to the antebellum chattel slavery system. This article will examine the tension between oral culture and print culture in Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) by assessing how Linda Brent, Jacobs’s fictional self, and Dana, the protagonist of Kindred, manipulate or are manipulated by language throughout their respective narratives. I argue that the discursive force of abolitionist rhetoric surrounding slave narration and pervasive reverence for “The Cult of True Womanhood” 1 together, In “The Cult of True Womanhood” (1966), Barbara Welter articulated four essential virtues— piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity—that a good and successful woman was historically expected to embody. Conduct manuals dating back to the 19th century emphasize the omnipresence 1
inevitably instantiate the formation of a doubly split African American female subject in Incidents, seemingly bound on all sides by unfavorable ideological oppositions. For example, binary oppositions such as purity and harlotry were imposed upon Black bodies, attempting to supplant the development of individually determined subjectivity with racist and sexist objectification. While literacy may have signified the humanity of male slaves (at least in their own view), the English language and American print culture did not similarly empower female slaves towards positive subject-formation through discourse. I further suggest that the dualistic opposition of oral and print cultures in 19th-century America foreshadows the “veil” to which W.E.B. Du Bois would later refer in his book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), where he articulates the concept of double-consciousness—a state created by the concomitant nature of these seemingly opposed positions. Ultimately, an analysis of Jacobs’s work through the lens of book history and its power to shape cultural formation will suggest a critical imperative for the contemporary neo-slave narrative genre. The agency of contemporary neo-slave writers serves as a foil to the problematized authority granted to our literary foremothers, and in many ways, redeems the emancipatory potential of the written word. While the neo-slave narrative does reflect our conceptual and experiential distance from slavery, allowing us to better understand the restrictions and forced decisions that determined the course of the slave’s life, the genre does have its own challenges. Chief amongst them is that neo-slave narratives must address the legacy of slavery in view of the “liberal humanist subject,” whose primary concerns are located in the maintenance and well-being of the self. Balancing this 20th- and 21stcentury impulse towards the expression of individualism against the comparatively collectivist concerns of the original 19th-century slave narrative—cultivated more directly and explicitly by the horrors of slavery—novels like Kindred trace the evolution of Black American identity by collapsing the temporal distance, direction, and linearity between the past, present, and most importantly, the future. As Dana becomes more materially invested in the past, the linearity of time common to the realist antebellum slave narrative breaks down, thrusting her into a phenomenological/theoretical dissonance between her experience as a slave and her experiences as a free, modern subject. I argue that where the antebellum slave narrative used literacy and the rift between print and oral traditions to culturally construct the individual Black subject, the neo-slave narrative shows its of these virtues in American society long before Welter’s landmark article. Still, despite the clear obstacles to these standards (particularly purity) for non-white women, female slaves were stilled pressured (by family, mistresses, etc.) to adhere to these often-unreachable goals. Jacobs appeals to these virtues (albeit, in different terms) in Incidents, both to underline the true depravity forced upon enslaved women, and accordingly, to appeal to white women’s sensibilities towards the abolitionist cause.
consequences—a fragmented 21st-century subject still grappling with the trauma of slavery in a world not too recently hailed as “post-racial”: a world that bleeds but cannot acknowledge the source of the wound. As Madhu Dubey argues, “Neo-slave narratives are impelled by the conviction that the racial legacy of slavery has not yet become a matter of history” (2013, p. 346). In this paper, I argue that neo-slave narratives, as part of the continuum of slave narratives, attempt to resolve or deconstruct the dualistic myths and binarisms of Western epistemology and through interaction with speculative tropes, offer a vehicle for the creation of new meaning and healing for the postmodern African American subject. The manipulation of language serves different ends in the neo-slave narrative than it does in its precursor, but by exploring the breakdown of mind/body dualism, challenging the hierarchy of oral and print cultures, and interrogating the slaves’ acts of refusal across both works, we make visible the ways that neo-slave narratives build upon antebellum slave narratives and ultimately position us to find generative uses for our traumatic past. GENDERED SLAVE NARRATOLOGY, LITERARY SENTIMENTALISM, AFFECTIVE DIVIDE
In the most popular male slave narrative of the antebellum period, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), the author establishes many of the conventions, both literary and literacy-related, that would come to signify the slave narrative as a discernable genre. In her essay, “‘Reader, My Story Ends with Freedom’: Literacy, Authorship, and Gender in Harriet Jacobs's ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,’” Jill LeRoy-Frazier contends that …the slave narrative necessarily refers to literacy in three ways: through the representation of "scenes of instruction" in which the narrator learns to read and write; through political admonishments against the anti-literacy laws for slaves; and through "ironic apologia" that interwove the author's conventional protestation of his or her inadequacy with denunciations of the system that limited the author's development in the first place (xviii). (LeRoy-Frazier, 2004, p. 152). In Douglass’s well-known narrative, we can see each of these features plainly through episodes such as his childhood journey towards literacy, his commentary on the injustice of keeping slaves intentionally illiterate, and his intermittent, wellarticulated but humble interjections apologizing for the author’s rhetorical shortcomings, even as he sharply condemns the “peculiar institution” of slavery. But while Harriett Jacobs most certainly adheres to the general conventions
established by former slave writers, her focus on literacy is differently situated in her own Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Le-Roy-Frazier argues that for Jacobs (or more aptly here, Linda Brent), “literacy is neither the key to her sense of identity, nor is it her lone means to freedom. Brent does not experience ‘the moment’ at which, having proven her ability to read and write like a white person, she suddenly perceives herself as a fully human being. Rather, her sense of self is quite strong long before she becomes literate…” (2004, p. 154). By unmooring her narrative from the conventional trope of literacy as liberation, Jacobs both challenges the notion that literacy itself indicates a person’s attainment of full humanity, and implicates the particularities of gender as a crucial difference in the source of liberation for the enslaved woman. While this genre-bending deviation from the standard script of literacy as liberation is primarily proposed and supported by critics of her work—rather than explicitly stated by the author herself—Jacobs’s decision to omit the typical “scenes of instruction,” skipping ahead to a casual reference about how “one day [Flint] caught [her] teaching [her]self to write” (Jacobs, p. 30), generically challenges literacy as the necessary burden of proof for her humanity. The unusually diminished relationship that she articulates (or doesn’t articulate) between attaining literacy and freedom imposes a gendered challenge to the widely held belief that literacy was or should have been a requirement for freedom. Jacobs is, of course, literate. But through omitting the “scene of [literary] instruction,” and treating her literacy as otherwise unremarkable for any person, enslaved or free, she disrupts the equation suggesting that Black people should be required to earn their humanity at all. As noted by scholars such as Franny Nudelman (1992) and Carolyn Sorisio (1996), in addition to its positioning within the slave narrative genre, Jacobs’s appeal in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is framed through another literary tradition as well. The conventions of the sentimental novel—which include scenes of distress and tenderness, a focus on the oppressed underclasses, and commentary on social and moral conduct—aim to elicit sympathy through sentimental experiential transference. Nudelman (1992) describes that process as follows: “Because the body's responses to pain externalize emotions, in pain the victim's internal life becomes entirely visible, available to the observer. And in response to that vision, the reader suffers… Sentimental identification does not require the replication of pain but its represented approximation” (p. 949). Just as the rhetoric of sexual degradation supports Jacobs’s narrative endeavor in abolitionist discourses, so too does the graphic nature of her experience appropriate sentimentality in an effective appeal to pathos. It is meant to create identification and sympathy in the reader, even to the point of suffering, to present the victim as one worthy of pity, and the cause as dire and immediate. Therefore, when Jacobs argues in the preface that “only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations [accompanying slavery]” (p. 2), she is
relying upon the unfathomable depths of the depravity in her narrative to forge a form of human connection capable of transcending race. Significantly, What is innovative about Jacobs's narrative is not that she publicizes her sexual abuse, but that she, a Black woman and ex-slave, uses techniques typically employed by white abolitionists to tell her own story… Her firstperson narration… radically alters the structure of a discourse that typically constructs the suffering slave as a mute object whose experience must be translated by an empathic white observer. Employing the conventions of abolitionist sentimentality, Jacobs reveals the logic and the limits of that discourse, and the need for alternative forms of address. (Nudelman, 1992, pp. 941-42) While Jacobs clearly cannot directly translate the entirety of her experience in slavery into the narrative given language’s limited capacity to represent trauma— particularly in an era of rampant censorship and conservative values—her belief in the power of sympathy to incite action speaks to the efficacy (even if limited in some respects) of the sentimental genre and intimates her intentional articulation of her narrative through a sentimental lens. Despite its closer affiliation with speculative fiction, Kindred also makes use of sentimentalism, creating a unique relationship between the materiality of real suffering and the mediated textual experience of “feeling” slavery by proxy. Here, “Sentimentalism ‘is premised on an emotional and philosophical ethos that celebrates human connection, both personal and communal, and acknowledges the shared devastation of affectional loss’ (Dobson 266)” (Vint, 2007, p. 244). But where Jacobs’s Incidents use such “shared devastation” to appeal to the white women of the North, Butler’s neo-slave narrative transforms the same conventions into a means by which the contemporary African American subject can identify with her ancestry of slavery for the purpose of demonstrating how alienated we’ve become from the past, despite the fact that “the future is not sufficiently different from the past; that, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, systemic racism persists in ways akin to the continuation of slavery” (Vint, 2007, p. 243). 2 Kindred The continuing systematic racism available to the reader of Kindred is narratively curtailed by Dana’s limited amount of time in the present. In the real world, however, there are numerous developments like the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline that clearly demonstrate the ongoing legacy of slavery, swapping one form of enslavement for another. While many individuals escape these more overt demonstrations of ongoing systemic racism, more subtle forms, including hair discrimination, oversexualization of Black youth, and high Black maternal and fetal death rates bear witness to slavery’s lingering effects. For more on the ongoing effects of systematic racism in the present, see The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by Michelle Alexander. 2
helps contemporary readers, who are physically alienated from the affective experience of slavery, to reconcile the disorienting circumlocution of 20th-century constructions of freedom superimposed upon the bodily experiences of antebellum slavery. This speculative use of sentimentalism transforms the historical appeal to “genteel” white women readers into a means of self-seeking and regenerative healing between the body and mind. 3 As Vint contends, “Dana…must learn that denying their embodied selves only allows the wounding of slavery to continue” (2007, p. 242). As members of the diaspora, we too must move towards a more fully-integrated sense of our identities if we are ever to overcome slavery’s lingering psychological effects. The necessity of this mind/body integration is highlighted by Dana’s ontological and epistemological dissonance when Kevin first accompanies her on her ordinarily solitary trip to the past. She articulates the surreal dissonance between the past and present caused by time travel, and her inability to merge her “historical knowledge” from the 20th-century with her phenomenological experiences in the antebellum South. As the narrative moves forward, sentimental techniques function within this work to erode the affective distance between mind and body; but in the novel’s earlier points, Dana reflects, …I began to realize why Kevin and I had fitted so easily into this time. We weren’t really in. We were observers watching a show. We were watching history happen around us. And we were actors. While we waited to go home, we humored the people around us by pretending to be like them. But we were poor actors. We never really got into our roles. We never forgot that we were acting” (Butler, p. 98). This comfortable distance from the physical materiality of slavery is not maintained for Dana, of course, as subsequent trips between past and present get longer, and she begins to suffer the true physical indignities of enslavement. But Dana’s ideological belief that she can contemplate slavery intellectually without necessarily acknowledging its physicality is quickly revealed to be a postmodern fantasy. Sherryl Vint contends that “The very form of sentimental fiction rejects a mind/body split. As Fishburn argues, identity founded on connection rather than isolation incorporates the body as part of self and sees the self-in-relation rather than the abstract mind as the model for subjectivity” (2007, p. 245). The ability to see the “self-in-relation,” a skill that Dana never fully masters in her trips across 3 The Western duality between body and mind is a result of Enlightenment-era Cartesian dualism, which privileges the primacy of the disembodied mind and subordinates the unruly physical body. Given that the enslaved were treated as little more than animals—as creatures of instinct more than of rational thought—as Sherryl Vint (2007) has suggested, healing the Western rift between body and mind may serve as an avenue for healing transgenerational trauma.
time and space, attempts to erode the image of subject as individual, abstracted consciousness. In fact, “These novels show that the desire to inhabit liberalhumanist subjectivity is another kind of violence enacted by slavery, and they demonstrate that healing the fractures in American culture arising from slavery might best be accomplished through a personal healing of the rift between mind and body” (Vint, 2007, p. 242). In other words, liberal-humanist subjectivity— despite its contemporary value—emerges as another obstacle to positive Black identity formation, which, by its very nature, must intrinsically be tied to the notion of an inseparable bodymind. 4 While Dana herself maintains her relatively selfish internalization of heteropatriarchal norms until her last round trip to the past (she does abet her ancestor’s rape in the past to ensure her own existence in the future, after all), readers are meant to see and interrogate the ways in which our 20thcentury focus on individualism as an American value has prevented us from bridging the gaps between mind and body, time and space, and experience and representation. CO-OPTING THE WRITTEN WORD In both Jacobs’s and Butler’s works, the tension between printed and oral discourses denotes a hierarchy of supremacies and inferiorities that places writing above speech. In doing so, this tension also betrays a highly racialized and gendered understanding of speech as a means of Black community-creation and the implementation of print as a manipulative intervention into white discursive formations. Oral, or spoken culture, is the African and now African American legacy—a tradition of storytelling, call-and-response artistry, and community values that seek to reclaim and reinscribe the past. But while interestingly, 20thcentury poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida and Lacan would come to argue that the immediacy of speech is privileged over the deferred nature of writing in Western thought, the larger trend in American culture has historically privileged the authority of print over the instability of spoken language. Thus, the ability to read and write, as previously discussed, functioned not only as testimony to the humanity of African Americans, but also allowed participation in a sphere of notably white hegemonic discourses that sought to represent the experience of Black Americans for their own purposes. Literacy additionally helped the recently freed determine the fate of those still held in bondage, allowing those who could In her 2018 monograph, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction, Sami Schalk, drawing upon the earlier work of Margaret Price (2015), refutes Cartesian Dualism as an ontological paradigm, proposing the “bodymind”—which “insists on the inextricability of mind and body”—instead.
read and write to maintain a greater sense of community over larger distances. As Barrett (1995) convincingly argues, “Literacy determines for whom the physical, the geographic, and the bodily will remain an overwhelming concern and source of identity and for whom it will remain an index of power and valuable apparent remove” (p. 421). The power behind such discourses is only accessible to those with mastery over the use and import of the English language. An examination of Jacobs’s (and Brent’s) relationship with language both narratively and metanarratively highlights the alternately oppressive and liberatory functions and uses of language, as well as their implications for her level of agency both during and after her enslavement. Similarly, an analysis of Butler’s woman characters, namely Dana, Carrie, Alice, and Sarah, highlights the continuity between past and present taboos and restrictions on language and speech. As Samantha M. Sommers has astutely observed in her essay "Harriet Jacobs and the Recirculation of Print Culture,” it seems that Jacobs, like her male contemporary Douglass, demonstrates a marked, although not uncomplicated, preference for print. While “under slavery she is a subject of print; in freedom she becomes an author and arranger working in the medium” (2015, p. 137), and we see evidence of this liberatory experience narratively in her various machinations with false letters sent to confuse her master. It also arises meta-narratively, through her authorial inclusion (and alteration) of her own fugitive slave ad posted by the real Dr. Flint (Dr. Norcom), juxtaposed with her intentional exclusion of the fugitive slave law in full text. While Jacobs exerts some control over the tenor of her story (even if it requires her own “self-abnegation”) by employing sentimental tropes and abolitionist discourses in her slave narrative, her recirculation of printed texts with significant ties to her own enslavement achieves an altogether different effect. Her experiences with print, the implications of which are fully articulated by the author herself, repeatedly affirm the power that print holds over subject formation. For instance, when Jacobs is hiding, she writes several letters “from the North” attempting to deceive her master into thinking she has already escaped to the Boston. She confesses that she “knew his cunning nature too well not to believe that [his efforts were] a trap laid for [her]; and so all [her] friends understood it. [She] resolved to match [her] cunning against his cunning” (p. 193). Before this point in the book, letters function primarily to announce the sale of human property, to gain insight on the fate of others, or otherwise, to advance the unsavory designs of the master against the slave. Once Jacobs is free (however provisionally), she begins to use the medium as a tool of deception, successfully using the master’s tools to disassemble the master’s house. Further, her “cunning” involves the inclusion of third-party printed materials, such as newspapers, which serve as additional verification of her location—a clever ruse indeed. Sommers contends that here, “While the letters themselves are part of the manuscript culture of the narrative, Jacobs relies on printed newspapers to guarantee the realism of these
fraudulent correspondences and thus demonstrates a critical relationship to print materials even under slavery” (2015, p. 143). This deception empowers Jacobs because her knowledge of print culture allows her to further secure her anonymity through a medium meant to convey stability, a strategy of resistance that is both practical and symbolic. Even more interestingly, at the metanarrative level, Jacobs’s decision to strategically include and exclude various reprinted materials that evidence the conditions of her time in slavery further empower her as an author. In line with her abhorrence for the Fugitive Slave Law, her text contains no reproduction of the document, only the import of its content. On the next page, however, she does choose to include, and even more radically, alter, the fugitive slave ad announcing that she had run away. Sommers’ work reveals that in the reprinting of said advertisement, “Jacobs raises the reward for her capture from one hundred to three hundred dollars, includes ‘intelligent’ among the descriptors used to identify her, and states that she is able to ‘read and write’ rather than ‘[speak] easily and fluently’ (Jacobs 149; Blackwood 108)” (2015, p. 141). Her decision to elaborate, and then alter the master’s description of her most physical characteristics is an act of textual self-reclamation that demonstrates her own valuation of her worth, even as a slave. Despite these reclamatory uses of print culture, however, Jacobs is still critically aware of the damage that language can inflict, and I argue that these multiple linguistic dimensions further contribute to the double consciousness inculcated in Black Americans. On one hand, print is most directly used against Jacobs in the case of Dr. Flint’s licentious notes and innuendos, which were intended to corrupt her sense of morality as a child and make her more receptive to his inappropriate sexual advances. This gendered and sexualized subjugation through literacy constitutes her ability to read and write as a vulnerability—a possible source of corruption—weaponizing what for male slaves is almost universally proven to be a strength. Further, institutional biases that required letters of endorsement from white patrons to verify the veracity of ex-slave stories—both male and female—reinscribed the white publishing establishment’s stranglehold over Black narrative, arising as obstacles to embracing print as a universally liberatory medium. On the other hand, however, from her early verbal abuse by Dr. and Mrs. Flint to her later failed attempt at disclosing her story of suffering to her child (Jacobs, p. 283), the modality of the oral tradition is persistently suspect, perhaps explaining her ostensible rejection of oral culture as she “read[s] and write[s]” her way into being instead of merely speaking “easily and fluently.” Still, “As [Jacobs] elaborates her relationship to print, we see she is able to remain in control and utilize the medium’s potential to signify in multiple ways” (Sommers, 2015, p. 140). Despite its oppressive potentialities, print nonetheless represents control. When she relies upon the medium of spoken language, she persistently runs into misfortune, disappointment, broken promises, and dishonesty. While scholars
such as Martha J. Cutter contend that “She opposes Flint's ‘masterly’ and individualistic discourse with a discourse which is communal and even ‘sister-ly’” (1996, p. 222), I contend that her persistent preference for print represents a desire, not for textual stability, but for narrative control. Instead Cutter, along with many others, points to the oppressive potential of language, but ultimately concludes that Jacobs successfully reappropriates language in service to her machinations. Where Jacobs actively manipulates her relationship with print to gain a modicum of control over the dissemination of knowledge in Incidents, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Kindred instantiates the materiality of slavery and its discourses through the manipulation of time itself, when Dana, a progressive Black woman from California, is pulled roughly one-hundred-and-twenty-five years into the past from her contemporary moment (1976) to the spatiotemporal realm that her mid-19th-century ancestors occupied. In the same way that antebellum slave narratives were written for the explicit purpose of articulating the suffering inflicted by slavery (but not too graphically, of course), using the affective power of conventional sentimental novels to gain credibility with their intended audience, neo-slave narratives are written as an act of reclamation, rememory, and transformation, as the experience of slavery is processed and digested through the estranging speculative tropes that the form most frequently employs. Time travel reveals the materiality of Black bodies through oral and printed language conventions that mark Dana as separate from (and often in direct opposition with) other slaves. Nonetheless, while time functions as the primary mechanism driving Kindred along, questions of orality, its power, and its primacy within the Black community are frequently posed throughout the book, particularly in Dana’s interactions with Sarah, the “mammy” type cook, Carrie, Sarah’s mute daughter, and Alice, Dana’s ancestral double. From the outset of Dana’s tenure in the antebellum past, her educated speech becomes immediately problematic in the context of master-slave relations. As Nigel and Luke remind her, the knowledge represented and displayed through demonstrations of literacy mark Dana as an aberration of both gender and race. “You’ll get into trouble,” [Nigel] said. “Marse Tom already don’t like you. You talk too educated and you come from a free state” (Butler, p. 74). Unable to comprehend the relevance of her literacy to a master who isn’t her own, she asks, “Why should either of those things matter to him? I don’t belong to him.” In response, “[Luke] smiled. ‘He don’t want no niggers ‘round here talking better than him, putting freedom ideas in our heads’” (p. 74). Dana’s very existence in the past threatens the established social order and the maintenance of disciplinary regimes on the plantation. Further, her articulation of “white” discourses and speech patterns complicates the print/oral binary by effectively conflating the medium used by slaves (orality) with the prestige and authority of white, printed discourse. In this regard, “literacy allows [Dana] to articulate her problem, but it
offers no solutions or practical knowledge, and so heightens her discomfort under slavery” (Flagel, 2012, p. 230). Only by transcending her linguistic and attitudinal markers of class and time through receiving extreme physical punishment does her presence become less alien, signifying her full initiation into the phenomenological—and linguistic—realm of slavery. Even more problematic than her linguistic register and “white” dialect, however, is Dana’s role as the go-between for Rufus and her fellow slaves. When Dana is sent to Alice, her many-greats-grandmother, to let her know that Rufus demands her sexual acquiescence, Alice bitterly interjects, “Do your job! Go tell him! That’s what you for—to help white folks keep niggers down. That’s why he sent you to me. They be calling you mammy in a few years” (Butler, p. 167). By serving as an arbiter of oral discourses between the master and the slaves, Dana violates the linguistic kinship she shares with her fellow enslaved subjects. By performing as an instrument of cross-racial communication, she reveals her loyalty to the white patriarchal norms that continue to structure society late in the 20th century. It is fair to note, “As Missy Kubitschek claims, [that] ‘Kindred does not romanticize the solidarity of the slave community (31)’” (qtd in Steinberg, 2004, p. 470). Instead, “Dana’s quest is impelled by the nakedly self-interested motive of securing her own lineage…” (Dubey, 2013, p. 347), and it is perhaps within this arena that Dana’s role as intermediary between Black and white actors becomes most problematic. Dana’s individualist concern for her own future strips bare any sense of larger linguistic solidarity amongst enslaved Blacks and excludes her from uses of orality that function to create a Black counter-narrative of subtle resistance to the power of print and the authority accorded to traditional literacy by EuroAmerican subjects. This is unsurprising particularly because, as Judie Newman points out, Dana is modeled on [Douglass]. She wears pants, is taken to be male, and gains her freedom in a violent fight” (Newman, 2013, p. 32), highlighting her traditionally masculine ethos of self-sufficiency and individual determinacy, congruent with a preference for the white, male-centered domain of print over oral culture. Lastly, Dana’s linguistic docility, which increases as the novel goes on, portrays the extent to which disciplinary regimes such as slavery use language to create and interpolate the slave as object. It is Dana’s experience of the brutality that accompanied the physical and psychological realities of slavery that elicits her compliance with dominant discursive formations. Instantiated by both linguistic and physical violence, “Corporal punishment, threatened and actual, is a disciplinary technology that produces subservience. Although the plantation does not have the elegantly symbolic architecture of the panopticon, it is nonetheless a space of surveillance and normalizing power. As Foucault observes, disciplinary power does not simply control or constrain but actually produces the subject” (Vint, 2007, p. 250). Through the creation of norms and the implementation of
surveillance technologies, then, slavery disciplined the Black body, both by continually reinscribing the unresolved traumas it caused through the normalization of slave abuse in plantation life, and by actively disrupting the effectiveness of oral communication within Black communities with the discourse of the dominant group. Eventually, “Dana realizes that slavery and its apparatus of cruelty have the deadly power to keep language literal. In Kindred, literal language is reinvested with significance and violence” (Flagel, 2012, pp. 234-35). Accordingly, as Dana becomes increasingly complicit in the linguistic control of other slaves, she also notices herself taking more abuse from other slaves like Alice, who she would otherwise challenge, suggesting her awareness of the consequences of rhetorical complicity, even as she tries to reconcile her 20th century identity with the life of a slave. Beyond Dana, several other characters in Kindred also signify presence or absence through adherence to or diversion from the linguistic construction of slavery. Sarah, the Weylins’ cook, is characterized as an instantiation of the mammy stereotype, or “The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter” (Butler, p. 145). Her alignment with the archetype is confirmed through her aversion to literature produced by free Blacks, which she frames as an almost unspeakable act of impropriety. While “she couldn’t read, books could be awesome mysteries to her… they could [also] be dangerous, time-wasting nonsense” (p. 145). This stereotypical rejection of Black cultural productions in favor of white narration perhaps, more than anything else, suggests Sarah’s alignment with a more anachronistically compliant state of being. The implication here seems to be that Black people “can get along,” or move through life better when not agitating for freedom. In many ways, Sarah’s construction mirrors that of Brent’s grandmother in Incidents. While her resilience is awe-inspiring, her suffering has created a docility that seeks to avoid upsetting the status quo because she is too afraid of the consequences to seek change. Through critiques of characters such as Sarah, “Butler challenges an audience who may have become contemptuous of ‘insufficiently radical’ Black ancestors. Through visceral violence and Dana's response to it (she learns that embodied experience can erase her sense of rebellious subjectivity) Butler shows that disciplinary power produces slave mentality” (p. 249). It is for these same reasons that Dana ultimately burns both her future history book and her map at Rufus’s behest. He uses his authority as a white man, and therefore the authority of the written text, to manipulate her by promising to help her find her husband only if she abandons the material evidence of her future. While Dana condemns Sarah’s perceived complacency, she too gets “used to being submissive” (Butler, p. 220), particularly in a linguistic context, because in Dana’s case, “literacy contributes to exploitation” (Flagel 229). Until she must adopt her
own “ethics of compromise” (Crossley xxi, qtd. in Dubey, 2013, p. 348), Dana is incapable of seeing beyond the legacy of Civil Rights, which fundamentally informs her sense of liberal humanism, to consider antipatriarchal modes of resistance found through oral, or otherwise non-linguistic intervention. As proof of the power of affective and experiential solidarity, even in the absence of reciprocal linguistic exchange, Butler constructs Sarah’s daughter Carrie as a mute whose worth has been favorably undervalued. When Sarah talks about the loss of her children, she asserts that “Marse Tom took my children, all but Carrie. And, bless God, Carrie ain’t worth as much as the others ‘cause she can’t talk. People think she ain’t got no sense” (p. 76). Carrie’s inability to engage in verbal signification further marks her as an object, while paradoxically, her lack of voice is exactly what contributes to her operation as a moderately autonomous subject in less fear of being sold. In other words, through Carrie, Butler challenges not only the presumed superiority of print over speech, but also the assumption that language is the only means by which experience, particularly experiences of trauma, can find expression. For instance, in one of her linguistically one-sided exchanges with Carrie, Dana expresses her anxiety about her affection for Rufus and concludes that her sympathy with him ranks chief amongst the list of reasons why the other slaves believe she is more “white than Black” (Butler, p. 223). Carrie’s gestural response, which ultimately requires linguistic mediation by a nonmodern subject, Nigel, answers her anxiety with a surprisingly individualistic view of public perception, rejecting the normativity ascribed by the panoptical structure of the plantation, and instead arguing that “‘She means it doesn’t come off, Dana,’ he said quietly. ‘The black. She means the devil with people who say you’re anything but what you are’” (Butler, p. 224). This unusually inspirational insight reflects Carrie’s deep understanding of slave culture, and more importantly, suggests that her clarity is a result of her abstraction from speech. As Lindon Barrett persuasively establishes, “Written language is an abstract medium recalcitrant to mimicking or reproducing bodily experience; what literacy affords those who acquire it is precisely the ability to some extent to do away with the body (in deference to the mind and abstraction)” (Barrett, 1995, p. 423). Following this set of conclusions to its logical extreme, we might even contend that Carrie’s phenomenological experience of slavery as a mute is invested with an extralinguistic value unique to her role as a subject who already exists outside of discourse (dominant or otherwise). Barrett continues, contending that “The bodies [ex-slave writers] would reproduce in language are paradoxically the very marks of a remove from language and the life of the mind. Their bodies are concomitantly the focus of their new literacy and agency yet emblems of an apparent disqualification from literacy and self- or social agency” (Barrett, 1995, pp. 42526). It would seem that the very act of attempting to represent the experience of slavery not only makes the physical realities of slavery “less potent” (Flagel, 2012,
p. 235), but also erases the historical specificity of the Black body in favor of a life of the mind. Carrie, denied this possibility of linguistic-material transcendence, must represent her experience and her knowledge by other means. While her gestures are usually an effective means of communication, the mediatory services that Sarah and Nigel provide as her translators also point to the formation of positive interdependence in disability amongst slaves, and suggests the possibility of a linguistically unmoored translation from affect to effect. Last amongst Kindred’s female figures of orality, I turn to Dana’s greatgreat-great grandmother, Alice, to observe her physio-linguistic inability to refuse the sexual advances of and ultimately rape by, Rufus Weylin. Coached by her descendent, Alice ultimately capitulates to Rufus’s sexual desires. But her inability to overcome the sexual violence done against her body ultimately leads to silence and death. After the evening of the first rape, “[Alice] went to him. She adjusted, became a quieter more subdued person. She didn’t kill him, but seemed to die a little” (Butler, p.168). The impulse to kill or be killed is stalled by the forced impotency of slavery. Having already tried and failed to escape from the Weylins, Alice’s sexual acquiescence marks the decline of her identification and exceeds her capacity to endure. Her juxtaposition with Dana, the liberated, time-travelling, 20thcentury woman, highlights the extent to which different material conditions in the 19th-century constructed seemingly stable subjects, who may, through repeatedly enduring trauma, be stripped of their fixity and reduced to incoherent, affective objects. Ultimately, the rapes and beatings that Alice endures erode her physical sense of self, a perception which cannot be sufficiently supplanted by the severely limited linguistic constructions of identity available to slaves, causing a destabilization of her whole person and a traumatic rift with which Dana will have to cope as her ancestor. As Sherryl Vint points out, “Although [Dana] could avoid being raped, the novel is premised on the fact that her very existence depends upon how her several times great-grandmother, Alice, could not” (2007, p. 253). In this way, the neo-slave narrative doubles back to its 19th-century predecessor, exchanging the 20th-century woman’s liberation for her ancestor’s enslavement. “TIME IS A PENDULUM”: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF ESCAPE The non-linear exchange between past and present suffering in Kindred ultimately points to the last subject in this article, the politics of refusal inevitably addressed through the female slave narrative. As previously noted, Dana’s ability to refuse rape comes at the expense of her grandmother’s rape—which is necessary for Dana’s own future birth—and suicide. Alice, meanwhile, can only react to her circumstances, which continue to deteriorate with Rufus’s continual “affection.” Linda Brent, Harriett Jacobs’s fictional self, seems to strike a balance between the two women (Alice and Dana), employing the discourses and strategies of print
technology to manipulate her subordination to patriarchal or racist oppressions. While Linda Brent, like Alice and Dana, must become profoundly crippled by the totalizing nature of slavery in order to attain freedom, her insistence upon avoiding rape mediates the division between Alice and Dana as “One woman. Two halves of a whole” (Butler, p. 257). A comparison of the evasive strategies employed by Brent, Dana, and Alice reveals that the discursive volition to refuse, however marginally determined, signifies the agency of Black female bodies and makes the difference between cohesion or erosion of the self, oftentimes boiling down to a matter of life and death. Dana’s ability to move through time, although out of her control, functions as her primary strategy of evasion. While she must endure various beatings and indignities, unavoidable in antebellum slavery, her refusal to accept rape sets her apart from her fellow slaves. Where characters like Alice are positioned in such a way that their refusals are negated by forcible external actions, Dana would prefer death over sexual submission, an option she must deny to her ancestor if she is to secure her future lineage. Still, her awareness of the value of her life and the means by which she can effectively use her life as a bargaining chip primarily secures her ability to refuse many things. Echoing the symbolism of Alice’s ultimate suicide, Dana contends that “If I have to have to seem to be property, if I have to accept limits on my freedom for Rufus’s sake, then he also has to accept limits—on his behavior towards me. He has to leave me enough control of my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying” (Butler, p. 246). Dana’s deck is stacked with power denied to her ancestors both because of her temporogeographical location (or dislocation) as a time traveler and also, because her postCivil Rights consciousness creates severe dissonance between the reality of her circumstances and her intellectual reflections upon them. Although Dana emotionally, morally, and psychologically comes to terms with the necessity of her foremother’s rape, she sees that fate as fundamentally incompatible with her highly individuated self, and accordingly contends that her will alone—her volition to refuse—will protect her from its clutches, even if her only escape is death. Alice, by contrast, can only express her volition to refuse through reactive suicide. After enduring years of rape and bearing Rufus four children, 5 he later sells their surviving son and daughter on one of Dana’s trips back to the future and she returns to find that Alice has hung herself. Despite her meek, initial protestations in Rufus’s defense, she ultimately blames him for inflicting the type of suffering that is worse than death. While Dana realizes that “…unless he wanted to keep me chained, he couldn’t prevent me from taking one route or another out of his world if that was what I wanted to do. He couldn’t control me. That clearly bothered him” (Butler, p. 253), Alice’s suicide did not serve an instrumental or volitional purpose. 5
The first two of which died in infancy due to inadequate medical care (Butler, p. 210).
Although it was a voluntary escape from suffering, Alice was limited in her exercise of volition by the circumstances of her race, her birth, and her particular position as Rufus’s property. Unlike Dana, she cannot threaten death to get what she wants, both because she does not have another place to escape to (meaning that her interaction with suicide, rather than functioning as a threat, will be her final action of any sort) and because the values of Christianity and community within slave culture frowned upon sins such as suicide, and more broadly, upon any actions that seemed to privilege the self at the expense of one’s children and one’s communal bond. Dana’s liberal humanist individualism makes suicide a more palatable escape than was Alice’s because she, having rejected the Baptist teachings of her upbringing, seems to value the voluntary cessation of suffering over the “pie in the sky” ideology that promised the enslaved paradise in Heaven after death. Restricted by the implications of her actions on her children and her fellow slaves, Alice was more culturally bound to her time and the community that formed within it than was Dana. Dana was fundamentally shaped by her 20th century belief in voluntary action, growing up under the—albeit hypocritical—ethos that one should fight for liberty or otherwise fight for death. For instance, when Alice asks Dana if Rufus ever beds her, Dana contends that “he doesn’t want [her] and [she doesn’t] want him” (Butler, p. 228). Perplexed, Alice inquires, “what you think your wants got to do with it?” highlighting the fundamental differences between the individual produced under slavery and the post-Civil Rights individual whose existence is intertwined with the politics of revolution and equality. With the addition of time travel, Butler is able to explore a politic of refusal that offers dignity in death. The inability to refuse, which characterized the experiences of enslaved men and women, in particular, creates a self that resists individuation. Without said liberal humanist values, suicide seemed a more practical option for Alice than for Dana because, absent the integral belief in one’s fundamental equality and worth as an individual human being, which is common to most contemporary Western subjects, suicide, like the devaluation of oral culture under the purview and disciplinary power of print, functions as the last, and therefore most powerful, resort. Between the two extreme methods of escape epitomized through time travel and death in Kindred, we can position Linda Brent, Jacobs’s fictional self, somewhere along the spectrum, eliminating the binary opposition between liberty and death. Jacobs, who pursues several intentional subterfuges to avert her master’s sexual advances, and who is bound by both space and time, manages to carve out a liminal space between life and death from whence she can exercise her uniquely established form of discursive power. While she cannot move freely (or even involuntarily) through space-time, Jacobs distorts the linearity of the traditional slave narrative through her protracted stay in her “loophole of retreat.” As she lies in the crawl space above her grandmother’s shed, Jacobs contemplates the necessity of her escape in light of Dr. Flint’s pursuit, realizing that “[she] had always been
kindly treated, and tenderly cared for, until [she] came into the hands of Dr. Flint. [She] had never wished for freedom till then” (Jacobs, p. 174). Unlike Dana, whose being is centered upon the principle of freedom, Jacobs was born into slavery; without Dr. and Mrs. Flint’s cruelty, she might have otherwise been content to remain enslaved. Still, Jacobs’s volitional refusal of rape comes at a great physical cost, and like Dana, who loses her arm to the persistent trauma of temporal rememory, Jacobs becomes disabled from her long tenure in her loophole. “I hardly expect that the reader will credit me,” asserts Jacobs, “when I affirm that I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years. But it is a fact; and to me a sad one, even now; for my body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment, to say nothing of my soul” (Jacobs, p. 224). Jacobs’s “escape” represents freedom in the narrowest terms as her refusal to submit to one kind of indignity forces her to choose another. This ability to choose the lesser of two evils, however, created by her enduring love for her children and a strong belief that she deserved freedom, differentiates her fundamentally from Alice. While both Brent and Alice are pursued by a sexually violent slave master and terrorized by his constant surveillance, Brent’s escape, however close to “home,” represents an internal valuation of self which recognizes no cost for a human life. Her separation from her children, unlike Alice’s, is more endurable both because they are, at least remotely, visible to her, and because she believed that through her actions, she was securing their freedom as well. While we are denied Alice’s final moments due to Dana’s periodic absence from the past, her desperation goes unabated, casting her as Dana’s wholly enslaved ancestral double. With no print experience, Alice is still successfully alienated from the world of literacy and self-determination through language where Jacobs, through her upbringing and positioning, is able to make use of literacy to advance the cause of her own liberation. CONCLUSION The bifurcation of language into the oral and printed spheres carries with it many discursive and ideological problems, particularly within the generic boundaries of the slave narrative and its postmodern antecedent, the neo-slave narrative. The combination of slave narration and speculative fiction, however, reverses the impact of many discursive quandaries. Interrogating the act of representation itself, “…both novels critique the limitations of realist forms and ‘objective’ history to convey African-American history and thus can be considered examples of what Timothy Spaulding calls the postmodern slave narrative, a form that ‘force[s] us to question the ideologies embedded within 'realistic' representation of slavery in traditional history and historical fiction’ (2)” (Vint, 2007, p. 241). If the generic conventions of realism can be scrutinized, and its ability to represent
phenomenology is called into question, then it is only a small leap to the speculative lens and its accompanying time travel trope, which serve as an ideal outlet for the “formulation of free will versus determinism (dramatized as freedom versus slavery)” (Flagel, 2012, p. 225), common to SF. Speculative fiction’s “rejection of verisimilitude contributes to the conceptualization of history as accessible primarily by way of narrative representation, and, by using the fantastic to metafictionally highlight history as representation, these novels decenter putatively ‘official’ narratives of history, particularly those that marginalize Black subjects” (Tucker, 2016, p. 251). In perhaps the most positive instantiation of dualism amongst the multitudes of conceptual binaries explored here, the genres of slave narration and speculative fiction complement one another well, and in the case of narratives like Kindred, “seem to bear out the critical consensus that its fantastic elements assist the project of historical recovery, reinforcing rather than subverting the realist conventions of antebellum fugitive slave narratives” (Dubey, 2013, p. 351). In other words, while the speculative impulse, whether actualized through time travel or another methodology of estrangement, serves as a mode of critiquing the limitations of realist representation, it nonetheless functions to bolster our feelings of identification with the protagonists of both Jacobs’s and Butler’s works. When taken together, the slave narrative and the neo-slave narrative represent crucial generic conventions responsible, at least in part, for the ultimate culmination of Black individualism in the American ethos. Further, the combination of the aforementioned genres also provides a framework through which we can contextualize the strengths and limitations of the antebellum slave narrative against the exigency of speculative neo-slave narratives. Both generically and conceptually, Incidents and Kindred together underline the ongoing prevalence of rationalist, heteropatriarchal ideologies across all domains of postmodern cultural production, most specifically tackling the double-consciousness created by the division of print and oral cultures along gendered and racialized lines of demarcation. Cutter (1996) reminds us that “To speak in the ‘master's language is to remain trapped within a system of discourse which denies… subjectivity… (99)’… if language is an instrument of oppression, simply taking hold of it will not lead to liberation, nor will it lead to a dismantling of the master's house” (p. 209). If language itself is a tool used both for oppression and liberation, then the division of oral and print cultures only serves to further obscure our double-consciousness of language’s multiple practices. Just as Jacobs uses the conventions of sentimentalism to mediate the opposition between degradation and purity present in abolitionist discourses, she also uses language itself to mediate the deceptive and liberatory aspects of both oral and print cultures in the antebellum South. Similarly, Butler interrogates the social construction of racialized and gendered reality by appealing to the estranging elements of speculative fiction. Her neo-slave narrative answers the unsung call that antebellum slave narratives initiated, blending the
realities of two different times in history and initiating the dualistic mimesis between Dana and Alice to uncover deep-seated prejudices and internalizations of Western culture. Ultimately, taken together, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Kindred emphasize the continuity of slavery’s cultural presence from past to present, and together, form a sort of call and response that engages the historicity of African American oral culture juxtaposed alongside the Euro-American primacy of print. REFERENCES Barrett, Lindon. (1995). “African-American Slave Narratives: Literacy, the Body, Authority.” American Literary History (7)3: 415–442. www.jstor.org/stable/489846. Bell, Bernard W. (1987). The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Butler, Octavia E. (2004). Kindred. United States: Beacon Press. Cutter, Martha J. (1996). “Dismantling ‘The Master's House’: Critical Literacy in Harriet Jacobs' ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.’” Callaloo (19)1: 209–225. www.jstor.org/stable/3299351. Douglass, Frederick. (1999). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself. UNC Chapel Hill. https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html Du Bois, W.E.B. (2008). The Souls of Black Folk. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm. Dubey, Madhu. (2013, Oct.). “Octavia Butler’s Novels of Enslavement.” Novel (46)3: 345-363. North Carolina: Duke University Press. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1500843100/. Flagel, Nadine. (2012). ""It's Almost Like Being There": Speculative Fiction, Slave Narrative, and the Crisis of Representation in Octavia Butler's Kindred." Canadian Review of American Studies (42)2: 216-245. doi:10.1353/crv.2012.0010 Jacobs, Harriet A. (2003). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Second Edition. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html. LeRoy-Frazier, Jill. (2004). “‘Reader, My Story Ends with Freedom:" Literacy, Authorship, and Gender in Harriet Jacobs' ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.’” Obsidian III (5)1:152–161. www.jstor.org/stable/44511745. Newman, Judie. (2013). “Slave Narratives and Neo-Slave Narratives.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South, Cambridge UP, pp. 26–38.
Nudelman, Franny. (1992). “Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics of Female Suffering.” ELH (59)4: 939–964. www.jstor.org/stable/2873301. Rushdy, Ashraf H A. (1999). Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. Oxford University Press. Schalk, Sami. (2018). Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction. Duke University Press, 2018. Smith, Valerie. (2007). “Neo-slave narratives.” The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature, Cambridge University Press. pp.168-186. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521850193.011. Sommers, Samantha M. (2015). "Harriet Jacobs and the Recirculation of Print Culture." MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. (40)3: 134-149. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/593056. Sorisio, Carolyn. (1996). “‘There Is Might in Each’: Conceptions of Self in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” Legacy (13)1: 1–18. www.jstor.org/stable/25679182. Steinberg, Marc. (2004). “Inverting History in Octavia Butler’s Postmodern Slave Narrative.” African American Review (38)3: 467-476. Johns Hopkins University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1512447. Tucker, Jeffrey Allen. (2016). “Beyond the Borders of the Neo-Slave Narrative: Science Fiction and Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature, Cambridge University Press. pp. 250–64. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781107270046.016 Vint, Sherryl. (2007). “‘Only by Experience’: Embodiment and the Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave Narratives.” Science Fiction Studies (34)2: 241– 261. www.jstor.org/stable/4241524. Welter, Barbara. (1966, Summer, Part I). "The Cult of True Womanhood." American Quarterly (18)2: 151-74.
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
Annotated Bibliography Grace Jones. (1985). Slave to the Rhythm. Island Records. Among the canon of Black Divas, perhaps none are quite as feared, reviled, and worshipped as Grace Jones. The supermodel, actress, and musician notoriously slapped Russell Harty on his talk show, burnt Dolph Lundgren’s clothes, and regularly exposed herself to everyone from paparazzi to prime ministers. And through the apparent erraticism of her performance, a yearning futurism pervades her work. Slave to the Rhythm, Jones’ seventh album, took the already surreal and transgressive aesthetics mapped out in Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing and elaborated a hypnagogic futurism––a yearning for another here and now. Slave to the Rhythm was released in 1985, the year after Jones featured as Zula in the epic fantasy Conan the Destroyer. The album’s eight songs were written by and credited to Bruce Woolley, Simon Darlow, Stephen Lipson, and Trevor Horn. Much of the art direction and design was done by Jean-Paul Goude, Jones’ then-husband, who directed the music video for “Slave to the Rhythm” and devised the album cover. Slave to the Rhythm was released on Island Records, becoming Jones’ most popular album. Slave to the Rhythm is built as an concept album; each of the eight songs is a chaotic interpretation of the eponymous title track. The style of the individual songs range from R&B, funk, and go-go, to dub, ambient, and circuit-breaking electronics. All of the songs are interspersed with interviews with Jones herself, as well as recordings of others discussing or introducing the artist; for this reason, the album’s liner notes carry the subtitle, a biography. Jones visual aesthetics manipulate imagery of robotics, aliens, machinery, and other futurist tropes. The sonic quality, too, works to imagine a distinct future; the first track, “Jones the Rhythm,” sets the album’s tone with a destructive and imposing vocal cascade which quickly transforms into a rumbling explosion. After sound has been transformed, destroyed, and quieted, Jones inaugurates her own sonic space with an industrial disco beat. The album formulates a kind of post-apocalyptic and dystopian soundscape in which Jones rules supreme: in tracks such as “The Crossing (Ooh the Action…),” Jones explicitly discusses her desire to be worshipped. The listener is, simply, a “slave to the rhythm.” This positioning as a post-apocalyptic warlord evokes Tina Turner’s performance as Auntie Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. In each of these instances, Black women performers reimagine and reinvent the world in radical ways, creating a kind of epistemic rupture; that is to say, the gleeful rejection of the world (as imagined by white supremacy and capitalism) brings about its own kind of dystopia. Jones differs, in this regard, from other Afrofuturists. If Afrofuturism is, as Mark Dery initially argued, an appropriation of imagery from a “prosthetically-enhanced” future, then Jones’ work is perhaps not Afrofuturistic. Her album is visible through a kind of sonic and aesthetic dystopia. In the music video, a robotic, metal head of Grace Jones rises above a sand dune. She reflects the android, the alien, the warlord, in a world destroyed. The future envisioned is hers and hers alone. We, the listeners, would do well to let her rule.
Comparing Jones’ sonic/aesthetic wasteland in Slave to the Rhythm and its music video with, say, Wakanda, an immediate difference emerges between the stakes of each respective ‘future.’ In Black Panther, the people of Wakanda innovate, train, and fight to protect their world and their position in a shared world. Jones, on the other hand, rids herself of it. In this way, she also queers the ethical constraints of a reproductive future; the heterosexual, white, and patriarchal world are put to an end. The aesthetic constraints of logic, time, consistency, gender, and sense also go out the window. It is perhaps this refusal and abandonment of a political future––a gleeful destruction of the oppressive here and now––that explains why Jones is seldom placed at the forefront of Black aesthetic or political production. In spite of her white collaborators like Goude (who is notoriously fetishistic of Black women’s bodies, as explained in his tellingly named book, Jungle Fever), Jones represents a world that is distinctly queer and Black. There is no room for Goude in the world that she creates. Her world is fully unwilling to engage in the redemption of the American, white, capitalist, and cisheterosexual political project. By means of a dissonant chorus, a rumbling swell, and the screamed word ‘slave’, we can see it burn. “Ladies and gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones.” References: Dery, M. (1994). Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” In M. Dery (Ed.), Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (pp. 179-222). Durham: Duke University Press. Marshall, Y. (2020). An appeal – bring the maroon to the foreground in Black intellectual history. Black Perspectives. https://www.aaihs.org/an-appeal-bring-the-maroon-to-theforeground-in-black-intellectual-history/
Adonis. “No Way Back.” Trax Records, 1986. A Critical History of Adonis’ “No Way Back” One of the defining characteristics of “House” music is how many of its earliest and most respected practitioners were not musicians at all. House DJs curated music from an eclectic range of genres and geographies, but Disco provided the fundamental musical blueprint and aesthetic, and the rising popularity of disco in the mid-1970’s ensured a steady stream of innovative, professionally produced music to energize dancers at clubs and parties. By the onset of the 80’s, an increasing number of popular artists made use of emerging synthesizer technology (Moroder, Kraftwerk, Michael Jackson) on recordings that rapidly changed the sound and thematic focus of dance music. The mainstream commercial success of Disco also precipitated an acute backlash eerily reminiscent of contemporary American discourse. Although Disco’s appeal was widespread and based, at least in part, on its liberal use of diverse musical styles, mainstream American white audiences grew increasingly reluctant to accept the pluralistic vision on display in the records and being practiced in the clubs and dance floors. As writer Naima Cochrane notes, It [Disco] was supplanting rock n’ roll as the sound of America, and straight white men started developing that anxiety that straight white men get whenever something isn’t centered around straight white men (see: everything happening in US politics right this moment). (Cochrane)¹ The anxiety Cochrane identifies came to a head at events like Disco Demolition at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979 and defined the surging conservative political movement that Ronald Reagan rode to the American presidency in 1980. This backlash would ultimately spawn the expansion of Nixon’s Drug War and the continued physical flight of many Americans away from the urban core of American cities, but it also prompted a cadre of creative minds to begin envisioning the music that would fill this void.
Chicago house DJs populated much of their sets with disco mixed with an eclectic range of New Wave, Italian Disco, and early electronic music, but the need rapidly arose for new, culturally relevant sounds as Disco’s commercialization dulled its creative edge. Writing for The Guardian, Alexis Petridis notes, Retreating underground to its original audience, disco became arguably more adventurous and creative than ever. Ironically, the most revolutionary development took place in Chicago, the city where disco had supposedly been killed: inspired in equal part by the raw disco edits of DJ Frankie Knuckles and European electronic music by Fad Gadget and Kraftwerk, former Comiskey Park usher Vince Lawrence and Jesse Saunders cowrote the first house single, On and On, in 1984.² Unable to duplicate the large ensembles that came into fashion at Disco’s zenith, Chicago producers such as Marshall Jefferson, Vince Lawrence, and Jesse Saunders began experimenting with home recording equipment. Although decidedly amateur in their approach, their ability to creatively incorporate drum machines into their DJ sets and then into new compositions heightened their profiles as DJs and motivated their transition to production work. In 1986, Trax Records, a newly established, independent dance record imprint in Chicago released a 12’ entitled “No Way Back.” The track’s writer and producer, Adonis (born Michael Smith) had been inspired by an admixture of funk, punk, soul and early electronic music and was particularly intrigued by Saunders’ record. Gary came over his house, and they talked about the music industry in Chicago, and Adonis played some music there (he was a musician with tons of records in his house, from Blues to Jazz and R&B – but not a DJ or a producer yet), and Gary brought on a record with him which was Jesse Saunders’ “On And On” that changed his life. This early House record gave a very intense inspiration to several of these youngsters willing to take the lead on the dance music Universe. After that meeting, it gave Adonis more of a desire to create House style tracks that would be original and not copies of other records' basslines.³ Adonis, in contrast to many of his peers, was a classically trained musician but his response to Saunders’ work was a sparse arrangement of Roland TR-808 drums arrayed into a basic 4X4 beat juxtaposed with a simple, repeating 5 note baseline. 4 Although spartan in its composition, “No Way Back”’s arrangement proved infectious and would leave a huge imprint on the dance
floors of the then burgeoning Chicago House landscape and serve as a sonic template for the dozens of musical subcultures that would later grow out of the early developments in house music, most notably in Detroit, New York and London. (Millband, 17)5 “No Way Back” is an early example of the profound effect the lowered cost of production would have on the acoustic texture and thematic character of modern music. The marketing failure of Roland’s drum machine technology in the wake of its initial release in 1980 cratered their retail value and positioned these instruments and their distinctive sounds as mainstay tools of dance music production in the early/mid ‘80’s. The enduring legacy of Adonis’ work and that of other early house pioneers is the boldness to theorize these tools as a means of self determination. The vision and hard work done to achieve it means that the wake of “No Way Back” is still broadening before us.
Notes ¹Petridis, Alexis. “Disco Demolition: “the night they tried to crush black music.” The Guardian. 19 July 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/19/disco-demolition-the-night-theytried-to-crush-black-music ²Cochrane, Naima. “Music Sermon: Disco’s Revenge - How Disco Demolition Night Sparked Evolution in Black Music.” Vibe https://www.vibe.com/features/editorial/music-sermon-discosrevenge-657665
³From https://fromthecans.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/adonis-no-way-back-1986/ 4https://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2017/03/jesse-saunders-interview
Brewster, Bill. “Interview: Jesse Saunders From the DJ History Archives: The Chicago house original talks about his early days, Ron Hardy, and the birth of house.” Although it had been used to great effect on some popular early 80’s records, most notably Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” the tonal qualities of the Roland 303 and 808 sounds found little favor among mainstream musicians and Roland discontinued manufacture in 1982., the quirky analog circuits produced a distinctive sound steeply driving down the retail value from $1200 at its launch in 1980, to $100 by the mid ‘80’s. 5Millband,
Thomas. Electronic Phuture. p.17 https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/84743839.pdf
Marvin J. Gladney, 2021
Annotated Bibliography Grandmaster Flash Afrofuturism through the Lens of Grandmaster Flash The work and career of Grandmaster Flash (born Joseph Saddler) defines the sound of Afrofuturism because he field-tested a vision for sonic advancement and, in doing so, helped define world culture within his lifetime. As a founding figure in the sonic legacy of Afrofuturism, Grandmaster Flash’s work demonstrates how Afrofuturist practice depends on seeing the impossible, the improbably, and seemingly the absurd, in order to create a new system for the oppressed to survive, thrive, and prosper in a future we may not see. In order to imagine Afrofuturism through the lens of Grandmaster Flash, it’s important to imagine the climate of the South Bronx in the early 1970s. For nearly a decade, residents, many of them immigrants, were displaced as fires destroyed their homes. Narratives ranged from the community citizens themselves burning down their residences to landlords destroying the building for insurance reparations. In the midst of this apocalyptic backdrop is a burgeoning DJ with a vision to control the dancefloor in a very peculiar way. In short, he noticed that when the solo portion of many dance records played the audience responded passionately. His vision became to control this moment so that the solo breakout session of the record would never stop. If he could control this, he could control the crowd. To achieve this obscure vision, Flash had to audibly dissect his records to extract the solo breakout session of the drummer and play it back at the exact moment of the count. The system required two turntables, a mixer, and two copies of the same record. Flash conceived torque theory, which used the math and science of the turntable’s start speed combined with resistance to determine cue placement. In addition, he developed a wax drawing crayon method. He marked cue points on the record. Taken together these methods established the framework for many of the basics of modern DJing. Later DJs would adapt his methods, utilizing, instead, tape as cue markers. Today, Flash’s “merry go round” methodology happens with the click of a button on many digital DJ devices.
Flash’s methodology included using a specific type of stylus (turntable needle) capable of pulling a record in reverse while keeping the needle in the groove. Further innovations also include a mode of previewing the record he was cueing, what Flash called the “peek-a-boo” allowed him to hear the music in his ear at the precise cue point before allowing the audience to hear. Combined with his torque theory, he also invented what would later be called the slipmat, a circular piece of slippery cloth or synthetic materials disk jockeys place on the turntable platter instead of the traditional rubber mat. His discovery came through experimenting with various materials. Flash’s knowledge of math (of revolutions per minute), science (testing of various materials), technology (testing various turntables that worked best with his theory), and history (of music history) created a new art form that would decades later become the world’s leading multimodal artform. In tandem with this S.T.E.M to S.T.E.A.M phenomena was Flash’s mentorship of another pioneer who would soon be known as the originator of “the scratch.” Flash mentored DJ “Grandwizard Theodore” who is credited for advancing Flash’s “Quick mix theory” into what is called the scratch. For Flash’s musical innovations to work, the audience had to buy into the theoretical experiment. Afrofuturist theory must eventually be field tested. Circa 50 years later these elemental foundations of experimentation have developed into an international art form. Musical technology now includes all of Flash’s innovations and learning traditional ways of DJing has become an artform in itself. Rocking the party is only one aspect of Flash’s vision. The innovations and additions to Hip-Hop have created a globally celebrated system of prosperity, world building, sharing of diverse cultures, conflict resolution and more through battling lyrical, musical, artistic skills and knowledge through methods of performance. Sources Katz, Mark. Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ, Oxford University Press, 2012. Piskor, Ed. Hip Hop Family Tree (Books 1-4 series), Fantagraphics, 2013-2016. Rakim. Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius, Harper Collins, 2019. Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Wesleyan University Press, 1994. Tobak, Vikki. Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. Clarkson Potter, 2018.
Book Review Courttia Newland, A River Called Time Canongate Books, 2021 A long time ago (I was in college; perhaps I should write “a long, long, long time ago”), when I was a student at Florida A&M University, I asked the brilliant Cornel West a question: why are so few prominent Black intellectuals teaching at HBCUs? To write about Black people, to theorize and interrogate Blackness, and analyze Black rage in spaces that weren’t predominantly White but overwhelmingly so presented a strange challenge: how to maintain authenticity and clarity of purpose? West described the problems of resources, arguing, convincingly that elite White institutes offer more time for research and financial support...But West’s response makes us wonder: What do Black creative and intellectual spaces, when properly nurtured, offer us? Does the group positioned most opposite whiteness and power offer valuable, still unheard, still unexamined, lessons about the liberation of all people? A story seeped in Black mythology, Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time examines a Diasporic Blackness, and at first glance, it too offers no way out. Newland argues he set out to write “a decolonized novel,” a novel set in a parallel world where the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonization never happened. In this parallel world, “African cosmology had become the dominant global religion,” and characters may not appear physically Black (some of Newland’s characters have green or blue skin, in reference to Black gods and goddesses like Osiris and Euzerlie, who always appears wearing blue). Newland’s world is dystopian, overflowing with poverty and violence, despite some of the characters achieving the miraculous: Markriss, Newland’s protagonist, can astrally project and land in dreamlike extensions of time. Yet despite this, Markriss experiences the loss of a sibling, separation from his mother and the rest of his family, economic uncertainty, a totalitarian corporate government, and the early deaths of some of his friends. Newland’s provides an obvious lesson: replacing one form of cultural domination with another results not in liberation but in replicating another system of hierarchy, control, and authority. This is what Newland wants. The characters in Britain Newland’s thoughtful experiment reinforce that what makes Blackness a space for liberation are its historical
anchors and visions for a more equal world. In other words, a Blackness devoid of history and struggle, is no longer Black. Blackness means understanding the psychology of oppression and using that knowledge to create greater compassion and empathy. It means recognizing the resiliency and ingenuity of oppressed people in impossible circumstances. When we talk about liberation, we want meaningful change. But the “Hotep” Afrocentricity, the pseudo-Blackness widely mocked on social media, the kind Newland purposefully interrogates, isn’t change, and it isn’t Black. It’s not a Black creative or imaginative space. It’s not a space where people find freedom. The Hotep philosophy is sexist, steeped in a false Black masculinity that doesn’t serve anyone (not even the brothers). It doesn’t offer resistance or a challenge to dominant culture. Markriss teaches us this, as we witness his rebellion against the corporate, media-controlling society and towards a small, vibrant community of outsiders and freedom fighters. Rochelle Spencer, 2021
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