Aural fictions: Sound in African American literature
Levander, Caroline Field
Doctor of Philosophy thesis
This dissertation explores the importance of representations of sound in the African American literary tradition. Beginning with Frederick Douglass's descriptions of the slave songs and working through depictions of jazz in the early moments of the Civil Rights movement, I show that the aural dimension of African American culture has mediated black writers' engagement with written public discourse. Looking at such diverse works as slave narratives, essays, music books, serial fiction, autobiography, and the novel, this project demonstrates that the tension between aurality and the printed word motivates much of the political work that African American literary texts accomplish. By excavating the various strategies that black writers use to resolve this tension I argue that sound, especially music, functions in African American literature to allow black writers to engage in intertextual discourses that utilize aurality to speak across temporal and stylistic boundaries that have previously limited our critical inquiries. While critics have afforded substantial attention to African American musical culture and its influence on black writing---most notably Houston A. Baker's work on the "Blues Matrix" and Alexander G. Weheliye's notion of "Sonic Afro-Modernity"---this criticism has focused on specific musical forms as structuring agents that exert a direct influence upon black literature. My dissertation not only expands the site of critical inquiry to include non-musical sound, but also focuses on the ways that black writers foreground aurality as more than a means of accessing black musical traditions, but also to create an inter-textual connection to a black literary tradition as well. My dissertation shows that the African American aural tradition, and the inherent problems that accompany any attempt to represent it in writing, has provided black writers a common site from which they can enter into literary genres and styles that are otherwise racially coded as non-black while still maintaining a strong connection to the African American literary tradition.