Echoes of the Future-Past: Slavery and Sonic Testimony in African American and Diasporic Literature 1845-Present
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation theorizes sound in the form of cries, echoes, screams, and music as a mode of traumatic testimony unique to black diasporic populations by interrogating the relationship between the sounds blacks produce, the expression of traumatic experience, the mediation of American civic identity, and the production of black liberation ideology. The dissertation’s construct of diasporic testimony reveals the use of these sounds within diasporic literature and culture as a means to express that which has been deemed ineffable about the historical experience of bondage, and as the theoretical ground of black liberation ideologies. The project’s critical attention to sound reveals diasporic testimony as a heretofore-undiscovered aspect of African diasporic textual practice that forces an expansion of literary trauma studies’ narrow understanding of testimony. Echoes marks how the West’s histories of enslavement come to bear upon its contemporary affective and institutional relations, which I argue are arbitrated through the production and reception of black sound(s). Echoes accounts for over 150 years of black sonic testimonial practice, beginning with Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative and culminating in an examination of contemporary instances of extrajudicial violence against blacks as well as liberation activism. Echoes moves through representations of sound in African American and diasporic literatures, recorded sounds, and historical events, calling attention to the echoes of the sounds of bondage in the Western subconscious. Organized into four chapters, Echoes considers the ways in which these testimonial soundings exceed commonly understood frameworks of testimony, recognition, and redress. Chapter One theorizes “diasporic testimony” as a distinctly Black Atlantic sonic model of testimony. Chapter Two juxtaposes texts from the antebellum period to the 20th Century to reveal the role of black maternal soundings in the formulation of black nationalist ideologies, and the manner in which these sounds are sublimated in masculinist expressions of black nationalism. Chapter Three tracks the circulation of a Jamaican marketwomen’s song in diaspora to argue that the economic logics of enslavement are reproduced by divesting these women of their cultural productions. Chapter Four examines the ways in which the black male body is consumed by and through sound in the Western imagination—a politics of hearing that mediates whites’ civic identities. The Coda suggests new modes of black liberation praxis that are based in acoustic and affective relationships as opposed to recognition and redress-based frameworks.