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Imagine the Sound

Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature after Civil Rights

Carter Mathes
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Imagine the Sound
    Book Description:

    The post-Civil Rights era was marked by an explosion of black political thought and aesthetics. Reflecting a shifting horizon of expectations around race relations, the unconventional sounds of free jazz coupled with experimental literary creation nuanced the push toward racial equality and enriched the possibilities for aesthetic innovation within the Black Arts Movement. InImagine the Sound, Carter Mathes demonstrates how African American writers used sound to further artistic resistance within a rapidly transforming political and racial landscape.

    While many have noted the oral and musical qualities of African American poetry from the post-Civil Rights period, Mathes points out how the political implications of dissonance, vibration, and resonance produced in essays, short stories, and novels animated the ongoing struggle for equality. Situating literary works by Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, and Toni Cade Bambara in relation to the expansive ideas of sound proposed by free jazz musicians such as Marion Brown and Sun Ra, not only does this book illustrate how the presence of sound can be heard and read as political, but it recuperates critically neglected, yet important, writers and musicians. Ultimately, Mathes details how attempts to capture and render sound through the medium of writing enable writers to envision alternate realities and resistance outside of the linear frameworks offered by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

    In precise and elegant prose, Mathes shows how in conceptualizing sound, African American writers opened up the political imaginations of their readers. By exploring this intellectual convergence of literary artistry, experimental music, and sound theory, Imagine the Sound reveals how taking up radically new forms of expression allows us to speak to the complexities of race and political resistance.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4291-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. INTRODUCTION: The Acoustics of Unfreedom
    (pp. 1-22)

    Assata: An Autobiographyrecounts Assata Shakur’s life and closely focuses on her coming into consciousness as a black revolutionary during the Black Power era. The narrative opens with Shakur’s memory of the now legendary May 2, 1973, encounter on the New Jersey Turnpike in which she, Zayd Malik Shakur, and Sundiata Acoli were pulled over by New Jersey state troopers James Harper and Werner Foerster. The events that transpired as a result of this alleged traffic stop left Foerster and Zayd Malik Shakur dead and Assata and Harper wounded, but have never been definitively reconstructed over the course of Shakur’s...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Sonic Field of Resistance: Free Jazz and the Horizon of Black Aesthetic Expansion
    (pp. 23-60)

    On April 23, 1967, only months before his death, John Coltrane performed at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem, initiating the “Roots of Africa” series of community cultural events organized by the famed Nigerian percussionist and founder of the center, Babatunde Olatunji. Coltrane performed two sets with his final and perhaps farthest-reaching arrangement of musicians, a quintet comprising himself, Pharoah Sanders (tenor saxophone), Alice Coltrane (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and Rashied Ali (drums). Bernard Drayton, the engineer Coltrane asked to record the first of the two sessions, recalled the sound of the first set as “music beyond what...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Apocalyptic Soundscapes: Listening to Henry Dumas’s Short Fiction
    (pp. 61-100)

    In a 1967 letter written to critic Larry Neal and his wife, Evelyn, Henry Dumas offers an impressionistic overview of his relationship to the burgeoning literary scene of the Black Arts Movement. The one-page letter accompanying the submission of his short story “Fon” to the anthologyBlack Fire, which Neal was coediting with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), offers a glimpse into the all too brief career of this curiously understudied Black Arts Movement creative voice. Referencing his journey to the Midwest to begin a position as the director of the Upward Bound program at Hiram College in Ohio (and to...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Peering into the Maw: Larry Neal’s Aesthetic Universe
    (pp. 101-132)

    As a central theorist and creative writer within the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal produced a significant body of writings from the mid-1960s until his unexpected death from a heart attack in 1981, at the age of forty-three. Perhaps the most prolific, influential, and understudied major figure in the movement, Neal creatively and theoretically conceptualized the sensory, phenomenological, and particularly sonic dimensions of black experience. He created a diverse body of work that includes his coauthored Black Arts Movement anthology with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones),Black Fire(1968); numerous critical essays and creative work published in influential publications of the...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Sonic Futurity in Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters
    (pp. 133-158)

    In the course of independent filmmaker Louis Massiah’s 1995 interview with African American writer, cultural worker, and political activist Toni Cade Bambara, he asks Bambara how and where she learned her first political lessons. She responds by sharing her memories of coming of age amid the cultural vibrancy of Harlem, and then focuses her thoughts more precisely on the lasting impact of Speakers’ Corner:

    So Speakers’ Corner made it easy to raise critical questions, to be concerned about what’s happening locally and internationally. It shaped the political perceptions of at least three generations. It certainly shaped mine, and I miss...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Radical Tonality of James Baldwin’s Post–Civil Rights Blues
    (pp. 159-192)

    James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man,” first published in his 1965 collection of the same title, dramatically portrays the interior tensions of a white sheriff who is committed to brutally maintaining Jim Crow apartheid in an unnamed town in the southern United States. One of Baldwin’s more probing fictional examinations of the Civil Rights movement, the story is notable in its framing of the struggle for voting rights in the South through the lens of white terror—a terror that is simultaneously enforced and felt by the sheriff. The story opens with the question, “What’s the matter?”...

  9. Epilogue: Sounding the Long Civil Rights Moment
    (pp. 193-200)

    When will it end? Will there be a historical point at which we can mark the end of post–Civil Rights unfreedom that has persisted as an underside to the progress represented by the movement as many African Americans continue to fall outside the vision of social transformation projected by the nation? How might an analysis of post–Civil Rights black political culture account for what Adolph Reed refers to as the “reconstitution of domination” that has emerged as a self-regulating and self-disciplining force in African American sociopolitical formations?¹ This inclination toward one-dimensionality has usurped ideas of black radical possibility, allowing...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-204)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 205-234)
  12. Index
    (pp. 235-252)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)