- The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech
Early one spring evening in 1819, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, then conducting a tour of the southern states, stumbled upon several hundred African Americans parading toward a New Orleans cemetery. Intrigued, the French visitor followed. The deceased was an aged Congo-born woman, and so Latrobe was not surprised to hear a "great croud of women" singing and praying loudly. But he was startled when the woman's grandsons and great-grandsons stepped forward to hurl bones and even skulls at the modest casket, the curious instruments sounding "a loud report on the hollow Coffin" (162). What Latrobe was hearing, historians Shane White and Graham White understand, was the sound of the deceased being cut loose from her troubled life and literally drummed into the next world.
Despite the fact that we live in a world of aural overload, historians have been surprisingly slow to investigate the intriguing question of the everyday sounds of early national America. Folklorists like Roger Abrahams have long described the importance of black hymns and the rhythmic songs enslaved workers chanted in the fields to pace their labor, but only in recent years have scholars engaged the history of sound itself. White and White (no relation) here add to a quickly growing body of innovative scholarship that examines the nonverbal world. Among the best are Richard Cullen Rath's How Early America Sounded (2001) and Mark M. Smith's Listening to Nineteenth Century America (2001), but the book under review here is the only one to focus exclusively on the sounds of North American slave culture. Although the authors devote considerable attention to the songs of the enslaved—the book is accompanied by a CD of eighteen tracks of hymns, prayers, and even the [End Page 511] groans of weary convicts—they fill their fascinating account with the noise of market peddlers, street theater, ring shouts, and secular cries of freedom. White and White cast a very wide net, as one would suspect from finding both Mary Chesnut and Eric Clapton in the first few pages.
Perhaps because the music of the fields is well-worn ground, the authors focus primarily on the racket made by the enslaved during their off hours. Over the past decade, historians have quarreled about the relative importance of the slaves' internal economy. By re-creating the din of the marketplace, White and White demonstrate how important these venues were for keeping body and soul intact, even if black marketers earned but paltry sums during their Sunday labors. One visitor to New Orleans was awakened to the clamor of black women shouting out their wares, "criers of everything but tears." Just behind them followed "a dense mass of negroes," and all "seemed as merry as the morning, saluting each other gaily as they met." By essentially turning the sound on in a picture typically painted only in dollar amounts, White and White indicate the folly in discussing this underground economy without observing the enormous impact it had on the slaves' psyches. For one brief day in an otherwise dreary week, blacks were laboring for themselves, and it showed in their "vivacity and humor" (166).
Even when they examine a topic as much-studied as black sermons, the authors apply a fresh perspective. By focusing on one lengthy funeral oration, delivered by the Reverend Harry Singleton at Sandy Island, South Carolina, White and White reveal that the text of the sermon itself may not have been as important as how it sounded to the congregants. It was the "tonal cadences, speech rhythms, and impassioned invocations" that "fired the people's emotions," rather than the scriptural texts. Although some readers may suspect that the authors go too far in suggesting that the words themselves were "far less important" than the cadence of the sermons, they are undoubtedly right in arguing that enslaved preachers relied on well-known expressions to draw forth a host...