- The Spoken Word in Within Our Gates:Revisited and Remixed
Spoken word, a participatory form of poetry that jazz artists have combined with percussion and rhythm, constituted an integral part of the multimedia celebration of Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates at Ithaca College in February 2004. Interestingly enough, spoken word did not figure in the original conception of the event by the executive producer, Patricia Zimmermann, and the composer of the new score, Fe Nunn, who both initially imagined the event in musical terms. In early considerations, Fe Nunn's band was going to be the highlight of the event. Yet, during the first rehearsals of the program, discussions of the relationship between film and history, as well as the relationship between scholars and artists, led to an inspired decision in Fe Nunn's direction of the spectacle-to-be. Spoken word, he suggested, could provide a crucial link between the artistic and the academic, between image and text, past and present, and the film and the audience.
Spoken word is usually understood as a form of literary art or performance in which poetry, stories, and text are spoken rather than sung. Often associated with background music in a performance setting, spoken word can be improvisational or planned, and, although it is not sung, the prose of spoken word is usually more artistic than normal speech. It became a topic of fascination during the 1960s, when Beat poets such as Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs incorporated it in their poetry readings and performances, drawing inspiration from African American and Native American oral artists, as well as the history of oral poetry dating to Homer. These Beat legends also inspired artists of the 1990s, who helped prolong the practice by paying homage to their predecessors. And, as mentioned above, jazz artists soon made space for it in their artistry, too. Questions about the classification of spoken word still arise, since certain [End Page 128] academic circles are not always ready to accept it as "poetry," but it is nevertheless accepted by many as a form of literary performance art and an important vehicle for political, social, and cultural commentary.
Both the Body and Soul Ensemble and the Ida B. Wells Spoken Word Ensemble consisted of Ithaca College faculty members from the departments of cinema and photography, television and radio, music, and the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. Each member of the two ensembles contributed material that she or he found informative and provocative. During the Body and Soul invocation (our preface to the screening of the film), Professors Elisa White and John Hochheimer alternated in a spoken word duet, citing "Reasons for Lynching," which was material documenting justifications for lynching during Micheaux's time. One by one, other faculty members joined in, with quotes from various black and white American individuals who marched, legislated, protested, and spoke against lynching, segregation, discrimination, racism, and targeted surveillance. Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. DuBois, the two figures we quoted most, were heard through the voices of the Body and Soul Ensemble. Also quoted were Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Spivak, Tzvetan Todorov, Stuart Hall, and Wahneema Lubiano. This text weaving continued during the screening of Within Our Gates, when the Ida B. Wells Ensemble added a layer of film historical information specific to the production and exhibition of Micheaux's film, including a recital of "Signifyin' Monkey" by faculty member and musician Baruch Whitehead, a rap by faculty member Zachary Williams telling everybody to "wake up," the singing of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," and, perhaps most chillingly, the listing of names of lynched African Americans. This composite "sound track," as it were, was organized in loose synchronization with the narrative arc of Within Our Gates but maintained its autonomy as a separate space of dialogue, traversed by the diversity of interventions that were enabled and carried by spoken word.
Many of us academics who conducted film historical research in preparation for this multimedia event were reluctant to emerge from our preferred position behind the scenes and present ourselves as a collective performance team in front of spectators. But Fe Nunn was determined...