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  • Soul ClapRhythm and Resilience in Afro-Carolina Landscapes
  • Michelle Lanier (bio)

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Illustrations by Ginnie Hsu.

[End Page 144]

The question is: How do I render sound visible? For me, the answer is ethnopoetics, a mode of presenting performance, ritual, and cultural expression through the tools of poetry. In its possibilities for mirroring moments, and reflecting the spaciousness and impact of tone and silence and sound, the form seeks freedom from the strictures of prose.1

This is an ethnopoetic journey that invites rhythmic reading—listening with the eyes.

. . .


On an early winter Friday in Raleigh, North Carolina, a gathering was afoot. Stitched through the collected and collective souls was a shared, fierce, and tender passion for stewarding, writing about, archiving, talking about, crying about, dreaming about


North Carolina Black-ness—Afro-Carolina.

These teachers, filmmakers, curators, land conservationists, and poets were gathered to dream together, to call forth a new vision of how to best preserve the traditions of African Diaspora peoples, of and in this place.

One poet, visionary, and Afrofuturist among us, Darrell Stover, charged the air of the gathering with a selection from his self-published Somewhere Deep Down Within. The piece he chose was “Is the Beat for Max Roach.”


Max Roach—

Bebop pioneering jazz drummer, born in New Land, Pasquotank County, North Carolina.

New Land was not far from the Great Dismal Swamp, which served as a hiding place for generations of freedom-seeking, enslaved Africans. Their “maroon colony” was marked by mystery, extra-legal timbering, and resilience.


In response to Stover’s poetic offering, I declared Max Roach’s rhythms a strategy of resilience, a mechanism by which we, as a people, remember ourselves and fuel our journeys forward.

The percussive resilience of Black people on North Carolina soil led me to consider a sonic heritage, resulting in an incomplete inventory of these rhythmic manifestations, such as:

Church tambourinists.

Rice cultivators with mortar and pestle, and the rhythmic labor of woodsmen and fishermen.

Railroad “gandy dancers,” who lined track in unison, often singing ribald and reverent songs


Culinary architects, mixing dough in wooden bowls, dropping peas in pots, and chopping vegetables. [End Page 145]

Foot stompers on wood-floored churches.

Renowned drummers, such as Melvin Parker of Kinston, North Carolina.

Spoon and bone players.

Street protestors with hand claps and drumbeats.

Drumliners from schools and communities.

Step team members from historically Black Greek organizations.

North Carolina Jonkonnu drummers of goat-skinned gumba boxes, who leveraged Christmas revelry, creating a syncretism of Diaspora festival aesthetics, from the Colonial period until the birth of the Jim Crow era, and again as reenactors resurrected the tradition in the late twentieth century.

Line dancers (“Left foot, stomp!”).

Fiddlers and banjoers.

New diasporic souls brought Caribbean, West and Central African, Afro-Latinx, and Afro-Brazilian rhythms expressed in new ways on Carolina land—beats from the same source speaking to each other.

And soul clappers.


What’s a soul clap?

Soul clapping is the shared and improvised rhythm-making by a collective—usually at church, at a party (particularly a basement dance party, or, perhaps, hole-in-the-wall juke joint), or at a sporting event affiliated with a traditionally Black high school, college, or university. The syncopation generally grows in speed and volume as more and more participants join in. The effect is emotionally lifting, empowering, perhaps intimidating. It is unifying and transformative and cathartic.

According to percussionist Mavis Gragg, “It’s a specific type of clap, and I think that it’s an invisible connecting chain in our culture.”

The voices below are a soul clap.

They are expressions of Black-ness and survival.


mollie hunter, tambourine player, wilson, north carolina

I never really asked my mother to buy me one.When I was a child I made me a tambourine.Now I took a cardboard,and circled it.And I took tape.And I took bottle caps and put holes in it.And I made me a tambourine. [End Page 146]

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[End Page 147]

And so, I spent time just beating it and...