- "Let the Madness in the Music Get to You":Poetic Possibilities from the Black Sonic Underground (or, "Sound Carries")
What is the sound a racial state might inspire? What sound does it initiate? How might the experience of existing within such a state attune one to different sonic possibilities?—Carter Mathes, Imagine the Sound, 2015
if you listen / you cd imagine us like music & make us yrs.—Ntozake Shange, "takin a solo/a poetic possibility/a poetic imperative," 1978
Where does blackness go to create its own freedom? In a nation-state shaped by racist narratives, where can American blackness sound out stories of the possible? In Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature after Civil Rights, Carter Mathes brings us to the "underground," a space of poetic and political life where "resistant [End Page 260] aurality" allows for "a vocalization of black fugitive resistance" that can "diagnose and disrupt the links between white supremacy and ideas of American law, order, and domestic security," and fathom a blackness beyond the racial logics of the state (2015, 4, 3). In the underground, Mathes shows, this orality gathers and resounds, animated not only by the need to change the structural terms of black living, but also by the need to renegotiate the linguistic terms in which the story of black life is told: it is "a space of clandestine black resistance entangled with the everyday oppressive realities of black working-class life" (4). Leading us through this space of sonic resistance, in the book's introduction, Mathes invites us in to ask: "What is the literary sound of these underground dimensions" of black radical thought and sociopolitical life (5)? Throughout this dazzling work, he asks us to reframe our understandings of political voicing and social disruption around the literary arts, pushing us to question how resistance, rebellion, subterfuge, and dissent resonate in the soundscape of the imaginary.
The underground Mathes takes up is the space of Ralph Ellison's "lower frequencies," from which his self-sequestered invisible narrator speaks the dramas of American race in the twentieth century. It is the space below the hidden "doorways" under which Audre Lorde's poetic speaker voices the violences of racialized, sexualized homophobia and desubjectivation in her 1978 "Litany for Survival," insisting we "speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive" (Ellison 1952, 581; Lorde 1995, 31). These underground spaces of resistant voicing are permeable, sometimes provisional. Ellison's narrator can retreat from the multiple binds of his invisibility, but he is always implicated in the riots of racialization burning beyond his hole; Lorde's speaker speaks from beneath the threshold, defying the pale protections of silence, but she does not escape the fear that attends black queer loving in public and private space. For these writers, the underground is both structure and strategy—it offers space for freedom and re-contextualization, but only within its shifting, porous bounds.
And yet, sound carries
Reading black post-civil rights literature from 1965 to 1980, Mathes shows how the sonic, in black postmodern and post-WWII expression, carries us beyond dominant narratives of American race and racialization (narratives that, by their structure, preserve racist [End Page 261] power structures in the name of a "national mythology of capitalist progress") and toward new ways of sounding out black political life beyond the conceptual boundaries of the American racial state (2015, 9). For Mathes, this reimaging occurs through a poetic break from American social realisms of the early- to mid-twentieth century, as well as from the frames of visuality and visibility that dominate both western valuations of sensory perception and American literary hermeneutics. Focusing on the works of Amiri Baraka, Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gayl Jones, Mathes considers how the sonic presents domains of literary critique and political imagination underexplored in critical scholarship. Engaging with important work in black literary studies and sound studies, Mathes joins an exciting group of critics taking up the political and social implications of black poetics and aesthetics, including Evie Shockley (2011), Anthony Reed (2014), Samantha Pinto (2013), Margo Crawford (2017), Meta DuEwa Jones 2012), Jerome C. Branch (2015), Tsitsi Ella Jaji (2014...