Weekly Discussion Questions for The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening by Jennifer Lynn Stoever
Discussion Questions


Discussion Question for the Week of Jan 13 – Jan 19
How does the way Stoever approaches her topic in the introduction help you understand ways to navigate topics that aren’t part of your cultural heritage?

Discussion Question for the Week of Jan 20 – Jan 26
How have you experienced or come in contact with ideas of racialized sound? How do those experiences connect with what we read about slavery’s power over creating a racist sound structure? Feel free to answer one or both of these questions. We encourage you to continue thinking about that first question throughout the reading.

Discussion Question for the Week of Jan 27 – Feb 2
Stoever talks about how using the excuse of a state of sensitivity or innocence (or even what we may now call a trigger warning in some senses today) actually silences minority voices. She states, “Through the character of Mrs. Flint, Jacobs ‘ungenders’ Southern white women by exposing the notion of ‘delicate ears’ as a deliberate artifice that shields white women from black women’s suffering and enacts racialized subjugation” (68). In what ways does a refusal to listen harm marginalized voices? How can we rid ourselves of the “delicate ears” excuses to better listen to minority voices today?

Discussion Question for the Week of Feb 3 – Feb 9
Chapter 2 of The Sonic Color Line details the differences in representation of two opera singers touring the US: the Swedish Jenny Lind and the African American Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Most readers are probably familiar with Jenny Lind due to the wildly popular musical movie “The Greatest Showman,” which portrays a near perfect P.T. Barnum building show business in America and promoting diversity and acceptance through his work (a wild and controversial misrepresentation of the man’s problematic legacy). However, most are probably unfamiliar with Greenfield. Stoever understands the distinctions between recognition, representation, and long-lasting effects of the Lind legacy and the erasure of Greenfield’s as part of a building of the sonic color line in America. “Whereas the sonic color line operated in the South as an everyday mode of racial discipline, it’s Northern analogue trafficked in stage spectacles, heightened–and increasingly popular–performances of race, gender, and sexuality that prodded, provoked, and shaped everyday understandings of race” (80). Greenfield’s legacy was lost because her talent and her operatic vocal performances transgressed the racial sound barrier between “white” and “black” performance. While Lind was praised for her abilities, Greenfield was ridiculed and mocked for her rivaling talent, even portrayed by critics as a woman with a beard because she could sing in lower as well as higher registers. This week’s question asks you to think about how this legacy translated into the film “The Greatest Showman.” How do we see the film participating in the American tradition of racial performance? Is it doing something different with that performance, or is it still as problematic as ever?

Discussion Question for the Week of Feb 10 – Feb 16
Stoever asks a question in this week’s reading that is worth discussing, particularly because those of us in this book club are regularly engaging with American music: “Can one participate in American musical culture—as an American—without adopting the listening ear’s racialized perceptual frame regarding music?” (125).

Discussion Question for the Week of Feb 17 – Feb 24
Stoever states, “Many white Northern liberals evinced a postbellum fascination with black culture as a source of novel entertainment, emotional release, and soul-wrenching edification, even as they tuned out elements heard as threatening to white cultural supremacy” (140-1). In what ways do we still see this process happening today with POC and their art in the music industry?

Discussion Question for the Week of Feb 24 – Mar 2
Speaking of Charles Chesnutt’s use of dialect in his writing, Stoever states, “To Chesnutt, the idea of ‘negro dialect’ is a fictional device in the truest sense of the word: an invented visual representation of sound connected to—and reinforcing—the notion that black Americans are out of time (‘old’), out of place (‘Southern’), and out of step (‘ignorant’) with modernity. It is certainly not a vehicle of some essential anthropological or biological truth about black speech” (166). How do you approach works of fiction that utilize dialect, either in writing, film, or music? How do we work to rid ourselves of the racist stereotypes (Stoever lists some above) that often come with these depictions?

Discussion Question for the Week of Mar 3 – Mar 9
Our reading for this week discusses Lead Belly in context of lynching and black political struggles, particularly as they present themselves in Lead Belly’s music and other black artists’ work. Perhaps more often than dancers or music enthusiasts would like to admit, we often fall prey to what Richard Wright called “white voyeurism,” where rather than link black music to current political struggles, we look at the music as only indicative of the past (182). Rather than act like blues, jazz, and the dances that accompany them have no political or social context, how can we, as people who regularly participate in the music and dances, be better by recognizing and doing something about black political issues voiced in the music we listen to?

Discussion Question for the week of Mar 10 – Mar 16
The lynching focus of the readings these last two weeks might have been tough, but it’s an important reminder that directly connects to the present. Stoever herself, if you’ll excuse the long quotation, states:

As I read and reread Wright’s chilling representation of Bigger’s fictional law-and-order lynching, I cannot help but hear the novel’s farreaching resonance in our contemporary moment, echoing in the last words of the unarmed black men and women killed by American police over the seventy-five years since Native Son ’s publication. “I can’t breathe!” sputtered Eric Garner (September 15, 1970–July 17, 2014) as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in an illegal chokehold restraint. The screams and cries of Freddie Gray (August 16, 1989–April 19, 2015) echoed off the brick buildings of Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes as officers dragged his slackened body over to the police van where Officer Cesar Goodson would deliver the “rough ride” that severed Freddie’s spine. “All of this for a traffic ticket,” Sandra Bland (February 7, 1987– July 13, 2015) repeated, with rising intensity, as Texas Trooper Brian T. Encinia yanked her from her car and threw her to the ground. With hands up, Michael Brown (May 20, 1996–August 9, 2014) said “OK, OK, OK, OK” as Ferguson, Missouri officer Darren Wilson shot him six times. “Call the ambulance,” Shantel Davis (May 26, 1989–June 14, 2012) cried out to bystanders after Brooklyn Detective Phil Atkins shot her through the chest: “Please don’t let me die.” And the voices of these men and women—these last sonic acts of agency—keep shouting in the silence their living voices should have filled. (225-26)

What are the sounds of the sonic color line in our present moment? How do we combat modern racist tropes that come in sonic format? The second question may be much harder to answer than the first for many of us, but both of the questions, whether answered on this thread or privately, should be answered.

Discussion Question for the week of Mar 17 – Mar 23
More often than not, we tend to think of race as delineated by skin color, but Stoever calls attention to the fact that we also base our ideas of race on how people sound. She states, “The notion that race can be overlooked equated racism almost solely with visible skin color, a limitation that simply intensified the use of sonic cues to stereotype, exclude, segregate, discriminate against, and justify violence against people of color—all while declaring race invisible and racism eradicated” (231). This week, call your attention to what you have been taught sounds “black” or “white.” What are those markers? How can we work to eradicate the influence of sounded racial stereotypes in our own soundscape?

Discussion Question for the week of Mar 24 – Mar 30
As the last question for our reading for this quarter, think personal. Stoever states, “I wanted to provide a thorough historical context and genealogy for the sonic color line’s stereotypes—the ‘deep’ black voice, the ‘noisy’ neighborhood, the ‘loud’ music—to show that incidents of racist listening cannot be dismissed, laughed off, or chalked up to white ignorance and/or innocence” (277). Now that you’ve been informed, what will you work to change in your own life to be more actively aware of the sonic color line and to eradicate it from your listening practices?