This page will update weekly to include a new question for the books that we are currently reading. Once the book is done, the questions will be archived and this page will start anew with the next reading.

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?