Sound and Color: Music, Race, and US Cultural Politics




Although race is often presumed to be a visual phenomenon, it is also created and produced through sound. But what does race sound like? What might we learn when we attune our ears to the music and noise that race makes in popular music, on the stage, and in literature? How can texts like songs, films, and novels both reinforce and challenge cultural hierarchies and arrangements of social power? This course explores the sonification of race and the racialization of sound, music, and noise in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present. The first unit will consider examples ranging from blackface minstrel shows (the nineteenth-century nation’s most popular form of entertainment) to the noise ordinances that governed sonic life in urban immigrant neighborhoods at the turn of the twentieth centuryIn the second unit, we turn our attention to two important postwar genres, the novel and the Broadway musical. Investigating works like Ralph Ellison’s majestic Invisible Man (1952) and shows like West Side Story (1957), we’ll ask how mid-century artists and writers re-imagined the relationship between race and sound. The third and final unit focuses upon a selection of contemporary case studies; for instance, Pixar’s Soul (2020)or the Afrofuturist worldmaking of Janelle Monáe. As we delve into these cultural texts, we’ll listen closely to how they represent race in relation to other analytical categories such as gender, class, sexuality, and citizenship. In addition to developing skills in interdisciplinary analysis and close reading, students will also have the opportunity to pursue creative projects. 


Additional Information

Faculty: Lucy Caplan
Semester: Full Fall Term
Time: Thurs, 12:45 - 2:45 p.m. ET