Professor Wai Chee Dimock
Performing American Literature
Exploring Black Embodiment
There is a subtle, yet important distinction in the way we dialogue about ourselves, our souls, and our bodies. For some, like Whitman, the spirit or essence of human life and the human form are not distinct elements – they are not “parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul // O I say now these are the soul!”[i]. Yet the language that other theorists and artists use to describe embodiment suggests a marked delineation between the soul and our material selves, where, for instance, Black people are not simply their irreducible selves but are souls placed “in the black or brown body”[ii]. As I started constructing this project, this tension apparent between the prevalent constructions of race and notions of embodiment (and/or disembodiment) seemed like an apt point of departure from which to explore two texts that I believe have much to say to each other: Walter Mosely’s Futureland and Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric.”
For my final project, I am interested in creating a piece of music that sets the words of Mosely in dialogue, so as to discuss topics of Black personhood and further engage in the use of the Black imagination to conceive of Black futures. My hope is to set parts of both texts so as to call attention to the problematic nature of Black embodiment in a racist system.
I was inspired to pursue this particular trajectory with my project for a two major reasons. I am a musician and composer, and so I was interested in addressing American literature through the performative avenue of an original piece of music. This seems especially appropriate in this case as music, a ubiquitous oral storytelling device is a critical way humans have used to record our own histories and make sense of the histories of our communities. It was with this context that, as we read parts of Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in class, I was struck by it’s lack of critical imagination in envisioning the future of for Black peoples in America could be. I realized that this deficiency in the novel’s ability to see outside of the racial confines of American Slavery and the impending Civil War was specifically what I wanted to address.
The two places I want to draw text from are Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” and Mosely’s Futureland. In both of these texts there are a few key textual areas of interest when considering the reality of Black embodiment and how that becomes relevant in our visions of the future. First, in the Whitman, there are two entire sections of the poem dedicated to the discussion of the body of slaves in America and the relationship between said Black body and the soul. Turning to Futureland, the two most relevant short stories to this particular endeavor seem to be “Whispers in the Dark” and “Voices,” as both stories address elements Black consciousness and creativity in conjunction with Black embodiment all while setting the action of the story in a time that is not now and a world that is not immediately ours.
While there appear to be no existing essays or critical works that connect these two documents and writers, there is a substantial body academic work that addresses the reimagination of Black personhood. Specifically, as I attempt to consider the harnessing Black creative power in the context of artistic expression, I expect the cultural and academic tradition of Afrofuturism to be the most direct and fruitful link. My hope is to connect my performance of these works to this theme on two levels. At once I plan on discussing the ways in which both engage – to differing extents –in a type of Afrofuturistic expression and simultaneously I intend for my culminating musical performance to be an work of Black imagination and reimagination as well.
There is a longstanding tradition of Afrofuturist musical expression. Musicians and composers from George Clinton (Parliament Funkadelic) and Sun Ra, to Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae all can be viewed as a part of the essential project that is to envision the future of Black life that extends outside the confines of the specifically dehumanizing and limiting power structure we – Black people – find ourselves in today. In fact, the success of these pioneering artists in the mainstream music industry as their interest as topics of academic discourse further suggests the necessity of engaging in these projects of academic and artistic liberation.
The prominent and relevant work in the field of Afrofuturism has been contributed by Alondra Nelson through her work Future Texts[iii] and, through her influence, other ethnomusicologists like J. Griffith Rollefson[iv]. In conjunction with this work I hope to use existing scholarship on Whitman and his racialized work, such as, “Ethiopian Saluting the Colors,” to contextualize the dialogue between Whitman and Mosely.
Though this project is creative and requires a good deal of original creative input from my own self, the musical outcome is still intended to be a heightened performance of these two texts. That being said my focus will be on maintaining key elements of both original texts in order to find the moments where they can accurately speak to each other through music.
I plan to use spontaneous and improvisational compositional techniques to generate much of the musical material of the piece as this falls in line with the work that previous Afrofuturist artists have created (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc). I anticipate that this will focus the work, establishing a predominant atmosphere for the piece and grounding it in the Black American tradition of Jazz that in it’s own expression of Black futuristic creativity.
The main instruments used in the piece will be voices. The intent behind heavily featuring voices will be to highlight the theme of embodiment as discussed above. The human voice, as a physical instrument, is inextricably bound to and informed by the human body. Therefore the technique required to use this instrument draws the singer’s attention to their embodiment – their physical capabilities and limitations. However, the human voice is also boundlessly expressive, possessing a dynamic and expressive range that far exceeds almost all other instruments. In this way, the human voice encapsulates the tension between body and soul – form and essence – that is the crux of the dialogue I am teasing out of both the Whitman and the Mosely texts. Further, in an attempt to maintain the socially significant and critically liberating work that I hope this project will contribute to, I will source these voices not from just myself but from other members of the Black community at Yale.
Creation and Performance
In keeping with the science fiction elements of Futureland the music will be computer-based, hopefully linking listeners’ minds to their own visions of the future by focusing on technology. As this is computer music, the performative nature of my project will be two fold, both the creation of the work and the playing of that recorded work for people. This provides an element of reproducibility and repeatability that I believe will be necessary to sustain the performance of these two texts. To this same end, the music will focus on establishing a space, a sonic atmosphere, in order to provide the listener an aural arena that erases the historical distance between Mosely and Whitman to focus on the future.
Links and Sources
[i] Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45472
[ii] Claudia Rankine Interview https://www.guernicamag.com/blackness-as-the-second-person/
[iii] Alondra Nelson, “Future Texts” https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/schools/cas_sites/sociology/pdf/FutureTexts.pdf
[iv] Rollefson, J. Griffith. “The ‘Robot Voodoo Power’ Thesis: Afrofuturism and Anti-Anti-Essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith.” Black Music Research Journal, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp. 83–109., www.jstor.org/stable/25433795.