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This time last year, we had an April Fool’s surprise for sure in the form of a burgeoning pandemic. This year, we are not so easily fooled, and approximately one third of us have been vaccinated. While we’d surely be fools to get ahead of the process, we at least know a great deal more about this virus than we did then, and we have hope of meeting students in our classrooms again. So, a tentative happy April first.
The date is not my main reason for writing, however. I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between reading and listening (see past posts here and here), and those ruminations took me back to a class I used to teach at Bread Loaf on the history of writing. I was fascinated by this history, about how writing systems developed and about what writing has meant in various cultures at various times. As we studied this history, students in my class would also study the history of their own writing, looking at the role literacy had played in their families’ histories and their own lives. We always ended our session at Rosie’s, a local restaurant, reading our histories aloud to one another (and eating some great roadhouse food).
One year, a student in this class also happened to be a brilliant pianist, one of whose specialties was New Orleans-style jazz he had learned from the masters in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with whom he had been invited to play. As we talked about the slow shift from a primarily oral to a primarily literate society and about what was gained—and lost—in that shift, he offered an analogy and a demonstration. He brought in the sheet music for Tony Jackson’s ragtime masterpiece “Pretty Baby,” a written version of a song that had existed in the aural memories of the ragtime players from whom this member of my class had learned to play it. He played for us what he thought of as the “oral version” of the piece—the “oral” one he had listened to and learned from the Black jazz players in New Orleans—and had us on our feet in seconds. Then he took a deep breath, pulled out the sheet music, and played the buttoned-down written version, for which two white producers paid Jackson $250 and then went on to rewrite the lyrics, “regularize” it “for mass consumption,” and make a fortune on it in various shows and a recording for Victor Records sung by the Irish American Billy Murray.
Stories of exploitation of Black musicians and singers are of course legion: see Alice Walker’s “Nineteen Fifty-five” for a powerful story based on the “relationship” between Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley. I had long known and taught about this issue in another course I taught on the history of intellectual property and, until recently, that’s the context in which I thought about this music in its oral and written versions.
I have come back to it now, however, via a different route—through thinking about the relationship between listening and reading sparked by encountering Nicole Brittingham Furlonge’s Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature. Furlonge’s aim is to “unmute print,” to help us “read in print” and to hear in new (or perhaps old) and newly rich ways. She posits listening as an “aural form of agency, a practice of citizenship, an aural empathy, an ethics of community building, a mode of social and political action, a set of strategies for cultural revision, and a practice of historical thinking.” That’s a very tall order, but Furlonge delivers on it in analyses of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, and other works, all in search of ethical listening practices that will change the way we read forever.
Toward the end of her book, Furlonge turns to pedagogies of listening and describes her own undergraduate class on listening. For teachers of writing (and reading and speaking and listening), this chapter especially will resonate. This is a book we should all read and savor—and listen to.
Learning from this book has led me back to my class on the history of writing and to the return of orality in our time: technological advances that allow us to hear print read aloud (I’m just listening to President Obama read his memoir); the rise of spoken word and other embodied, performative arts; and the growth of aural imagery everywhere we look and listen. And now, as Furlonge suggests, we can teach ourselves and our students—through the artistry of African American literature—to unmute print texts, to “read” them as full of sound and music and voices.
I have a new way of thinking about reading now, and about ethical reading and listening practices. And I like it a lot.
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