Academic journal article Current Musicology

Harriet Jacobs Gets a Hearing

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Harriet Jacobs Gets a Hearing

Article excerpt


What can one hear in confinement, and how can that hearing be connective lineament? In her grandmother's crawlspace for seven years--compressed as a means to escape, confined with access only to shallow air as a means to flight--Harriet Jacobs was both discarded and discardable. (1) What did it mean to be discarded, for discardable materiality to bespeak an ontological condition? What can we learn from Jacobs's existence in the crawlspace, of her throwing herself into claustrophobic conditions to stage her eventual scurrying away? Her discarded body bodies forth socially and a sociality. What is the social life--as opposed to the social death--of the discarded? Her existence in that crawlspace, as an object that was thrown and thrown away, is cause for celebration. Harriet Jacobs knew something about black performance as a mode of sociality that is still reproduced today. (2) Sound, for Harriet Jacobs, was an important resource for allowing her thriving, even in the most horrific of conditions.

   A small shed had been added to my grandmother's
   house years ago. Some boards were
   laid across the joists at the top, and between
   these boards and the roof was a very small garret,
   never occupied by any thing but rats and
   mice. It was a pent roof, covered with nothing
   but shingles, according to southern custom
   for such buildings. The garret was only nine
   feet long and seven wide. The highest part was
   three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to
   loose the board floor. There was no admission
   for either light or air ... To this hole I was
   conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The
   air was stifling; the darkness total. (3)

Jacobs's escape is a sonic event: she wrote about the sound she heard in confinement, and that hearing was foundational for the telling of her narrative. This essay considers what it means to hear Jacobs's narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (4) how sound reverberates throughout the text, how sound is residue and materiality of thought that memory refuses to forget. Severed sight, eclipsed connection: "And now came the trying hour for that drove of human beings, driven away like cattle, to be sold they knew not where. Husbands were torn from wives, parents from children, never to look upon each other again this side of the grave. There was wringing of hands and cries of despair." (5) Sound remains. Her text is a songbook. Listen:

   When I had been in the family [of Dr. Flint, (6)
   the man who purchased and subsequently
   harassed her daily for sex] a few weeks, one of
   the plantation slaves was brought to town, by
   order of his master. It was near night when he
   arrived, and Dr. Flint ordered him to be taken
   to the work house, and tied up to the joist, so
   that his feet would just escape the ground. In
   that situation he was to wait till the doctor had
   taken his tea. I shall never forget the night.
   Never before, in my life, had I heard hundreds
   of blows fall, in succession, on a human being.
   His piteous groans, and his "O, pray don't,
   massa," rang in my ear for months afterwards. (7)

Sound remains. Of course, the songbook is replete with lament. To consider the sounds, those piteous groans, is to think about how sound can prompt movement towards escape. But more, sound compels the movement of pen to paper. That is, the sounds Jacobs hears "rang in her ears for months" so much so that she not only remembered the sound, but retold the sound to her audience. That ringing sound, that emanatory vibration, are the grounds for the narrativity of the slave girl's incidents. Sound--what was heard--thus, was the residual materiality of enslavement. (8) There appears to be, embedded in the text, what Diana Taylor might call performance as a vital act of transfer, attempting to transfer the knowledge of enslavement to readers by way of recalling and retelling how the institution sounded, how the institutional force of enslavement reverberated, because sight was broken. …

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