During November 2014, I had the opportunity to discuss my research interests with scholars from around the world at the Emerging Paradigms: New Methodologies in Word and Music Studies, at Aarhus University in Denmark.
In my paper, "Listening, Reading, and Performing Decolonization: Music in African and African-American Literature," I explore the use of music in African and African-American literature of the 20th century. In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongo emphasizes that song infuses rituals and daily speech in African culture. From talking drums to a chief’s recitation of lineage, communication and music are intricately linked. Similarly, African-American culture fused tribal and Christian music that began with slavery. In turn, African- American music such as spirituals, blues, and jazz permeate and celebrate every facet of African-American literature. Music is an essential thread in the fabrics of African and African-American literatures, yet music also reveals and critiques what bell hooks refers to as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal” systems of power. Austin T. Graham asserts that music in texts “asks its readers to ‘do’ something beyond merely reading it” (3). Specifically, music in literature calls for historical and cultural awareness. Drawing on these cultural readings of music, the proposed essay examines Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974) and Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood (1903). Music in these novels calls upon the reader/listener to re-explore the historical contexts of oppression and participate in the performance of creating personal memory and collective history that challenges white washed narratives. Hopkins’ novel travels from nineteenth-century Boston to the American South, to ancient Ethiopia to more deeply understand the history of the spiritual “Go Down Moses” that echoes throughout the novel. Head’s novel moves into Elizabeth’s painful physical and mental life where music records represent dangerously visceral forms of colonization in Botswana. In both novels, the site of music resides in the biracial woman. Dianthe performs “Go Down Moses,” where she becomes the projection of a Black Nationalistic American history. Elizabeth’s biracial identity is connected with madness, where the music records in her nightmares emphasize colonial technology. Both texts offer a rich interdisciplinary and international inquiry for word and music studies indicating the diverse ways in which music in literature enjoins the reader/listener to critique colonial histories, and, perhaps, offer a different alternative.
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