"Hush now can you hear it": Black women's sonic literature

Sarah Mantilla Griffin, University of Pennsylvania


This study contributes to the recent critical discourse of "sonic Afro-modernity" through an exploration of the various sounds of black women's twentieth and twenty-first century writing. It argues that black women writers construct and represent a heretofore underexplored sonic epistemology that dictates the forms, spaces, and subjects of sonic Afro-modernity. Due to their removal from the verbal, the musical, and the material, these forms, spaces, and subjects have gone largely unheard within traditional Western and male conceptions of modernity. To reform the boundaries of sonic Afro-modernity, black women writers utilize what I term "sonic performatives," or nonverbal sounds that do what they sound, which invert sonic and social hierarchies such that the black female voice emerges as dominant and eminently powerful. These boundaries are further contested through the development of alternative sonic forms, which reshape the spatio-temporality of sonic Afro-modernity to correspond not to geography or history, but instead to the formal movements of sound, particularly reverberation and resonance. Critical recognition of these movements, and of the performativity of sound, requires a knowledge of listening practices developed according to a sonic epistemology. This project contends that black women write listening as a therapeutic intervention in processes of communal and subjective creation and growth, as well as a necessary critical hermeneutic. Black women's sonic literature calls for critics to develop "sonic literacy," what I define as the ability to read philosophical—not just affective—content within nonverbal sound. This literacy permits an understanding of the formation of sonic subjects, including "technosonic literary subjectivities," my term for those subjectivities created through the interface of technology, sound, and literature. It also makes audible sonic corporealities, such as the "interactive transcorporealities" articulated through literary voice, embodied sound, and listening subjects. Reading work by writers including: Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, Jayne Cortez, Toni Cade Bambara, Tracie Morris, Gloria Naylor, Adrienne Kennedy, Olympia Vernon, Octavia Butler, and Elizabeth Alexander, this study produces a gendered conception of sonic Afro-modernity in which space and time are malleable, the fantastic is ever-present, the female body is central, and the subject is heard into being.^

Subject Area

African American Studies|Black Studies|Women's Studies|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Griffin, Sarah Mantilla, ""Hush now can you hear it": Black women's sonic literature" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3509190.