The Sonic Color Line

Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening

352 pages

14 halftones

November, 2016

ISBN: 9781479889341



Add to Cart Available: 10/14/2016

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Jennifer Lynn Stoever is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton.  She is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog.

All books by Jennifer Lynn Stoever

The unheard history of how race and racism are constructed from sound and maintained through the listening ear. 
Race is a visual phenomenon, the ability to see “difference.” At least that is what conventional wisdom has lead us to believe.  Yet, The Sonic Color Line argues that American ideologies of white supremacy are just as dependent on what we hear—voices, musical taste, volume—as they are on skin color or hair texture. Reinforcing  compelling new ideas about the relationship between race and sound with meticulous historical research, Jennifer Lynn Stoever helps us to better understand how sound and listening not only register the racial politics of our world, but actively produce them. Through analysis of the historical traces of sounds of African American performers, Stoever reveals a host of racialized aural representations operating at the level of the unseen—the sonic color line—and exposes the racialized listening practices she figures as “the listening ear.”                 

Using an innovative multimedia archive spanning 100 years of American history (1845-1945) and several artistic genres—the slave narrative, opera, the novel, so-called “dialect stories,” folk and blues, early sound cinema, and radio drama—The Sonic Color Line explores how black thinkers conceived the cultural politics of listening at work during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. By amplifying Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Charles Chesnutt, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ann Petry, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Lena Horne as agents and theorists of sound, Stoever provides a new perspective on key canonical works in African American literary history. In the process, she radically revises the established historiography of sound studies. The Sonic Color Line sounds out how Americans have created, heard, and resisted “race,” so that we may hear our contemporary world differently.


  • "That the critical intertexts for this book are not only scholarly works but also the Black Lives Matter movement and the many other political movements dedicated to racial justice is a key element in its timeliness and appeal. Engaged scholarship dedicated to an ethics of equality, community, and demystification is a powerful necessity in these times of increasing uncertainty about what 'America' is and how it came to be."

    —John Melillo, American Literary History Online

  • "The Sonic Color Line will open up new vistas for thinking about sound, race, and identity, and for understanding how racism is enforced through both sounding and listening. Painstakingly researched and written with verve, Stoever’s book will shape the way scholars of American and African American culture and history think about sound, even when our primary texts, like photographs and literary works, are seemingly silent."

    —Gayle Wald, author of It's Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television

  • "A gripping read and a rousing call to political attunement by way of sound, The Sonic Color Line investigates scenes of racialized audition from Civil War times to the Civil Rights era. This theoretically rich and passionately argued book made me wiser about the social relations that define sound, the resonant events that suggest how the ear is disciplined, the racial politics of listening that extend into every corner of the republic."

    —Eric Lott, City University of New York Graduate Center