Listening for the Edges

Toni Morrison has taught us to listen for the Africanist presence, to see it as it marks the borders of U.S. history, culture, politics. To listen for the unsaid and the unsayable, to read the sweat of slave labor in the elaborate ink that wrote for, with, and against slavery. From Du Bois and Hughes we know to listen for the edges: to the strange, the uncanny, the elusive. Du Bois calls these “sorrow songs.” Hughes describes Negroes singing. Black sounding in what Fred Moten calls “the break,” the “interval,” the thing for which one must listen. It is slippery. Trickster sounds and sounding. You must listen for it. Doubt you’ve heard it. Listen again.

While being interviewed about Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx mentioned playing Fred Hammond’s “No Weapon” as Kerry Washington was being “lashed.” Note the order of those names, the sandwiching that could mean nothing, unless you know about Fred Hammond, unless you know the song, unless you know about faith and music in slavery. The song appears nowhere in the film. It is an absent background that Foxx foregrounds.

From what I can tell, the copious commentary on the film’s racial politics—its “buckets of blood,” its use of “nigger” (I refuse to play the n-word game. I’ll do it when we also use the s-word), the problem of Foxx’s complicity, the problem of black anger, the fantasies of revenge, the destruction of black bodies—has had nothing to say about this extra-textual, perhaps, paratextual revelation. While cited in many news reports—a YouTube clip is available—it has been taken to mean nothing. An extra little detail about the film making process.

This absence could stem from a disengagement with spirituality, a belief that we are secular. From what I can tell—I will not watch this film, because I don’t watch film in general—the film is not overly concerned with spirituality. At least, no one has commented on spirituality in it. And by spirituality, I really mean black Christianity under slavery. What, then, does it mean for Foxx to perform an excerpt from Hammond’s song, to insist on this alternate soundtrack, memory-track, to the movie?

Foxx’s rendition of the song begins to capture what is haunting about it. In Hammond’s version, call is met with response, invocation with repetition, solo voice with chorus. It is incantatory, hypnotizing:

No weapon formed against me
Shall prosper
It won’t work

A chorus comes in and out, joining Hammond on specific words, especially “It won’t work.” The chorus insists that God “will come through.” This is song as hope, song as prophecy, song as life-giving potential. It is a reminder of songs under slavery. It is a promise song. It is song as resistance.

Those who know how to write about music can be far more eloquent about this song.

I am struck by its repetition. Its insistence on a promise. The register it shares with Hughes’s “Let America be America Again.”

There are more local ways to read this song within the context of Foxx’s interview. Foxx understands the interview format. He understands what it means to promote a film. He understands, as well, the racial performance demanded from him. Notice in the Jimmy Kimmel clip his insistence that Kimmel’s jokes do not travel well to black audiences. Against Kimmel’s insistence that this film can be joked about, that Washington’s lashing can be handled with a light touch, Foxx insists on other readings, other ways of feeling about the interview format.

As Foxx sings the brief excerpt from Hammond, he reads the scene of the interview. He understands Kimmel’s racial violence, and insists on naming it as a “weapon.” Insists on claiming a space, through music, that he can occupy. One might call this an act of everyday resistance.

But it’s also a performance of resistance that can slip by too easily. How to track these elusive moments of racial resistance? The barely-heard hum that creates a sonic space of refuge? The tiny lapel pin that carries memories and anticipates futures? The minor elements of style understood as “merely decorative” that provide solace, armor, comfort? How might one make such fragments meaningful?

A comment on YouTube reads,

Jamie Foxx brought this song to my attention… Can’t wait to go see Django Unchained this weekend love Kerry Washington and this song moves me to tears every time! No weapon can bring me down. I’m a young woman and I have goals and dreams set for myself! I graduate HS next year and I’m going somewhere in life. No weapon formed against me shall prosper.

This song precedes viewing the film. Foxx’s testimony precedes Tarantino’s work. And it does a different kind of labor.

The song that precedes the scene, that sets the scene, that allows for a different reading of the scene. The strains of music that anticipate the scene, that shape its possibilities. This hearing we are called to do before taking “sight” as evidence. Scholars of visual studies have noted that we privilege “sight” as a metaphor for knowledge. “I see” means I understand or I can verify.

From Kara Keeling and others, I have been learning to listen for the traces, to strain for the elusively heard, to pay attention to the feeling produced by faint strains heard over impossible distances.

How do we listen to what Foxx is saying? To Hammond’s insistence? To a kind of memory-making and history-producing that struggles against the film-machine? What might it mean to listen to Foxx and Hammond before seeing the film? To hear them as a sotto-voce soundtrack to the film? What might it mean to take such extra-scenic, para-textual moments as sites for commentary?

I ask these questions even as I know that YouTube clips are elusive, such testimony disappears, that we are going to lose Foxx’s testimony—some might say testifying. Against such inevitable losses, I want to pause to listen. To strain after another meaning. To believe, if only momentarily, in the promise of everyday resistance.

One thought on “Listening for the Edges

  1. Also brilliant. I’ve noted the absence (except in a few cases) in almost all of the commentaries on this film of engaged discussion about Tarantino’s elision of black collective action, of the communities of resistance and social and affective agency that Hammond’s song indexes, of the black and brown bondspeople and soldiers who fought not just before the Civil War but during it and after it. All of this labor, all of these beings, vanish before the fiction of a solo (black male) superhero, who must, of course, be accompanied by a white businessman. The reality of the history gets muted; more is missing than those sorrow songs, though Foxx does us the favor of noting that he turned the volume up.

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