Listening in a Racial Crisis
America is good at broadcasting but it suffers from low-level listening literacy.
Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature
Nicole Brittingham Furlonge
University of Iowa Press
I return to Anna Deavere Smith often. A playwright, actor, and activist, Smith's one-woman plays work to shift narratives that justify racial bias and oppression by asking her audience to do one simple thing: listen.
In her recent sermon at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on 7 June, Smith called on the power of listening again. She directed her audience to say the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, three of the most recent victims of anti-black violence in the United States, so that they can be heard. She shared these words from the late Reverend James H. Cone's memoir, Said I Wasn't Going to Tell Nobody :
I can't stop thinking about black bodies. The blood of black people is crying out to God and to white people from the ground in the United States of America. The blood of Sandra Bland in Texas and Tamir Rice in Ohio. The blood of Emanuel Nine in Charleston, South Carolina, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. The blood of nearly 5,000 lynched blacks and the blood of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and the many thousands gone, millions gone on the auction block under the lash and in the middle passage. Black blood calls out to God all over the land.
This litany of historic violence leads to this question: "Is anybody listening?"
There's no denying that the United States is a nation of talk. We are constantly reminded of the importance of free speech. When we cast our vote we describe doing so as a way to have our voice heard. We emerged as a nation by declaring our independence. But we tire of the conversations that don't immediately confirm our worldview, particularly those discussions concerning race. I think that fatigue stems not from a deep level of engagement in such talk, but instead because we have not learned how to listen. We have a low-level listening literacy. We mistake listening for inaction.
To listen, though, is to act. It takes effort and intention. It can be exhausting. Yet deciding to listen to someone grants them recognition. Listening has the power to transform -- a person, a relationship, a moment, a movement. Perhaps even a world.
It's no surprise, then, that Smith highlights listening -- the need for it, the lack of it, the power of it -- in this sermon and in this moment. In 1992, in the aftermath of the widespread circulation of a video recording of Rodney King's 1991 beating by four LAPD officers, their subsequent acquittal, and the uprisings in Los Angeles, Smith visited the city to listen. She interviewed over 300 people throughout Los Angeles, including scholar Cornel West, Korean grocers, Beverly Hills realtors, homeless children, an unnamed white juror, truck driver Reginald Denny who was pulled from his truck and beaten during the uprisings, a former Los Angeles gang member, then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, and King's family members.
The resulting one-woman docu-play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is one installation in an on-going theater project Smith calls, "On the Road: A Search for American Character". As I wrote in my book Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature, Smith models active listening and witness bearing not only for more famous players in this event, but also for citizens without such a platform. Here is Josie Morales, a woman who witnessed King's beating:
I was scheduled to testify/.. .because I had a lot to say/and during the trial I kept in touch with the/prosecutor,/Terry White,/... I said, 'Well, are you going to call me [to the witness stand] or not?' And he says, .. . 'I don't think we're going to be using you—/And I faxed him a letter/and I told him that those officers were going to be acquitted/and one by one I explained these things to him in this letter/and I told him, 'If you do not put witnesses/if you don't put one resident and testify to say what they saw,'/And I told him in the letter/that those officers were going to be acquitted./But I really believe that he was dead set/ on that video/and that the video would tell all.' (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, 67-68).
On the stage, Smith restores Morales to the witness line-up. She gives the audience a chance to listen to her testimony. Smith performs Morales' words. She then plays a ten-second video clip of the King beating at normal speed with sound. This choice is important. During the trial and the media coverage of this instance of police violence, we never heard the sound. It was muted and often played in freeze-frames. We were unable to listen to the sounds of terror -- Rodney King's cries, violent baton blows, and powerful police voices -- also recorded in the moment.
All we could do was watch as we listened to reporters and lawyers layer on their own responses to the images on screen. Spike Lee also plays the video of the Rodney King beating with sound in the opening to his film, Malcolm X (1992). Together, the context Morales provides and the videotape with sound allows us not just to look at a horrific beating. It allows us to listen.
Smith's perpetual call to listen feels especially urgent now. She insists over and over again in her art and activism: to have a voice, you need to develop your ear. In the context of a nation that values free speech at a high premium, we must realize this: to truly have a democratic voice, Americans need to develop their individual and collective ear.
What does it sound like to bear witness -- to earwitness -- black living? To sit with the discomfort and reality of racial violence? To listen as we contend with this country's roots, reverberating with the historic and systematic dehumanization of indigenous, black, and people of color? Saturated with the blood of black bodies crying out from soil, tree leaves, and concrete? What does it sound like to listen for another's full humanity? What does it sound like to be better audiences for each other?
Where, finally, do we begin?
Perhaps with intention, the will, and a question: May I listen?
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