Co-sponsored with Music
Bonnie Gordon (University of Virginia)
Entangled Soundscapes: Thomas Jefferson, Haiti, and Diasporic Sound
In 1791, Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter Martha exchanged a series of letters that brought two seemingly dissimilar topics into close proximity: a discussion of domestic musical life in their Virginia home and events unfolding in the French colony of Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. The most historically significant of the events unfolding in Saint Domingue was what we now recognize as the Haitian revolution, which was catalyzed in August of 1791 by a clandestine ceremony in which Dutty Boukman led an oath to fight for freedom and a mixed raced priestess named Cecile Fatiman consecrated a vow. This paper explores the sonic resonance of that ceremony and its reverberation in diasporic sound. I hear the terror of slave revolution, the terror of the imperial gaze, suddenly transforming into the largely aural experience of white listeners hearing black resistance. And the contrasts between the cultivated European music of Martha Jefferson Randolph and the incantations of the Vodou priestess resonate with the entanglement of music and sound emanating concurrently from the power structures in a racist chattel slave society and in early American democracy. Leaping forward over two centuries, the talk concludes with some thoughts on the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. As the town made famous by Jefferson, which has never been quiet or peaceful, moves from hashtag back to flashpoint, I’m convinced that listening to the past and to the complicated relationship among sound, song, aesthetics, and nation building matters very much.