Image of many pairs of feet, in the hold of a slave ship

Plant (n) ation

By Rita Antwi

How is sound related to solidarity?  How is sound integral to relational ontologies?    Its title gets to the heart of this audio essay:  “Plantation” for the fact that slaves were taken from their countries, enslaved and forced into slave labour on plantation farms.  “Plant” for the coded messages that (were planted) were used by enslaved people as codes to communicate, send messages and feel a sense of liberty.  “Nation” for the ship, the plantation, the reinforcement of colonization through modern-day systemic racism.    This essay explores the import of spiritual music for existential encounters with sound, on the one hand, and the ongoing legacies of slavery, on the other.

Rita explains, “The reason I put brackets around the letter (n) is to demonstrate what Frantz Fanon says in his book Black Skin, White Masks:  “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.”

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write, in their book The Undercommons, about sound and the crucial role that sound plays in knowing how enslaved people were thinking and feeling in the hold.  It is through sound, especially through soul music, jazz and hip hop, that listeners can become plural and in tuned with the oppression of others.   They write, “To have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others.  It is to feel at home with the homeless, at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued, at rest with the ones who consent not to be one”

“Because while certain abilities – to connect, to translate, to adapt, to travel – were forged in the experiment of hold, they were not the point. As David Rudder sings, ‘how we vote is not how we party.’ The hold’s terrible gift was to gather dispossessed feelings in common, to create a new feel in the undercommons.”   This audio essay explores the feel in the undercommons by inviting listeners to immerse themselves in the sound and feel of spirituals.

References and Sources

Frantz Fanon, 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. Grove Press.

Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions.

Jessica Abel, 2015. “The Deep Sea: Sound,” Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.  Broadway Books.

“Roll Jordan Roll” (spiritual, as depicted in the film 12 Years a Slave)

“Wade in the Water” (spiritual, as performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock)

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (spiritual, as performed by The Plantation Singers)

For more on the spirituals and their import for slavery and its afterlife, see “Pathways to Freedom: Music.”

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