Fear of the Sonic [Un]Known: Sonica Trauma and Black Masculinity in the Popular Imagination – The Feminist Wire

Fear of the Sonic [Un]Known: Sonica Trauma and Black Masculinity in the Popular Imagination

By Regina Bradley

Black masculinity is frequently framed within the context of visual culture. In other words, discourses about black masculinity often consider questions of: what black men’s bodies look like; what their experiences look like; and what their identities look like. This past year, I have been pushed to think about black manhood outside the realms of visual discourse. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and, more recently, Christopher Dorner have tested the limits of a visualizing logic vis-a-vis black manhood in the American (popular) narrative. Martin’s death captured via 911 tapes, Davis’ death captured via loud music, and Dorner’s death captured on tape with an emphatic “Burn this m**** to the ground!” in a California cabin situate their experiences outside of a framework of black pathology. Of course, the publicity of their bodies is doubly bound to an easily digestible rhetoric of black pathology and the expectations of violence surrounding black men’s existence. In a word, black men’s existence does not breathe, it is restricted to a one-dimensional portrayal. That to say, black men are often rendered incapable of exhibiting emotions or experiences outside of anger or even in death. And yet, the deaths of these black men exist in a much murkier space that exists outside of the limitations pushed by the media, and ultimately, the American popular narrative.

Mark Anthony Neal’s calling for a redefining of post-Civil Rights black masculinity in New Black Man proves instructive here. Neal writes,  “The post-civil rights era has witnessed a relative explosion of what I call black-meta identities, a diversity of black identities that under the logic of segregated America, remained under wraps, mentioned in hushed tones like the crackhead uncle nobody wants to talk about . . .while many aspects of black identity have flourished in the post-Civil rights era, allowing for rich and diverse visions of blackness, black masculinity has remained one aspect of black identity still in need of radical reconstruction” (28). Neal’s observations call for an updating of the language used to contextualize black men’s experiences. Of particular interest in my research and this essay is Neal’s recognition of the “hushed tones” of black manhood often pushed to the fringes of national discourse. Identifying these “hushed tones” breaks ground to construct an alternative discourse that highlights the pain and angst often associated with black men’s lives. I’d posit this discourse is grounded in sound studies. Sound studies provides an alternative framework for understanding social-cultural memes and experiences often voided or overlooked in literal discourse. I’d like to take up Neal’s challenge for recasting contemporary black manhood by offering a critical sonic framework to contextualize those emotional and social-cultural experiences that exist for black men outside of the current American popular narrative.

Since sound is a gray area, one in which the conflicting performances of race, gender, and identity simultaneously exist, it is a pliable framework that parallels the murky discourses that black men are often conscripted to maneuver. I offer that it is also the reason why the narratives framing Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis can be brought into conversation  with the narrative framing Christopher Dorner’s violent death. Markers that circumscribe black masculinity in a social-cultural landscape outside of sound like racism and pathology do not necessarily dictate and compartmentalize those discourses within it. Given the fluidity of sonic spaces – via interpretation and production – these memes of black men’s existence often materialize, collide, and blend. For this reason I find sound particularly useful in formulating alternative viewpoints of trauma. This understanding of trauma through sound, which necessarily understands sound as a critical space, grounds what I posit as a type of sonic citizenship of masculine trauma, one where traumatic experiences are communal and enhanced through non-literal cues and texts. Indeed, I want to consider how  a sonic rendering of Martin, Davis, and Dorner’s narratives – more specifically, the violence surrounding their deaths – might provide an alternative way to understand contemporary black masculinity and trauma.

Of particular interest in establishing current renditions of trauma as a type of sonic community is an easily acceptable and recognizable foundation of contemporary black manhood: hip hop. Traumatic narratives in rap – centered around violence, death, imprisonment, drugs, and poverty – contextualize (young) black men’s experiences and influence the rendering of these as normal. It is also important to note the commodifiable aspect of blackness and gendered trauma within hip-hop. There is an inextricable link between trauma, authenticity, and profit. It is more profitable – and easier – to recognize and pay for a painful narrative than a complex one. The gangsta rap aesthetics of the late 1980s and 1990s very much overdetermines this understanding of (commercial?) black trauma. Indeed, it is through this aesthetic that Christopher Dorner’s sonic narrative resonates most powerfully for me, inverting while, at the same time, surrendering to the police brutality meme that dominated the gangsta rap of the 80s and 90s. Dorner’s experiences exist on both sides of the police brutality spectrum, ultimately collapsing under the racist and white supremacist notions continuing to frame race relations in California. Dorner’s death, captured visually through cameras on the burning cabin where he took his last stand, resonates even more through the recordings where police officers are suggesting to violently kill Dorner by “burn[ing] this m****!” That “m****,” as the late comedian Bernie Mac suggests, can be a noun meaning a person, place, or thing. Were the police speaking about the cabin or Dorner? What are the varying levels of trauma – literal and aural – inflicted upon Dorner’s body?

In similar fashion to Dorner, the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis also are grounded within, what I theorize, a sonic hip-hop sensibility. As I have previously postulated, Trayvon Martin is not only a hip-hop martyr, but, for many, his death has permitted the (re)vindication of hip-hop as a form social consciousness. That to say, his death is akin to a mix-tape; the 9-1-1 tapes that document the moments that precede and succeed his death contain a collective of voices (and static) from those who sonically witnessed his demise and, indeed, speak for Martin. Put differently, Martin’s trauma and pain is rendered visible through those sounds.

Similarly to Martin, Jordan Davis was brutally murdered for loud music (possibly hip-hop?). Both Davis and Martin are members of a hip hop generation; both are made visible via their attachments to a sonic hip hop aesthetic; and both have been sustained in public memory via the (sonic) traumas framing their bodies and narratives.

However, trauma and pathology can coexist within this framework. I’m thinking here about Lil Wayne’s subversion of the use of the trauma and violence inflicted upon Emmett Till as a sexual metaphor (gross). I’m also thinking about Rick Ross and his sexualization of Trayvon Martin’s death on singer Usher’s track, “Let Me See” (again, gross). Within the trajectory of sonic trauma discourse, the boundaries of social-historical and cultural respectability that dictate memory are not concrete. This space provides room for an ahistorical rendition and removal of agency surrounding the violent experience signifying both Till and Martin’s deaths. The lack of social-historical agency demonstrated in Wayne and Ross’ use of the trauma associated with Martin and Davis’ deaths transfers agency from racial violence to the misogynistic agency that validates today’s commercial rap’s black masculine narrative. This peddling of trauma also parallels the push for a post-racial and colorblind American (popular) culture by dismissing their lack of urgency as “art.” It is not necessary to contextualize the violence behind these instances for the sake of art consumed by a multicultural audience. What types of validation, then, does this sonic subjugation place upon not only the narratives used by these rappers but the rapper’s (black) masculinity?

Returning back to Neal’s call for a re-rendering of post-Civil Rights black masculine discourses, I look to utilize sound studies as a way to update a contextual framework for investigations into contemporary black men’s identities. Sound is malleable enough to reflect the murkiness of this contemporary social-cultural landscape while sustaining enough fluidity to let seemingly conflicting impulses of that landscape flourish. I hope to contextualize sonic meta-identities that carve out space for the complexities of masculinity to exist where literal and visual discourse falls short.


Regina N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American literature. She analyzes post-1980 African American literature, black satire, race and sound, and Hip Hop. Regina earned her BA in English from the Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her current project, “Race to Post: Negotiating White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture,” identifies negotiations of white hegemonic capitalism and black empowerment in 21st century African American popular culture.