Waking Up to the Sound
Jeffrey Allen Tucker* 1. Post-Civil Rights Sounds
At a recent party celebrating a friend’s eighty-second birthday, his “smart” television, running the Pandora app (rather tech-savvy, this octogenarian), played Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’s “Wake
Up Everybody” from the album of the same name released by
Philadelphia International Records in 1975. This mid-tempo R&B classic—opening with piano glissandos, punctuated by guitar plucks and strums, and propelled by dynamic strings—displays the talents of the songwriting team of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead with Victor Carstarphen, the ingenuity of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the powerhouse vocals of Teddy Pendergrass.
The song opens by alerting listeners—of all races, presumably, women as well as men—to national and world problems: “hatred, war, and poverty.” Its chorus expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and the passive acceptance of it—“The world won’t get no better / If we just let it be”—even if the song does not argue for a reworking of social, political, and economic structures. Rather than call out those in positions of power, each verse calls on a category of workers—“teachers,” “doctors,” “builders”—perhaps asserting the ability of those addressees and of individuals to make a difference in their local communities, the nation, and the world: “We got to change it, yeah / Just you and me.” Hearing the song triggered memories of my inner-city childhood during the 1970s, including a sense of solidarity in the black community, an awareness of the challenges facing us linked to a confidence that we were all working together as best as we could to confront them.
The historical era from which “Wake Up Everybody” dates, the decade following the legislative gains of the modern civil rights movement, is significant to recent studies of US literature. In 2011, *Jeffrey Allen Tucker is associate professor of English at the University of
Rochester. He is the author of A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity & Difference (2004) and co-editor of Race Consciousness: African-American
Studies for the New Century (1997).
American Literary History, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 599–613 doi:10.1093/alh/ajv033
Advance Access publication June 12, 2015 © The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
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Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip
Hop, Poetry, and
Culture. David Caplan,
Oxford University Press, 2014.
Imagine the Sound:
American Literature after
Carter Mathes, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Freedom Time: The
Poetics and Politics of
Writing. Anthony Reed,
Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2014. at U niversity of Cam bridge on A ugust 18, 2015 http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/
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Kenneth W. Warren argued that African-American literature was conceived as a literary tradition and a collective effort on the part of
African Americans in the late-nineteenth century in order to combat racial segregation, but “with the legal demise of Jim Crow, the coherence of African American literature has been correspondingly, if sometimes imperceptibly, eroded as well” (2). Responses to Warren have been “at best lukewarm and at worst harshly critical” (Santamarina 399). In response to the claim that African-American literature is exhausted as a category following the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rafia Zafar contends that instead of “retiring” the category of African-American literature, we should “further contextualize, periodize, and particularize its currents in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (402). Recent literary criticism by
Carter Mathes, Anthony Reed, and David Caplan performs the work that Zafar describes, implicitly and explicitly responding to Warren’s arguments as well as suggesting related questions. For example, what are the social and political movements of the post-civil rights era and our own twenty-first-century moment with which black writing is concomitant? What does the “black” in “black writing” mean, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, especially when we consider the African diaspora outside of the US as well as differentiations of economic class, gender, sexuality, and generation (for starters)? And what exactly counts as “literature” anyway, and why?
The studies under review here, particularly Mathes’s and
Reed’s, also respond to Warren by representing the beginning of the post-civil rights era, from which “Wake Up Everybody” dates, and thereafter as an era of black utopianism, by which I mean the critical analysis of existing structures (social, political, economic) as well as the conceptualization of and insistence on alternatives in the cultural products of the African diaspora.1 This utopianism suggests that black writers have seen the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts as milestones in US racial history but not as an endpoint. “Post-civil rights,” therefore, names an era when the struggle for black liberation continues and new calls for social change confront complacency and racist resistance to black advancement.
Furthermore, “Wake Up Everybody,” a musical expression of post-civil rights-era utopianism, suggests “sound” as a category around which a tradition of black culture coheres and as an analytical category, one that is relevant to all three of these studies. As Jonathan
Sterne explains in his introduction to The Sound Studies Reader (2012), “Today, there is a boom in writings on sound by authors in the humanities and social sciences, whose work is distinguished by self-consciousness of its place in a larger interdisciplinary discussion of sound” “as [an] analytical point of departure or arrival” (1, 2).2
Foundational texts in this field include Jacques Attali’s Noise: The 600 Waking Up to the Sound at U niversity of Cam bridge on A ugust 18, 2015 http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/