HL90 EV: Sound and Color: Music, Race, and US Cultural Politics

We’re so excited to share more of this fall’s HL90 seminars, and Lucy Caplan told us all about her new course, Sound and Color, which meets Thursdays, 12:45-2:45. She also shared some podcast recommendations!

Tell us about your class!

I’m incredibly excited to teach “Sound and Color: Music, Race, and U.S. Cultural Politics” this fall. The class explores the relationship between race and sound in the modern United States. We’ll ask how what W. E. B. Du Bois famously called the “color line” is produced – and challenged – via music, noise, and sound. Answering this question will be an interdisciplinary endeavor: it entails reading novels like Invisible Man; watching musicals like In the Heights; and listening to a lot of music, from songs recorded a century ago to others that were just created within the last few years. I’m also excited for us to read a lot of fabulous scholarship and to engage in some soundmaking projects of our own.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students this semester?

One of my favorite items on the syllabus is “A Night-Club Map of Harlem” – I love this primary source so much that I actually have a copy of it hanging on the wall in my office! It was published in 1933 by the African American illustrator E. Simms Campbell, and it evokes the vibrant geography of the Harlem Renaissance, highlighting popular clubs, star performers, and the goings-on of Black residents and white spectators alike. I can’t wait to discuss how this image helps us listen to the Harlem Renaissance, especially in relation to literary texts like James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which we’ll be reading the same week that we look at Campbell’s image.

Are you doing any cool projects or activities in class?

Yes! Each student will give a creative presentation about a primary source, which can take many different forms. You might create a visual score of a favorite song, for example, or produce a brief podcast based on a close reading of a passage from a novel. Another format, which students have really enjoyed in the past, is called Critical Karaoke. It’s a type of analysis in which the speaker analyzes a song while that song plays in the background – meaning that your academic analysis of the song is exactly as long as the song itself. (You can totally sing if you want to, but you don’t have to!) It’s a really fun and creative way to add your own voice – literally – to the conversation about a cultural text.

Speaking of podcasts…what are some of your favorites?

I was thrilled earlier this summer to listen to Radiolab’s “The Vanishing of Harry Pace,” which tells the story of a historical figure who will feature prominently in our class! Pace was a founder of the first Black-owned record label in the United States, Black Swan Records; we’ll be listening to a bunch of recordings from the label this semester. The series is in six episodes, so it’s great for a long drive and/or beginning-of-the-semester unpacking. Check it out here.

How can students learn more?

In addition to the HL90 course preview on Monday, August 23 at 2pm, I’ll be holding drop-in Zoom office hours on Tuesday, August 24 from 10-11am. You can also email me at Lcaplan@fas.harvard.edu to ask a question or to set up a meeting. I look forward to meeting you!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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