HL90 EV: Sound and Color: Music, Race, and U.S. Cultural Politics

Listen to this! One of our popular HL90s is back this year: Lucy Caplan teaches “Sound and Color: Music, Race, and U. S. Cultural Politics,” Thursdays 9:45-11:45. Lucy told us more about the class and how you can learn more.

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 by Arab American diasporic artists a century ago to music that was just created within the last few years. I’m also so excited for us to read a lot of fabulous scholarship, make our own creative work, welcome guest speakers and artists, and visit archives together.

What is something you’re excited to share with students?

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.

We heard there were some opportunities for creative projects last year. Anything planned for this semester?

Yes! Each student will give a creative presentation about a primary source, which can take many different forms. You might create a graphic score of a favorite song, for example. 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.

Do I have to be a musician to take this class?

Absolutely not! This class is open to everyone, and no prior experience with the topic is required. This is a classic Hist & Lit course in that it considers the relationship between cultural texts and the context of their creation: we’ll learn how music and sound can help us understand U.S. cultural history more broadly, and we’ll consider how historical methods can ground an analysis of popular culture. That being said, if you are a musician and want to engage with the course materials creatively, I will be really excited to brainstorm project ideas with you!

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas, and I will also be at the HL90 course preview on Wednesday, August 24 at 2pm! Please also feel free to 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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