Black Sound and the Archives

Archives play an integral role in shaping public perceptions of Black life. Accessing the archives allows us to expand our understanding of the past and create new ways of seeing and connecting to Black people. However, archives are deeply rooted in settler colonialism. Archivists have privileged the voices and perspectives of white society in their collecting practices. Black presence in the archives is often captured through the white gaze. This gaze is formed through acts of exclusion, possession, and violence. This requires us to read against the archival grain in search of ourselves. Systemic erasure reduced Black Canadian histories to fractured pieces. Moving forward, it is imperative that we document and preserve evidence of our existence.

Lately, I find myself pondering on the ways we can witness and remember how Blackness is lived in Canada. I have asked myself: What does Black memory look like, sound like, feel like? I am particularly interested in exploring sound. What is Black sound? How can we, as Black people, create soundscapes of our lives? How can documenting Black sound create a way of hearing, feeling, and remembering Black life? When I think about Black soundscapes, my mind turns to Black family and cultural life. I think of the sound of barbershops and salons. The sound of barbecues and gatherings. I think about the sound of Black people playing, laughing, celebrating, cooking, socializing. What stories can Black sound archives tell?

There is an emergence of Black sound art, which I find intriguing. For instance, Jamilah Malika Abu-Bakare’s “Listen to Black Women” or Michèle Pearson Clarke’s “Suck Teeth Composition.” I also enjoyed reading “Soundscapes Are Not Monolithic,” which was written by a collective of Black educators. They reflected on sound — its presence, its absence — and what that communicates. One educator wrote, “On a global scale, Black living spaces are full of sounds that represent joy and love…these sounds (or the lack thereof) shape our identities.”

Black sound archives are typically understood within the context of musical recordings or oral histories. Broadening the notion of Black sound archives allows us to articulate the magic of Black ordinariness. We release ourselves of the narrative that Black being must be extraordinary in order to be worthy. We disrupt the homogeneous sound of the archives. The simplicity of our lives is beautiful. It speaks to our humanity. Our everyday lives are worth celebrating and remembering.

Header image is from the Wilma Morrison fonds at the Archives of Ontario. Reference code: F 4721.

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