The Sonic Color Line


The Sonic Color Line will open up new vistas for thinking about sound, race, and identity, and for understanding how racism is enforced through both sounding and listening. Painstakingly researched and written with verve, Stoever’s book will shape the way scholars of American and African American culture and history think about sound, even when our primary texts, like photographs and literary works, are seemingly silent.”  —Gayle Wald, author of It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television

“A gripping read and a rousing call to political attunement by way of sound, The Sonic Color Lineinvestigates scenes of racialized audition from Civil War times to the Civil Rights era. This theoretically rich and passionately argued book made me wiser about the social relations that define sound, the resonant events that suggest how the ear is disciplined, the racial politics of listening that extend into every corner of the republic.”  —Eric Lott, City University of New York Graduate Center

“That the critical intertexts for this book are not only scholarly works but also the Black Lives Matter movement and the many other political movements dedicated to racial justice is a key element in its timeliness and appeal. Engaged scholarship dedicated to an ethics of equality, community, and demystification is a powerful necessity in these times of increasing uncertainty about what ‘America’ is and how it came to be.”

—John Melillo, University of Arizona, American Literary History Online (Download full review: John Mellilo Online Review X)

“With the advent of The Sonic Color Line, Stoever provides a groundbreaking alternative to depoliticised methods of considering sound and listening in the United States.

Stoever develops new terminology to theorise the impact of auditory experiences on social life.”

–Kristin Moriah, Grinnell College, Textual Practice (Fall 2017)

“[The Sonic Color Line] is an ambitious piece that traverses historical lineages of racism exemplified through audio accounts, written advertisements, testimonies and thoughts, stories and narratives as a desolate showcase of how sound and listening enable racism’s evolving persistence. She uses key case studies as points of amplification in the ongoing historical conversations around listening’s role in Black selfhood, agency, citizenship and racial discrimina- tion; and invokes the methodologies and perspectives of literary study, performance analysis, cultural history, media study, and critical race theory to draw connection to audio’s importance in othering Blacks in American society.”

–Deepak Mehmi, York University, The Journal of Radio and Audio Media (Fall 2017)


Race is a visual phenomenon, the ability to see “difference.” At least that is what conventional wisdom has lead us to believe.  Yet, The Sonic Color Line argues that American ideologies of white supremacy are just as dependent on what we hear—voices, musical taste, volume—as they are on skin color or hair texture. Reinforcing  compelling new ideas about the relationship between race and sound with meticulous historical research, Jennifer Lynn Stoever helps us to better understand how sound and listening not only register the racial politics of our world, but actively produce them. Through analysis of the historical traces of sounds of African American performers, Stoever reveals a host of racialized aural representations operating at the level of the unseen—the sonic color line—and exposes the racialized listening practices she figures as “the listening ear.”

Using an innovative multimedia archive spanning 100 years of American history (1845-1945) and several artistic genres—the slave narrative, opera, the novel, so-called “dialect stories,” folk and blues, early sound cinema, and radio drama—The Sonic Color Line explores how black thinkers conceived the cultural politics of listening at work during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. By amplifying Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Charles Chesnutt, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Ann Petry, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Lena Horne as agents and theorists of sound, Stoever provides a new perspective on key canonical works in African American literary history. In the process, she radically revises the established historiography of sound studies. The Sonic Color Line sounds out how Americans have created, heard, and resisted “race,” so that we may hear our contemporary world differently.

Free Download of the Introduction to The Sonic Color Line via NYU Press.

To see the full Table of Contents click here.