Black Visual Frequency: A Glossary | Tina Campt | Tuesday, 05.06.2018


“In acoustics, the number of complete vibrations or cycles occurring per unit of time in a vibrating system such as a column of air. Frequency is the primary determinant of the listener’s perception of pitch.” Harvard Dictionary of Music

“The rate of repetition of a regular event. The number of cycles of a wave, or some other oscillation or vibration, per second is expressed in hertz (cycles per second).” Oxford Dictionary of Physics

A few years ago, in the middle of writing my last book, I asked a former student, a brilliant musicologist named Matthew Morrison, to help me understand the relationship between two terms that formed the bridge for my conception of the link between sound and images: frequency and register. He was finishing his dissertation and apologized profusely for the muddiness of his thinking. I’m not sure I told him, but for the record, it was the most lucid articulation of these two terms I have ever read. I still have his email, in which he explained:

“Frequency is how humans access sound, as sound is a particular physiological manifestation of how we absorb certain frequencies – the vibrations that create a frequency are translated to what we hear physiologically. Then our cultural relationship to sound determines what we hear as ‘registration.’ [In this way,] Frequency precedes register, if we are coming from the perspective of human perception.”

Matthew directed me to the definition of frequency cited above from the Harvard Dictionary of Music, which I supplement here with a definition from the field of physics. I juxtapose them to highlight the overlap between our apprehension of music, a particular (and some would say, particularly pleasing) arrangement of sound, and the material organization of sound as fundamentally a cycle or cycles of vibration. The fold that connects them is a question of vibration and cycle or more specifically, repetition and register.

Everyone who knows me or knows my work knows that I’ve been obsessed with the frequency of images for quite some time. Those who know me well know that frequency is my attempt to understand the impression images leave on us, their impact, and how they move us. Those who know me less well think I’m a little nuts for thinking about this and don’t see any connection. But for those who are curious and open to exploration, I take pleasure in explaining a bit more about my beloved obsession…

As a black feminist, I’m interested in the frequency of images of black communities because I believe that frequency gives us profound insights into the everyday experiences of black folks as racialized subjects. Taking Matthew’s words as our roadmap, if frequency is how we access sound, analogously, the frequency of images gives us access to the impact of images, in other words, how they register and how they affect us. To me, that’s different than what we see; it’s about how we see things. And while sight may be the privileged sensory modality through which we encounter images, I believe they also have frequencies and registers that exceed merely what we see.

And now, a word from the impatient reader: If I’m going to continue reading this, I really need an example! Lucky for you, here it comes…

My obsession with visual frequency went to a whole new level when my friend Brian Wallis shared a video with me that completely got under my skin: Afro-American Work Songs In A Texas Prison.1It was one of the first films I screened for students in my seminar, “The Practice of Refusal.” As opaque as the title may sound, it hailed a marvelous group of students who energetically took up the course’s ambitious aspiration to rethink the terms of black visuality and its refusal of dominant categories of subjecthood in ways that exceeded my wildest expectations. It’s an obscure work that no one I’ve spoken with has ever heard of except for Brian, who had been researching and interviewing one of its creators, folklorist Bruce Jackson, for a piece he was working on for Aperture Magazine. In his piece “Bruce Jackson: On the Inside,” Brian describes it as follows:

“In March 1966, Jackson joined with folk singer Pete Seeger and his family to film the last vestiges of African American work songs at Ellis prison farm, near Huntsville, Texas. The mesmerizing thirty-minute, black-and-white documentary film they produced, Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, records the chants and the rhythmic chopping, with very little narration. It’s the only known film record of a tradition that, by the following year, had literally vanished.”

Black men clad in white: white shirts, white trousers, white hats, wielding axes crossing bodies from shoulder to shin. They sway back and forth, in and out, up and down. They syncopate in sets of two as one moves in and the other moves out, one up, one down. Their white uniforms are engineered for extreme contrast and visibility: contrast rendering dark skin in high relief, making black bodies crassly visible against the shadows of wooded open spaces of potential respite or escape. Their stark contrast is also intended to enact their namesake of uniformity by erasing individuality in the service of indistinction and interchangeability. One is the same as the other, exchangeable, disposable units of irretrievable, unreformable, exploitable labor. But their uniformity is belied by expressive singularities: hats cocked jauntily to one side, brims folded up, crowns pressed or folded or squared; belted or baggy trousers; axes twirling in the air punctuating or embellishing every other strike.

What animates the film is not the carceral gaze that relentlessly circumscribes it. What we see is indisputably sonic. It sounds at a frequency of fugitive subjectivity through the syncing of call and response that produces a sonic black sociality. It is a sonic black fugitivity rooted in the plantation which at the same time exceeds it.

Each group of white-clad-black-bodies are synced rhythmically in labor. Wielding axes, saws or hoes, the prisoners fell trees, till earth, chop wood in a rhythm synchronized by song. Song is their metronome – a metronome that makes their work not only seen, but heard. Sound and rhythm animate their movement by creating visual patterns that affect us and affect us differently in this film. For the film registers not only visually, it registers in/as frequency – a frequency that unsettles and undermines the documentary form that archives the disappearance of this particular carceral practice. The work songs we encounter in this film – a legacy passed forward in time from plantation captivity to the penal captivity of black bodies in the US – are a relic of the past. A direct descendant of the plantation work song, as Jackson and Seegers’ documentary explains, prison work songs deployed the rhythmic call and response structure as an inherently protective sonic modality that challenged the disposability of captive labor in US plantation slavery. When falling out of time was a deadly indication of fatigue or a lack of productivity that solicited punishment or murder, the work song sounded an internal alarm to take care of those who may fall aside. In doing so, it forged a sonic collectivity of protection and solidarity.

In his glossary for our seminar on “The Practice of Refusal,” Donovan Redd gave me an beautiful interpretation of the frequency of this film which he describes as:

“a recomposition of physicality and sentimentality in how workers attune themselves to each other in relation to the call and response of the work songs. As the Black prisoners work, they do not look at each other, only the spot where they are laying the head of their ax. They feel each other through the timing (or falling out of time) and the tone of each other’s voices, of the thud of each other’s axes hitting timber. Any falling out of time, as a sign of weariness, registers an affect, touches the one leading the work song who subsequently shifts his delivery, calling ‘for all to move,’ to shift the timing of their response, to help the weary feel his way back into their collective line of protection, constituting the hapticality of the work songs.”

Yeah, I know. Hapticality is not yet part of the glossary. It’s definitely yet to come, but let’s think of this as a teaser for now. Let’s linger instead on the keyword at hand: frequency. This film most definitely has a frequency, which is not to be confused either with what it shows or even with what it attempts to allow us to see. Its frequency is wholly sonic, but not in the form of a soundtrack – the interface between the visual and the sonic with which we are most familiar. Its frequency is both wholly cyclical (i.e. repetition) and full of vibration. Its frequency registers through the call and response of black fugitivity. More on that in posts to come...