In this article, I highlight the sonic disciplinary regimes that form the backdrop of Paule Marshall’s The Fisher King. Marshall’s final novel chronicles the climax of a generations-long antagonism within a black diasporic family that coalesces around one character’s, Sonny-Rett’s, career as a jazz musician. Sonny-Rett’s exceptional musical talent renders him the target of overlapping regimes of domestic and state regulation and discipline. His alienation from his communities follows the condemnation of jazz in the interwar period as too obscene, flagrant, and undisciplined to have a place in national culture in both the United States and France. By examining the inter- and intra-community fissures that form around the maintenance of a respectable soundscape—and thereby obedient and respectable black subjects—I argue that Marshall calls attention to the soundscape as a critical frontier in struggles to dismantle global anti-blackness. By casting black cultural production as improper and anti-national, black subjects are obliquely targeted for exclusion or extermination under the guise of seemingly neutral regulations that indict music and musical venues rather than subjects.
This work underlines Marshall as a forerunner of later Caribbean women writers—such as Erna Brodber and M. NourbeSe Philip—who view decolonization and struggles against anti-blackness as projects that require broad, international black solidarity, rather than solely national or regional affiliation. Sonny Rett’s expulsion from his home, exile from his nation, and death as an expatriate in Paris at the hands of the police signal the pressures of national belonging; conversely, his live performances elicit aural experiences of solidarity with his audience. For Marshall, jazz both links and divides Afro-diasporic communities who grapple with the often-conflicting demands of black middle class respectability and liberatory possibilities of black solidarity.
“The Profane Ear” unfolds in three parts: First, I examine how Sonny-Rett is presented as a unique aural subject whose powers of hearing are viewed as both profound and “profane”. Next, through close attention to Sonny Rett’s mother’s home, I show how domestic spaces in the novel become sites of alienation and sonic regulation whose tactics of discipline borrow from military and legal discourses, linking them with the state. Finally, by showing how the linked geographies of New York and Paris in the interwar period enforced similar laws to restrict black jazz musicians, I present Sonny-Rett’s decline and death as exemplary of the link between global anti-blackness and soundscape regulation.