Sounds of Archival Silence: A Literary History of Afro-Atlantic Music, 1650-1850 (manuscript in progress)

Gambian balafon player, from a travel narrative by François Froger (1698). Courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library.

How do you tell a story about historical phenomena for which there appears to be no archive? In this project, I argue that the sounds of the past are not lost, rather they are recorded in the pages of literature, on the surface of instruments, and in the strains of living musical traditions. Across four chapters, I chronicle a genealogy of early African diasporic music by drawing together diverse sources from Africa, the Caribbean, and mainland North America, including seventeenth and eighteenth-century travel narratives, nineteenth-century slave narratives, musical notation, and visual illustrations.

As a literary scholar, I interpret these works by close-reading, but I also close-listen to them, a kin strategy that scholars of sound use to show how auditory expression produces cultural meaning. Ultimately I argue that African musicians made use of the misconception that sound is ephemeral to craft performances that escaped capture while resonating across great distances. These productions, which took many forms across diverse societies, amounted to a significant force shaping life in the Americas. “Sounds of Archival Silence” restores this legacy to intellectual history by locating the confluence of print and aural culture within the literature of the early Atlantic world.


“Peculiar Animations: Listening to Afro-Atlantic Music in Caribbean Travel Narratives,” Early American Literature 52:3.

Digital Sound Studies. Co-editor, with Darren Mueller and Whitney Trettien. In production at Duke UP (October 2018).

Musical Passage: A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica, with Laurent Dubois and David K. Garner, sx archipelago: A Small Axe Journal of Digital Practice. Issue 1: June 2016.

Essay reviewing Winfried Siemerling’s The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History,and the Presence of the Past (2015) & Judith Madera’s Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (2015), in American Literature, 89.1 (March 2017).

“Re-visioning the Library Seminar through a Lens of Critical Pedagogy,” with Caroline Sinkinson, in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. Library Juice Press, 2010.

Read more about my work

A Musical Passage Across Time and Place, a blog post at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke. Here I discuss the legacies of colonialism and slavery in our current political moment and how it relates to my digital project Musical Passage as well as recent research into early modern travel narratives of Africa.

Fiddling with Freedom: Solomon Northup’s Musical Trade in 12 Years a slave was published on Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog, in a special forum on sound in the nineteenth century.