It was the dangerous music of open rebellion. En masse they announced what had been endured, what they wanted, what they intended to destroy. Bawling, screaming, cursing, and stomping made the cottage tremble and corralled them together into one large, pulsing formation, an ensemble reveling in the beauty of the strike. Young women hung out of the windows, crowded at the doors, and huddled on shared beds sounded a complete revolution, a break with the given, an undoing and remaking of values, which called property and law and social order into crisis. They sought out of here, out of now, out of the cell, out of the hold. The call and the appeal transformed them from prisoners into strikers, from faceless abstractions secured by a string of numbers affixed to a cotton jumper into a collective body, a riotous gathering, even if only for thirteen hours. In the discordant assembly, they found a hearing in one another.
The black noise emanating from Lowell Cottage expressed their rage and their longing. It made manifest the latent rebellion simmering beneath the surface of things. It provided the language in which “they lamented their lot and what they called the injustice of their keepers at the top of their voices.” Sonic upheaval was a tactic, a creative resource of the riot, in December and January, and again in July, when a clash erupted in the laundry room between a group of mostly black girls, including their white friends and lovers, and a group of white girls who hated the nigger lovers as much as they hated the black girls. When the police and state troopers arrived, the battle shifted and the girls fought them. The state authorities and the journalists were eager to label the clash as a race riot, but even so, they described the sound of the struggle against the state in the terms of black music. To those outside the circle it was a din without melody or center. The New York Times had trouble deciding which among the sensational headlines it should use for the article, so it went with three: “Devil’s Chorus Sung By Girl Rioters.” “Bedford Hears Mingled Shrieks and Squeals, Suggesting Inferno Set to Jaz(z).” “Outbreak Purely Vocal.” What exactly did Dante’s Inferno sound like when transposed into a jazz suite? For the reporters, jazz was a synonym for primal sound, unrestrained impulse, savage modernism. It was raw energy and excitement, nonsense and jargon, empty talk, excess, carnal desire. It was slang for copulation and conjured social disorder and free love. Perhaps this was an oblique reference to the sexual dimension of the riot. Improvisation—the aesthetic possibilities that resided in the unforeseen, collaboration in the space of enclosure, the secondary rhythms of social life capable of creating an opening where there was none—exceeded the interpretive grid of the state authorities and the journalists.
Sonic tumult and upheaval—it was resistance as music. It was a noise strike. In the most basic sense, the sounds emanating from Lowell were the free music of those in captivity, the abolition philosophy expressed within the circle, the shout and speech song of struggle. If freedom and mutual creation characterized the music, it too defined the strike and riot waged by the prisoners of Lowell. “The Reformatory Blues,” a facile label coined by the daily papers to describe the collective refusal of prison conditions, was Dante filtered through Ma Rainey and Buddy Bolden. (The sonic upheaval of Lowell Cottage echoed and sampled the long history of black sound—whoops and hollers, shrieks and squawks, sorrow songs and blues.)
The chants and cries escaped the confines of the prison even if their bodies did not: “Almost every window [of the cottage] was crowded with negro women who were shouting, crying and laughing hysterically.” Few outside the circle understood the deep sources of this hue and cry. The aesthetic inheritance of “jargon and nonsense” was nothing if not a philosophy of freedom that reached back to slave songs and circle dances—the sonic gifts of struggle and flight, death and refusal, became music or moanin’ or joyful noise or discordant sound.
For those within this circle, every groan and cry, curse and shout insisted slavery time was over. They were tired of being abused and confined; they wanted to be free. Aaron had written almost those exact words in one of his letters: “I tell you Miss Cobb, it is no slave time with colored people now.” So had Mattie’s mother. All of them might well have shouted,
No slave time now.
In the surreal, utopian nonsense of it all, and at the heart of riot, was the anarchy of colored girls: treason en masse, tumult, gathering together, the mutual collaboration required to confront the prison authorities and the police, the willingness to lose oneself and become something greater—a chorus, swarm, ensemble, mutual aid society. In lieu of an explanation or an appeal, they shouted and screamed. How else were they to express the longing to be free? How else were they to make plain their refusal to be governed? It was the soundtrack to a history that hurt.
This excerpt from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is published with kind permission of the author, Professor Saidiya Hartman, her agent Alba Ziegler-Bailey at The Wylie Agency and her publisher Valentina Zanca at Profile Books, London. Heartfelt thanks to them all .