This essay examines 1890s commercial audio recordings—none of which is known to exist today—that reenacted lynchings of African Americans,in particular, the mass spectacle lynching of Henry Smith of Paris, Texas, in 1893. Despite rumors that the recordings were made live, they were in fact examples of an early, nonmusical genre in commercial phonography known as the "descriptive specialty," which often involved studio reenactments of current events. Like other descriptive specialties, these recordings were meant to exhibit the phonographic medium to capture audience attention. Using descriptions of the recordings from period documents, the essay argues that there was a specific confluence between lynching reenactments and the notion of a "phonographic voice," between sounds elicited from persons on the edge of "the human" and the sound imagined to come from the machine itself. It places the recordings in the context of contemporary representations of blackness in phonography and ponders their place in the longer history of recorded sounds of blackness. It also argues against the fixation on disembodiment among some media historians and theorists who work on phonography and contemporaneous technologies.
Social Text – Duke University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2010