Heteroglossia: The Siren Song of Racial Identity in the Works of Coates and Cruz
There is a history of silence around the literature produced by people of color in the United States, one that authors Angie Cruz and Ta-Nehisi Coates break. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison articulates the dangers of this silence and the need to overcome it in her essay, "Unspeakable things Unspoken." Morrison says that "cultures, whether silenced or monologistic, whether repressed or repressing, seek meaning in the language and images available to them" (Morrison 132). For Coates and Cruz, music is the language in which they seek meaning by joining their voices with others. Often when we read texts by authors of color, we look to them for a representative narrative of racial experience. However, one author alone can't sing the unspeakable.
Cruz and Coates use popular music to amplify their own narrative voices and pluralize racial experiences and identities. Music works across genres—Cruz's fiction, Let it Rain Coffee, and Coates's epistolary memoir, Between the World and Me —and racial realities—Cruz, Dominican-American and Coates, black America. For Cruz, music signifies belonging and praises the pluralities of racial and ethnic identities. Coates uses music to grapple with questions of black existentialism and living in a black body. Above all, in addition to these specific purposes, music works to fill in silences, to speak the unspeakable, with personal and communal songs of testimony.
Music in Let it Rain Coffee brings the reader into a sensory experience of memory that expresses a longing for homeland. The Colon family patriarch yearns for home when he dances at the New York club, the Palladium. The music "made him want to go back home to the Dominican Republic. Why did he have to go downtown to feel the heart of his country?" (Cruz 76). There is a transportation that music offers, and in the case of Don Chan, it literally transforms setting. When he hears Dallas, his granddaughter, singing Guantanamera, a musical rendition of Jose Marti's patriotic Cuban poem, he remembers that it "used to come out of his small radio in the D.R. His backyard, under the shade of their mango tree, roosters crowing, a cold Presidente beer on the back of his neck…" (Cruz 195). Cruz's vivid imagery transports the reader along with Don Chan—she conjures sympathy for his displacement as he clings to a lost feeling of belonging. Even on the streets of Broadway, Don Chan finds himself "looking for the palm trees and El Malecón" (Cruz 195). Don Chan's ailing memory is frozen in time, searching for the Cuban roadway that borders the sea, a piece of his past. Music is a siren song, calling these characters home; it works across time and memory to signify displacement and belonging.
Music unifies and brings together generations and relationships within the Colón family, and also pluralizes their respective racial expressions and identities. Dallas sings Marti's Guantanamera one hundred years later—a song Don Chan's father made him memorize as a boy. But their experiences with the song differ; Don Chan recalls his Cuban father, while Dallas hears the music and feels like she's in her own music video, and that "she was free to guantanamera anywhere she wanted" (Cruz 196). Don Chan transports himself to the D.R. and to Cuba, metaphorically emphasizing his mixed races and ethnic expressions. Differently, Dallas sees herself as a New Yorker, staking her claim on the street through a modern racial expression that takes on a truly "Dominican-American" ethnic identity. Dallas's song is re-mixed by Wyclef and Celia Cruz, metaphorically emphasizing the pluralities of Dallas and Don Chan's identities—they sing a communal song as well as a personal one.
In Between the World and Me, Coates uses music as a personal expression of black existentialism that adds to, and at times breaks away from, the communal voice of black Americans. He draws strength from Ice Cube's album Death Certificate: 'Let me live my life, if we can no longer live our life, then let us give our life for the liberation and salvation of the black nation'" (Coates 37). While strongly identifying with a "black nation," true to the lyric "let me live my life," atheist Coates refuses the communal music of spirituals and hymns, saying "I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals…The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings" (Coates 103). Rather, he uses hip hop and other genres to think through his personal struggle. A Big Boi song orients Coates on the Parisian streets, expressing his feeling of belonging: 'I'm just a playa like that, my jeans was sharply creased. I got a fresh white T-shirt and my cap is slightly pointed east' (Coates 123). Like Dallas, Coates finds belonging and individual expression through music; he claims the path he walks as he joins his voice to the testimony of the black nation.
But Coates also recognizes the communal expression that music embodies that allows black Americans to claim their bodies and culture. At first, Coates sees music as an expression of fear that attempts to re-claim power over the black body: "I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew... [music told young black boys that] they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies" (Coates 15). But he comes to realize that music provides real opportunity to control one's body through dance. When Coates goes to a club and sees people dancing "in the thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot" (Coates 62) — dancers claim their bodies and their shared culture through an individual as well as a communal expression. Moreover, Coates comes to hear the expression of black culture in music; it makes tangible the power of the black race to produce art, to join the American canon. Music is like "creating a new language, one that I intuitively understood, to analyze our art, our world. This was, in and of itself, an argument for the weight and beauty of our culture and thus of our bodies" (Coates 44). Language of "weight" implies a bodily weight, a corporeal existence that can't be denied, while "our" effectively joins the communal black body.
In these novels, music is both concrete and abstract—it is in the body, in the vocal chords, but what underlies it is the intangible experiences of identity, and thus, what can be unspeakable. The beauty of intertextuality is that these authors combine voices to make the unspeakable heard, to strengthen their individual art forms with communal echoes. Cruz bases the title of Let it Rain Coffee on Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra's song "Ojalá que Llueva Café," a song that has hope for the joining of the voices of children across generations, and expresses communal hope for abundance and joy amid displacement and poverty. Coates describes music's ability to reach out to the Dreamers in ways that he alone can't (Dreamers are what Coates calls those who "believe they are white," who don't acknowledge racial oppression's legacy in America):
Even the Dreamers—lost in their great reverie—feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last song they hear before dying. We have made something down here […] They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. (Coates 149)
The joining of voices creates a black culture, a heteroglossia that legitimizes and gives weight to the collective black identity and body. When Coates describes music as a "new language," that is no accident—music is its own language that expresses truth and racial meaning amid unspeakable realities. Though Morrison specifically writes on the particular historical, and thus literary, erasure of Afro-American artists when she rejoices that "Silences are being broken" (Morrison 132), this is a universal claim that applies itself to all American literature discussing race and identity. This is not to erase or collapse racial distinctions, rather, it acknowledges the plurality of all of these voices. I hear a symphony of artistic expression in literature across the spectrum of genre and identity that breaks silence.
Heteroglossia comes from "hetero," meaning "different," and "glossia," meaning "language" or "tongue." It signifies a multiplicity of voices that weave into one another, at times going solo, in others overlaying and re-mixing. In Coates and Cruz, all voices, from Don Chan to Coates himself, make themselves heard and make their differences known. What calls to us from these texts—a siren song—is a testimony to identity that articulates the unspeakable. In spite of the struggles to give voice to racial experiences, these authors join voices with others to form real sound that resonates like the thrum of a guitar or the tremble of a soprano. They say, "we are here, and we are heard. We are a people down here—and we call out from the page."
About the author: Hannah Hinsch is a junior at Seattle Pacific University. Hannah studies English literature and creative writing. She is the editorial intern for Image journal. When she isn't studying, you can find her at Seattle Meowtropolitan, Seattle's first cat café, or huddled in the corner of a bookstore with a cup of coffee.