by Amy Evans
What do over-privileged white neo-hippie boys with tattered thrift shop clothes, tie-dyed shirts and raggedy blond dreadlocks find fascinating about playing African drums? I've seen many of them as of late, playing on college campuses, pounding away on sidewalks in towns and cities. The echoes of their drums follow me as I walk as briskly as I can in the opposite direction, as if they're trying to taunt me even as I retreat away. They resound in my consciousness, inciting a violent battle between my inner feelings of helplessness, violation and absolute rage.
Each time their pale hands hit the surface of a drum's head, I flinch. I can feel the blow like a switch against my back or a slap across my face. And I feel as if my own hands are somehow suddenly shackled at my sides, useless and restrained. I can't respond. I can't defend myself. The echoes of the beating follow me, encircling me and tugging at me for my attention, like broken, restless spirits.
As I walk, I wonder. Do they know what anguish they are causing me by so seemingly innocent an act? I picture them: waiting eagerly for the next day when its warm enough and bright enough to drag their drums into the grass to play for all the world to hear. Missed beats. Slippery hands. Memories of pot smoke and long-lost Grateful Dead shows dissolving like mists in their heads. They drag and drag, settle into a comfortable, sunshiny spot, and play unannounced and uninvited, improvising the way a master's young son must have experimented with the whips and later the female slaves he was to inherit. A sort of uncontrolled banging. A pounding, a beating. A stealing away. A rape.
So what is this affinity that white boys have with playing African drums?
I have heard drums speak to me before. Much in the way I have heard trumpets and saxophones and string basses speak, eloquently articulating my mind and feet into swift rhythmic motion. An eager playmate going to rouse her sleeping friends. A parent's voice, cooing for the children to open their eyes. Not long afterward I am dancing, singing, maybe even shouting, because this voice, so tender and firm, calls loudly and insists upon a response.
But these particular drums, the sounds beaten out of them by excited white hands, do not call to me with eloquence. They strain. They cry. They accuse.
I learned recently when I studied African dance for the first time, that the drum, among many African ethnic societies, is considered to be female. Often these same ethnic societies celebrate heterosexuality as representative of the continuity of ancestral lineage, to ensure the survival of the family and community. One manifestation of this structured heterosexism is the tendency for the African drummers to be male, "complementing," one might say, the understood gender of the instrument.
The drum is a voice for communicating in these societies. In my studies, I have rarely come across any African ritual central to the community's interests and needs that does not include the drum: "In Africa it is a drum and not a scepter which is the symbol of the king and the voice of the ancestors." (Chernoff, 35; African Rhythm and African Sensibility.) The drum "calls" the people to gather, to commune, to experience an event - a meeting, a birth, a death, a celebration, a mourning - together. It is an agent for spiritual communion; it is a medium for discussion; it is an outlet for expression; it is a means of maintaining solidarity; it is a means of resistance. All these explain quite clearly why the existence and use of drums in United States slave territory was forbidden and harshly punished. If drums played such a central role in drawing together the spirits of both the living and the non-living, then they were certainly capable of inciting revolution.
The silencing of the drum is a reflection of the violation African culture experienced in the United States. It reflects as well the violation of a very particular group of Africans: women. I have heard political revolutionaries and feminists alike assert that the experience of a whole culture is measured by the status of its women. If this is the case, then the experiences of African women were no more than manifestations of cultural genocide. Women were objectified, exoticized and demonized with such relentless efficacy that the scars from this past are sorely evident even in the present. The taboo sex object, Hollywood's "ho," the man-stealing Jezebel, the "bitch," and the loud-mouthed baby maker are all stereotypes conceived from the rape of Black women by white men, essentially punishing her for her oppressors' inhumanity generations later. Even today, these same oppressors hold Black women and Black men at a distance from one another, putting strain on their relationships, whether intimate or casual.
And likewise, I wonder why it is that I see so few African men approaching the tradition of drums, while these pale boys seem just a bit too comfortable with their legs wrapped around the shaped wood and stretched skins.
My anger rises as I hear the drums' distorted voices, echoing around me like someone crying for help. But how can I answer? If I approached the offensive players, I could not articulate the multidimensional violation they are perpetrating. It's hard enough as it is for a Black woman's allegations of rape to be taken seriously, even today, in a court of law; so how could I expect my accusation of cultural rape to affect this self-assured descendent of slave masters, sitting before me with the drum propped against his pelvis? Even if he did listen this particular afternoon and give the drum temporary relief, I would only have until the next sunshiny day to revel in my triumph. When you're convinced that what you're doing wrong is all right - even when what you're doing is based on a few centuries of wrongdoing - you won't stop as quickly as that. Not without a head-spinning lot of education. Or a revolution.
So I walk on, eyes burning, until the echoes are out of earshot. When I come across friends, who ask me what's wrong, who ask why I'm crying, I force a smile and decline answering. At home, alone, I stand still and feel the parts of me that are yet not me. I feel inside me what gave my mother freckles and made her hair so fine, as well as what gave my great-grandmother such a pale complexion. I sense that it was a mixture made not from love, but from violation, and suddenly everything I had wanted to say to the pale-white drummers comes rushing back into my head, and I feel ready to speak, ready to let the painful accusations roll free. Except that now the language I wanted to use is gone. And the voice I need the most is silent.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 15; February 23, 1996
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