Hearing Africa: Auditory Perception and the Construction of Race in Early Modern England

Amy Long Caffee, University of South Carolina


This thesis interrogates the interplay of ideas regarding the body and the senses in the early modern English auditory world as encounters with sub-Saharan Africans increased in regularity. It posits that bodies were essentially connected through sensory observation and experience, and that as the self was engaged with the other, the self strengthened its identity by engaging in a process of othering, forming rudimentary stereotypes of outsiders based on phenotypic features. This thesis concerns the auditory aspects of sensory exchange, and shows that Europeans listened for distinct sounds emanating from the bodies and environments of Africa and Africans. Those auditory perceptions were evaluated in terms of how they measured up to prevailing societal and cultural expectations of what civility, prosperity and Christianity sounded like. Racial thinking about Africans in the Anglo-American world began much earlier than has been acknowledged, and the senses played a critical role in its development.