This year, the Stowe Prize has a soundtrack. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center has hidden speakers behind the front steps of Stowe’s historic house and above the big doors on the right side of the nearby carriage house. When motion sensors are activated, a 52-minute soundscape of music and quotations about the struggle for civil rights and racial equality starts to play.
Every year the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center bestows its Stowe Prize on the author of “a distinguished book of general adult fiction or non-fiction that illuminates a critical social justice issue in contemporary society in the United States.”
The winning book, Eddie S. Glaude’s “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” inspired the center to commission a soundscape from local DJ Qiana Coachman-Strickland that is being piped outdoors at the center until November.
The sounds — of James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” of Gil Scott Heron intoning “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” of Stowe’s line “[T]he enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves” from her 1859 novel “The Minister’s Wooing,” to name just a few key moments — carry gently through the air.
Known professionally as DJ Q-Boogie, Coachman-Strickland is the only female member of the local DJ group Fourth Quarter Boyz CT. She left her job as an insurance underwriter in 2019 to become a DJ full-time.
Stowe Center director of Programs & Visitor Experience Amy Hufnagel, who conceived the exhibit, said the idea came from a project at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles spotlighting James Baldwin’s music collection, around the same time that “Begin Again,” Edward S. Glaude’s major new biography of Baldwin, was published last year.
The soundscape complements the outdoor splendor of the Stowe Center gardens. Hufnagel said “Beth Burgess, our director of collections, treats the gardens as if they were one of her collections.” They are tended year-round by center volunteers.
“Harriet Beecher Stowe also has a very interesting music collection,” Hufnagel said. “We decided to mix history together with words and music from Baldwin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Glaude. We want our visitors to fall in love with history. It doesn’t work if you’re just talking at them.”
“It was that creative moment where we realized we had to think outside the box,” said the center’s communications coordinator Quoron Walker.
A call for artists was issued through the Greater Hartford Arts Council. “We were looking for a DJ,” Hufnagel said, “and we wanted a woman’s sensibility. We wanted to mix a woman’s point of view into this.”
Listening to the Baldwin collection in particular “made me open to so much more music,” Coachman-Strickland said. “There were many songs that touched my soul.” She said Glaude has “similar tastes” to Baldwin — “a lot of jazz. Both had Nina Simone in there.” Simone, the iconic ‘60s pianist/vocalist/activist, is the only artist who landed two songs on the soundscape: “Sinnerman” and “Save Me.”
Many of the spoken pieces came from recordings of Baldwin’s speeches, as well as the audiobook of Glaude’s “Begin Again.” “My husband helped with one of the quotes from James Baldwin. It was something that was written down and not spoken, so I had him say it.” She provides the voice for the Harriet Beecher Stowe quotations. “I pictured her sounding kind of light, not loud.”
Coachman-Strickland also found room for a personal pick, an instrumental excerpt from “Thug Muzik” by Mobb Deep, “one of my favorite hip-hop groups.”
For now, the museum grounds are the only place to listen to the soundscape, due to copyright and “fair use” regulations. The center is investigating ways of putting the soundscape online, but “right now,” Hufnagel said, “this is the only way to experience this.” At the opening reception, Hufnagel announced that Travelers, which sponsored the soundscape project, is interested in having Coachman-Strickland tour the work to other cities.
The center’s grounds are open from “dawn to dusk,” Hufnagel said, “but people come at night for sure,” including children in the neighborhood. The sensors can be activated any time of night and day. “There’s not a lot of signage, or attention drawn to this. We’re interested in visitors discovering it on their own.
“This is a sensory experience,” Hufnagel said. “You can’t come away from what Qiana built without thinking of racial injustice.”
Christopher Arnott can be reached at email@example.com.