A friend of mine posted this on my Facebook because she knew I was in this class. I think you guys might appreciate it.
Radiolab article on Horowitz’s research: “The Ears Don’t Lie”
[Edited by Prof. Brennan because the link wasn't working.]
A friend of mine posted this on my Facebook because she knew I was in this class. I think you guys might appreciate it.
Radiolab article on Horowitz’s research: “The Ears Don’t Lie”
[Edited by Prof. Brennan because the link wasn't working.]
In order to create a soundtrack that addresses the sounds cape of Fredrick Douglass’ self narrated life story, it seems prudent to attempt to transpose familiar sounds and patterns that might evoke emotions and imagery in synch with the emotions evoked by Douglass. Hearing is a sense that we unconsciously regulate, literal sounds and songs described by Douglass in his narrative, while imaginable, are un familiar to us. They do not invoke the same emotions and thoughts when we hear them as they do when they fall upon the ears of the individuals in Douglass’ time. I would propose an unconventional approach to a soundtrack for a recreation of the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass. Imagine an interactive media format in which the limitless capabilities of the internet are at your disposal. The main plot points and episodes of the narrative are displayed, and the viewer/ listener can chose songs for each section of the story. Music and song can express and stimulate emotional sensory and understanding. This is exemplified in the songs sung by slaves in 19th century America. But the songs of these slaves provide a soundtrack that is specific to their own plight and experiences. We may be able to absorb the communicated themes and emotions in the song, but they are not our own. By offering the option of choice to the viewer/listener, a greater connection is created. Each scene in the narrative has its own standard sounds, cracking whips, yelling voices, and the grunts and noise of labor perhaps. However, layered over these sounds is the song chosen by the viewer/listener that is meaningful and specific to that individual in particular. This would allow for a deeper connection and understanding of the soundscape of history by connecting it to modern day noise, music specifically. To provide an example of the logistics of such a medium for narration, I will attempt to divide Douglass’ story into sections, applying songs from specific artists that I feel would tie my own soudnscape to Douglass’. For the first episode, we can take the period in which Douglass resides on the “Great House Farm”. Perhaps a track like “Money” by Pink Floyd could encapsulate the image of economic extortion that is exemplified in the plantation structure of the Great Farm. As Douglass moves into the city of Baltimore, education is the theme of his dialogue. Maybe another Pink Floyd hit “The Wall” would be appropriate to describe the mentality of the slave owner who breeds ignorance through censorship. When Douglass is sent to Covey, and the two men do battle, a song such as “Suicide and Redemption”, a heavy metal, cathartic instrumental by Metallica’s Kirk Hamett would be provide an emotional tie to Douglass’ baptism by combat. In Baltimore, as he works to learn a new trade, Douglass could be seen accompanied by the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night”. And lastly when he makes his escape to the North, the movie could end on a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Mental connection to sound and music is based in familiarity. Reading Douglass’ accounts of antebellum America, including his sound imagery and description cannot provide us with a full idea of the interpreted soundscape. Incorporating songs that we are more familiar with and transposing them into the world of Douglass recreates his Narrative in a unique and powerful way.
Depicting the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in film would be no easy task. True to its form, the narrative is a collection of memories from Douglass’ time immersed in the cruel, scary, and unforgiving world of slavery. Although Douglass recounts many fascinating and gripping tales that would leave moviegoers satisfied— albeit angry and disgusted, as they should be—much of the narrative’s power and impact comes from Douglass’ musings and opinions about what he experiences. Despite this fact, I would not make a documentary, because I find that they usually resonate less than well-made historical dramas. As a result, in an effort to compensate for the lack of narration, I think the music of the film should assume the complementary role to the scenes that the narration did in the book, providing an extra layer to the overall environment and feelings created by slavery. In the essay that follows, I will describe what is essentially the theme song to the movie, which would play in the opening credits to set the mood, and which would also be heard at various other moments throughout the film.
The main keynote sound would, not surprisingly, be the harsh crack of a whip. I would like to use the whip in place of a snare drum. I think interesting things could be done with the beat, and especially the whip sound, that would mirror the feelings of the time period. For example, a slight echo would be placed on the whip sound, causing it to repeat and fade out, but not completely before the next “snare” hit. In this way, the sound of the whip would never completely disappear, thus reflecting the lasting impression the whip has on the slaves. Its not as if the whipping happens and then it is over with; on the contrary, the torturous whippings serve as a constant reminder of the slaveholders power, the pain stays long after, and the memories and scars are forever. When recounting his first six hellish months with notorious slave breaker Mr. Covey, Douglas writes, “scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back” (36). Another component of the song would be the unusual time signature of 7/4, because this is not a rhythm we are accustomed to hearing. Even with the whip/snare falling at regular intervals, it would take a while to get used to it. The reason for doing this would be to reproduce the feelings of the slaves in regards to the violent whippings—despite their regularity, the slaves can never fully get used to them or accept them as commonplace, normal occurrences.
Another sound that would be in the song, probably just at the very beginning, would be a dark, ominous, and somewhat ambiguous growl. The growl would symbolize two things: the rumblings of Douglass’ stomach due to hunger, and the growls of a beast—a beast that the institution of slavery attempts to turn all slaves into. Douglass repeatedly references these two themes as facts of slavery. Douglass speaks of the “painful gnawings of hunger,” and writes, “A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe and smoke-house” (31). It could be argued that this hunger fed his rebellious nature, because he is willing to accept harsher conditions and many more whippings if he can “get enough to eat, which is not the smallest consideration to a hungry man” (34). The other theme the growl represents, the dehumanizing of slaves, is another thought that occupies much of Douglass’ time. He writes that when he is broken and slavery has engulfed him, he is “a man transformed into a brute,” who is worked to such exhaustion that he spends his scarce leisure hours in a “beast-like stupor” (38).
Although the film adaptation of this narrative would surely include much of the later portions of the book, where he learns to read and write, educates himself, starts to earn money in Baltimore, and eventually gains his freedom in the North, I do not think that the music should change during those scenes. Throughout the narrative is a pervading sense of secrecy, a constant reminder that although he has escaped, most slaves are not as fortunate. Slavery continues to exist. He continues to live in fear of being betrayed and kidnapped back into slavery, and his anger at the injustice of it all persists. Although he is now free, in the eyes of many, his identity is that of a runaway slave first, and a human being second. Since the music should be setting the backdrop in the film as his thoughts do in the narrative, the sounds of the growls, and even more importantly the whip, should be heard throughout the film, signifying that that his tale is not one of success, but of first steps; that although slavery is in his past, he will never be able to forget.
Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” describes the world of slavery through the eyes of a man who managed to escape his chains and become a part of the movement against slavery. Turning his narrative into a film, however, will require a detailed soundscape to augment the visuals. Taking from Douglass’s recollections, a soundscape can be constructed to view antebellum America through the eyes of a slave. This soundscape must convey the powerful characteristics of singing, pain, and the silence of free labor, all as Douglass portrays them in his work.
The opening of the film will take place when Douglass was younger and still living on the plantation. The first frames of the film will focus on swaying crops, with no evidence of the plantation itself. Sounds of the crops swaying in a gentile breeze will give a sense of calm. Sounds of the slaves in the fields, working and singing solemnly will fade in, followed visually by a scythe cutting through the crop. The singing, although completely new to the viewer, should embody the collective sadness of the slaves and stir emotion. Douglass’s recollection of his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass, 8) should be evident in the singing, through the use of slow and labored tempo, of single voices to emulate loneliness, and of clear pain in the voices. The singing continues as shots of the plantation are showed, eventually focusing on the character Douglass as a child.
As we continue to follow him, the muffled sound of whip cracks and an overseer shouting slowly fade in, almost beyond the awareness of the viewer. As Douglass enters a kitchen, the painful sounds of his aunt being whipped are brought out from the filter and become obvious, to a painful extent for the viewer. The earlier, peaceful sounds of the plantation fade behind this filter, focusing attention to the sounds of the whip, ”horrid oaths” from the overseer, and the shrieking aunt present the scene which Douglass calls “a horrible exhibition” (Douglass, 4). As the sounds of the “bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation” (Douglass, 5) sink in, we hear Douglass as narrator enter with “His presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling to the ranks” (Douglass 13). Though this, Douglass can describe the pains of slavery.
Now later in Douglass’s life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the camera displays the wharf, while the soundscape is rich with that typical of the setting: there is the constant sound of seagulls and people working and talking, and of the water as it splashes against the sides of the ships and the wharf. As the camera focuses on Douglass, new to the whole setting, the sounds of the wharf and the laborers become quieter, augmenting Douglass’s narration of “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To Douglass, the lack of servitude and painful submission in these laborers makes their work comfortable and silent, without the sounds of desperation and anguish. As Douglass states, “Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man” (Douglass 67). Quieting the surrounding environment that Douglass finds himself in allows the viewer to experience the confusion of free sounds as Douglass did, lessening the world around him.
To accurately describe a work filled with painful and inspiring images through sound, one must recreate the emotions originally felt by the author. In doing this with Frederick Douglass, we construct a soundscape terrifying with its pain, sadness and cruelty, but uplifting with hope. The overwhelmingly negative sounds, from the whips to the solemn singing, lead way to a found silence in freedom, and from here we can see Douglass’s ability to shape a lighter path ahead.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.
Like all memoirs, The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass is written in hindsight. It is a reflection on the past and no mere imagining of the mind. Douglass’ does have a point of view, which is irrefutable, but a reader cannot help but feel that he does his utmost to write with clarity and fairness. He attempts, if not succeeds, to create a somewhat objective window into the life of a particularly lucky and contemplative slave: himself. For the purposes of this particular examination, his narrative contains two main groups of writing, and as such two collections of sound. One of which concerns the tensions Douglass found himself surrounded by during his tenure as a slave. The latter deals with moments of peace, reflection, and simplicity. By taking a period of violence in comparison with one relative peace, I hope to examine the dynamics of sounds, circumstances, and their meaning to Douglass.
As any reader peruses Douglass’ descriptions of his slave life, certain characteristics crop up time and time again. Some of these generally ubiquitous aspects fall under the heading of brutal, violent, cold, isolated, fearful, ignorant, and alone. But most hurtful of all are the occurrences that highlight the sheer powerless nature of the slaves as humans. One of the most striking and despicable examples that Douglass highlights with a tone of cold reality is found on page 14 when Mr. Gore kills Demby the slave without a second thought. After Demby stumbles to a near creek to escape the harsh crack of the whip on his fleshy back, Mr. Gore, the overseer, follows him and announces that “he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would should him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his poor victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more” (Douglass 14). This event can be examined through a variety of lenses, but let us turn our heads towards the juxtaposition of anticipatory silence punctured by extremely violent sounds. At the beginning of this section, a short but horrendous pattern took center stage. The sequence of outright wailing and pleading by Demby to be spared the whipping would be cut through by the vicious snap of the supersonic whip upon his soft flesh, only to be followed by screams distraught pain. This would repeat only a few times. Then a scuffling of feet would ensue only to be followed by the thump of sprinting. Afterwards an explosion of splashing would be coupled with a moan of relief as the cool water of the stream cascades down Demby’s burning whip marks. But alas, now that the spurt of resistance is over, a deathly silence falls over the group as Mr. Gore confidently approaches the stream. He tells Demby, in a low a malicious whisper, he has until the count of three to obey. Demby is now confronted with an ultimatum: life and slavery, or death and freedom. The contemplative and tense silence is broken only by Mr. Gore’s count of three. Finally, after an eternity, the stillness is shattered by the seismic crack of the gunshot and the splash of Demby’s body as he crumples. After that, silence again.
In contrast to the extremity of both silence and jarring noises, when Douglass begins working as a freeman near the end of his narrative, the sounds change entirely. Instead of combat between stillness and conglomerations of violent sounds, he finds solace in “stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my own master” (68). This moment to me is one of the most beautiful reflections within the entirety of this book. I can hear his grunts and the drop of oil canisters onto the boat. Hear the gangplank creaking as Douglass slowly advances back and forth across it. His breathing mixes with the stirring of the water below as it shifts the boat ever so slightly. Although I can’t hear it, I can see him smile. And intrinsically important to the simple peace of this moment is the cacophony of sounds from all around him. The ship is alive with action and preparations but absent of a few very important sounds. There is no whip slicing through the air. There is no holler of pain and no exclamations towards god for mercy. There is no silence, but there is peace in the shift of the ship and efforts of the workers freely performing their duties.
Whilst both scenes deal with manual labor these two excerpts differ hugely in the corresponding moods they create. One portrays violent and hateful noise cutting through the soft layer of silence encompassing fieldwork while the other features dull thrum of vibrations and activity with little excitement and much continuity. Sound occurs due to vibrations, but so does tension. In the first example, overt tension between the silences and the jolting sounds creates an atmosphere of brutality and hate. In the latter example, tension disappears. As the work gets done, very little silence slips in, but neither do startling noises violently cut through the air.
The key to Fredrick Douglass’s escape and later success as an abolitionist was his ability to read. Because of how important it is, I have chosen a scene where he made “friends of all the little white boys whom [he] met on the street…[and] converted into teachers”(Douglass 23). The “bread of knowledge” would cost him bread, of which he had plenty. Going into the scene the sound will start to layer. The most distant sounds, that of the shipyard, will start at a normal volume. As the scene continues it gets quieter and more distant only to be replaced with the street sounds of Baltimore. That too will fade though slightly less, leaving the relevant sounds of the boys as the loudest.
The soft whistling of the wind between the masts forcing the sails to billow and flap and the flags to snap in the near by Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard. The soft constant slap of the waves against the hulls of the ships blends with the irregular creaking of the wooden docks as it is stepped on. The squawk of seagulls clashes with the curses of the dockworkers that are raised to be heard over the thud of crates. The sound that draws the most attention however is the crack of a whip followed but the smack of it connecting to the skin of slaves. Their cries of pain sound out afterwards.
The more immediate sounds are those of the streets of Baltimore. The horses’ shod hooves clop on the cobblestone. The carts they pull rattle at every divot in the road. The horses whinny. The people’s voices vary, male and female. Each distinct yet muffled.
The most dominant voices are those of adolescent boys. They are infused with challenge and the carefreeness of youth. One challenges the other “‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try.’” (Douglass 26) This is followed by the scratch of chalk on a nearby brick wall as Douglass does so. The boy who is watching is busy with a loaf of bread, the crunch of the crust as it is ripped in pieces before being shoved into his mouth. It acts as a muffler and impedes the speech of the boy as he proves to Douglass the expanse of his knowledge.
In seeking to escape slavery Douglass seeks to escape the fate of his grandmother, lonely and forgotten. To emphasize the desolation of his grandmother’s cabin, the only sound would be silence. In a long camera shot of a hut surrounded by woods, the sound of silence would be broken only by the stray chirp of a cicada, the rustle of leaves in the wind, and “by day the moans of a dove and by night the screams of the hideous owl” (Douglass 29). The camera would then zoom in on the door. As it approaches the door it would emit a creek as it swings open. Inside the cabin the silence prevails except for the crackle of a dying fire and the slow rasp of the grandmother’s breath. The shot pans to the rustle of rough cloth against the dry, calloused skin of the old woman. As the viewers watch the woman gives a raspy cough and lets out a last rattling breath.
Frederick Douglass’s account of his life from a slave in bondage to a free man is an intense story, heavy with fear, anger, and the longing for freedom. The role that sound plays in this story is prominent and sound is a vital part of Douglass’s narrative. These sounds were a part of Douglass’s life as much as the sights he saw or the things he touched. To most accurately capture the soundscape of the antebellum south as Douglass portrays it, the most vital keynote sounds must be utilized in a serious, dramatic manor of storytelling. The role of silence versus noise, singing and group song, and the sounds of southern labor are the keynotes of the soundscape in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as they contribute to the major themes of Douglass’s tale while enriching his compelling, descriptive narrative.
The sound backdrop for most of Douglass’s narrative is the grueling noise of labor. What this would sound like is hard to imagine; no cars rattling by, no airplanes yawning overhead, no electronic chatter. What this soundscape should be characterized by is the sound of labor, bondage, and slavery. The snapping flash of the cowhide whip, the “heart rendering shrieks”(3, 2) of flesh being from the backs of the “gory victim” (4, ~) and the dripping of hot blood where the everyday sounds that Douglass endured. Douglass and slaves like him took the “cursing, raving, cutting and slashing”(7, 1) from the “savage monster[s]”(3,2) that were their overseers, and were powerless to do anything but silently comply.
The clamor of sounds that describe life on the plantation is directly countered by the silence of the northern shipyard. The noise of the plantation is a screaming, screeching cry for freedom while the silent shipyard, free from “deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer” (67,1) represents the tranquility of the free men who own their labor and lives. In the midst of the silent workers, “all seemed to go smoothly on.” (67,1). Silence equating freedon and noise representing fear and oppression frequent Douglass’s narrative and are an important part in the recreation of the soundscape. For example, the soundtrack of Douglass teaching his fellow slaves to read in the Sabbath school would be a silent one, marked only by the occasional shuffling, low voices and chairs scraping against the floor. Douglass himself says that the slave owners would rather see their slaves engaged in “degrading sports” such as “wrestling, boxing and drinking whiskey” (48, ~), all loud and noisy events, than “to see [them] behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (48, ~) in silence.
Finally, the role of singing in Douglass’s story is very prominent and would be an important part of the soundscape. However, Douglass presents singing in a different light, a negative one. He says that “slaves sing the most when they are the most unhappy”(9, 1). The songs of the slaves were “sung to drown [their] sorrow” (9,1) and therefore the songs in the soundtrack of this story would underly the pain and agony the slaves endured. Minor keys and slow, weary melodies would characterize these songs. Struggling, gasping voices and drawn out notes would convey the desperate state of the slaves, while the sound of many voices blending together would represent the large body of enslaved people. The songs of the slaves would, overall be a major part of the soundtrack for Douglass’s life.
To paint the soundscape of slavery for a dramatic, tense retelling of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, sounds able to convey the desperate affliction of the slaves would be vital. The role of sound in the narrative of the life of any person is to generate powerful emotions and describe the world around them. These keynote sounds and sound themes as described above would accurately portray the intensity of the journey to freedom and would supplement the moving tale of liberation from the dark chains of slavery.
In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass describes the plight of American slaves and works to make these enslaved individuals more humanized than they were typically thought of in nineteenth-century America. To capture this human image, Douglass uses all of the senses a reader to give them a full picture of the experience of slaves, an important aspect being sound. I believe this type of realism would be well-suited for the French New Wave Cinema. In this style of film, an emphasis is placed on the reality of the situation, with no special effects and little artificial music. In this way, the soundtrack would consist of realistic sounds that would have been heard on a daily basis in America during the time of slavery. The most interesting scene in this style would be the beginning, chapters one and two.
The first track on the album would be a sound from chapter one, the harsh sound of the whip. “Master…would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers from his victim seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” (3-4). The listener could hear the whoosh of air as the whip soared through the air and the startling crack as it hit the bare skin of the assaulted slave. I imagine that the slaveholder can be heard cackling louder and louder as the screams of the slave rise over the sound of the cracking whip. This would build until the final sound of the track, the climactic moment of the woman crumbling to the ground with a quiet thud. This shows the cultural effect of dehumanizing Americans in the terror that creates, and sends a political message about the importance of freedom. It is a great way to illustrate the social injustices of the time.
The other track I would include is the sound from chapter two of the overseer, Mr. Severe, using extensive profanity as a source of intimidation. “It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk…. From the rising till the going down of the sun, he was cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the field, in the most frightful manner” (7). In this track, the primary sound would be the excessive profanity of Mr. Severe. However, several background noises are also thematically important, such as the clunking of his shoes as he pushes through the field and the startled breath of the slaves as he walks by them. This would show the effect of frightening language on the slaves. It sends a message about how these individuals were not valued by white culture in the south because this use of profanity was considered appropriate around them. It would also show the juxtaposition in the social status of the overseer over the slaves. It would reinforce the political message of the first track, in that the slaves needed to be freed from bondage because they were being treated unjustly.
One sound that could be heard at the time of Douglass’s life that I wouldn’t want to emphasize in the soundtrack is that of the slaves communicating in daily conversations with loved ones, because these were they’re calmest and happiest moments. I think it would detract from the focus on the suffering of the slaves to show them in their moments of comfort. Overall, the soundtrack would emphasize the sociocultural and political injustices of slavery, while avoiding any moments of peace that the slaves were able to attain, so as to stick to a consistent message.
When contemplating how to write a soundscape for the autobiographical “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, the first challenge is to decide what style of film this particular soundscape would best fit. Since Douglass tells a story that contains much hardship, I feel the most fitting style would be an epic drama accentuating the struggle Douglass experiences below the Mason-Dixon line. This film would culminate with a triumphant, free Douglass acting as a key player in the abolitionist movement. However, the focus of the film, like the focus of this commentary, would be Douglass’ experiences with slavery and specific memories he has that arouse trauma, fury and vexation.
Early on in the film, a scene begins by panning the Great House Farm ending with a shot of the newest overseer, Mr. Gore. In the background are sounds of cotton bushes being picked and worked, soil being turned with the occasional, quiet thud of a hoe and various voices, mostly those of overseers, cursing at slaves. Mr. Gore does not speak, for he “dealt sparingly in words” (Douglass 13), while he rides his horse—slowly trotting along with a repetitive clopping of hoofs—until he eventually stops at one particular slave named Demby. As Mr. Gore dismounts his horse, the stomp created by his boots hitting the ground is amplified to show the importance of the action and also to represent the fear in Demby’s mind once he realizes the steady rhythm of his work had not been enough to repel Mr. Gore’s attention. After ordering him to stop working and remove his shirt with a frank, biting voice that embodies his control and power, Mr. Gore begins to whip Demby with quick, electric lashes. Soon after, Demby runs into a stream, standing “at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out.” (Douglass 14). The area surrounding the scene goes silent as slaves stop momentarily to witness the conflict. Mr. Gore gives three carefree calls to Demby telling him to return from the stream, or he would be shot. Demby remains, and with one loud clap, Demby drops into the stream dead. Soon after the “thrill of horror” (Douglass 14) experienced by the slaves ends, there is silence and awe as Gore remains “cool and collected” (Douglass 14). The scene ends as Mr. Gore nonchalantly remounts his horse, and the repetitive clopping of hoofs continues signifying a return to normalcy after the horrific event.
Later in the film, once Douglass has become of age to labor as a slave, he is sent to work on the farm of Mr. Edward Covey. Douglass is routinely whipped by Covey in the early months of his work and is often cursed at. A new scene begins with Douglass working in a hayloft before sunrise, the noises of him laboring while heaving the hay down from atop, the rustle of the hay as it is moved across the barn and the quiet neighing of the horses eager for their morning feed emits tranquility. The horses are unaware that a slave is feeding them; they are just interested in getting the food. Their innocent neighing creates a stark contrast to large Mr. Covey bumbling into the barn with slothful, obvious footsteps. Quickly Covey catches a hold of Douglass and throws him to the ground “sprawling” (Douglass 42). The harmony created by the early morning barnyard scene is quickly erased by the savage physical struggle that commences. As Douglass “seizes” Covey, the once aggressive man begins to “tremble like a leaf” (Douglass 42). Douglass then kicks Hughes, a man who comes to Covey’s assistance, directly in the stomach and Hughes drops to his knees clutching his stomach while gasping for air and making audible heaves similar to that of someone asphyxiating. The two halt the fight later as Covey lets Frederick go while “puffing and blowing at a great rate” (Douglass 43). Douglass’ silence and lack of bloodshed contrast sharply to Covey’s emphatic gasps for breath and bloodied shirt. While Covey acts as if he remains the master, the retreat of the white man shows his clear defeat. The next few scenes in the movie show subsequent interactions between Covey and Douglass, with Douglass narrating that Edward Covey never beat him again. Covey would then speak up and say “he didn’t want to get a hold of [Douglass] again”, to which Douglass acknowledges with an agreeing look, but Frederick the narrator confidently, and with a new found sense of maturity, speaks his opinion: “you need not, for you will come out worse than before.” (Douglass 43)
If a historical drama were to retell the life of Frederick Douglass, with any appropriate level of respect to the man and his story, then it would have to start from the very beginning. Though not enumerated with any great detail by Douglass, for lack of the necessary recollection, a dramatic piece would be incomplete without somehow portraying the incredible injustice of the way in which young Frederick was separated from his mother. Thus, in describing the auditory characteristics of a moment in my imagined interpretation of the retelling of Frederick’s narrative, I will choose to portray but one scene, that which seems to be the earliest grand infraction upon Frederick’s freedom. In doing so, the movie would open with a shocking blow to the viewers senses—watching a mother be torn from her baby, though maybe not the most gruesome of events that took place during slavery, is one of the most emotionally difficult concepts for the modern viewer. The opening scene that follows, will chronicle Douglass’ first real encounter with the abysmal cruelty of slavery—coming before he can even remember being.
I picture it happening something like this: The first shimmering rays of twilight are just peaking over the horizon—casting just enough light to see the silhouette of a cabin. As the camera moves towards the door of the cabin, all you can hear are roosters in the distance, the odd bark of a dog, and the sounds of birds chirping. As the camera enters the door, there is almost complete darkness, yet even before the camera adjusts to the faint light in the cabin—you hear the sounds of people waking up, of the door opening and closing, as men and women leave the house. Just after the door closes for the last time, the sound of marching feet, and the beginnings of a low, chanting, downbeat song fade off into the distance as they head to the fields. As the sounds of the group trail off into the distance, all that’s left is the sounds of an attentive mother humming a soothing melody—along with the comforting sounds of a content suckling. The faint form of woman slowly swaying to the subtle lilt of her song, a swaddled baby pressed to her breast, begins to be visible as the camera adjusts to the faint morning light cresting the sill of the one window in the cabin. Now an old woman can be just barely seen lying on the floor, sleeping, but just as the viewer begins to understand the scene in front of them, the soundscape begins to change as well.
About a minute after the slaves have left the cabin, a faint rumbling of a horse starts to enter the soundscape from somewhere behind, and to one side of the listener. As the horse approaches the cabin, a pounding crescendo of hoof beats drowns out the sounds of the singing, and then baby Frederick begins to sob. The old woman bolts up, fear in her eyes. The deafening hoofs come to an abrupt halt accompanied by the snort of a horse, the clink of hastily dismounted stirrups, and the dull thud boots striking hard dirt. Seconds later, the front door bursts open to reveal a “savage monster” (pg. 3) of a man. The man drunkenly barks about his having come to take Frederick’s mother away, she is to be sent to a plantation twelve miles away, and will likely never to see her child again. He swiftly crosses the room, straight for the baby. I imagine a pitiful struggle ensuing in which she tries to hold the baby tight to her breast as the nasty slave driver slaps her pulling the bundle out of her reach. At this point, the baby is screaming, his mother is pleading and sobbing, and the old woman is trembling in the corner of the cabin. After securing the baby with his left hand, a cowhide strap in his right, and a sadistic grin across his face, he slashes the mother across her open chest with one sickening blow, and across her face with his next. He hands the screaming baby to the old woman, who is left stunned in the corner of the room, and pulls the mother toward the door. As the door slams, and the two stumble outside, the baby’s screams are muffled, and the sounds of the mother’s pure agony intensify. He binds her hands, fastens a leash to her neck and mounts his horse. As the scene fades, the overseer and his horse trot away from the cabin as a woman blindly stumbles after the horse, screaming, sobbing, and bleeding from her chest and face.