“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is a poignant memoir that uses potent auditory imagery in its sensory depiction of the former slave’s life in bondage.
Throughout a film adaptation, the soundtrack would be sparse, mostly made up of ambient noise and dialogue. Douglass’s childhood on the plantation is marked by the sounds of field labor, the swearing of the overseers and the crack of the whip as it strikes. There is not much in the way of conversation, as there is very little leisure time to be had. In contrast, the Baltimore soundscape is lush and urban, with voices ringing out from every direction. It is here that we will hear how Douglass learns to read, and the singing of the hypocritical hymns of the slaveholders. This music will dominate this chapter of Douglass’s life.
A scene of the woods on the way to the Old House Farm is emphasized. A chorus of slave voices singing different raucous tunes would burst onto the soundscape. Although the songs are lively, they have mournful undertones, and the voices singing them are hoarse and strained. Douglass writes “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do . . . Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” (Douglass 8)
Douglass’s last confrontation with Mr. Covey, the furious brawl, is backed by no music; only the grunts and noises of the struggles of both men are audible. The intense, matter-of-fact way the scene is portrayed in the book would best be preserved with this treatment.
Another poignant scene is one depicting the fate of Douglass’s grandmother. Following the deaths of her masters and the sale of her family, she is sent to live utterly alone in the woods. Of this Douglass writes “Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl.” (Douglass 29) The soundtrack to this descriptive scene would consist of these mournful bird cries and the grandmother’s quiet prayers, both fading in volume as she is left to die in isolation.
In the “quiet” New Bedford shipyards where Douglass works upon achieving freedom, there is a voiceless hubbub of activity; tools on wood, gulls and the wind. Despite this din, it is not as loud (nor the same kind of “loud”) as the slave-manned shipyard, and in an internal monologue Douglass would note the uncomfortable difference. During Douglass’s time working under Mr. Gardner, there are constant calls for his assistance interspersed with the clamor of work, the songs of laborers and the whipcrack; in New Bedford, the workers seem almost noiseless in comparison.
As Frederick Douglass’s narrative progresses towards the end of his memoir, the soundtrack reflects his freedom and change of environment, perhaps including voice-over speech recounting the closing lines.