Douglass Soundscape

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.

3 thoughts on “Douglass Soundscape

  1. I like the idea of emphasizing the pain and suffering the slaves had to go through. However, I think your idea of leaving out all “happy” sounds would end up being a little homogenizing. Most of the sounds in your soundscape describe fear and pain so I think mixing it up a little would add more texture and depth to the story. I I think that showing Douglass in a range of emotional states would be more interesting and add more verisimilitude to your soundtrack.

  2. Your use of background noises and raw language is an interesting idea. Would these noises be specially enhanced somehow to draw attention to them? We humans are remarkably good at tuning out ambient sounds.

    • I see what you mean. However, I would rather not enhance it so that the listener would be forced to focus on the presence of these less obvious noises in the presence of less of the more noticeable stimuli that we’re used to hearing.

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