Silence in Douglass’ Audible Narrative

Both the South and the North can be defined as noisy atmospheres in Antebellum America.  Frederick Douglass details, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how the sharp cracks of the whip, shrieks of pain by the slaves to demonstrate their humanity, and strings of profane words of slave-owners define the racket of the South in the mid-1800s.  Douglass indentifies the North as carrying on “noiselessly so” compared with the types of sounds he hears in the South, but to many Southerners “Northern cities were distinctly noisy places filled with the cacophony of the mob and the unpalatable cadence of industrialism” (Smith 152).  The South described by Douglass has its own unique soundscape characterized by the “keynote” sounds that make up the everyday activities of slaves and their masters.  However, it is the silences in the soundscape that transform noises into a narrative soundtrack of the life of a slave.  To demonstrate the importance of silence in defining the narrative of a place, I will explain the use of silence in three potential songs on my imagined soundtrack of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

The opening expression on my Frederick Douglass soundtrack features the repetitive, everyday sounds of slavery as Douglass learns how to behave as a slave.  This track contains the constant, sharp slash of a whip cutting against human flesh overlaid by the allegro, profane shouts of the slave master recurring as eighth notes.  The song is conspicuously missing the lazy drone of maternal love, and instead full of a cacophony of the swish of harvesting tobacco or wheat, the blaring of the driver’s horn, and the occasional gunshot blending into the other sounds.  However, the profane shouts build in intensity and become fortissimo, but are offset by rests.  The masters shout and then there is a sudden absence of sound, as if a response is expected.  The slave-owners, though, do not expect a response because the slaves must “know nothing” and “the means of knowing [must be] withheld”(Douglass 1).  This first stage of silence is characterized by submission because when a slave-owner speaks, a slave “must stand, tremble, and listen” without questioning (Douglass 10).  Silence could not prevent the undeserved punishments that the slaves received, but slave-owners expected submission, and this type of silence characterized Douglass as he learned the dehumanizing meaning of slavery.

Track two is characterized by the deceptive silence of a lie.  It is composed of the “wild songs” of the slaves that revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (Douglass 8).  Because the “penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” was possibly death, silencing the truth became a wise, conscious decision to ensure survival (Douglass 11).  The lyrical messages of the slaves often contrasted the tonal meaning of the songs because the slaves were forced to express their laments in a pursuit of self-preservation.  In this second title, silence becomes important because the lyrical truth of the slaves’ songs is silenced by fear and the need for self-protection.

The final movement of my soundtrack with the motif of silence becomes less chaotic and more measured.  The sounds become more poignant and intentional as Douglass grows more educated and begins to defend himself.  Amidst the ordered sounds of mallets and irons and the pianissimo tinkling sounds of colliding coins, the sounds occasionally fade out before quietly coming back into earshot.  These intentional, calm, and purposeful silences indicate Douglass’ defiance as he “did not allow [himself] a single word; but was resolved, if [Master Hugh] laid his hand upon me, it should be blow for blow”(Douglass 62).   Intentional silence gives Douglass an aura of calculated intelligence and determination that characterized is path to freedom.

Although our lives, and the lives of people of Antebellum America, are defined by the sounds we hear, silence plays a roll in creating history because it allows narratives to be told.  Silence was key to the survival of the slave and Douglass’ evolving use of silence ultimately led to his freedom.  However, silence also played a key roll in the physical narration of Douglass’ own life because his decision to omit the details surrounding his escape to freedom left a large hole in his narrative.  This hole was left for the reader to fill with his or her imagination, but ultimately remained a silent absence of knowledge.  The affect of this is similar to the fractured style of Emily Bernard in her essay “Teaching the N-Word,” and gives the reader the power to fill the gaps of information with her own knowledge to better connect with the work.  In the end, silence can contain as much meaning as sound and may serve to connect the reader to the text to better drive the narrative.

Works Cited 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995. Print.

Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.

2 thoughts on “Silence in Douglass’ Audible Narrative

  1. Your focus on the silence rather than the sounds of the story is an interesting take, and well developed, as is the connection with Emily Bernard’s lecture.
    Do you think that if less details were omitted form the narrative, the soundscape of a hypothetical adaptation would change? Would there be more music and noise?

  2. The way you play with the idea of silence and increasing musical order is interesting. However, I’d be interested in what fleshes out the silence. Any scores? To be effective, silence has to be well hemmed by music, whose absence is more poignant than ambient noise.

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