Sounds of The Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass

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.

8 thoughts on “Sounds of The Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass

  1. I really enjoyed the way you layered sounds in the first few paragraphs. What might some of the “relevant sounds” of the boys be? I also liked how you portrayed the interactions between the adolescents and the death of the grandmother. The imagery was fantastic. Very well done overall!

  2. I absolutely love your idea of the “layering of sounds.” I think that will make the listener really interested and involved in the listening experience of the movie. I really thought all your descriptive words made the scenes really vivid and you were really good at describing the sounds that were going on so I felt like I could almost hear them.

  3. I focused on the same scene as you and struggled to define the layered sounds of city life. You have accomplished that task beautifully. I heard the city and the life it contains so clearly in your words. In addition, the focus on the bread and taunts of the boys was a very tasteful artistic choice to include. I disagree with Casper’s notion that music is needed for this scene. The way I envisioned it, the sounds of Baltimore are the music.

  4. I appreciated your choice to focus on realistic sounds that would have actually been heard at the time. I think the layering adds a really nice dramatic effect, however I’m concerned that with so many noises at once if all the important individual elements will be distinguishable. I think this will create a very effective overall soundscape, though.

  5. Your description of the sounds of the shipyard was extremely descriptive and well put. I also like the description of the grandmother’s fate, but while the almost-silence is dramatic, wouldn’t more ambient non-human noise add more to the feeling of isolation in the forest?

  6. Would you use musical scores at all? Your description of the ambient noise is spot-on, but I am skeptical that a film adaption could work well without some kind of well developed instrumental score.

  7. Your vivid descriptions add a lot to the mood conveyed in your separate scenes. I liked your description of Baltimore, with the hooves and voices, which clearly emphasizes the activity and bustling that went on there. Also, your concentration on the boys and their voices provides insight as to what was most important to Douglass, which clearly was learning how to read and write. Would the grandmother’s scene be the last one? If so, don’t you think maybe it should end with Douglass’ freedom, which is the final destination of his narrative?

  8. I found your description of the final scene with the grandmother to be compelling in its silence, amplifying her solitude which masquerades as peace and almost freedom. This provides stark contrast against the sounds of Baltimore, the next stop in Douglass’ journey to the North.

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