Sounds of Slavery, Tension, and Industry

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.

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.

Soundtrack of Knowledge

A Synopsis of Chapters VI and VII of The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass


The scene opens in a townhouse in Baltimore. The ambient noises of daily life outside are occasionally heard softly. Mrs. Auld is sitting in an armchair reciting the alphabet in a gentle and encouraging voice. Frederick Douglass, as a young black boy, relays each letter back, his voice shakily forming around the shape of the letter. The viewpoint fades to a newspaper on a table. As a delicate white finger points to a four-letter word, his voice is heard sounding out each letter until his mouth and mind recognize the word and repeat it two or three times. Anytime Douglass’ southern drawl causes his tongue to lay too heavily on a vowel, or drop a consonant, Mrs. Auld repeats the word, putting emphasis on the part that was mistaken. This process repeats itself over and over. Peyn was corrected with pen; wuz replaced with was; and brang became bring, and the g never dropped. It cuts to Mrs. Auld once again sitting in her armchair with Frederick Douglass standing opposite of her. She is saying short words and he is spelling them back to her. The three-letter words are quick and easy while the four-letter words, especially those with vowel combinations, are spoken with more hesitation between each sound. Suddenly, while Douglass is halfway through the word work, Mr. Auld bursts into the room.

“Silence, boy!” he shouts, his voice loud and demanding. He turns to his wife, lowering his voice, yet accentuating his words with a furious hiss. His consonants are sharp against the silence. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master.” The intensity in his voice reveals the truth in what he is saying. Mr. Auld takes a deep breath, calming his voice to appeal to his wife’s delicate side while remaining firm. “As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Mr. Auld walks out briskly with the soft thump of his boots on the carpet. There is a moment of utter silence as Mrs. Auld stares at the eager, young black boy. Then, with a quick exhale, she hurries out as well with only the whisper of her skirts rubbing together.

As the scene slowly zooms onto young Douglass, his rich older voice is heard as narration. Behind his voice, music characterized mainly by string instruments begins to build. “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled. I now understand what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty: the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” There is a moment of violins held in a suspended note as the power of Douglass’s words sink in. The viewpoint is now close on young Douglass’s face with determination in his eyes and a slight smile. “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”

The scene is black and quiet for a moment, until young Douglass bursts out of the front door and is bombarded with the harmonious cacophony of city life. Children are seen and heard laughing and playing in the streets. Hurried white businessmen brush past, often followed by a slave carrying briefcases and baggage. The shouts of orders to men loading and unloading at the ship yard filled the air with the occasional swear or lash of the whip signifying mistake. Beneath it all, the low hum of mechanized life can be heard. However the music powers through the noise, expressing the hustle and bustle of life in the city.

The music continues with playful interjections of trumpets and percussion, yet above all else the sounds of Douglass acquiring knowledge are heard: the letters, sounds and words spoken from poor boys’ lips as white fingers trace through dirt in the street; the workers in the shipyard yelling “Larboard aft!” while marking a great plank with a giant “L.A.” while Douglass looks on, copying the letters by scratching into drift wood; and the scrape of chalk on brick walls and sidewalks writing and rewriting letter after letter. The music and sounds of street life fade out as the scene changes to Douglass sitting in an empty and dark house writing in young Master Thomas’s copy-book. All that is heard is the sound of a pencil on stolen paper. As the last word on the last page is finished, Douglass smiles, admiring how his smooth and practiced writing compares to that of Master Thomas, and closes the book. The scene goes black and silent.

Douglass: An EPIC Historical Epic Drama

From birth into slavery as an innocent child to enlistment in the abolitionist movement as a freethinking, established young man, Frederick Douglass’ life experience was far from uniform. His tumultuous childhood and adolescence left him in a perpetual state of transition between masters of varying levels of cruelty; adulthood went on to reveal evils so great as to strip away his desire for freedom and intellectual enlightenment, while also eventually exposing that such desires were necessary and vital to his living. Despite the frequent and considerable variance in his circumstances, Douglass’ character can be defined by certain underlying themes in his personality: courage, righteousness, and confidence. In constructing the soundtrack for a historical epic drama based on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one set of tonal frequencies would be selected to support these themes, and contrasted with another set reflecting the dark, forlorn, and desperate times Douglass was subjected to. Each set would be broken into two primary categories: keynote sounds and musical selections.

Keynote sounds are those that “are overheard but cannot be overlooked;”[1] they give auditory identity to a given location, collaboratively forming a unique soundmark. Thus, divergent soundmarks would have great purpose in establishing an audial perception of the changes in setting throughout the film. The keynote sounds of a plantation would be significantly different from those of a city like Baltimore. Douglass was often “awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heart-rending shrieks of [his own aunt];”[2] he refers to the experience as horrifying and unforgettable, but acknowledges that it became somewhat of a normative occurrence. Over time, in combination with the whipping of other slaves and the procession of various plantation activities, Douglass became desensitized: the shrill screaming, the fiery crack of the whip, the harsh yelling and cursing, the woeful singing, the obediently stifled whimpering—these sounds became the auditory backdrop of daily life. In the city, Douglass was exposed to an entirely different soundscape. The streets bustled with the sounds of clacking shoes and noisy banter; the airspace in the shipyard was ever consumed by shouted orders and violent threats; relative quiet and stillness existed within the Auld household, until punishment was being given. Upon escaping the bounds of slavery and joining forces with the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass was exposed to yet another set of keynote sounds—this time in New Bedford, Massachusetts. These ranged from the well-mannered voices of his peers to the soothing, calm tones of his home living with Anna Murray. By contrasting these three sets of keynote sounds, the differences between plantation, city, and suburban life would be dramatized, as well as the disparity between enslavement and tentative freedom. Specifically, the sorrowful, harsh, and jarring tones of plantation and city life would be alleviated by the softer, kinder, and more comfortable sounds of suburban life, mirroring Douglass’ transition from confinement to liberation.

Musical selections would be used to reinforce a negative emotional reaction to the immorality of slavery, and the opposite regarding emancipation. The portrayal of Douglass upon realizing that “Mr. Covey had succeeded in breaking [him],”[3] and that “[his] natural elasticity was crushed, [his] intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about his eye [dead]; the dark night of slavery closed in upon him”[4] would be supplemented by the song It’s All Understood, by Jack Johnson. The composition utilizes a minor key, slow and lackluster tempo, and a melancholy beat; these factors naturally foster a sense of sadness and solemnity, and would effectively give rise to emotional discomfort when combined with the imagery of a defeated Douglass. In another scene, with people cheering and showing support for Douglass after a speech, the musical selection Rox in the Box, by The Decemberists, would lend an overall joyful and celebratory vibe with its upbeat tempo and pleasant swing beat. In combination with the visual image of such a liberated and optimistic man, the scene would encourage an emotional state of contentment and the sensation of happiness. All musical selections in the film would be from recent years, in order to make its historical setting more relatable to a modern audience; familiarity with the music would enhance the connection between viewer life experience and on-screen content. The holistic effect of music within such a historical epic drama would be to strengthen the audience’s emotional response, and additionally contrast the exceptional and the abysmal in the life of Frederick Douglass.

[1] Jonathan Sterne, The Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012), Chapter 10.

[2] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Massachusetts: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1845), Chapter 1.

[3] Ibid., Chapter 10.

[4] Ibid., Chapter 10.