A Sonic Prologue to the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

If a historical drama were to retell the life of Frederick Douglass, with any appropriate level of respect to the man and his story, then it would have to start from the very beginning. Though not enumerated with any great detail by Douglass, for lack of the necessary recollection, a dramatic piece would be incomplete without somehow portraying the incredible injustice of the way in which young Frederick was separated from his mother. Thus, in describing the auditory characteristics of a moment in my imagined interpretation of the retelling of Frederick’s narrative, I will choose to portray but one scene, that which seems to be the earliest grand infraction upon Frederick’s freedom. In doing so, the movie would open with a shocking blow to the viewers senses—watching a mother be torn from her baby, though maybe not the most gruesome of events that took place during slavery, is one of the most emotionally difficult concepts for the modern viewer. The opening scene that follows, will chronicle Douglass’ first real encounter with the abysmal cruelty of slavery—coming before he can even remember being.

I picture it happening something like this: The first shimmering rays of twilight are just peaking over the horizon—casting just enough light to see the silhouette of a cabin. As the camera moves towards the door of the cabin, all you can hear are roosters in the distance, the odd bark of a dog, and the sounds of birds chirping. As the camera enters the door, there is almost complete darkness, yet even before the camera adjusts to the faint light in the cabin—you hear the sounds of people waking up, of the door opening and closing, as men and women leave the house. Just after the door closes for the last time, the sound of marching feet, and the beginnings of a low, chanting, downbeat song fade off into the distance as they head to the fields. As the sounds of the group trail off into the distance, all that’s left is the sounds of an attentive mother humming a soothing melody—along with the comforting sounds of a content suckling. The faint form of woman slowly swaying to the subtle lilt of her song, a swaddled baby pressed to her breast, begins to be visible as the camera adjusts to the faint morning light cresting the sill of the one window in the cabin. Now an old woman can be just barely seen lying on the floor, sleeping, but just as the viewer begins to understand the scene in front of them, the soundscape begins to change as well.

About a minute after the slaves have left the cabin, a faint rumbling of a horse starts to enter the soundscape from somewhere behind, and to one side of the listener. As the horse approaches the cabin, a pounding crescendo of hoof beats drowns out the sounds of the singing, and then baby Frederick begins to sob. The old woman bolts up, fear in her eyes. The deafening hoofs come to an abrupt halt accompanied by the snort of a horse, the clink of hastily dismounted stirrups, and the dull thud boots striking hard dirt. Seconds later, the front door bursts open to reveal a “savage monster” (pg. 3) of a man. The man drunkenly barks about his having come to take Frederick’s mother away, she is to be sent to a plantation twelve miles away, and will likely never to see her child again. He swiftly crosses the room, straight for the baby. I imagine a pitiful struggle ensuing in which she tries to hold the baby tight to her breast as the nasty slave driver slaps her pulling the bundle out of her reach. At this point, the baby is screaming, his mother is pleading and sobbing, and the old woman is trembling in the corner of the cabin. After securing the baby with his left hand, a cowhide strap in his right, and a sadistic grin across his face, he slashes the mother across her open chest with one sickening blow, and across her face with his next. He hands the screaming baby to the old woman, who is left stunned in the corner of the room, and pulls the mother toward the door. As the door slams, and the two stumble outside, the baby’s screams are muffled, and the sounds of the mother’s pure agony intensify. He binds her hands, fastens a leash to her neck and mounts his horse. As the scene fades, the overseer and his horse trot away from the cabin as a woman blindly stumbles after the horse, screaming, sobbing, and bleeding from her chest and face.

6 thoughts on “A Sonic Prologue to the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

  1. By focusing on this single scene you created a soundscape much deeper than my own. I love how you used words like, “marching”, “humming” and “suckling” because they possess a visual example accompanied by an auditory example. Marching is both an action and a distinguishable noise, as is humming and suckling.

  2. That was a fantastic and well-imagined description. I liked how you very carefully mentioned the organic sounds, sans music; the rawness of the soundscape in this composition is quite dramatic enough to stand alone. However, while this scene seems like a very vivid opening, I’m curious as to why you give it so much weight; after all, Frederick Douglass is an infant here, and not yet fully cognizant of the situation. In contrast, in his later life, his more defined recollections and speech seem to have molded him more clearly as a person (although certainly this separation had an incalculable, but intangible effect).

  3. The rage and perversion of the “savage man” is quite easily sensed. It provides good contrast to the peacefulness felt before his arrival. This creates tension and the pain of the mother is felt to be more than just physical.

  4. I think it’s really interesting that you chose to just portray this one scene. I could totally picture it because of your exact descriptions, including movements of the screen that we would be watching this scene on. The idea of showing this first, invasive moment where Douglass is first exposed to the cruelty of his lifestyle is very thought-provoking, however we do know that this is not necessarily a crucial part of Douglass’ life, as he says in the book that he does not have much of an emotional connection to his mother. Yes, that would have been different if they hadn’t been separated, but since he doesn’t focus on it the way he does on other aspects of his life, do you think it might have been even more powerful to portray a key moment in his opinion, like the fight with Covey?

  5. I liked that you provided details on camera movement, it really adds to the visual you create. I would be curious to know if you had a particular song in mind that would be sung by Douglass’ mother? I think including lyrics could add to the sonic richness of the scene.

  6. The most important aspect of this scene, to me, is the peace before Douglass’ mother is taken. I like that you would begin the scene with sounds of nature and the distant, monotonous drone of slavery paralleled with the enduring maternal love. This sets the scene for an even more emotionally gripping separation of mother and child.

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