Frederick Douglass Soundscape

Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” describes the world of slavery through the eyes of a man who managed to escape his chains and become a part of the movement against slavery. Turning his narrative into a film, however, will require a detailed soundscape to augment the visuals. Taking from Douglass’s recollections, a soundscape can be constructed to view antebellum America through the eyes of a slave. This soundscape must convey the powerful characteristics of singing, pain, and the silence of free labor, all as Douglass portrays them in his work.

The opening of the film will take place when Douglass was younger and still living on the plantation. The first frames of the film will focus on swaying crops, with no evidence of the plantation itself. Sounds of the crops swaying in a gentile breeze will give a sense of calm. Sounds of the slaves in the fields, working and singing solemnly will fade in, followed visually by a scythe cutting through the crop. The singing, although completely new to the viewer, should embody the collective sadness of the slaves and stir emotion. Douglass’s recollection of his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass, 8) should be evident in the singing, through the use of slow and labored tempo, of single voices to emulate loneliness, and of clear pain in the voices. The singing continues as shots of the plantation are showed, eventually focusing on the character Douglass as a child.

As we continue to follow him, the muffled sound of whip cracks and an overseer shouting slowly fade in, almost beyond the awareness of the viewer. As Douglass enters a kitchen, the painful sounds of his aunt being whipped are brought out from the filter and become obvious, to a painful extent for the viewer.  The earlier, peaceful sounds of the plantation fade behind this filter, focusing attention to the sounds of the whip, ”horrid oaths” from the overseer, and the shrieking aunt present the scene which Douglass calls “a horrible exhibition” (Douglass, 4). As the sounds of the “bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation” (Douglass, 5) sink in, we hear Douglass as narrator enter with “His presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling to the ranks” (Douglass 13). Though this, Douglass can describe the pains of slavery.

Now later in Douglass’s life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the camera displays the wharf, while the soundscape is rich with that typical of the setting: there is the constant sound of seagulls and people working and talking, and of the water as it splashes against the sides of the ships and the wharf. As the camera focuses on Douglass, new to the whole setting, the sounds of the wharf and the laborers become quieter, augmenting Douglass’s narration of “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To Douglass, the lack of servitude and painful submission in these laborers makes their work comfortable and silent, without the sounds of desperation and anguish. As Douglass states, “Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man” (Douglass 67). Quieting the surrounding environment that Douglass finds himself in allows the viewer to experience the confusion of free sounds as Douglass did, lessening the world around him.

To accurately describe a work filled with painful and inspiring images through sound, one must recreate the emotions originally felt by the author. In doing this with Frederick Douglass, we construct a soundscape terrifying with its pain, sadness and cruelty, but uplifting with hope. The overwhelmingly negative sounds, from the whips to the solemn singing, lead way to a found silence in freedom, and from here we can see Douglass’s ability to shape a lighter path ahead.



Works Cited

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






4 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass Soundscape

  1. I thought it was interesting how you chose to use only the slaves and their labor to introduce the sadness of slavery. The use of song instead of violence may be a more effective initial portrayal of the situation because it instantly humanizes the slaves before any violence is done upon them.

  2. I like how in the beginning of “your” film you slowly integrate an array of sounds to stir certain feelings in the viewer. Later in your adaptation in New Bedford, your quieting of the surrounding environment serves to place the viewer in Douglass’ shoes.

  3. I like your contrasts of sound in this. The sounds of slavey and oppression directly oppose the sounds Douglass hears in New Bedford which makes it interesting to the ears. I also like that you emphasized the idea of hope in your work, I think with Douglass’s work it’s easy to focus on the dark, evil parts that he writes about like slavery, but overall there is some sort of hopeful message in his book because he eventually does get to freedom. It was nice you included that.

  4. I really appreciated that you integrated the use of sound and visual images to create a more comprehensive picture of your vision. I also like the use of Douglass as a narrator in the context of the soundscape, because the sound of the pain and wisdom in his voice would set a very effective tone. I also like the use of individual voices in the context of the group song to contrast the group versus the individual experience.

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