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.