In order to create a soundtrack that addresses the sounds cape of Fredrick Douglass’ self narrated life story, it seems prudent to attempt to transpose familiar sounds and patterns that might evoke emotions and imagery in synch with the emotions evoked by Douglass. Hearing is a sense that we unconsciously regulate, literal sounds and songs described by Douglass in his narrative, while imaginable, are un familiar to us. They do not invoke the same emotions and thoughts when we hear them as they do when they fall upon the ears of the individuals in Douglass’ time. I would propose an unconventional approach to a soundtrack for a recreation of the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass. Imagine an interactive media format in which the limitless capabilities of the internet are at your disposal. The main plot points and episodes of the narrative are displayed, and the viewer/ listener can chose songs for each section of the story. Music and song can express and stimulate emotional sensory and understanding. This is exemplified in the songs sung by slaves in 19th century America. But the songs of these slaves provide a soundtrack that is specific to their own plight and experiences. We may be able to absorb the communicated themes and emotions in the song, but they are not our own. By offering the option of choice to the viewer/listener, a greater connection is created. Each scene in the narrative has its own standard sounds, cracking whips, yelling voices, and the grunts and noise of labor perhaps. However, layered over these sounds is the song chosen by the viewer/listener that is meaningful and specific to that individual in particular. This would allow for a deeper connection and understanding of the soundscape of history by connecting it to modern day noise, music specifically. To provide an example of the logistics of such a medium for narration, I will attempt to divide Douglass’ story into sections, applying songs from specific artists that I feel would tie my own soudnscape to Douglass’. For the first episode, we can take the period in which Douglass resides on the “Great House Farm”. Perhaps a track like “Money” by Pink Floyd could encapsulate the image of economic extortion that is exemplified in the plantation structure of the Great Farm. As Douglass moves into the city of Baltimore, education is the theme of his dialogue. Maybe another Pink Floyd hit “The Wall” would be appropriate to describe the mentality of the slave owner who breeds ignorance through censorship. When Douglass is sent to Covey, and the two men do battle, a song such as “Suicide and Redemption”, a heavy metal, cathartic instrumental by Metallica’s Kirk Hamett would be provide an emotional tie to Douglass’ baptism by combat. In Baltimore, as he works to learn a new trade, Douglass could be seen accompanied by the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night”. And lastly when he makes his escape to the North, the movie could end on a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Mental connection to sound and music is based in familiarity. Reading Douglass’ accounts of antebellum America, including his sound imagery and description cannot provide us with a full idea of the interpreted soundscape. Incorporating songs that we are more familiar with and transposing them into the world of Douglass recreates his Narrative in a unique and powerful way.
Depicting the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in film would be no easy task. True to its form, the narrative is a collection of memories from Douglass’ time immersed in the cruel, scary, and unforgiving world of slavery. Although Douglass recounts many fascinating and gripping tales that would leave moviegoers satisfied— albeit angry and disgusted, as they should be—much of the narrative’s power and impact comes from Douglass’ musings and opinions about what he experiences. Despite this fact, I would not make a documentary, because I find that they usually resonate less than well-made historical dramas. As a result, in an effort to compensate for the lack of narration, I think the music of the film should assume the complementary role to the scenes that the narration did in the book, providing an extra layer to the overall environment and feelings created by slavery. In the essay that follows, I will describe what is essentially the theme song to the movie, which would play in the opening credits to set the mood, and which would also be heard at various other moments throughout the film.
The main keynote sound would, not surprisingly, be the harsh crack of a whip. I would like to use the whip in place of a snare drum. I think interesting things could be done with the beat, and especially the whip sound, that would mirror the feelings of the time period. For example, a slight echo would be placed on the whip sound, causing it to repeat and fade out, but not completely before the next “snare” hit. In this way, the sound of the whip would never completely disappear, thus reflecting the lasting impression the whip has on the slaves. Its not as if the whipping happens and then it is over with; on the contrary, the torturous whippings serve as a constant reminder of the slaveholders power, the pain stays long after, and the memories and scars are forever. When recounting his first six hellish months with notorious slave breaker Mr. Covey, Douglas writes, “scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back” (36). Another component of the song would be the unusual time signature of 7/4, because this is not a rhythm we are accustomed to hearing. Even with the whip/snare falling at regular intervals, it would take a while to get used to it. The reason for doing this would be to reproduce the feelings of the slaves in regards to the violent whippings—despite their regularity, the slaves can never fully get used to them or accept them as commonplace, normal occurrences.
Another sound that would be in the song, probably just at the very beginning, would be a dark, ominous, and somewhat ambiguous growl. The growl would symbolize two things: the rumblings of Douglass’ stomach due to hunger, and the growls of a beast—a beast that the institution of slavery attempts to turn all slaves into. Douglass repeatedly references these two themes as facts of slavery. Douglass speaks of the “painful gnawings of hunger,” and writes, “A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe and smoke-house” (31). It could be argued that this hunger fed his rebellious nature, because he is willing to accept harsher conditions and many more whippings if he can “get enough to eat, which is not the smallest consideration to a hungry man” (34). The other theme the growl represents, the dehumanizing of slaves, is another thought that occupies much of Douglass’ time. He writes that when he is broken and slavery has engulfed him, he is “a man transformed into a brute,” who is worked to such exhaustion that he spends his scarce leisure hours in a “beast-like stupor” (38).
Although the film adaptation of this narrative would surely include much of the later portions of the book, where he learns to read and write, educates himself, starts to earn money in Baltimore, and eventually gains his freedom in the North, I do not think that the music should change during those scenes. Throughout the narrative is a pervading sense of secrecy, a constant reminder that although he has escaped, most slaves are not as fortunate. Slavery continues to exist. He continues to live in fear of being betrayed and kidnapped back into slavery, and his anger at the injustice of it all persists. Although he is now free, in the eyes of many, his identity is that of a runaway slave first, and a human being second. Since the music should be setting the backdrop in the film as his thoughts do in the narrative, the sounds of the growls, and even more importantly the whip, should be heard throughout the film, signifying that that his tale is not one of success, but of first steps; that although slavery is in his past, he will never be able to forget.
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.
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.
Frederick Douglass’s account of his life from a slave in bondage to a free man is an intense story, heavy with fear, anger, and the longing for freedom. The role that sound plays in this story is prominent and sound is a vital part of Douglass’s narrative. These sounds were a part of Douglass’s life as much as the sights he saw or the things he touched. To most accurately capture the soundscape of the antebellum south as Douglass portrays it, the most vital keynote sounds must be utilized in a serious, dramatic manor of storytelling. The role of silence versus noise, singing and group song, and the sounds of southern labor are the keynotes of the soundscape in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as they contribute to the major themes of Douglass’s tale while enriching his compelling, descriptive narrative.
The sound backdrop for most of Douglass’s narrative is the grueling noise of labor. What this would sound like is hard to imagine; no cars rattling by, no airplanes yawning overhead, no electronic chatter. What this soundscape should be characterized by is the sound of labor, bondage, and slavery. The snapping flash of the cowhide whip, the “heart rendering shrieks”(3, 2) of flesh being from the backs of the “gory victim” (4, ~) and the dripping of hot blood where the everyday sounds that Douglass endured. Douglass and slaves like him took the “cursing, raving, cutting and slashing”(7, 1) from the “savage monster[s]”(3,2) that were their overseers, and were powerless to do anything but silently comply.
The clamor of sounds that describe life on the plantation is directly countered by the silence of the northern shipyard. The noise of the plantation is a screaming, screeching cry for freedom while the silent shipyard, free from “deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer” (67,1) represents the tranquility of the free men who own their labor and lives. In the midst of the silent workers, “all seemed to go smoothly on.” (67,1). Silence equating freedon and noise representing fear and oppression frequent Douglass’s narrative and are an important part in the recreation of the soundscape. For example, the soundtrack of Douglass teaching his fellow slaves to read in the Sabbath school would be a silent one, marked only by the occasional shuffling, low voices and chairs scraping against the floor. Douglass himself says that the slave owners would rather see their slaves engaged in “degrading sports” such as “wrestling, boxing and drinking whiskey” (48, ~), all loud and noisy events, than “to see [them] behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (48, ~) in silence.
Finally, the role of singing in Douglass’s story is very prominent and would be an important part of the soundscape. However, Douglass presents singing in a different light, a negative one. He says that “slaves sing the most when they are the most unhappy”(9, 1). The songs of the slaves were “sung to drown [their] sorrow” (9,1) and therefore the songs in the soundtrack of this story would underly the pain and agony the slaves endured. Minor keys and slow, weary melodies would characterize these songs. Struggling, gasping voices and drawn out notes would convey the desperate state of the slaves, while the sound of many voices blending together would represent the large body of enslaved people. The songs of the slaves would, overall be a major part of the soundtrack for Douglass’s life.
To paint the soundscape of slavery for a dramatic, tense retelling of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, sounds able to convey the desperate affliction of the slaves would be vital. The role of sound in the narrative of the life of any person is to generate powerful emotions and describe the world around them. These keynote sounds and sound themes as described above would accurately portray the intensity of the journey to freedom and would supplement the moving tale of liberation from the dark chains of slavery.
When contemplating how to write a soundscape for the autobiographical “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, the first challenge is to decide what style of film this particular soundscape would best fit. Since Douglass tells a story that contains much hardship, I feel the most fitting style would be an epic drama accentuating the struggle Douglass experiences below the Mason-Dixon line. This film would culminate with a triumphant, free Douglass acting as a key player in the abolitionist movement. However, the focus of the film, like the focus of this commentary, would be Douglass’ experiences with slavery and specific memories he has that arouse trauma, fury and vexation.
Early on in the film, a scene begins by panning the Great House Farm ending with a shot of the newest overseer, Mr. Gore. In the background are sounds of cotton bushes being picked and worked, soil being turned with the occasional, quiet thud of a hoe and various voices, mostly those of overseers, cursing at slaves. Mr. Gore does not speak, for he “dealt sparingly in words” (Douglass 13), while he rides his horse—slowly trotting along with a repetitive clopping of hoofs—until he eventually stops at one particular slave named Demby. As Mr. Gore dismounts his horse, the stomp created by his boots hitting the ground is amplified to show the importance of the action and also to represent the fear in Demby’s mind once he realizes the steady rhythm of his work had not been enough to repel Mr. Gore’s attention. After ordering him to stop working and remove his shirt with a frank, biting voice that embodies his control and power, Mr. Gore begins to whip Demby with quick, electric lashes. Soon after, Demby runs into a stream, standing “at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out.” (Douglass 14). The area surrounding the scene goes silent as slaves stop momentarily to witness the conflict. Mr. Gore gives three carefree calls to Demby telling him to return from the stream, or he would be shot. Demby remains, and with one loud clap, Demby drops into the stream dead. Soon after the “thrill of horror” (Douglass 14) experienced by the slaves ends, there is silence and awe as Gore remains “cool and collected” (Douglass 14). The scene ends as Mr. Gore nonchalantly remounts his horse, and the repetitive clopping of hoofs continues signifying a return to normalcy after the horrific event.
Later in the film, once Douglass has become of age to labor as a slave, he is sent to work on the farm of Mr. Edward Covey. Douglass is routinely whipped by Covey in the early months of his work and is often cursed at. A new scene begins with Douglass working in a hayloft before sunrise, the noises of him laboring while heaving the hay down from atop, the rustle of the hay as it is moved across the barn and the quiet neighing of the horses eager for their morning feed emits tranquility. The horses are unaware that a slave is feeding them; they are just interested in getting the food. Their innocent neighing creates a stark contrast to large Mr. Covey bumbling into the barn with slothful, obvious footsteps. Quickly Covey catches a hold of Douglass and throws him to the ground “sprawling” (Douglass 42). The harmony created by the early morning barnyard scene is quickly erased by the savage physical struggle that commences. As Douglass “seizes” Covey, the once aggressive man begins to “tremble like a leaf” (Douglass 42). Douglass then kicks Hughes, a man who comes to Covey’s assistance, directly in the stomach and Hughes drops to his knees clutching his stomach while gasping for air and making audible heaves similar to that of someone asphyxiating. The two halt the fight later as Covey lets Frederick go while “puffing and blowing at a great rate” (Douglass 43). Douglass’ silence and lack of bloodshed contrast sharply to Covey’s emphatic gasps for breath and bloodied shirt. While Covey acts as if he remains the master, the retreat of the white man shows his clear defeat. The next few scenes in the movie show subsequent interactions between Covey and Douglass, with Douglass narrating that Edward Covey never beat him again. Covey would then speak up and say “he didn’t want to get a hold of [Douglass] again”, to which Douglass acknowledges with an agreeing look, but Frederick the narrator confidently, and with a new found sense of maturity, speaks his opinion: “you need not, for you will come out worse than before.” (Douglass 43)
When prompted to recreate the heard worlds from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I am excited by the opportunity. To best convey my ideal soundtrack for a historical epic drama interpretation of Douglass’ work, I will describe by plan in three parts. First, I will describe a scene involving Mr. Severe and his whipping. Next, I will address the fight between Douglass and Mr. Covey. And lastly, I will discuss the sounds that will be purposely omitted from my work.
Part I – The Ruthless Whip
Douglass describes a scene where he observes Mr. Severe, an overseer, relentlessly whip a woman in front of her children. “I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release” (Douglass 7). When deciding what sounds should be prominently featured, I first imagine the scene. By visualizing how I would like it to be portrayed in my film I can decide which sounds are necessary to highlight. There will be the whip with its crack like some hellish creature. I am also drawn to highlight the raw sounds of the moment. For instance, the dragging of Mr. Severe’s shoes along the dirt. Maybe he will drag the woman away from her children as well. Mr. Severe will wipe the sweat of his brow, emphasizing the dragging of his hand along his face through his glistening sweat. There will be a little cackling. Mr. Severe is described as “profane swearer” whose words were “…enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man” (Douglass 7). His voice will be coarse; his words spat out in guttural tones. I want to convey a harsh feeling through this work.
Part II – The Showdown
Douglass describes his confrontation with Mr. Covey as “the turning-point in my career as a slave,” instilling within him “a sense of my own manhood” (Douglass 43). To highlight the significance of this encounter, I would set the fight to the backdrop of the only song of the film. I am inclined to use a portion from the song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” as performed by Santa Esmeralda. I have attached the portion below for your listening pleasure. The scene would start with Mr. Covey knocking Douglass to the stable floor. There will be the crunching of hay and the dull thud of flesh against earth. Douglass rebels by seizing “Covey hard by the throat” (Douglass 42). Again, I want to focus on the raw sounds. Covey will grasp for breath a bit, and when he escapes from Douglass’ grasp he will retreat with quick, dull stomps. After he calls for help and is refused the music will begin. It starts off with a quick-ordered clapping and continues with a guitar melody. This is a watershed moment in Douglass’ life, and the music is a testament to the internal struggle that he has had to deal with up to this point. At his lowest low, Douglass is acting instinctually. His will to survive and to be free is what drives him to fight back.
Part III – Omissions
This southern antebellum period is one marked by the darkness of slavery. As such, the film should reflect the prevailing feeling of the time period. There was little to no happiness for the slaves during this time. In order to best reflect this, there will be no laughter in the film. Cackling is okay, but no joyous laughter. In fact, no joyous tones at all. Other than the one song that I have included in the soundtrack, there will be no music and the dancing and clapping associated with it.
Mark Smith, in his essay, “Listening to the Hear Worlds of Antebellum America,” describes a concept of keynote sounds. He says that they are “sounds that imprint ‘themselves so deeply on the people hearing them that life without them would be sensed as a distinct impoverishment” (Smith 159). The keynote sounds I would focus on would be those associated to work in the fields and punishment. These include: the cracking of the whip, the dragging of feet on dirt, the shuffling through the fields, the pleading for mercy by the slaves, the yelling of the overseers, and the quiet, helpless crying of the slaves. Each of these sounds were heard daily becoming ingrained in the psyche of the slaves. These tones of servitude were their prison.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.
Smith, Mark M. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Ed. Michael Bull and Les Back. Oxford: Berg, 2003. 137-63. Print.
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.
Both the South and the North can be defined as noisy atmospheres in Antebellum America. Frederick Douglass details, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how the sharp cracks of the whip, shrieks of pain by the slaves to demonstrate their humanity, and strings of profane words of slave-owners define the racket of the South in the mid-1800s. Douglass indentifies the North as carrying on “noiselessly so” compared with the types of sounds he hears in the South, but to many Southerners “Northern cities were distinctly noisy places filled with the cacophony of the mob and the unpalatable cadence of industrialism” (Smith 152). The South described by Douglass has its own unique soundscape characterized by the “keynote” sounds that make up the everyday activities of slaves and their masters. However, it is the silences in the soundscape that transform noises into a narrative soundtrack of the life of a slave. To demonstrate the importance of silence in defining the narrative of a place, I will explain the use of silence in three potential songs on my imagined soundtrack of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
The opening expression on my Frederick Douglass soundtrack features the repetitive, everyday sounds of slavery as Douglass learns how to behave as a slave. This track contains the constant, sharp slash of a whip cutting against human flesh overlaid by the allegro, profane shouts of the slave master recurring as eighth notes. The song is conspicuously missing the lazy drone of maternal love, and instead full of a cacophony of the swish of harvesting tobacco or wheat, the blaring of the driver’s horn, and the occasional gunshot blending into the other sounds. However, the profane shouts build in intensity and become fortissimo, but are offset by rests. The masters shout and then there is a sudden absence of sound, as if a response is expected. The slave-owners, though, do not expect a response because the slaves must “know nothing” and “the means of knowing [must be] withheld”(Douglass 1). This first stage of silence is characterized by submission because when a slave-owner speaks, a slave “must stand, tremble, and listen” without questioning (Douglass 10). Silence could not prevent the undeserved punishments that the slaves received, but slave-owners expected submission, and this type of silence characterized Douglass as he learned the dehumanizing meaning of slavery.
Track two is characterized by the deceptive silence of a lie. It is composed of the “wild songs” of the slaves that revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (Douglass 8). Because the “penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” was possibly death, silencing the truth became a wise, conscious decision to ensure survival (Douglass 11). The lyrical messages of the slaves often contrasted the tonal meaning of the songs because the slaves were forced to express their laments in a pursuit of self-preservation. In this second title, silence becomes important because the lyrical truth of the slaves’ songs is silenced by fear and the need for self-protection.
The final movement of my soundtrack with the motif of silence becomes less chaotic and more measured. The sounds become more poignant and intentional as Douglass grows more educated and begins to defend himself. Amidst the ordered sounds of mallets and irons and the pianissimo tinkling sounds of colliding coins, the sounds occasionally fade out before quietly coming back into earshot. These intentional, calm, and purposeful silences indicate Douglass’ defiance as he “did not allow [himself] a single word; but was resolved, if [Master Hugh] laid his hand upon me, it should be blow for blow”(Douglass 62). Intentional silence gives Douglass an aura of calculated intelligence and determination that characterized is path to freedom.
Although our lives, and the lives of people of Antebellum America, are defined by the sounds we hear, silence plays a roll in creating history because it allows narratives to be told. Silence was key to the survival of the slave and Douglass’ evolving use of silence ultimately led to his freedom. However, silence also played a key roll in the physical narration of Douglass’ own life because his decision to omit the details surrounding his escape to freedom left a large hole in his narrative. This hole was left for the reader to fill with his or her imagination, but ultimately remained a silent absence of knowledge. The affect of this is similar to the fractured style of Emily Bernard in her essay “Teaching the N-Word,” and gives the reader the power to fill the gaps of information with her own knowledge to better connect with the work. In the end, silence can contain as much meaning as sound and may serve to connect the reader to the text to better drive the narrative.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995. Print.
Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.
The contrast between the North and South in antebellum America is so undeniably huge that it is almost impossible to imagine them as parts of the same country. As Mark Smith stated in his “Listening to the Heard World of Antebellum America”, “The quiet of the plantation acted as a counterpoint to the noise of urbanism and industrialism” (143). The South was associated with the silence and peacefulness of the farm, while the North reflected the progress of Industrialization and all the discord that came with it. However, Frederick Douglass shows in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that this may not be the case to every ear. If the noises he heard were to be made into a soundtrack or put into a docudrama, they would be as follows.
While on the plantation in Easton, Maryland, the sounds of slavery and suffering constantly surround Frederick. First and foremost is that of labor. Throughout the entire day, there would be the light swish of the scythe cutting through the wheat, followed by the gentle drum of its fall. The next sound is the low melody of the slaves’ songs. The rumble of voices, soft but noticeable, saturated with the hurt and hopelessness of their owners’ situation permeates the heavy air in a constant hum. “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject” (Douglass 8). This desperation would be ever-present. Behind these quiet words and chants is a much louder shriek of pain and a cry for reprieve from such excruciating suffering; however, never are they heard in their true form. Next, over the voices is the intermediate crack of a whip. A white man overseeing the workers reminds them frequently of his presence with the sharp sound of leather snapping back on itself. Douglass describes one overseer: “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). These sounds carry to the ears of the slaves, causing the loudest sound of all to fill their minds. This is the sound of fear.
This is what Frederick Douglass lived with every day working on the field. When he arrives at New Bedford, Massachusetts, he hears a very different soundscape. “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To the ear of a slave, the wharf is almost silent. There is no overarching tone of servitude and humiliation, only the thrum of comfortable labor. To Frederick, these were the sounds of contentment and freedom. No desperate song comes from the mouths of slave men and women, but silence from free human beings. “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). Everyone served only themselves, not the employer of the brusque men with their crackling, eager lashes. Instead of a soundscape based on pain and harm, it is the gentle scraping, creaking, and hammering of wholehearted work; the undertones of fury and hatred caused by the institution of slavery are not present. Frederick no longer sensed the utter roar of destitution and agony that was constant in the South, but instead only the gentle thrum of free men. The tones are strange and low to him; never before has he witnessed such a place.
To an escaped slave, the haven of the North is the depiction of peace and refuge, while over a hundred years later a white man makes a case for the same to be said of the slaveholding South. Regardless of this inconsistency, Frederick Douglass illustrates the contrast between his perception of the soundscapes of North and South in his autobiography, leaving a very clear picture of what he believed to be the heard worlds of antebellum America.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.
Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003. 137-63. Print.