What I Hear: An Interpretation of the Heard Worlds of the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

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.

Dont Let Me Be Misunderstood (Selection) – Santa Esmeralda

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.


Works Cited

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.

Frederick Douglass Assignment

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.


Works Cited

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.