Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

In Ch. 2, Douglass writes about the experience of hearing slaves singing as they go to the Great House Farm. How can songs can be interpreted in at least two very different ways. How did they sound to Douglass while he was “within the circle”? How did they sound to Douglass once he was more removed from that experience? How do Northerners misinterpret the singing?

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The songs were spontaneous, passionate, and moving. The slaves would sometimes "sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone." Douglass believed the hearing of those songs would do more to impart the terrors of slavery than reading volumes of philosophy on the topic.

When he was a slave he did not truly understand the meaning of the songs; they were "beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the power and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish." The songs were what truly allowed him to glimpse how dehumanizing and miserable slavery really was.

Douglass commented that he was astonished how people claimed that slaves sang because they were happy, and thus concluded that they were a happy bunch of people. A slave's woes can only be relieved by singing. It did not make sense to him to sing for happiness, only for misery.