This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. 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 could do. --Frederick Douglass
Throughout Frederick Douglass’s first autobiographical work, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he shifts between slavery’s impact upon the mind, body, and soul of the enslaved. In the quotation above, from the second chapter of the Narrative, we see Douglass’s observation and analysis of the sorrow songs or “spirituals” as we know them today.
His commentary is a direct critique of the internal discord of enslaved people as a result of their condition in slavery. For Douglass, the songs sung by the enslaved did not have a necessarily celebratory feature. The very nature of the song, in Douglass’s account, is complexity and conflict of an immeasurable degree.
As many scholars have noted, his intent was to show the humanity of the enslaved which means discussing their internal lives. Douglass is deliberate in exposing the impact of slavery beyond the better known physical outcomes. Douglass is just as careful in his documentation of the internal turmoil of the enslaved as he is the whippings, grueling labor, broken families, etc.
The last sentence of the excerpt shows Douglass making an effort to acknowledge the intellect of the enslaved, as well. A learned Douglass does not only shows the intellectual potential of blacks in his own abilities, but ask his audience to take notice of it in the sorrow songs.
• A partial timeline of memoirs & autobiographies by black men
Jeremiah Carter is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.