“The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic … The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness as the singing of a slave, the songs of the one sand of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”
The above passage illustrates both Douglass’ contempt for the institution of slavery and the construction of his identity. The passage depicts the day-to-day lives of a group of slaves eager to express their emotions. The author notes how he heard “…the most pathetic singing…” with the choice of words hinting at his displeasure. The description works against the seemingly jubilant slaves, with the author informing the readers that their joy was in vain. It seems as if the disorganization of their actions was not out of improvisation, but rather the author’s interpretation of how things were during that era.
It is also evident how the author takes advantage of different sentence structures to emphasize his points. Close investigation reveals that some sentences within this scene are excessively long, not forgetting their odd arrangements. “This they would sing…meaning to themselves.” The statement serves as a useful illustration of such a sentence, demonstrating the impact of the improvised songs being sung by the slaves. The odd and lengthy sentences work towards emphasizing the redundancy of the slaves’ actions of shouting for joy for hard-earned scraps of labor. It is important to note how such deplorable conditions were the order of the day, giving readers a glimpse of the wayward philosophy of a slave.
His disdain for slavery did not end there. It is further demonstrated by descriptions such as “…the wild tones depressed his spirit.” Such situations exemplify the animalization of human beings, where slavery reduced people to mere animals, lacking harmony or organization in their singing. It is the same situation that would befall the current-day reader juxtaposed to that scene in time, where the viewer would have difficulty comprehending what the band of slaves was bickering about. A casual observer would often mistake the excited group of slaves to be oblivious of their rights, following the uneven rhythms and meters of the impromptu compositions. In fact, such scenes would pale in comparison to their African American descendants known for rhyming in sync with any beat in perfect harmony (freestyle).
Going further, the experience also awakened the construction of his identity, developing from a slave to a free man. The introspection goes a long way in delving into the author’s personal experiences when he historically did not understand the songs’ context but, later on, comprehended the deplorable circumstance he was in. His place within the slaves’ circle did not enable him to realize the gravity of the situation. The author’s identity was shaped by such experiences that made him vow to cease being a slave that culminated in his eventual freedom and stature within American society.
The passage also hints at the different personal identities of the slaves and the author. The vigor with which the group exploded in song jolted the young Douglass’ identity into life, awakening a free spirit, which breeds a culture of independent choices. The slaves choose to work in the Great House Farm for meagre allowances while there were other lucrative prospects across the country. Their selection emphasizes the limits of their decisions, implying that they were still bound by the slave identity in the long-run. Such scenes are reminiscent of structural forms of inequality or glass ceilings that covertly discriminate against some in favor of their counterparts.
The creation of the author’s identity as an oppressed slave also emerges along with the passage. The author recounts how these songs impacted his emotions, depressing him to the lowest limits. The sadness spread by those melancholic songs was enough to make him realize the damning consequences of slavery to its victims, losing their integral identity and humanity. These haunting experiences are emphasized by allusions to dead souls, magnifying the ominous state of affairs being experienced by the slaves, week-in, week-out. It is important to note how souls evoke spiritual beliefs and are known to be immortal. The potency of the institution of slavery is clearly associated with the power to kill eternal souls, and readers get a glimpse of the scale of its destructive capabilities.
All in all, it is evident that Douglass’ experiences as a slave helped define his eventual identity, constructing it in such a way that it appeared indestructible. The sense of freedom and character were emboldened during these dark times when he got a first-hand impression of the consequences of slavery to minority groups of the society. The passage documents both his deep hatred for slavery while, at the same time, detailing the piece-by-piece construction of his identity as a free, independent and intelligent black man. These situations go a long way in entrenching his activism against the institutions of slavery that took advantage of ignorance for economic benefit.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Signet Books, New York, 1845.
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