Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Suffering

By Frederick Douglass


Chapter 1
Frederick Douglass

It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it. (1.8)

Notice how flat and unemotional Douglass's language is. He even admits that his language can't quite capture his experience. When he tries to describe his emotions on watching his Aunt Hester stripped naked and whipped mercilessly, he fails: no words he is capable of writing down can quite get the point across.

Chapter 2
Frederick Douglass

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. 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 and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. (2.9)

It was common for people who argued in favor of slavery to say that slaves were happy, pointing to the fact that slaves would often sing while they worked. But Douglass says that this is completely backward: slaves don't sing because they're happy, they sing because they're sad. The songs Douglass is talking about, by the way, are called "sorrow songs," out of which evolved the blues.