Frederick Douglass: He knew why the caged bird sang


From YouTube: This is a clip from the film 12 Years a Slave. The slaves sing “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral for one of their own.

Frederick Douglass, as I like to say, was the most eminently quotable man of his generation. This 19th century abolitionist, writer, publisher, orator, community activist, civil servant, and former slave, was perhaps the spokesman for the African American community during his lifetime.

In his memoir My Bondage and My Freedom – which was part of the slave narrative literary genre – Douglass spoke about the meaning of song to enslaved African Americans. Songs had many purposes. They were utilitarian: they helped overseers keep track of slaves working in the fields. They were flattering: they praised the slave master in a way that might curry his or her favor. And they were healing: they helped purge the soul of the pain that bondage brought to the body.

Douglass warned, don’t mistake the slaves’ songs as a sign of their contentment: “Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.”

These are Douglass’ thoughts on the meaning and value of song to the enslaved, from My Bondage and My Freedom:

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with the work.

But, on allowance day, those who visited the great house farm were peculiarly excited and noisy. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild notes. These were not always merry because they were wild. On the contrary, they were mostly of a plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy.

In all the songs of the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner, and, possibly, draw a favorable glance from him.

I am going away to the great house farm,
O yea! O yea! O yea!
My old master is a good old master,
O yea! O yea! O yea!

This they would sing, with other words of their own improvising—jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress truly spiritual-minded men and women with the soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of its mere physical cruelties. They speak to the heart and to the soul of the thoughtful. I cannot better express my sense of them now, than ten years ago, when, in sketching my life, I thus spoke of this feature of my plantation experience:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling.

To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that, when pressed to extremes, it often avails itself of the most opposite methods… The singing of a man cast away on a desolate island, might be as appropriately considered an evidence of his contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.

This is a video that I found of much interest. The speaker in the video, from Jamaica, gives his own commentary on the meaning of slave song, in the United States and in his country. This contains some profanity, and some might object that the speaker lacks “eloquence.” But he articulates a local, personal view of the subject that gave me serious pause to consider how American slaves are (negatively) viewed by others in the African diaspora. There is a message here about how various people remember slavery that I hope is not discounted because of the way it is stated.

WARNING: This clip from YouTube contains profanity.

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