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Douglass's Narrative

“I am going away to the Great House Farm!

O, yea! O, yea! O!”

 

        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.

        I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of

those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within

the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might

see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether

beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long,

and deep; they breathed 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 spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have

frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere

recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am

writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found

its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first

glimmering conception 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. If any one wishes to be

impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to

Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place

himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence,

analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his

soul,—and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because

“there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.”

        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.