The Word and the Sound: The Sonic Color-line in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative


  • Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman



Race, Listening, Frederick Douglass, slavery, Aural literacy


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“The Word and the Sound” examines the violence in Frederick Douglass’s iconic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) as an aural experience—not just a visual spectacle—arguing that the text is key to understanding the relationship between listening, race, and antebellum slavery. Douglass’s representations of divergent listening practices show how they shape (and are shaped by) race, revealing the aural edge of the ostensibly visual culture of white supremacy, or the “sonic color-line.”  This essay draws from archival material such as speech manuals and travel writing to document the sonic color-line, particularly the dominant association of nonverbal sound with the presumed irrationality of racial others. The subsequent sections close read key aural passages in the Narrative to amplify how Douglass exposes, manipulates, and subverts the sonic color-line, challenging his white readership to listen differently, even as he remains skeptical of their their ability to do so.

Author Biography

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman received her PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. Her dissertation, “The Contours of the Sonic Color-Line: Slavery, Segregation, and the Cultural Politics of Listening” was a 2007 finalist for the American Studies Association Dissertation Prize. Published in The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies,Social Identities, and Social Text, her essay on Blackboard Jungle, , the cold war, and the early cultural history of tape recording is forthcoming in American Quarterly(September 2011)  Currently Assistant Professor at SUNY Binghamton, she teaches courses on African American literature and race and gender representation in popular music and is the head of the Binghamton University Sound Studies Collective.




How to Cite

Stoever-Ackerman, J. (2011). The Word and the Sound: The Sonic Color-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative. SoundEffects - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience, 1(1), 19–36.