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