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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.
This passage is part of Douglass’s long
discussion at the end of Chapter II about the songs that slaves
sing. As he often does in the Narrative, Douglass
takes his personal experience of hearing slaves sing on their way
to the Great House Farm and analyzes this as a common experience
among all slaves. He uses his conclusions about slave behavior to
correct white readers’ misconceptions. In this instance, Douglass
explains that many Northerners mistakenly believe that the singing
of slaves is evidence of their happiness. He says that the songs
are actually evidence, on an almost subconscious emotional level,
of the slaves’ deep unhappiness.
In this discussion, Douglass makes a distinction between
the literal and the “deep” meaning of the songs. Douglass explains
that the songs were difficult to understand—“apparently incoherent”
to outsiders—but that the slaves themselves understood the literal meaning
of the words they were singing. However, the “deep” meaning of the
songs is not apparent to Douglass until he becomes an outsider to
the group. Douglass implies that the “deep” meaning becomes clear
only with distance and after applying tools of analysis. This distance
explains Douglass’s particular position of authority in the Narrative. Douglass
not only experiences life under slavery, but he now also has the
tools and the distance with which to interpret the practices of
slavery for outside audiences.
The quotation further provides an example of the tension
inherent in the Narrative. Douglass must abandon
his former slave self in order to become a narrator capable of interpreting
the experiences of that former self. Implicit in this quotation
is the idea that a culture remains invisible to those who are raised
within it. To each of us, our everyday practices seem normal—they
seem to have little meaning and therefore cannot be interpreted.
As such, Douglass does not understand the symbolic meaning of the
slave songs when he is one of the singers. Douglass suggests that
only after moving away from his culture can he gain interpretive
distance from it.