Pathos and the urge to elicit empathy from his white audience frame The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. His autobiography chronicles his life as a slave, while dispelling the myths surrounding slavery and the outlandish justifications the northern people have cited with regard to it. Among these justifications of slavery and misconceptions of slaves’ “contentment” on the plantations is “the singing of a slave” (9). Douglass censures the misconception that the slaves’ singing portended their happiness; on the contrary, it pointed to their sorrow, grief, pain, and desire to escape the clutches of their white owners.
Douglass elaborates on the function of singing at the end of Chapter Two:
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 the 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. (9)
This paragraph hinges on two similes: the first draws a parallel between singing and crying. The “song of the slave” signifies “the sorrows of his heart” just like crying relieves an aching heart of its grief. This comparison suggests that, while singing is cathartic, is it not an indication of happiness. Tears, too, are therapeutic, but do not normally imply happiness. This first simile effectively illustrates the ways by which slaves cope with their misery, but also serves as a microcosm for the narrative’s effort to dichotomize conjecture and truth. Douglass endeavors to dispel any misunderstandings his white audience may have had about the life of a slave, and his assertion that “slaves sing when they are most unhappy” lays the foundation for the reflective and argumentative mood in the rest of his autobiography.
The second of the two similes illustrates the loneliness of the slave, thus yielding both an obvious and subtle implication. On one hand, Douglass’s comparison of a singing slave to a singing “man cast away upon a desolate island” delineates the isolation that the slave feels notwithstanding his communal support of his fellow slaves. But is the man to whom he’s referring a black man? Douglass’s simile (and the narrative as a whole) strives to elicit empathy from his audience, and because this passage reacts against the northern perception of the slave song, it is likely that Douglass’s intended audience is white. After all, Douglass would not need to explain to a black audience that the slave song represents the slave’s despair and sorrow. And, since Douglass’s intended audience is most likely white, is the “man cast away on a desolate island” a white man? Would a white audience be sympathetic to the illustration of a black man on an island?
Douglass compares the singing of a slave to the singing of a man on a desolate island not only to illustrate the loneliness and desperation a slave feels, but also to encourage his audience to realize that singing does not indicate happiness. A man may sing on an island, but being on a desolate island would most likely not produce happiness; consequently, his singing does not underscore his happiness. Douglass is acutely aware of his audience and conscious of the possibility that a white reader will not empathize with the desolation of a black man on an island, as a black man is a piece of property or, at the very most, inferior to a white man. As a result, it is possible that the image of a man on which Douglass focuses the crux of his argument in this paragraph is a white man, because the image of a white man trapped on an island would more likely elicit empathy from his white audience.
If this man is white, Douglass is catering to the racism his narrative attempts to expel from his audience. Although his narrative is supposed to garner sympathy, it is also playing on his readers’ convictions that the white man is superior to the black in order to achieve his purpose. His effort to diminish normative whiteness is paradoxical, then, because he relies on that very racism to convey his point.