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.
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.