Arts grant brings storyteller to students

February 18, 1993|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Staff Writer

Sojourner Truth, the illiterate former slave who became a spokeswoman for the rights of blacks and women, showed up at Southern Middle School yesterday, in the person of storyteller Alice McGill.

"I was sold away from my mother," Ms. McGill said in the Dutch and African accents of her character.

"They sold me away from my mother. But before I left, my mother, she told me to look up at the sky and ask God to make my master good. I had never heard of this God."

She wrapped herself in a white shawl, explaining to the students in an assembly that when the shawl went on, she became Sojourner Truth at age 83.

Ms. McGill's appearance at the school in Lothian was sponsored by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council and the County Commission on Culture and the Arts.

County Executive Robert R. Neall also visited yesterday to present a check for $200 to student government leaders Charmisa Adams and Gerald Lopez. It was the first of 72 such grants being doled out to county schools.

Sixty-seven schools will receive $200 each, and five artists in residence will receive $4,830 for a total of about $19,000 in grants.

"Culture, and different types of culture really make America what it is," Mr. Neall said. "One of the things really important about culture is we really get to know who we are."

The county's commission established its grant program eight years ago to provide students with diverse cultural activities.

Ms. McGill, who mixed her scenes from the life of Sojourner Truth with songs and tales of black folklore during two assemblies, was an example of the grant in action.

Wearing a blue, cotton dress and a head scarf, she told the students about a woman who was named Isabelle at birth.

But her last name changed each time she was sold to a different master. Isabelle decided she would no longer keep changing her name, so she created her own name -- Sojourner Truth.

Slavery existed in every culture, black, white, brown, Ms. McGill said. The word stems from the ancient Romans, who oppressed the Slavic people, she added.

Then she asked for two volunteers. But when youngsters raised their hands, she admonished them. They didn't have a choice in who was selected, she said. Neither did the slaves.

Ms. McGill said Sojourner Truth got up one morning and walked away to freedom and a life of advocating for blacks and women, even though many in the women's movement did not want blacks involved.

In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave one of her most moving speeches to a group of early suffragists, she said.

Men denied women equality and the right to vote because they saw women as weak.

But Sojourner Truth, who was 6 feet tall and weighed 190 pounds, told the crowd that she had plowed more fields than any man she knew, and had given birth to five children, too.

"Ain't I a woman?" she asked.

Ms. McGill said that after the speech a man told her he cared as much for the rights of blacks as he did about a flea.

"Maybe not," Sojourner Truth replied. "But I'll keep you scratching."

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