Tales mark celebration for storyteller

GRIOTS PAY TRIBUTE TO MOTHER MARY

October 10, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

When it was finally her turn yesterday, after the tributes and kisses, famed Baltimore griot Mary Carter Smith wanted to show off for a change, rather than tell stories.

"God has been good to me," she told an audience of more than 150 gathered at the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library to celebrate her birthday.

"Seventy-five years old -- and I can outdance all of you!"

And she did, doing an energetic jig, accompanied on drum by one of the many storytellers who are her disciples.

Yesterday's event at the library capped a two-day celebration in honor of Mother Mary, hailed as a "living legend" by black storytellers across the nation.

For more than 20 years, Mother Mary, as she is widely called, has been living the life of a griot -- a combination storyteller, historian, singer and folklorist. She and other griots have told stories on her show on WEAA-FM on Saturday mornings for 17 years.

Yesterday, she listened to a litany of tributes and colorful stories.

Nzinga Ama, a 30-something Baltimore griot, told about first hearing Mrs. Smith's tales in the third grade at Pimlico Elementary School.

"She told us about Africa. I had only seen it on a map," Ms. Ama said. "She made it seem like the characters were right in the room with us."

Storytellers brought plenty of their own characters to the Pratt's auditorium as well.

Fellisco Keeling, a Baltimore griot, told a mesmerizing tale of a beautiful bird -- symbolizing freedom -- that would not die, despite the concerted efforts of Anansi the Spider.

Gloria "MaMa Ya" Bivens of Louisville, Ky., recounted a story of a little girl and her encounters with a yam, fish, feather, leaf and some palm oil, not to mention an eagle, goat and tree.

Tejumola Ologboni of Milwaukee played the drum and exuberantly told the story of a mother mouse who scared away a hungry cat with a loud bark.

"Always take a second language," the mother cat told her kittens. "You never know when it might come in handy."

As her admirers spoke, Mrs. Smith sat quietly, slowly circling her thumbs around each other. She wore a bright bubu, or African dress, with seven bracelets on her left wrist, six on her right. Her head was wrapped in a traditional African geelee.

Nearby on the stage stood a Mary Carter Smith doll -- one in a limited edition of 75, each dressed in different African-style clothing -- being sold for $120 to benefit the National Association of Black Storytellers.

Mrs. Smith, who actually turned 75 in February, said it was "exciting and scary" to receive such a tribute.

"It's a feeling of awe that things you have done years ago, that somebody remembers," Mrs. Smith said. "But it's scary because to call me a living legend -- that's not my idea -- that means you can't make any more mistakes."

After all the years telling stories, Mrs. Smith said it never gets to be "old habit."

"You never get over a little bit of scary feeling. Each group is different," she said. "I never come with a plan. I come with possibles."

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Mrs. Smith grew up in Ohio and West Virginia before settling in Baltimore. She graduated from what was then Coppin Teacher's College and worked as a librarian in the Baltimore school system for 31 years. She retired in 1973 to become a full-time storyteller.

Recently proclaimed the "Mother Griot" by the black storytellers association, Mrs. Smith has almost no family of her own. Her only child, Ricky, was stabbed to death by a woman in a bar in 1978. Living by her Christian principles, Mrs. Smith later befriended the woman.

She said her son's death was the worst thing that could ever happen to her, but that doesn't make it all bad.

"That left a hole in me that was so big," she said. "I can hold a lot of other people now."

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