A Tale of LOVE AND LOSS Storyteller: Mary Carter Smith is a griot whose commanding voice adds drama to her many tales. Her own life story is no less dramatic.

December 29, 1995|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Mary Carter Smith is a renowned Baltimore storyteller with a tale to tell. This time, though, it's not someone else's story, but her own. And it is as much a revelation as the many stories she spins for her audiences in her deep, commanding voice.

Almost from the beginning, Mrs. Smith's life was marked by loss. She was 5 and living with her grandmother in Youngstown, Ohio, when her mother, Eartha, was shot to death by her stepfather in New York City. Her mother was 22.

They brought her body home to Youngstown for the burial. Mary was not tall enough to see inside the casket or old enough to fully understand what was happening. But she noticed how people kept patting her head, saying, "You poor little thing" and giving her money.

The funeral may have sparked her debut as a storyteller. When she got home from the funeral the child walked out on the street to repeat the sad tale of her mother's death. People were moved and responded by giving her money.

But her grandmother, whom Mary loved and always called "Mama," put a quick stop to the enterprise. So her foray into the storyteller's world was a brief one.

Today, at 76, Mary Carter Smith still remembers being rocked by the mother who died so violently. She begins singing a haunting song her mother used to coo to her: "If you love your mother, meet her in the sky."

"I remember it perfectly. I remember my mother's love," says Mrs. Smith, tiny and dignified in her flowing African robes and colorful head wrap. "Now that I am older, that song seems prophetic."

She is comforted by a letter her mother wrote to her grandmother while in New York: "How is my baby?" she asks. "She is the darling of my life."

And she felt the same way about her own son, Ricardo Rogers Carter, born in 1948.

"Ricky has slick black hair and my long fingers," she wrote in her journal the day of his birth. "He has long feet like his Pa. His skin is beautifully ruddy like a peach We're all so happy!"

By then, Mrs. Smith was married and living in Baltimore, where she had graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and gone on to what is now Coppin State College on a full scholarship.

She became a public school teacher and librarian, the perfect job for someone who grew up reading a book a day.

To encourage her students to learn, she wove tales of Africa into the lessons -- stories about laughter, love and understanding.

On some occasions, she serenaded her students with Negro spirituals while teaching them the history behind her words. She became so popular that people started asking her to come and share her stories.

And she told her stories to her little boy as he grew up. She and Ricky were close, going to church together, playing in the park and going to baseball games.

She was a single mother now. Her marriage to Ulysses J. Carter had ended in divorce.

Looking back, she takes responsibility for the divorce.

"I didn't know marriage took hard work. I was a reader, a believer in fairy tales, in living happily ever after," she says.

In 1960, she married again, but her second husband, Elias Raymond Smith, died of kidney failure two years after their wedding.

All the while, Mrs. Smith was adding stories to her repertoire, using her voice as a kind of instrument to make the tales come alive. Her voice could boom with thunder, caress with its gentleness or break into joyous song.

"My students have told me I introduced them to poetry," she says. "They tell me how much that has enriched their lives."

But she didn't become a professional storyteller, or griot, until 1969 when an agent began finding her paid work for her yarns.

For Mrs. Smith, becoming a griot "was like a fish finding water," she says.

"She's a little person in stature," says Fellisco Keeling, a griot who has known Mrs. Smith for about 15 years. "But when she speaks, you think of her as being tall. She transcends all ideas of time, space and size. Everyone is in awe of her when she starts speaking."

Mrs. Smith, who co-founded the National Association of Black Storytellers in 1983, became a fixture in the African-American community with her "Griot for the Young and Young at Heart" radio program on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM (88.9), which airs Saturdays from 11 a.m. to noon.

For a long time, she was happy and fulfilled.

Then loss hit her again. In 1978, her son Ricky was stabbed to death by a female acquaintance infuriated by his refusal to pay attention to her.

He was 29 -- seven years older than Mrs. Smith's mother when she was killed.

For Mrs. Smith, the hardest moment was when she first saw her son's body. He was in a basement room, probably at the morgue, covered with a white blanket.

"A man walked over to the table and pulled the blanket back," Mrs. Smith recalls. Her son's hair had begun to gray early. "The first thing I saw was the streak of gray hair," she says. She bent over, and strange sounds of grief and fury poured from her mouth.

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