Freeing the soul on wings of words Griot: Maryland's storyteller took her tales of freedom to 100 women inmates at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center.

February 20, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

For once, there was a hush in jail. Every lost soul's grandmother had come to call, offering escape in its purest form -- a flight of the mind.

Mary Carter Smith has been a teller of tales for most of her 78 years, winging audiences to Africa with her words as Maryland's official griot, or storyteller. She does it to plug a hole in her heart left by the murders years ago of her mother and her son -- a hole so big, she is fond of saying, that it has room for "a whole lot of people."

Yesterday, Smith brought her stories to the Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore, to about 100 women in a depressingly real place of confinement, to celebrate Black History Month.

Wearing an ornate purple dress called a buba, her mass of steel-gray braids swept back by a matching head scarf, Smith barely cleared the microphone. Yet she silenced the normally defiant audience with a voice that cackled and thundered and shook with mirth as it bounced off the cold bleachers. She brought affirming words, about African-American culture, history and even hair.

For this group, real-life words of wisdom made the best story of all.

She told, for example, how her unmarried mother took an herbal potion to abort the baby inside her.

"My mother took it, but I did not move."

To the women: "It's no shame to grow old. I want to see you be 78."

"I've done some bad things, too. Didn't get caught."

"Don't drop your head like you ain't nobody."

"Your bodies are not chicken parts to be displayed like chicken. You looking cheap? They look at you like you are ready for sale. If you come off so cheap and so available, they will trash you. You can live without a man who is using you."

"Honey, having a baby will not make him love you. He will leave you to make babies with someone else."

"We are black and proud -- say it clearly and loud!"

"They say I got bad hair," she said, shaking her braids. "Nobody's got bad hair. We got different hair."

"Say it: I got good hair!"

"I GOT GOOD HAIR!" replied the women.

"I am smart! I am beautiful!"

"I AM BEAUTIFUL!"

One inmate put a hand to her cheek and stroked it, as if to tell whether this were true.

There were stories, too, of the ragman, crying, "New rags for old rags," who would roam the streets of Baltimore taking on the pain of the downtrodden, offering clean handkerchiefs for the wiping away of tears and blood. Of her recipe for "elephant stew," simmered six weeks for 3,400 guests. Of the Zulu warrior Chaka, who united his people. "He was also a bastard," Smith said later.

At the end, when the women gave her a standing ovation and then themselves a hand for being so attentive, Mary Carter Smith jumped up and down like a girl of 7 -- for a moment defying age, defying death, defying that low place where her audience had come to rest.

Then they flocked around like the students at schools where Smith speaks so frequently, begging her to sign the copies of hymn lyrics they clutched in their hands.

Said prisoner Rosalind Jones, 34, jailed on a drug charge: "Sometimes when you're in a place like this, you feel low. She gives you inspiration and hope."

"As a black African-American leader, she has impacted my life today," said Towanda McGee, 26, who is jailed on a burglary charge. "I now know some things."

As a correctional officer came to escort her back to the dorm, McGee touched her own hair -- short, combed back, stiff and plain.

"It let me know, by my hair being as coarse as it is " McGee trailed off. Then she smiled. "I feel all right today."

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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