Douglass' slave life hits home in book

Memoir: Organizers of Baltimore's Book of 2002 hope Frederick Douglass' autobiography, some of which takes place in the city, inspires readers.

September 27, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The Spencer family sat around their dining room table, which was covered with a quilted tablecloth, taking turns as they read aloud Frederick Douglass' story of how he planned his escape from the "injustice of my enslavement."

"You couldn't tell your sister, your brother you were leaving," Audrey Spencer, 60, told her granddaughters Marquelle, 8, and Ona, 10, who listened intently. "You wouldn't dare tell."

In this hearth-and-home setting, the conversation that ensued was the kind of dialogue organizers of Baltimore's Book of 2002 hoped Douglass' powerful autobiography would inspire throughout the city.

Following the lead of Chicago and other cities, Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Mayor Martin O'Malley led the effort to unite the city's reading public around one book during the summer. They have called on Baltimore clergy, bookshop owners and others to promote the book. Their campaign culminates this weekend with the Baltimore Book Festival, which starts today in Mount Vernon.

The girls' mother, Tarcia Spencer, said the eminent 19th-century anti-slavery orator quickly became a vivid presence in her home after the family participated in a read-a-thon at their neighborhood library in Northeast Baltimore.

"It was an eye-opener. You don't find many opportunities to discuss slavery," said Spencer, 31, who had tried to shield her daughters from the subject. "You don't have to pick cotton on Saturday morning or walk across Maryland countryside barefoot. It gives you a better sense of your own freedom."

O'Malley said he chose the book because it stirred his imagination when he first read it in the fourth grade. Douglass' odyssey took place before the Civil War and includes several scenes in Baltimore.

The mayor said he reread the slim volume, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, during the summer over a beach vacation. On the second reading, O'Malley said, he was intrigued by Douglass' equating the Catholic emancipation cause in Ireland with his struggle to be free of slavery.

"It's the most marvelous, wonderful story," O'Malley said, "of a boy who learned to read, escaped from slavery and later in life became Abraham Lincoln's friend."

After his escape, Douglass became a leading abolitionist. His memoirs, published in Boston, became required reading for the anti-slavery cause. Writing with compelling candor, Douglass took his readers into the brutal world he knew growing up on a Talbot County plantation. The 1845 testament is considered an American masterpiece.

"It's a very empowering book," O'Malley said. "It's difficult to whine after reading it."

O'Malley said he ordered about 2,000 Dover Thrift paperback editions of Douglass' narrative and will give them to middle-school student council members during "rap" visits.

Spencer said she was often reluctant to explore the details of slavery with her daughters because those accounts still have the power to injure a child. But reading Douglass aloud with others in a public forum gave the family, even Marquelle, a way to come face-to-face with a painful past. Marquelle and Ona plowed through difficult passages during their 15-minute turns at the library, Spencer said.

When a reporter visited their home this week, the Roland Park Elementary School pupils opened their copies of the Dover edition and again read aloud from the story of a man unknown to them two weeks ago. One passage concerned the time Douglass spent working as a caulker on ships being built at Fells Point. As a city slave, Douglass had a much better lot than a country slave. Still, by custom, he had to turn over most of his wages to his master at the end of a week.

The Spencer women took a moment to ponder that situation.

"It hit here, having to give up more than half his wages," said Audrey Spencer, who works as a teacher's assistant and a crossing guard.

Tarcia Spencer, a psychology associate at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said she saw parallels between escaping slavery and leaving the inner city for a better station in life.

"Your longing to succeed means you leave your friends and community behind," she said, wondering if those who escaped to freedom ever felt guilty.

A passage about Douglass' grandmother being left to live alone in the woods in a makeshift hut left the girls wide-eyed and curious.

"Can you die of loneliness?" Marquelle asked.

The answer was a sad, "Yes," from her mother.

Public response to the autobiography has been positive, said organizers. Joseph Alston, who manages the gift shop at the Pratt's main branch, said he had sold 900 copies of the Dover edition -- many to private and public school teachers. He hopes to sell a few hundred more of the $1 editions at the book festival.

In choosing Douglass' narrative, O'Malley took a different tack than officials in Chicago, who selected To Kill A Mockingbird, a classic novel set in the deep South. Douglass' powerful story of life in antebellum America is set squarely in Maryland and Baltimore. The book's setting gives city readers a sense of immediacy and familiarity. They can walk the streets where Douglass lived, worked on the wharves, and plotted his escape.

"Hey," said Tarcia Spencer, expressing a touch of hometown pride, "I'm reading about my city."

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