Slums, work, freedom, Eden, flight

Books of the Region

January 18, 2004|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Tia Lincoln, born here in 1972, grew up in a large household, did well at first in school, was marched regularly to church. But Tia's father and mother belted their kids, often and hard; two of her sisters ran away; she discovered boys. Tia went to Franklin High School -- through a special arrangement -- and graduated a few days before her first child's birth; her father (a charmer, and an MTA bus driver) left; the family, on welfare and food stamps, moved from place to place. Tia's boyfriends, on drugs, had no interest in work.

In 1995, just as her fiance and her father were finally to meet, news came of the latter's death -- murdered in his own home.

Ms. Lincoln's book, Child of Baltimore (1stBooks, 144 pages, $15.50) is an autobiography of existence in the slums. "Have you ever felt what it's like to be really starving," she asks, "... so weak you can barely get out of the bed to even go to the bathroom?" 3013 Presbury St., Lexington Terrace Housing Projects, gunshots, Alpha Pregnancy Center, stealing, Jehovah's Witnesses', Kingdom Hall, men beating up women, drugs, AIDS.

Tia Lincoln has made a life for herself regardless. She did bear down on her father's murder, pushing the police into finding the killers -- her mother, her brother and a hired thug.

Slum life has been described before, notably by white males. When will the story of today's Baltimore be told by a black male author?

Since about 1960, the axis of art has moved -- aesthetic criteria are "less focused on appearance and more concerned with ideas," as Helen Molesworth writes in her introductory essay to Work Ethic (Baltimore Museum of Art and Pennsylvania State University, 245 pages, $29.95). The book is both catalog and analysis of a BMA exhibition.

The new focus means less historical, conventional appeal in artworks; more uncertainty. Or -- the work of deciding what a picture or object means has shifted from artist to viewer. A final chapter, "Quitting Time," cites artists' attempts at avoiding ideas altogether and "working as little as possible." But "not working is extremely difficult to do."

Long ago, far away, there was another Maryland. From 1834 to 1857, at the base of Africa's western bulge, Baltimoreans and others formed an independent coastal enclave (or state, or colony, or commonwealth, or county, or "company store" ) named Maryland. About 1,000 people, mostly free or liberated blacks, migrated there in ships chartered by the Maryland State Colonization Society, and were given land and supplies for farming. But the enterprise, supported by $10,000 annually from the General Assembly in Annapolis, was disingenuous. It ended when Maryland asked to be annexed by the larger state next door -- Liberia.

This mostly forgotten story has occupied Richard L. Hall for 20 years; it ends in triumph, with his long, detailed book, On Afric's Shore (Maryland Historical Society, 500 pages, $45). Historians will find no need to revisit this episode. Hall has even compiled a name-by-name Annotated Roll of Settlers -- the society's officers (some of whom in 1847 helped found the Maryland Historical Society) having written -- and the society saved -- many, many reports.

What went wrong? Underlying this "utopian" purpose was a desire to be rid of slaves and freedmen by sending them to Africa. Almost all such persons had been born and raised here, and would rather stay here (if to prosper in freedom). Those who did go soon found crop-farming, American-style, unsuited to tropical undergrowth. And the Grebo tribe, the existing occupants of this cape (on the maps as Las Palmas), sold land but, still around, got into disputes that led to warfare with the newcomers.

Yet what a scene, across time and ocean; Baltimore Street, intersecting with Maryland Avenue. Five denominations' worth of Christian churches. Sellers of rum. Anthony Wood from Harford County, captain of militia, later a senator, who after the original land sale whacked the first bush. The Tubmans, from Georgia, one of whose descendants was a 20th century president of Liberia. A lyceum, to which good-hearted Baltimoreans shipped books, for a school library.

The problem with short-story collections is they awaken the mind but do not fill it. To this, Barbara Klein Moss of Annapolis has a solution: singleness of theme. In her eight-story book, Little Edens (Norton, 288 pages, $23.95) scattered men and women, at some point in their lives, experience Eden. In Paris, Boston, Vermont, a force ejects them; then, one by one, they sense what was and what wasn't good, what there is left.

In the lead story, an elderly, learned Jew imprisoned in Iran keeps his sanity by weaving a glorious, complex, imagined carpet on the wall of his solitary cell. Unexpectedly freed, and transported to California, he luxuriates. Also, he no longer weaves.

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