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Books and Beyond

Library patron

Reading Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s book “Colored People: A Memoir” a few months ago led me to more books about Black history.

The next book title and author is “My Bondage and My Freedom” by Frederick Douglass, written in 1855. The first chapter brings him to life as a little boy, and these years are when his life was happy. Although he was born in a slave family, he didn’t feel those terrible factors yet. He lived with his grandparents and didn’t feel like someone owned him.

He was born in farming country in eastern Maryland called Tuckahoe. The best feature was the Choptank River that ran through the area.

He tells us about the family he was born into: “Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves” (p. 30). They did not typically keep family records, so he is not certain of what year he was born, but he thinks it was 1817. When the slave family had a baby, the slave owners did not keep track of the birth date for them.

The family member he has strong memories of is his grandmother, Betsy Baily. She caught shad and herring in fishing nets, and when it was the right time, she planted sweet potatoes for people.

His grandparents lived in a cabin built of clay and wood and straw. His grandmother took care of her grandchildren while their mothers (her five daughters) were hired to work a ways distant. His mother’s name was Harriet.

He writes that living with his grandmother and grandfather gave him the experience of not feeling like a slave when he was a little boy.

Eventually, he learned that his grandparents didn’t own the hut they lived in, but “Old Master” did. That’s what his grandmother said. He also began to understand that someday he wouldn’t be living with his grandparents.

He was always worried and sad when he thought of the time he would be separated from his Grandmammy. He was sad now even when she was gone for a short time.

Toward the end of this chapter he writes that the white boy in the family has more trouble than he does. The slave boy gets to run wild. The owner’s boy — the white boy — has rules to follow, like use your knife and fork properly. The slave boy has freedom from these rules of how to behave.

The ending of this chapter is powerful reading, because you know this slave boy of 7 or 8 years old will soon not feel this freedom.

Chapter II begins with a description of the family of slave owners, who came to Maryland from Wales, and in a few pages we read about Frederick’s being taken 12 miles to their plantation. When he realizes that he won’t be with his Grandmammy anymore, he falls on the ground and weeps.

The appendix of the book has extracts from speeches Douglass gave throughout his life. He died in 1895.

Here is my first note about “Give Me Wings: How a Choir of former Slaves Took on the World,” by Kathy Lowinger, c 2015: “This book is like an encyclopedia!” It is only 144 pages, but it is a thorough book, written by a Canadian woman who is Jewish. Her family came to Canada from Hungary when she was very young.

One of the many historical stories in the book tells how the Fisk Jubilee Singers got started in Tennessee in 1861 with difficult times. In two years they became very well-known as they performed in the United States, England, Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. In Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recent book, “The Black Church,” he writes about the Jubilee Singers.

On a second trip overseas, they performed again in England, and also in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

They earned enough money to save Fisk University, which had been about to close because of lack of funds.

However, as they traveled on trains and boats and stayed in hotels, many times their wish to be treated fairly like white people was not honored. These situations did improve as they became more famous.

When the Jubilee Singers sang in Hartford, Connecticut, the state governor attended, as did Mark Twain. He was a fan of the Jubilees and wrote “I think these gentlemen and ladies make eloquent music — and what is much to the point, they reproduce the true melody of the plantations, and are the only persons I ever heard accomplish this on a public platform” (p. 97).

The book features many songs written by blacks, giving the history of who wrote it and the words. These songs include “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Each chapter in this book has many illustrations. On page 127 readers see the poster of THE ORIGINAL FISK UNIVERSITY JUBILEE SINGERS ORGANIZED OCTOBER 1871.

The next book is “Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves,” Edited by Glory Edim, c 2018. There are 22 selections from Black women writers. I started in the book by reading “Zora and Me” by Marita Golden, who has taught writing at many universities.

One of the awards she has received was for her novel “After”; this was awarded by The Black Caucus of the American Library Association. This author co-founded the organization The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. These writers both wrote about Black lives in the South — rural areas and small towns.

Marita Golden tells us that Zora’s writings “offer to the world a people who are a symphony, not some troubling minor key” (p. 55). Zora’s father told her about Frederick Douglass before she was old enough to hear about him in school.

We read that for a long time, Zora’s writings were not well-known. The first book of hers that Golden read was “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and then she read all her books. Her last paragraph is a thank you to Zora for all the inspiration she gave Black people.

The Hurston book we have on our shelves is “Dust Tracks on the Road.”

You can look up the Subject Black History on Plum Creek Library System and find many authors and titles, and there is a wide selection on the Library’s digital platforms Overdrive and Hoopla as well.

For more information, visit marshalllyonlibrary.org or call 507- 537- 7003.

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