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Author talks to students about slavery

October 26, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- A novel about slavery set in the 1850s inspired a discussion about hip hop, literacy and the modern slavery of materialism Monday morning when author James McBride visited North Hagerstown High School to speak to Washington County high school students and guests from the community.

McBride's "Song Yet Sung," a tale of escaped slaves, free blacks and slave catchers on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was selected by the Maryland Humanities Council for this year's One Maryland One Book program, which encourages Marylanders from across the state to read and discuss one common book. His visit to Hagerstown was the first of seven stops he was scheduled to make during a statewide tour this week.

In response to a student's question about whether slavery exists today, McBride said materialism is a form of slavery for people of all races.

"White kids are walking around with these chains, and they want to be rappers and they want to have all the bling, too, and they're just as enslaved in their minds as some of these black kids," McBride said.

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He said that while rap can be a great art form, the prevalence of violence, misogyny and materialism in hip hop culture can be unhealthy.

"There's nothing wrong about wearing a gold chain around your neck," McBride said. "But there's something incongruous about the fact that 150, 200 years ago in this very area, black people did walk around with real chains around their necks and real chains around their ankles, and they couldn't learn because nobody wanted to teach them how to read, and if they wanted to sell their wife or their child or their girlfriend, they just sold them, that was it."

McBride said a slave of that era would be disappointed to see how young people today don't like to read and will kill each other over a jacket or a pair of tennis shoes. He explored that idea in "Song Yet Sung" by having the main character, a runaway slave, glimpse this future society in her dreams, leading her to question the point of struggling for freedom.

"The point was to show that, you know, we have a long way to go still," McBride said. "We have so many people who have sacrificed and struggled for us, yet we still don't understand what that struggle was."

McBride told the students at Monday's talk that if they wanted a better life, they should develop a love of reading, even if that meant reading comic books, because reading anything will help with language and study skills.

"So you want to find freedom?" he said. "You hit that neighborhood library, you find something that you like, and when you find out what it is you like to do, you study that thing, because if you do it well enough, somebody, somewhere will pay you to do it. So the real underground railroad now is about reading books."

McBride encouraged students to go to college and to study liberal arts subjects like sociology, English and anthropology, which, he said would teach them "how to think."

"If you get out of college with the ability to think, then your chances of doing well in life are great," he said.

McBride addressed some of his advice to those who would be first-generation college students who "understand what it's like when it's Monday, and your mom doesn't have any money and you've gotta make it 'till Thursday." He told those students that if they went to college, they would have an advantage over "someone whose big moment was when they learned how to ski in Provincetown, Mass., or something."

"When you're on the same level as someone who has had a lot more than you, you'll do better because you understand what it's like not to have anything to fall back on," McBride said. "And the key to that is to remember that your disadvantage is an advantage."

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