A mission to spread the spoken word

He may be turned off by some of the lyrics, but Frederick Douglass IV gives rap music credit for being one of the few popular outlets for kids to speak out loud and sharpen their communication skills.

"Kids stand on the corner and rap, and it's a form of presentation," says Mr. Douglass, great-great-grandson of the famous former slave, author, lecturer, and presidential adviser of the same name.

He'll tip his hat to anything that can further his mission – to nudge children to read, especially out loud. Orating, he says, is virtually a lost art, but to carry on the legacy of his great-great-grandfather, he's teaching students across the country about the power of literacy and public speaking.

"When you read out loud – not just literature, but chemistry or anything else you're trying to understand, you involve your eyes, mouth, and ears," Douglass says. "You're bringing more of your person to it. I believe the spoken word has multiple levels of meaning that don't come through on paper." He tries to work with students in fifth or sixth grade, because "the earlier you can get these kids, the better."

Douglass left his job in public relations at his alma mater, Morgan State University in Baltimore, last September, to devote his life to speaking, reading, and writing, largely about his famous ancestor. Today, he travels with his wife, B.J., reenacting significant periods of the Maryland-born slave's life. They dress in period costume, and Mrs. Douglass often sings songs to help depict scenes such as Douglass's escape from slavery. Their audiences run as small as 25 and as large as 500.

As a free man, the original Douglass started the North Star, an abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, N.Y. Douglass IV says that before literacy was common, the paper would be posted on the side of a building, and as someone read it aloud for others, a discussion would often ensue.

Reading aloud has roots in a time before books even existed, says Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. "The person who could read would be the designated reader and would read from scrolls," she says. "Not only does it help children to sound out words, but there is a connection between reading out loud and self-esteem." Being able to speak confidently, she explains, helps children voice their opinions rather than rely on others to speak for them.

To promote his cause, Douglass IV started a campaign to celebrate National Frederick Douglass Freedom Day on Sept. 3, the date in 1838 that Douglass escaped from slavery in Fells Point, a section of Baltimore. During this annual celebration, Douglass hopes that students will gather – in schools, community centers, libraries, or churches – and read aloud, no matter who the author.

This year, Douglass's day of reading activities in Baltimore ended at the Enoch Pratt library, where Lynne Cheney, an author and the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, was a guest of honor.

"I can't think of a story that is more inspiring than that of Frederick Douglass," said Dr. Cheney, whose children's book, "Patriotism: An American Primer," includes a page on the historical figure. Although he didn't go to school, he "realized how important it was to be able to read and write, to acquire knowledge, which reading gives you the ability to do," she said.

Last spring, Douglass performed reenactments and led discussions at a middle school and high school in Asheville, N.C., and left a strong impression on both students and teachers. The community decided to develop an oratory contest for Grades 5 through 8. Students wrote their own narratives and presented them, and the top four in each grade received cash prizes.

"In America, we still do a lot of didactic teaching, resulting in regurgitation," says Robert Logan, superintendent of Asheville City Schools. "When you put pen to paper and then stand and deliver it convincingly, that's a life skill, and it's something our young people don't get enough of."

The underlying message of Douglass's visit was that if a slave in the 1800s with no formal education could teach himself to read and write, and could rise above the shackles of slavery, then young men and women today can reach any goal they set for themselves.

When Douglass goes into schools, he often reads excerpts from "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," his great-great-grandfather's first autobiography and the book that continues to teach Americans about the horrors of slavery. Douglass hopes that all schools will eventually put the book on their reading lists, but in the meantime, he gives away 100 copies each month.

He also has support from his hometown, Baltimore. This year, the city selected "Narrative" for the Baltimore Book Project, which urges residents citywide to discuss certain books.

Douglass, who is now writing the final chapters of his own autobiography, first read "Narrative" when he was 17 and his father gave him a copy. "He used it as a motivational tool to teach that you can change your life no matter what your circumstances are," Douglass says. "It shows that buildings can be moved, minds can be changed. You never give up."

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