Storyteller Bill Pruitt interweaves the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

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The March poster for the Rundell performance.

 

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Bill Pruitt. Brighton Memorial Library 6/6/17

We’ve know Bill Pruitt for his poetry and prose gracing the pages of the magazine.  Bill is also a master story teller. On Tuesday, a large crowd at the Brighton Memorial Library enjoyed his performance of Two Kinds of Fear.  Next stop: the Greece library for the Greece Historical Association on June 13 at 7:00 P.M.

Two Kinds of Fear explores the intersecting lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. As described by Bill (below), his narrative purpose is to both focus on seminal moments in the lives of each and dramatize flashpoint moments when their stories converge.

When Bill looks closely at Douglass, the results are powerful. Particularly, Bill is able to imaginatively grasp the mind of “Freddy” — Douglass as a slave boy. We re-live Douglass’ famous encounter with his overseer Covey when Freddy proves to himself he will not be a slave forever. And, subtly, Bill shows that for a man of Douglass’ towering intellect slavery is just as onerous for its coercion and violence as for its deadening of the brain.  We see Freddy feel his own thoughts slowing and his brightness dimming under the routine of slavery. Freddy must escape to save his soul and just as much to save his mind from dullness.

When Bill interweaves Anthony and Douglass, the results are again compelling.  We feel Anthony’s deep pain when she rejects Douglass’ claim that women’s suffrage could be left out from the 15th amendment.  We are also amazed that Anthony does not despair or fall into bitterness but continues her work unabated.

I asked Bill how Two Kinds of Fear came to be:

The origin of Two Kinds of Fear is this: I was an itinerant BOCES ESL teacher on assignment at Holley middle and high school when I found myself between students and offered my services as a storyteller for the school to reinforce lessons from history and English. (I had been a storyteller before I went into teaching, and had done considerable research into the benefits of storytelling for cognition. I had also composed stories from history about Daniel Boone and Mary Jemison.) An eighth grade English teacher asked if I could write a story to bridge two units: a civil rights unit her class was about to do, and a women’s rights unit that would follow. I immediately thought of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. When I began to study their lives first individually and then after then after they had both moved to Rochester and began involvement in human rights issues in which each

recognized the commonality of black people’s rights and women’s rights, I knew I had struck gold. The distinctness of their personalities and their approach to the massive collective conflicts of their time make the story I wanted to tell irresistible. People generally know about each of them separately, but putting them in each other’s context gives a new sense to their stories. I told it for the class in February of 2014 and found that it was not only well-received as a story, but that it made excellent material for discussion, whether in terms of the struggle among activists over the 15th amendment (the issue of exclusion of women from suffrage), the recognition of oppression as oppression, whether it is slavery or women’s rights, or just the whole panorama of ways in which this story applies to today’s socio-political atmosphere: the use of fear and intimidation to try to enforce inhumane and intolerant practices; the attempt by people in power in government to silence opposition and forcibly impose their will through the appearance of normality; the need for the human spirit to resist. I have told the story twice at Writers and Books, once at the Charlotte Perkins mansion (headquarters of the local AAUW), once at the women’s shelter at the YWCA on Bittner Street, and just now at Rundel as part of the local history department’s Rich Talks series, the last with an exceptionally strong post-story discussion. I told it again at Brighton Library on June 6  and will be performing the piece. at the Greece library for the Greece Historical Association on June 13, also at 7:00.performing

You’ll want to be in Greece or other to be determined sites for an hour and a half of magic.

SEE ALSO

Pruitt breaks new ground with “The Pennant Races in Rhyming Couplets.” Keeps eyes on the Talker baseball prediction prize.

Happy First Birthday! Distinguished poet Bill Pruitt offers “Ode to the Talker”

Passing the torch at the Susan B. Anthony House

A bust of Frederick Douglass at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School