Lorene Cary

Bernard C. Watson
Judith Rodin

Author and social activist, Lorene Cary received the Philadelphia Award for her leadership in the arts communities of Philadelphia. Cary founded Arts Sanctuary, which celebrates and advances African American art and artists. She is the highly acclaimed author of one memoir, two novels, and numerous articles. Her bestselling historical novel, The Price of a Child, was selected for the city’s first One Book, One Philadelphia project, designed to promote reading and literacy. Cary also teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

C ary was raised in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, a predominantly black middle class suburb of Philadelphia. Her father taught science at a local junior high school and her mother worked as a beautician. In 1972, Cary was accepted to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, a formerly all-boys boarding school. She was one of fewer than a dozen black girls in a school of approximately 500 students. Cary then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a second master’s degree in Victorian literature and religion from Sussex University in England.

Throughout her education, Cary struggled to hold on to her African American identity and succeed in a white-dominated academic world. In her memoir, Black Ice (1991), she describes her experiences at St. Paul’s School. Cary writes profoundly about race, the meaning of race, and of its making. Literary critic Arnold Rampersad declared it, “probably the most beautifully written and moving African American autobiographical narrative since Maya Angelou’s celebrated I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”

Cary’s first novel, The Price of a Child (1995), set in pre-Civil War Philadelphia, tells the remarkable story of an enslaved woman who escaped to freedom but had to leave behind her child. The text engages constitutional issues in the historical context of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Cary stated that the book “is the kernel of the American story. It’s another way of looking at who we are as Americans.” The result of more than three years of research, The Price of a Child was very well received critically. With this contribution to American literature, Cary aligned herself with a new genre led principally by African American women writers—the neo-slave narrative which re-imagines black women in American history regarding their disenfranchisement and disembodiment.

Mayor Street and his committee selected The Price of a Child as the first book for the One Book, One Philadelphia program based upon its quality, Philadelphia-based historical references, and its mass-appeal. In response, Cary said, “I’m grateful to the city for choosing a book that is not all safe.” To discuss the book, Cary met with Philadelphians in over 45 meetings and classes. Street declared that Cary is “more than a writer. She’s a role model.”

Cary’s third book, Pride (1998), is a contemporary tale about four black women who have been friends since childhood, which was praised in the New York Times for creating "subtle, idiosyncratic characters whose personalities seem utterly and affectingly distinctive."

Cary has become “a force for literacy” through education, arts, and culture, especially within the African American community. In 1998, Cary founded Art Sanctuary, which brings the work of established and aspiring African American artists to inner city residents. Meeting (most frequently) at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, Art Sanctuary engages a struggling community – half of the neighborhood’s adults and two-thirds of the children live in poverty. The organization hosts 10 to 12 major artistic events annually with notable authors, poets, historians, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, and dancers. Art Sanctuary also holds classes, including in drama, poetry, dance, and drumming.

Weckea D. Lilly

Sources: Howard Shapiro, “Here’s the Book, Phila.; You can Start Reading,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 16, 2002; Shapiro, “Books all Phila. Won’t Be Reading,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 17, 2002; Shapiro, “Getting Philadelphia Ready to Read its Book,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 26, 2002; “Advocate of the Arts,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 26, 2002; “A novel Idea,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 27, 2002; Dan Geringer, “City’s Book: ‘The Price of A Child’,” Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 16, 2002; Jeff Gammage, “A Muse for the City: Lorene Cary Brings Rich Performances to a Poor Community,” Inquirer Magazine, Jan. 9, 2000; Fernanda Eberstadt, “Freedom Rider: The Story of a Slave,” New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995; Paula L. Woods, “Bringing Alive a Slave’s Thirst for Freedom,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1995; Greg Johnson, “Lorene Cary/Q&A,” Penn Current, http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/node/3442; “Lorene Cary Wins The Philadelphia Award for 2002,” Philadelphia Award, http://www.philaaward.org/cary.html. The following is from the Philadelphia Award Records: Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 8, folder 8: newspaper and magazine clippings, nomination materials. Photo: Image courtesy of Lorene Cary. Comment: While most of the research for The Price of a Child was historical, Cary fasted and picked crops to understand what those experiences were like. Paula Woods wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the book “is a profoundly moving, evocative work that puts a fully realized human face on the issue of slavery and its consequences. Cary’s passionate, intelligent prose; her assured command of historical events as they sweep across individual lives recall Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.”