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‘Walk Tall, Girl. No Leaning Over”

“I was holding a place for the healing to happen.” Barbara Smith Conrad

The story made the headlines.

The story made the headlines.

Thank God learning happens over the full course of one’s life, if you let it. Tonight I watched When I Rise a documentary telling the story of the incredible opera singer Barbara Smith Conrad. As a young student at the University of Texas in 1957,  she was denied the opportunity to perform a role she’d earned. It was a romantic opera and Ms. Barbara would have sang along side a white male lead. The state was up in arms –  literally and figuratively. It was a long, arduous journey as the fight for the chance to use her talent found its way to the Texas legislature. The university cowardly decided to remove her from the role.

The story is powerful. It touched the famous Harry Belafonte who offered her the chance to study anywhere in the world. He hosted her and introduced her to activist/artists who strengthened her resolve. She chose to go back. She left Texas later and performed the world over at major opera houses and halls,  cast in some of the most coveted roles.

Her spirit and beauty continue to shine.

Her spirit and beauty continue to shine.

Fast forward years later she’d have to play the role of Marian Anderson and walk down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, re-enacting the famous historical moment that was so significant in American history. Where, she wondered, would she find the feelings of being rejected. Up came the University of Texas experience which she’d buried and avoided as she mastered her craft, singing in front of adoring, welcoming audiences.

The pain was still there. The hurt lingered. There she relived and recovered from a wound that by that point must have felt like a birthmark.

The UT story was but part of what struck me. The other people who surrounded her, pushed her to be the best she could be. The black woman who would become her agent. The conductors who would implore her to discipline herself by learning all that she could in order to master her own chosen, gifted craft. She learned languages – Italian, French, German. She studied dance (jazz, ballet, tap) so that she could be graceful on stage. She listened. She followed the instruction. She grew into a legend.

Later we see her teaching other young students, imparting her wisdom. UT wanted to right its wrong and bestowed upon her the Distinguished Alumnus Award. She accepted it and she was recognized by the Texas legislature.  UT created the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in the Fine Arts in her honor. Full circle after twists, turns and sharp arrows.

By the end we witness her teaching other students. A young black girl with a short cute afro and an elegant voice stands before her sharing her gift and waiting for her approval. Ms. Conrad hugs her and also turns to talk to the other students. But as Icy, the young singer, is walking out of the door, Ms. Conrad tells her to walk tall.

Ms. Conrad Smith receives the long overdue honor at the Texas State Capitol.

Ms. Conrad Smith receives the long overdue honor at the Texas State Capitol.

Nervously Icy adjusts her stance, giggling, but clearly taking in the message. She may not have lived through the same injustices that made the simple act of standing –  shoulders back, head up, eyes forward – an act of defiance. But she will. One day she’ll be frisked like Forest Whittaker or asked to offer her bag for a search. Or simply asked, as I was the other day, “who are you?” as if I looked like I simply shouldn’t be in that place or space. And it will hurt and she’ll call upon it when necessary either to act or to understand.

It will happen. Just keep living as my older aunt would always say. But while you do, get best. Be disciplined. No leaning over.

Watch When I Rise on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

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This entry was posted on 03/13/2013 by in DOOR #3.
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