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Trying to be Amazing…

02/09/2011

Last night I had the privelage to meet Ms. Barbara Smith Conrad.  She is and was Amazing.  I say that because her story develops in a small country town in Texas and catapults to a beautiful life and opera career taking her all over the world. Starting off in an Baptist choir, she knew that she was bound for something great in music. Never did she realize that a temultuous event at the University of Texas would help create her to be the Mezzo – Soprano she was meant to be.   The University of Texas with AT&T put her story in film and “When I Rise” was the perfect title to her story.

As I waited in line last night to meet this awesome woman I thought about what I would say. She truly had a humble and loving spirit, even though her friends called her a Diva. One word described her story and it was Amazing. We all have had lessons of those great Black leaders in our society that have made a difference in the civil rights movement and those who had been firsts in their industries overcoming major objections. Often times we recite the same stories of those heroes, but we miss out on stories of other awesome men and women that endured the same prejudices and segregation standards of the 40’s and 50’s era. 

Barbara Smith Conrad stands out to me as a heroine, because she and many others were on the verge on their TryingTwenties.  The University of  Texas had just opened their doors to undergraduate black students.  Though the town still practiced segregation, these young women and men still had the courage to walk down the corridors of the school and strive to better themselves.  At Twenty, Barbara Smith Conrad, was chosen by her music professors to be apart of what should have been her first opera.  When word got around, the school was left to make a very hard decision…to allow her to represent the leading lady in Dido and Aeneas along side a white male lead OR to strip her away of the honor she so rightfully deserved.  Unfortunately at that point, the state had intervened and threatened to take away the school’s funding.  She politely bowed out of the production as the controversy ensued around her.  She walked the campus feeling left out and frightened only to be jeered and spat on by citizens of Austin.  Fleeing home for safety for a period of time, she came back to the school to finish out her studies ONLY. 

Last night, inching up in the line to greet her where she sat, while many others cut in line to talk to her, I still didn’t know what I would say to someone who had been through so much just to do what she loved most.  With such poise and grace and with the help of another acclaimed black artist,  Barbara Smith Conrad went on to Try new things.  She moved to a new city…New York to be exact and also learned new languages to build her craft.  She got cast in the lead of the most beautiful operas around the world and even got a contract with the Met.  She asked one question that touched my soul…”Who would I have been had I not ever returned back to Texas?” What if she had allowed anger to have entered her heart and linger these many years and resent the very place that had in some way positioned her towards the greatness she deserved?  That is a profound question.  If I had half as much humility and grace as many of my sisters that endured those Trying times, I would immediately be a better person.  She even said that you just have to resolve “those were the times in which we lived”. The times weren’t right and that brings me back to how amazing she was.

As I finally get to my time, my friends and I who look like the rainbow, approached her for photos.  I knew she was busy and had others doting on her, but I finally knew what I would say.  Simply, “Thank you for enduring those Trying times and showing us that we can all be Amazing, no matter what!”  Of course, she engaged us in conversation and photos. I think that she felt pleased that all the young ladies in my group were from different races and we could now all come together in our Twenties and Thirties in 2011 and celebrate her Amazingness together. 

If you think about it, 40 or 50 years is not that long to ago to have not been awarded the same rights as other students or citizens your age.  I just think that if my college career had been that Trying, I may not have made it out, though that was the only way to be even remotely successful.  Where we are thinking about parties, getting our first jobs, and who we may or may not marry, Barbara Smith Conrad and her friends had so many other pressures to push through.

Though I didn’t get to say all that I wanted, here are some more thoughts that stirred late into the night that I would say if given the time and chance:

Thank you for handling your situation with grace and humility and that beauty can be shown inside and out. 

Thank you for showing us how important education is and knowing that you wanted to make yourself better.

Thank you for bringing opera to our world and showing other little black girls that we can sing beautifully, too.

Thank you for not letting your incident cause you hatred and fear.  You allowed that to push you forward and become the person you were meant to be.

Thank you for showing them. Showing them that black people and women can be more than what is told to us.

Thank you for still having an Amazing countenance and demeanor towards life with a quirky sense of humor.  It was engaging.

Thank you for being an inspiration to all of us Twenty and Thirty something that we can be Amazing, too!

and above all else….

Just Thank you!

Check out “When I Rise” on Independent Lens on your Local PBS station.  Yes, I know PBS is not all that exciting, but Babara Smith Conrad’s story is.  You can even watch it online at  PBS.org

LIVE Life…Because we are allowed.  Happy Black History Month!

Angela Wells

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