Jessye Norman

September 15, 1945

She experienced racism at a very young age, but she decided early on to not allow it to defeat her. It was “an inescapable issue since she was born,” according to NPR.

“I am a product of a specific place and time in the history of our nation, in the Deep South, where our people marched, bled, and soldiered their way through the civil rights movement,” she said.

She would find comfort in the singing voices of black singers such as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, who would inspire her as a child.

“Jessye Norman was one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage,” said Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb. “Her legacy shall forever live on.”

Norman, “the majestic American soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles at the Metropolitan Opera and houses around the world, died on Monday in New York. She was 74,” according to the New York Times.

Throughout her 50-year career, Norman was honored with 15 Grammy nominations, was inducted into the Royal Academy of Music and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. In France, there’s an orchid named after her, and the country also honored her with the title, Commander of the Order of the Arts.

She was born in Augusta, Georgia, on September 15, 1945, growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. She started singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. When she was 9-years-old, she was given a radio for her birthday. She would listen to the weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday while cleaning up her room. That’s when she heard Marian Anderson. By the age of 10, she already knew her dream was to become an opera star.

She credited Anderson and other great black singers, such as Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price, with paving the way for her, she said in a 1983 interview with The Times.

“They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera,’” she said “or, ‘I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing “Porgy and Bess.” ’ Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”

She found acclaim as as a recitalist and on the concert stage, becoming one of the most decorated of American singers. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Award in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

In her 2014 memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”, she wrote about her life and being a black artist working her way up in the world of opera.

Photocredits: Wikimedia

“Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?” she told The Times in 2014.

She also wrote about when she first experienced racism as a child.

She was told early on that “You are as good as any other of God’s creations, and you will hear something different when you’re outside of this house but know that the truth is here.”

Her first experience of what she called “American apartheid” was when she first saw the “whites only” signs and wondered why the signs existed. She also remembers when she saw President Eisenhower walk into a church that they were not allowed to attend.

She said her father had to explain it to her: “We could watch the president go into his church, and then we would go to another part of town and go to our church, but that we were not welcome in the same church that President Eisenhower would attend. I found that also to be rather ridiculous. Didn’t they have have Sunday school in Reid Memorial Church where President Eisenhower went? And weren’t they singing ‘Jesus Loves Me?’ There isn’t anything in the song that says Jesus loves this set of people but he doesn’t love this other set of people. And so I had a lot of questions about the segregation of the races when I was a young child and I still do. Because I simply did not understand how we had come to that place in our thoughts.”

She started keeping a journal, writing down every time she noticed casual racism, but she had to stop because there were just too many instances for her to write about. She said, “It became clear to me after doing this for a while that I wasn’t serving any purpose except to make myself sad.”

“I just thought the whole idea of segregation was something rather foolish and we would all come to our senses very quickly. So I thought,” she said.

It would help her understand more, when she joined the youth chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People while at school and participated in marches and sit-ins.

She would say that “The song I wish we had as a national anthem is America the Beautiful. It doesn’t talk about war, it doesn’t talk about anything except the beauty of this land and the joy that we should have in being in this land. It’s a much more beautiful song.”

She would perform the song at at a service unveiling two monumental columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Center, as a memorial for the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.

When she received the Kennedy Center Honors Award (an annual tribute awarded to artists for their lifetime of contributions to American culture), she became the youngest woman to receive the award. She recorded over 75 records in her lifetime and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010, she received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama. She also sang at both Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s second inaugurations.

According to BET, “Norman was a globally known and loved, Opera star, but also known for her philanthropy. The Diva was awarded many honors, including the Légion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits.

Her family’s statement read, “We are so proud of Jessye’s musical achievements and the inspiration that she provided to audiences around the world that will continue to be a source of joy. We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.”

Norman served on the boards of Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Lupus Foundation, and the Partnership for the Homeless.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “she hosted a recent New York theater event to raise money for AIDS research, sings at anti-nuclear concerts and . . . believes that one should ‘help the down-and-out really, not send them to the classified ads.’

She has donated thousands of records, documents and photographs to the Library of Congress. There are also two institutions that bear Norman’s name. In 2003, the singer partnered up with the Rachel Longstreet Foundation to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, a free after-school program established for economically disadvantaged students. Also in her honor, Augusta named their musical arena Jessye Norman Amphitheater, which is located on the Savannah River.

The Jessye Norman School for the Arts said in a statement its faculty, staff and students “are tremendously saddened” by their founder’s death. “As an opera superstar, she commanded the world’s stages, but here in Augusta, she quietly used the arts to make a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of children each year. The world knew her voice and our school knew her kindness and generous heart. She challenged all of us to live up to our full potential and to represent something larger than ourselves. She will be greatly missed.”

She once said, “If one can show people that everybody is really the same and we all love the air and the trees and ice cream that we were really very much the same. And that is still my rather simplistic view of the world: That if we could only get to know one another, if we could only see how much we have in common, and that the things that are different are cultural, a lot of them, and they are learned things. We come to Earth, I feel, with a completely open heart. And then we’re told that we have to close it off to certain things. And that’s a great shame.”