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In July 1961 Grace Bumbry strode onstage at the Bayreuth Festival. She was 24, and had earned positive reviews at a few major opera houses up to that point. But her voice was special, and in singing to acclaim, first at Paris, then at Basel, she had captured the imagination of the innovative young director of Bayreuth. Bayreuth is a Richard Wagner festival. Or, rather, it is the Richard Wagner festival. It was inaugurated by the grand old composer himself back in 1871 in an effort to get rich, but rapidly, it evolved into something far more august. A century’s worth of decorated conductors have felt honour-bound to pilgrimage to this sleepy Bavarian town and lift their batons there; so, too, the most gifted singers, hurling their voices out over the hundred-strong orchestras upon which Wagner’s big scores insist; all that talent honouring a site holy to music, and each talent’s contribution making it holier still. Bayreuth became synonymous with rigour, artistic accomplishment, and, for many, a sonic expression of the essential German spirit. To that point, Bayreuth had always been run by Wagner’s descendants, and the man who cast Bumbry was Wieland Wagner, grandson of Richard. Wieland cast Bumbry to portray Venus in Wagner’s epic Tannhäuser, a rôle that, he explained, ‘must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted’! We cannot know, of course, what Richard Wagner, 80 years dead at that point, would actually have thought. Perhaps his grandkid was right. But we do know that Grace Bumbry was black, that she was the first black singer ever contracted to perform at Bayreuth, and that the news of her casting sent the German people into something like a conniption fit.
Headlines blazed with affront: Aryan art was being defaced and humiliated. Wieland Wagner received hundreds of letters demanding he recast the rôle. Who knows, too, what additional internal pressures Wieland faced? His mother Winifred had been chummy with Hitler; so chummy, in fact, that a vast correspondence between her and the Führer exists, which the family has never made available to the public. The Nazis had promoted Bayreuth during the war years, and in fact, only after Winifred finally passed on to Valhalla in 1971 were efforts successful to get a small, ivy-choked plaque hung in a corner of the property and acknowledging past performers of the festival who’d been murdered in the Holocaust. But throughout the angry prelude to opening night, Wieland insisted that Bumbry was the only woman he would consider for the rôle, and he defied any of his critics to find a white singer who could surpass her. He asserted none could be found.
And then, on opening night, Bumbry sang, all of the protestations didn’t matter any more. Her voice on that summer night carried in it the pull of a goddess who can cause a man to abandon his religion, his community, and his love—even, it would seem, his hatred. She sang as one for whom it is but a diversion and a pastime to fire a man’s art with ecstatic vision, even as it annihilates him for any office but adoring her gladed beauty. Tannhäuser is a confusing opera whose characters operate from hard-to-parse motivations. With Bumbry ‘the black Venus’ at the heart of the song, however, the tragedy was clarified. The bard Tannhäuser cannot remain forever by her side but neither can he escape her pull. He must die, and in doing so he must pull everyone he loves into disaster with him. Such is the demand of Beauty. This truth is what a young black woman from north St Louis made the Bayreuth festival-goers see that night, and they all knew they had been changed for the seeing. The standing applause that exploded after the opera’s conclusion lasted a full 30 minutes that night. There were 42 curtain calls. Neither Bumbry nor the festival were ever the same again.
In the fall of 1978, I insisted to my mother that I wanted to dance, no, I needed to, and so she enrolled me in the Children’s Performing Arts Academy, a tap, jazz and ballet troupe of kids from north St Louis. A Missouri fall only half-relieves the heavy cage of summer humidity, and every afternoon on my walk to the academy, cats would lie limp in the bare yards of their owners and mean, thin dogs would stir themselves to growl briefly at me and then collapse back down in a clatter of paws, every living being sick from heat and miserable except me. I was twelve years old, and the world had nothing to tell me that could be more important than Donna Summer’s ‘Heaven Knows’.
Our teacher was the academy’s founder, Richard Martin, a gentle and kind man who wore a beanie every day and sometimes spoke to us in French. We didn’t know French. We were small black children, mostly from underprivileged families, and when he spoke, we laughed at him, so he brought in instructors to teach us to sing in strange languages, ballads about love and longing in countries so far away we almost didn’t believe they existed. Sometimes, thinking about these other countries sickened a sour, angry confusion into me, as if their very existence were an affront, and I remember complaining about the airy French songs and the whispery chanteuses who sang them. But there was a reason Mr Martin was forcing us to learn: he longed for us to fly to Paris. He was Josephine Baker’s nephew, and he wanted us to perform in the land where his aunt had reigned.
We didn’t know who Josephine Baker was. My divas were Summer, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross, the smoky sirens from my mother’s bulky radio. Mr Martin explained to us that Baker had been the most glamorous woman in the world, and that they would write about her in history books. I had trouble believing him. How could the planet’s biggest star have been a black woman from St Louis? To accomplish that, Mr Martin explained, she had needed to leave all of America’s racism behind. She couldn’t become the Josephine Baker to be written about in the history books had she remained in St Louis. She had used her talent to travel the world, and, Mr Martin told us, so could we.
Strange as it is to say, before then I hadn’t known I was living under the pressures Mr Martin outlined. The St Louis I knew was made up of kids running out into the streets chasing Nerf footballs and girls playing jump rope on the sidewalk, the unconcerned bacchanalia of boyhood. I was aware that our lives didn’t exactly resemble Bobby’s and Cindy’s on ‘The Brady Bunch’, but I was completely unaware of the ways in which race, socioeconomics and education had already rendered us culturally deprived or disadvantaged. But in the same moment, he’d explained the nature of the bindings on us and he’d told us how to cut them: art. And travel.
But the next year, I had to give up the hope of dancing in the land of Josephine Baker because by age thirteen, my shoe size was 13. My mother hunted and hunted, even driving to the suburbs, but she couldn’t find tap shoes larger than size 12. So I dropped out. I don’t believe the dance troupe ever made it to Paris, either.
The kid whose feet outgrew his tap shoes had gained an itching, twitching drive to see the world. My father would pile our family of four into his blue, 1968 Camaro and roar off to his mother’s house in Rayville, Louisiana, his brother’s place in Chicago, or to visit any of my mother’s relatives, scattered all over the face of Grady, Arkansas. The car was low-slung and shivered at high speeds, but he would let down the rooftop and let the sun scorch down on us. What child doesn’t like wearing sunglasses and feeling the wind rush over his face? Or the deep, bone-healing sleep you get in the shabby, cheerful roadside motels that hug the highways? With every trip, our neighbourhood in St Louis shrank as my worldview expanded. The road song was freedom.
Even after my parents divorced, my mother used the Boy Scouts of America and school trips to help me see more of the country. On a rented bus with others my age, we toured Orlando, Atlanta, Philadelphia, even Mount Vernon, Virginia, where George Washington is buried. In Washington, D.C., there is a two-mile stretch of grass as green as a jewel and soft as a caress, and to either side are hulking white museums and monuments, and if children go there, they tell them all of American history can be found somewhere inside those big white halls, and if that is not true, the children don’t know, or at least I didn’t, because, then, there was no one to tell me the missing history, made up of people who look like me.
I kept dreaming and I kept moving. After graduating from college, I worked at the Tulsa World, and after that, The Salt Lake Tribune. In Salt Lake, I was an oddity—a 6’4 black man—and when I walked through the streets, a moat of isolation would open around me, so that my neighbours could look at me from a slight, nervous distance. Once, a woman approached me in the parking lot because she had locked her keys in her car and she assumed I had experience breaking and entering. But suddenly, I had the money to travel on my own, and friends to accompany me. In 1994, my friend Bill hatched the idea that we’d go to Barcelona to visit our friend Larisa, who had quit journalism to teach English in Spain, a decision that secretly terrified and thrilled me. Vacationing in a country where I didn’t know the language felt so deeply transgressive, the push-pull of being in a dimension to which I had been drawn, but hadn’t earned the right to visit.
Surreal is the best word to describe those ten days in Spain and southern France. On the first night, I wanted to sleep, but Larisa said the thing to do was to stay up and adjust to the time zone. It never felt like I caught up, and the hallucinatory sensuality of sleeplessness hung over our adventures. Her apartment was the tiniest I had ever seen, and we all bedded down on the floor in her living room, loose-limbed and affectionate in overlapping piles of rough-hewn blankets. Her apartment sat above a thronged restaurant and smelled of delicious fish and pastries.
On the second evening, we sat on her balcony drinking Spanish wine and eating gazpacho, so cold as to be relieving to our wine-sore throats. ‘I can tell you really like it here, Samuel’, Larisa said. ‘You should just quit your job and move to Spain. I could help you’.
I laughed. I acted like it was nothing, what she had said, one more joke floating out onto the stone street below us. But she had called to my blood. I could hear my heartbeat thumping in my ears, and it sounded like a promise. You should just quit your job and move to Spain. What would it be like to uproot my life and move? I didn’t tell my companions how Larisa’s tossed-off comment had come to haunt me. With every bite of squid, shrimp, paella and pastry in Larisa’s neighbourhood, it nibbled away at my old worldview, promising me something that I could almost hear, but not quite.
A few days before we left, Bill and I took a train north to the Salvador Dalí Museum in Figueres. I wandered around the museum in a daze. Dalí’s surrealism struck and arrested me, especially Corpus Hypercubus, which is a likeness of Christ hanging on a cube, and The Persistence of Memory, with its iconic melting watches and distorted torso with an open valley background. Those pieces spoke to things being stirred in my subconscious mind. Art, I saw, was a language, and I wanted to hear everything it had to tell me.
But I knew I couldn’t relocate. I couldn’t leave my family, and my Spanish couldn’t even charitably be called ‘marginal’. Mostly, I lacked the courage. But I bought two Dalí prints and tacked them up on the walls of my apartment in Salt Lake City.
Three years later, my editor at the St Louis Post-Dispatch called me into his office, slapped a press kit into my hands, and told me to cover Grace Bumbry’s appearance the next day at Charles Sumner High School. Bumbry had graduated in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools. In the accompanying black and white photo, Bumbry’s hair and skin glistened with a timeless quality, so luminous she looked otherworldly, as if her great talent were burnishing her from within. The attached biography referred to her as a mezzo-soprano and soprano, who had performed at the world’s major opera houses, and was considered one of the best Carmens of all time. The extent of my opera experience was Elmer Fudd’s impotent despair as he furiously stabbed at Bugs Bunny while singing ‘Kill the Wabbit’ to Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. But I showed up at Sumner High School with my pen and reporter’s notebook, prepared to be professionally, efficiently bored.
Grace Bumbry exited her limousine in dangling pearls and a black mink coat, as sleek as if the animal were still alive and had just been seduced by the great woman into napping in her arms. The press materials suggested that she was about 60 years old, but they had to be wrong; she looked at least two decades younger. She glanced from side to side, nodded at me and then made her way up the stairs. I had the urge to bow, a reaction to which she perhaps had been accustomed. The principal, teachers and students lined the hallways to watch her pass by. Several times, I thought I heard someone gasp in sheer wonderment. I almost did.
She had been born in 1937 in St Louis. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a porter for the railroad. Her house at 1703 Goode Avenue sat ten minutes away from the one in the 4600 block of Bessie Avenue, where I would later grow up. The clenched fist of segregation meant that she had attended Charles Sumner, an all-black high school, and maybe she would had a life similar to the struggles and sacrifices demanded of my mother and the other women I knew if she hadn’t, at seventeen, entered a singing contest hosted by the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts. Her rendition of ‘O Don Fatale’ was so tremendous it made Arthur Godfrey cry, and a newspaper clipping from the time shows the overcome man dabbing his eyes and announcing that he had ‘special plans’ for the young girl. The contest’s prize was supposed to be a free trip to New York City and a scholarship to the St Louis Institute of Music, but despite her great talent, her electric presence, and the grand, swelling notes of her songs, as if she were calling to the heavens and the heavens were singing back, all the institution saw was her black skin and they didn’t permit her to enrol. She was still a teenager, but she already knew that you can’t get so good, in America, that racism won’t tattoo its list of restrictions on your skin and on your heart.
I had come to the school that day expecting a publicity stunt to promote the real reason why Grace Bumbry was in St Louis, her Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Vocal Ensemble, a choir devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals and gospel on the concert stage. But something else was happening. I was witnessing the radiance of extraordinary talent, and her graciousness to the room full of children looking back at her with hope. The administration had hung a picture of her in the school’s Hall of Fame, alongside renowned graduates like Tina Turner and tennis great Arthur Ashe. She told the students that their pictures could be there, too, someday. ‘You have to have determination, but before determination you have to know your talent’, Bumbry said. ‘Once you realise your talent, you must not let anything deter you.’ Then she performed ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’ and ‘Pilgrim of Sorrow’ with the students, and in the half-shadow of the auditorium, I felt something old and hard and knotted inside of me loosen up, and I knew, for the first time in my life, what came next.
I went overboard, buying every CD and DVD of Bumbry I could find. In order for her to become the ‘black Venus of Bayreuth’, she had to travel. All over the world, she travelled to be a variety of characters: Medea, Lady Macbeth, Tosca, Ariane, Norma, Gioconda, Eboli and Amneris. What I learned over the years was that she sang in whatever vocal range suited her, soprano or mezzo-soprano, regardless of what the critics would say. And as for the black skin that had limited her in St Louis, she found a way to morph with every production. In Aida’s Brothers and Sisters: Black Voices in Opera, a documentary that aired on PBS, she told the interviewer, ‘I fortunately took a course in stage theatre and street make up in London at Max Factor’s. Carmen, I think, is number 8A. Amneris is Night Egyptian. Lady Macbeth is Max Factor #1A. Then I got to the point where I could make a mixture where I could make it more adaptable to my skin colour’. When I factored in her fluency in German and many other languages, I was even more awestruck. Tina Turner was on videos and the radio. Josephine Baker was in the history books. I had met Grace Bumbry.
In travelling, the world is enlarged, and you learn about yourself; that is travel’s purpose and its reward. But travelling within America is, for a black man, just the mirror of the same racism he finds at home. New experiences cannot signify the way that they should because in Indiana, you find prejudice, and then in Kentucky, you find a similar-looking prejudice, and in Arizona, you want to see the Grand Canyon, so vast and mysterious it is as if the earth split open and you were seeing its very seams, but you find prejudice again. And you, you want to think of yourself as a citizen of the world but you’re just a black man by himself in a strange town walking very, very quickly to your car because you heard what a stranger called you when he passed, and you don’t even have time to be angry and grief-struck because you’re so afraid. The further you go into America and the more you see, the smaller the world seems, because uncovering the same hatred everywhere makes the country seem smaller and your own self more worthless in it. I wanted to find myself in the United States, but I couldn’t. I could travel the entire world and not feel as alone as I do in front of my house in the college town where I live and work, in the middle of the America, the place we call the Heartland.
Once I left the newspaper business with the desire to pursue writing as an art form, I started teaching college. My travel-lust became unquenchable as my university had almost unlimited opportunities to take excursions with students. I went to El Salvador, Southeast Asia and French Polynesia. Along with my own travels, I expanded to the U.K., Canada, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Ireland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Morocco, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico. As I travelled, my ability to experience joy and write essays expanded.
In an airless summer three years ago, I walked into Burrito Beach, a tiny restaurant on Avenida México in Puerto Vallarta, that I’d picked for the divey dignity of its orange walls, tall, dark chairs, and the careful way the cook assembled his tostadas from grilled shrimp, guacamole, tomatoes, onions and lemon juice. I was tired and hungry, so I ordered three shrimp tostadas and a Corona and took a seat in a spot that looked vacant.
A man, a woman and two small children appeared suddenly beside me. I had inadvertently grabbed their table. In my best Spanish, I apologised. The man, whom I presumed to be the father and husband, pulled my seat back to the table, insisting I join them. I am single and dine out regularly. Not once in a more than a decade of living in a small Indiana town, and certainly not in St Louis, has a family of strangers spontaneously beckoned me to have dinner with them. For the next thirty minutes, I explained that I was a professor on leave from my job in los Estados Unidos. I told them about teaching creative writing and periodismo (journalism). I told them about the students I advise, and how the best ones take seriously their responsibility to tell a truth unbiased by prejudice, complacency, self-interest. I didn’t tell them about the eighteen-year-old black boy, Michael Brown, killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson, 35 years later and 12 minutes away from the house where I grew up. I didn’t tell them that for all the good there was in the world there was also a rotting core, and that it was getting harder and harder for me to believe that the dream of America was meant for people who looked like me. Instead, I told them about what I’d learned about travelling, how the best travellers are the ones willing to leave their native lands, families and old versions of themselves to become these new people. They are willing to learn and speak in other tongues, to move between dimensions, cultural and otherwise, to explode the boxes. They told me about their son, who wanted to be a mountain climber when he grew up, and one day see the earth from almost God’s perspective. If happiness exists, it’s in moments like this, when friendly people marinating in an ordinary moment that becomes extraordinary, the kind of freedom that I taste only when travelling outside of the United States.
We finished our food, shook hands and embraced. I don’t suspect I’ll ever see these good folks again. They cannot possibly know the joy they brought me. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘How can I be free?’ and no answer comes back to me. But I know where to go to look for it: at the tables of strangers, in the stories we offer each other as song and prayer. There, I, too, can travel and be a variety of characters.