Jessye Norman Exits the Stage: raceAhead

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Jessye Norman thrilled the opera world for decades, with a voice that has always been described in superlative terms: shimmering, rapturous, sumptuous, magnificent. The soprano who won accolades while helping artists of color see a place for themselves in operatic and classical circles, died yesterday in New York at 74.   

Among many notable achievements, she won five Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, the Kennedy Center Honor in 1997, and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

While in many ways she belonged to the world, the Augusta, Ga., native was first the product of an African-American community prepared to protect her spirit and her gifts. 

“I have no recollection of never being a singer,” she told interviewer Charlie Rose in 2014. “It started at home, and then in church, and then in the schools, and then in the community organizations, but certainly, my first performance was in my own living room.”

Her parents were deeply aware and supportive of the civil rights movement, so the work was always discussed. And yet, Norman says, she remained unburdened. 

From the 2014 interview:

“Part of my story that’s certainly was not known, and only I can talk about my relationship to my family, and talking about growing up in the segregated South, and overcoming that. At the same time, that I was growing up, I wasn’t lumbered with this. This wasn’t a cross I was bearing as a child, because I grew up in a loving, wonderful community. In a cocoon, if you will. This was an incredibly supportive thing. Of course, at the time one doesn’t realize it when you’re growing up. You don’t understand that people are growing up in a different way, but having loving parents, and people in the community, that were as interested in you as they can possibly be. The woman across the street wants to know what your report card looks like.”

Norman won early admission to Howard University, after she dropped in, unannounced, on her way back to Augusta from Philadelphia, Penn., where she’d performed in a vocal competition named for Marian Anderson. She was just 16. The impromptu audition, greenlit by Howard’s dean of music, earned Norman a spot in her next cocoon of Black excellence. 

After she graduated, she became a talent on the world stage. After winning a prestigious music competition in Germany in 1968, she was able to finance her graduate studies while taking on engagements across Germany and eventually Europe and North America. 

Norman was a trailblazer who stood on the shoulder of giants and knew it. In a 1983 interview with the New York Timesshe named naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor, and Leontyne Price as among the Black women who inspired her.

“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.”

On Point

Amber Guyger is convicted of murder for killing Botham Jean The verdict was met by cheers of relief from the family and friends of Jean, who had been shot to death in his own home by a now-fired police officer who had entered his apartment thinking that it was her own. The Dallas County jury who delivered the verdict is set to hear testimony in the sentencing phase later today. Guyger will not eligible for parole. Jean’s mother, Allison Jean’s put both hands in the air as she heard the verdict; The Dallas Morning News reports that as she walked out of the courtroom, she said “God is good. Trust him.” Follow the link below for news updates and local reporting.
The Dallas Morning News

New report: Sheriff’s release sick inmates to avoid providing medical care Sheriff’s across Alabama are increasingly releasing sick inmates, often temporarily, to avoid providing their medical care. The conditions are often quite serious, and often only necessary when the incarceration itself is the cause. One inmate was tricked to sign a bond release just seconds before he lapsed into a diabetic coma which shunted responsibility for paying his bills to the state. Worse, many people are unexpectedly rearrested when they recover. It’s an ugly hack to solve a terrible problem of medical neglect inside the Alabama jails system. This report was produced in partnership with, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Meet McKayla Wilkes, who is running for office in Maryland’s 5th District She’s more than just another local pol pitching for votes, she’s also a formerly incarcerated person whose very life story describes what’s wrong with the criminal justice system. She was sent to a cruel juvenile detention facility for running away at 15. Later, she was jailed again for driving on a suspended license, seven months pregnant and living paycheck to paycheck. “I couldn’t afford to pay all my tickets and court fees,” she says. But if she didn’t risk driving, she wouldn’t have been able to keep her job. She knows she is an unusual candidate, but that’s a good thing, she says. “Our representation is so out of touch with the people’s needs,” she says. “Even worse, they’re funded by those who profit off our most vulnerable.”
McKayla Wilkes for Congress

On Background

Why leaders need to actually care about diversity Eileen Murray is the co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates, which is billed as the world’s largest hedge fund. While the representation of women in senior roles in finance has slowly grown during her time in the industry, she says it’s not nearly enough. “If top leaders don’t make it a priority, it won’t get the kind of action and traction it needs,” she says. In this lively Q&A, she tells the history of diversity thinking during the course of her career (a journey from zero to lip service) and shares her thoughts on talent development. “The more important part is, how do you develop your people? Are you developing people as cohorts or are you really looking at the individual?” Then she says, make sure people know it’s a priority. “I also believe it’s really important to make people accountable and responsible for the long-term, strategic initiative of diversity. Start to remunerate them for it. If you incentivize people, they figure out a way to get through obstacles.”
Yale School of Management

Opinion: All college students should take a mandatory class on black history Emily Walton, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, says that white students who take her class, tend to have a transformative experience, yet few sign up. It’s a missed opportunity, she says. “[B]ecause for the first time in their lives, they begin to look at themselves as members of a racial group,” she says. “They understand that being a good person does not make them innocent but rather they, too, are implicated in a system of racial dominance.” But this “white blindness,” has been cultivated throughout their education, she says. But the benefits go both ways. “Arguably the greatest tragedy, however, is that people of color, like white people, do not question American cultural messages of individual responsibility and equal opportunity.”
USA Today

Muslim American women on finding love online Maryam Mir digs into the dating-while-Muslim-in-America, which she describes as “the more shrouded-in-darkness parts of diasporic desi Muslim life.” But app-swiping for love, now normal for seekers of most ages, is still fraught in a specific way for many Muslim women. “Growing up, we never talked about dating. As a concept, it didn’t exist,” one Pakistani American woman in her 20s tells Mir. After years of seeking, she accidentally met someone on the Muslim dating app, Minder, which she joined for about an hour. The one person she met eventually became her husband. She never tells anyone about this, however. “Desi shame culture.” Yet Minder thrives, with 350,000 users and over 100,000 matches made. And it’s designed with specific restrictions in mind—there is no geolocation feature and religiosity can be expressed on a spectrum from “not practicing” to “very religious.”
Open City: Asian Americans Writers’ Workshop

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see…”

Jessye Norman, singing in tribute to Sidney Poitier, 1995, Kennedy Center Honors