Monday, August 1, 2016

The Chronicle Herald: Canada’s poet laureate reflects on [Nova Scotia] trailblazer Portia White [classically trained operatic contralto, 1911-1968]

             Canadian parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke

Portia White (1911-1968)

July 31, 2016

The next generation of Canadian children is about to learn more about a major figure in the nation's history, thanks to her great-nephew.

Canada’s poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, has a contract with Nimbus Publishing to write a children’s book in verse about Portia White.

The Windsor native has published other children’s books – Lasso the Wind, for example, also with Nimbus —as well as 15 collections of poetry, four verse plays, two novels, two collections of essays, three opera libretti and two screenplays.

But the author’s connection to Portia White is all the sweeter, since the gifted classically-trained operatic contralto was his great-aunt.

A cultural trailblazer as a female black artist in a pre-Civil Rights era world, the Truro native had no contemporary role models to style herself after or to look to for guidance, Clarke said.

“She was, simply put, Canada’s first international black artist sensation,” he said.

“She deserves to be honoured and recognized and celebrated just for that alone.”

(Jazz pianist sensation Oscar Peterson came after White’s musical career peaked.)

Clarke recounted outstanding influential black musicians from earlier eras. Nathaniel Dett, a composer and compiler of Negro spirituals, was from Niagara Falls; he became the first black Canadian to publish a book of poetry.

Then there were the Bohee Brothers from St. John's, Newfoundland — the first musicians to popularize the banjo, they played an audience before Queen Victoria.

“They were internationally known at a time Canada was reluctant to recognize black achievers,” Clarke said.

Descended from Black Loyalists and Virginia former slaves, Portia White was the daughter of the minister of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. She trained at Dalhousie and the Halifax School of Music.

White shared the time frame with another great black contralto, Marian Anderson. But the size of America’s black population base gave the talented Anderson a huge advantage — the sizeable African American demographic group had their own “sub-civilization,” Clarke said, citing black magazines, newspapers, theatre circuits, all providing more avenues — and venues — available to up-and-coming black talent, even during segregation.

Finding concentrations of black Canadians to champion her work from coast to coast was more difficult for Portia White; even in her native Nova Scotia, the province with the greatest concentration of African Canadians, there were just 30,000 black people.

White found her support among like-minded individuals of varied backgrounds, like the Italian-Jewish music teacher fleeing Europe, who ended up in Halifax and recognizing her talent, became her teacher.

White's international star rose during the era of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural bloom in the black community that had a lasting imprint on arts and literature, sowing seeds that blossomed into the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“The time period in which she made her name — the 1930s and 1940s — marked the beginnings of the eventual struggle against segregation,” Clarke said.

In a time of international Depression and then war, Portia White’s stellar talent and achievement was recognized internationally in the global struggle for racial equality; the people of Panama struck a medal in her image.

In a rare acknowledgment, White was reviewed by the New York Times.

“She was a global symbol of negro aspiration and hope for a brighter future,” Clarke said.

Comment by email:
Thanks Bill! Hope you’re well!  
Cheers,  Chris  [Chris Foley]

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