Every child has a strange old lady story. When I was a child, my peculiar older lady lived two houses away. She put on a lot of airs and was very snobbish. Her young granddaughter used to play with my younger sister, and she was so distant, she couldn’t even be close to her own granddaughter.
At the time, I didn’t understand that I was bearing witness to the residuals of disappointed dreams. My father, a trained opera singer, knew this older lady in her associations with The National Negro Opera Company headed by Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson (pictured here) founded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The lady had been a protégé of Madame Dawson’s and once was thought to be a very talented concert pianist who, ultimately didn’t go very far in the concert piano world because of her race and class. She ended up giving piano lessons in the public schools and made her contributions that way.
In the movie Black Nativity, they made repeated reference to Langston Hughes in his poem “Harlem” with the famous line of “What happens to a dream deferred?” In the case of a lot of African Americans, especially those who have been working to break down the color barriers of opera, there has been a lot of deferring to younger people and waiting for a better day.
Unfortunately, the older lady didn’t get very far. My father got a little further than she did and performed in some productions. The young singers now are going beyond his success. Still, it is slow going. I like to think of persevering pioneers like Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson as having great vision. She provided places for her singers to perform Carmen, Aida, Faust, La Traviata and other famous operas during the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. The National Negro Opera Company was the first company allowed to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Madame Dawson saw herself as providing training for the future teachers of those who would come and sing famous opera roles in integrated circumstances. She gave voice lessons, recruited young singers from churches, formed choirs and went on tours with them to show what they could do. Her choirs, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, won prizes in the 1930’s. Her contributions were recognized in 1961 when President Kennedy named her to the National Music Committee. She died the next year and the company didn’t last long beyond her lifetime.
There are times when dreams may seem very far away. However, we must take comfort from those who came before us. They had very little chance of seeing their dreams come true, but still found another way to make a contribution. We must carry on with their work so that their sacrifices are not forgotten.