It happened more than 30 years ago, but it has impacted my life ever since: The memory of a courageous young woman and how she helped me confront my own prejudice.
At Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, I took a course called Oral Interpretation of literature. Reading literature aloud seemed a sinfully easy thing to do at the time, but my hopes for an easy A hit a brick wall when we met our instructor — a stocky man in his fifties, with gray hair that added an air of distinction, also contributing to the austerity of his demeanor.
Within minutes he sternly told us that the transformation of literature into the spoken word was the most serious of art forms. In interpreting literature, the patterns of speech had to be proper. A British poem would require proper pronunciation of the queen’s tongue, and he was looking forward to drilling these fine distinctions into us.
It took a while, but most of the class caught on. However, there was one young African American woman who encountered considerable difficulty in adapting her speech patterns to Victorian poetry or prose.
Perhaps today this would be the stuff of lawsuits, but in 1972 our instructor ruled in this particular 20-seat classroom, and because this young woman could not verbalize Robert Browning per our instructor’s view of what was proper, it seemed obvious as the semester progressed that she was failing the course.
At the final class, each of us would present his or her own selection. Our performance would count for 50 percent of our grade. I remember when the young woman came to the podium. I admired her courage, but also assumed she would fail again. I watched her there — quiet for a few seconds, and then, rich and wonderful, it came.
“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. ”
Her voice was deep and honest, and it carried us like a mighty river. And in my heart I knew — we all knew — that this was art. The words she sang told us of pain, but also of hope. Her voice told of oppression and the fight for freedom. Perhaps most, it told us of an unashamed belief in God’s promise of final judgment and justice.
When she finished, we stood and applauded. All we could do was orally interpret art. She had created it.
To understand prejudice is to understand that we all are affected by racism. As Martin Luther King Jr.’s life helps so many to see beyond their prejudice, so did this young woman also help me to see beyond mine. I had so casually misjudged her. I had assumed that, based upon the rules placed upon her, she would fail. But she found her way by tapping into art itself. She knew what I didn’t know: Art constantly creates its own rules, and the beauty of art need not only be spoken.
It can also be sung.