Lifting My Voice: A Memoir

Lifting My Voice: A Memoir

by Barbara Hendricks, Kofi A. Annan

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Growing up African American in segregated Arkansas in the 1950s, Barbara Hendricks witnessed firsthand the painful struggle for civil rights. After graduation from the Juilliard School of Music, Hendricks immediately won a number of important international prizes, and began performing in recitals and operas throughout the world. A Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, she is as devoted to humanitarian work as she is to her music. Always the anti-diva, Hendricks is a down-to-earth and straightforward woman, whether singing Mozart or black spirituals. She challenges stereotypes and puts the music first and presents a warm, engaging, and honest self-portrait of one of the great women of music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613748558
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Barbara Hendricks is an operatic soprano and concert singer. She has sold more than 14 million copies of more than 80 records, and has appeared in major opera houses throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was named Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1987 and founded the Barbara Hendricks Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation in 1998. Kofi A. Annan served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. He is the author of Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.

Read an Excerpt

Lifting My Voice

A Memoir

By Barbara Hendricks

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2014 Barbara Hendricks
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-855-8



I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

— Nelson Mandela

In 1948, Burma became a member of the UN, the Berlin Blockade started, and newly elected Prime Minister Daniel François Malan of South Africa began the apartheid era. In Montreux, Switzerland, the town where I would later live and raise my children, on September 20, Richard Strauss completed "September," the last song of his musical testament, Vier letzte Lieder; thirty years later this song cycle would become one of the mainstays of my orchestral repertoire. And in San Francisco, California, on December 10, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also in 1948, in Stephens, Arkansas, on November 20, my mother, Della Mae, and my maternal grandparents, John and Tumaie Graham, heard my voice for the first time. None of them had ever heard of Richard Strauss or of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but they did know all about the Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation — America's apartheid.

"It must have been sometime after four o'clock," my mother said, when I asked her the exact time of my birth. She knew that it was shortly before my father, Malvin Leon, arrived home from work around 5 PM. He had been a cook while in the army during World War II and now, as a fledgling young pastor in the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, he was working in a restaurant kitchen to supplement his meager earnings.

I cannot presume that those first cries were in any way indicative of how I would later use my voice. But I like to think that as they penetrated the walls of that modest farmhouse and soared freely into the countryside I had taken my first step on my way to developing an instrument of service to art and justice.

In 1987 I started to work as a goodwill ambassador with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations refugee agency, and when I learned the official definition of refugee I realized that for all practical purposes I had been born a refugee in my own country. My birth on American soil entitled me to US citizenship but was not enough to afford me, a Negro or colored child, the same rights and responsibilities of a full-fledged citizen as provided by the Constitution of the United States of America, a document that I would later learn to treasure. Its Bill of Rights was ratified over 150 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My parents and my grandparents never told me that I had neither the same protection under the law nor the same inalienable rights that every white male child born on that same day and in that same place would have been able to take for granted.

But for as far back as I can remember I had a feeling that confused me because I could not verbalize it. I know now that what I felt was fear. It was as if an ominous, diffused cloud hung over us, here and there, sometimes opaque and sometimes translucent, ever present in the very air that we breathed. It was reflected in the faces of the adults and nourished by the intense conversations that took place when they thought that we were not listening. I wanted to know more whenever I heard my mother speaking in hushed tones to a neighbor or friend. I assumed that they were relating tales too horrible to describe out loud. A story might begin with, "Did you hear about what happened to poor Missus So-and-So's son?" We children had to try to piece together the rest of the story from the snippets of the conversation that we strained to hear as their voices rose with indignation and anger and ebbed with fear and pain. I picked up from their whispers and accompanying looks of sadness and inevitability a sense of an underlying shame in their own helplessness.

This ever-present fear seeped into our daily existence like fog rolling in from the sea. It lodged itself in the pit of my stomach. It never left us completely in peace. It seemed to come and go at its own whim. But a story, a word, or a glance could bring it back in an instant. Like most children who live mostly in the moment I could easily ignore it. But I was forced a little later in my life to learn what it was — and to defeat it. I have spent my entire life facing and trying to master this primordial fear, for to live without fear is true freedom.

Stephens is a small rural village in the southwest corner of Ouachita County, near Louisiana, whose population today is a bit more than a thousand people. During my first eight years I lived in similar communities in Arkansas where the great majority of the inhabitants, both Negroes and whites, were very poor and uneducated. Arkansas was usually classified in just about every positive category as number forty-nine of the fifty states, slightly ahead of Mississippi. "Thank God for Mississippi" was a kind of unofficial slogan. But I was unaware of life's trials and tribulations and did not know that my parents had difficulty making ends meet or that we were considered poor. My spirit was always free and I spent most of my time outdoors, in my own opulent and varied kingdom, discovering nature and letting my imagination run as fast as my legs could carry me. I climbed trees and communicated with every being in the real and imaginary kingdom of which I was the queen.

Ever since my first field trip to Namibian and Mozambican refugee camps in Zambia in 1987, I have been surprised to see how easily refugee children are able to laugh and play after being forced to flee their homes, having witnessed horrific scenes of violence and living with an uncertain future. The resilience of children is powerful; it gives me hope.

My grandfather Johnny and his wife were grandchildren of slaves and part Choctaw Indian. The Choctaw tribe came originally from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana around the Mississippi River, and some members intermarried with freed slaves. Most likely my Native American ancestors were from nearby Louisiana.

I have no recollection of much in Stephens other than a gas station and a general store that sold everything from flour to heavy farm equipment. I loved to be on my maternal grandparents' farm and was proud that I had been born there. This subsistence farm barely provided for my grandparents' basic needs.

My parents were living near Stephens in Magnolia, some miles from the Louisiana border, not far from Emerson, where my father was raised and where his parents, Maggie and Clayton Hendricks, continued to live. I do not know if there was any particular reason that my mother chose to come home to her parents on that day but I am happy to have come into the world in the presence of my grandmother Tumaie, who herself had given birth to sixteen children. My mother was her eldest daughter.

I always looked forward to visiting them in Stephens, to going into the barn and climbing into the hayloft and lying there daydreaming. I would sit on the parked wagon, pulling at imaginary reins and pretending to give orders, "Giddy up" and "Whoa ..." I tried to imitate exactly what I had seen my grandfather do when I rode with him in the wagon drawn by his two lethargic horses. He was a gentleman and never raised his voice to his animals or to us. He was always very caring to my grandmother, who for as long as I can remember was ill and mostly bedridden until her death. I do not know the cause of her infirmity but I would think that after sixteen pregnancies and births, one would be a bit worn out.

I don't have any photos of that farm or of my grandparents; unfortunately a camera was too much of a luxury item for our household. But I remember with tenderness and warmth the times that I spent there until my grandmother's death when I was about eight years old.

These memories are infused with myriad smells and sounds of the outdoors as well as the savory aromas of cooking that wafted from the kitchen out into the yard. I remember the feel and even the sight of the heat of the late summer days, the waves of humidity undulating in the air. When we came for Christmas the temperatures were much colder but we never had snow. Many of my uncles, aunts, and cousins would then gather around an abundant dinner table. We all brought our particular specialities and enjoyed them together with the dishes that my grandfather's farm provided: fried chicken, the Christmas ham, and a cornucopia of homegrown fruits and vegetables that had been preserved and canned in the fall. For breakfast we had bacon and sausage accompanied by delicious hot biscuits and gravy or cornbread that my mother made. I was especially proud that I had helped to churn the butter that melted on those mouthwatering biscuits. Today the smell of fresh fruits, especially oranges, and the sight of bowls of nuts remind me of Christmas because we never had them at any other time of the year.

My grandmother joined us in the dining room on the rare occasions when she had the strength to leave her bed. Whenever I took her something I would linger and sit with her for a little while. I loved her very much and cherished the moments that I could spend at her bedside. She was a picture of gentleness and serenity, propped upon pillows in her bed, her salt and pepper hair, more salt than pepper, braided and attached in a circle on the top of her head Indian style; to me she looked like a queen with a braided crown.

After her death, however, our family reunions ceased. My grandfather, unaware that his land had oil on it, sold it for a price well beneath its value, and the farm was torn down and oil rigs were put in its place. He later met and married a wonderful woman who, like my mother, was an elementary school teacher. Her first name was Ethel and my mother always called her Miss Ethel, so we did too.

I liked Miss Ethel very much. She was tall with a very noble bearing, articulate and cultivated. And she made the best hot-water cornbread I have ever eaten. Unfortunately my uncles and aunts were not as tolerant and supportive of my grandfather's new wife as my mother was. So my cherished family gatherings never resumed. We visited my grandfather and Miss Ethel whenever we were on our way to and from Emerson but less often than before. I missed the farm terribly as there was not so much to do in their new home. After my grandfather died I continued to have occasional contact with Miss Ethel; we corresponded regularly while I was in college, and her sincere interest in me was an enormous encouragement.

Clayton and Maggie Hendricks were also poor subsistence farmers. They lived in a white wooden house outside of Emerson, very near the Louisiana border. My father, Malvin, was one of eleven children and his mother, Maggie, was a very authoritative woman. Her white skin and completely straight hair stood in stark contrast to the copper-toned and burnished complexion of Tumaie, whose warmth was also a contrast to the cooler ambience that I found on my father's side of the family. My father's brothers and sisters and their families often visited my grandparents and it was there that I met many cousins who came from as far away as Colorado as well as from nearby Louisiana. During my first ten or twelve years we attended the annual family reunion in the month of August and the revival at the country church where my father, the local boy, was often invited to be the guest pastor for the week.

During the revival entire days were dedicated to prayer, preaching, witnessing, and invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wooden church was alone in the woods, with nothing but two outhouses nearby. Cars and pickup trucks arrived full of worshippers anxious to meet one another and to catch up on the news of those who lived far away. It was so hot that we had to roll down all the windows of our black Ford in hope that the warm breeze would cool us off a little. We arrived in our best Sunday clothes and hats covered with a thin layer of dust that had blown in from the dirt roads. We greeted each other with joy and enthusiasm. Parents rounded up children who were already running around and playing outside and we followed meekly behind them into the small white church that seemed to me at the time a towering cathedral. As soon as we were seated the church was inundated by the vigorous susurration of cardboard fans; the advertisement from the local funeral home printed on the back seemed to swoosh and swirl to the rhythm of the singing and praying. These fans were passed out to all, but it was mostly the women and some elderly men who used them. The fanning was a part of the ritual and it helped us all cope with the suffocating heat and humidity in the packed church. And those fans also came in handy to help revive some of the worshippers, mostly women, who were overwhelmed by their emotions and the fervor of the service. Sometimes they would shout and cry or run up and down the aisles and it would take several strong men to subdue them.

Men seldom gave vent to their emotions in such an open manner. It did happen — but it was extremely rare and probably not acceptable. Some of the ladies, the regulars, you could always count on to release their demons and sorrows this way during every service. When I was around nine or ten, we children would wait for these moments with great expectations, but we avoided sitting too close for fear of being hit with a stray handbag.

And of course we had to hold ourselves in check because if we were ever seen laughing or making fun of these pious souls we could expect to receive a severe punishment when we returned home. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes a similar scene so vividly that when I read it I laughed until I cried. She, however, could not hold back her laughter and was punished.

It was always very moving when the pastor gave the invitation to those who had decided to end their lives of sin and to give themselves to the Lord by becoming a member of the church. The entire congregation trembled with emotion and joy as the timid souls marched slowly to the altar accompanied by the congregation's choruses of "Amen" and "Praise the Lord." Even at a young age I could feel the fervor of their worship and see that their renewed faith comforted them and gave them strength to bear their suffering.

During these emotion-filled services, tears of sorrow and joy flowed freely and gave way spontaneously to songs of hope for a better life, if not here on earth then in the afterlife. Our voices rose and the sound filled the church and the surrounding fields and pastures. The congregation harmonized naturally, swept up in a collective catharsis.

The texts and music of these simple songs first taught me about our history of slavery and its inherent injustice. In Africa, song and literature were passed on orally, and this tradition came with the slaves to the New World. The Negro spiritual, America's richest musical heritage, was born of slavery. It combines a very simple expression of sorrow with Christian belief. Unfortunately, many of the spirituals that were sung in the early Negro churches of America were never notated and have been lost forever. Those that I heard and sang as a child constitute the backbone of my musical passion and inspiration.

When the service was finished the congregation streamed outside, hoping to catch a little cooler breeze. All the emotion had built up hardy appetites. In no time at all the entire field around the church was filled with tables set with homemade goods from the farm. The beds of pickup trucks were transformed into the most inviting tables. Those who had brought food shared their delicacies with those who had not. There was always enough to go around. There were many excellent cooks in the congregation, and eager visitors lined up at the tables of the ladies who were best known for one specialty or another. I was particularly interested in the cakes and pies. I liked my mother's cooking, but I also passed from table to table enjoying what I was offered. Since I was the pastor's daughter I was never refused. The good food nourished my body while the songs and the singing resonated in me, nourishing my soul.

As I grew older I became very interested in my own family's history, but unfortunately my parents never considered our past important enough to tell us about it. I tried once to make a family tree but I was not able to get very much farther than my paternal great-grandparents. My father sometimes spoke about his grandmother Harriet so I managed to gather some information about his family but little or nothing about my mother's. My parents did not have time to answer my questions. They were more occupied with making ends meet at the end of every month and preparing us for the future. They did not speak at length about slavery or even the segregation that we lived with daily.

I began at an early age to wonder why I was alive. I assumed that there must be some purpose and felt that the answer was somehow connected to the stories told in the spirituals that I sang because they touched me so deeply, so viscerally.

There were also some hidden, political connotations in the songs that the slave masters failed to detect. The singing of a certain song could be a coded message to those slaves who were planning to escape to a free state. "Steal Away" signaled that the time was approaching for those who were to be "stealing away" to freedom with the Underground Railroad. When I sang words such as "before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave" it awakened my imagination about this time and brought me closer to the plight of the slaves and the dynamic power of the human urge to be free. The policies of the slave owners were particularly cruel. Immediately upon birth a slave baby could be separated from her mother, put on the auction block, and sold away from her family, her culture, her history, and all that could contribute to her identity — and thus her psychological, emotional, and social development. This was truly a process of dehumanization. A newborn slave was an object, not a human being. She had neither roots nor a past. Her future was the same as any other piece of property to be used at the whim of a cruel master who considered her of less value than the most common farm animal.


Excerpted from Lifting My Voice by Barbara Hendricks. Copyright © 2014 Barbara Hendricks. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Kofi A. Annan,
1 Childhood,
2 Birth of a Rebel,
3 University,
4 Aspen,
5 New York,
6 Debut,
7 The Giants of the Orchestra,
8 My Family,
9 My Repertoire and My Musical Families,
10 Behind the Scenes,
11 Cinema,
12 Arte Verum,
13 Encounters,
14 Human Rights,
There Is No Conclusion, Only Continuation,
Musical Portrait,
Complete Discography of Barbara Hendricks,
A Life — and History,

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