Portia White: A Voice like No Other
Growing up in Canada, we are regularly educated on the great men and women that have shaped our nation. We see statues of people like Terry Fox or Wayne Gretzky everywhere and we are told that these exceptional Canadians deserve our admiration. Now, these iconic citizens do certainly deserve our praise, but when reflecting on the classic, and renowned Canadians - people widely known by the public - the Black community is notably absent. Rarely do kids hang posters of Harry Jerome or Nathaniel Dett in their rooms. Of course, this lack of acclaim is not due to lack of contributions from Black Canadians, but rather a general lack of public education and recognition. If we desire to encourage the great people of the future, we must first acknowledge all champions of the past, regardless of ethnicity. By celebrating the accomplishments of historical African-Canadians, we provide a connection for the Black youth across Canada; they are reminded that greatness is not reserved for one race. Yet writing this essay, it seems improper to credit only one or two figures when the long list of influential Black Canadians - both named and nameless - remains mostly unnoted through the nation. Nonetheless, it is still immensely important to highlight exceptional individuals, individuals like Portia White.
Portia White is widely considered one of the most brilliant classical singers of the 20th century. During the 1940s and 1950s, when Canada was still a young nation seeking to make its mark globally, Portia provided an iconic Canadian celebrity on the international stage. She was the woman with the voice of an angel, that had “a natural voice, a gift from heaven” according to the Evening Telegram. Yet, she was not only known for her breathtaking voice, but for her grace and presence in the spotlight. In a time when Black people were displayed in zoos, a time when women were expected to be silent, Portia shattered all expectations the world had for a Black woman.
Defying expectations was something Portia had been doing all her life. At the age of 8, she began singing in the choir at her father's church, and it quickly became clear she had a gift. Determined to not waste her talent, this young girl dedicated herself to her craft, even walking ten miles to attend her music lessons. Ultimately she received a scholarship to attend the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939. Within 5 years she was travelling across the world: from 1944-1958 she performed in Canada, the United States, France, South America, and Switzerland.
Unfortunately, Portia’s career ended prematurely when the stress of countless performances took a toll on her physical ability to sing. She stopped touring, and instead focused on sharing her gifts with young singers. Curiously, the highlight of her career occurred during these quiet years of teaching, when Portia briefly returned to the spotlight to perform for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1964. The fight for equality had always been a battle of public image, and Portia White - a Black woman - performing for British royalty, brought the African-Canadian Community into greater esteem. She forced the world to reconsider their preconceived notions of her community and acknowledge the culture and talent that had been suppressed.
The popularity of Portia White opened doors previously closed for talented African-Canadians; the Halifax Chronicle-Herald claimed she was “the singer that broke the colour barrier in Canadian classical music.” The impact of her success cannot be measured - it is simply impossible to determine the number of opportunities made accessible for minority performers due to her legacy. She was a pioneer not only as a performer, but in affirming the traits of toughness, and grace to be synonymous with Canadian identity. On the concert stage - the last place people expected to see an African-Canadian woman - she pulled Canadian culture out of the shadows and into the gaze of the world. Even today, as we struggle in the face of racial bigotry, we must remember Portia White, and how she taught us not let our rivals hear words of hate, rather our songs of love.
Greene, Gael. “White, Portia (1911-1968).” White, Portia (1911-1968) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, www.blackpast.org/gah/white-portia-1911-1968. McPherson, James B., et al. “Portia White.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/portia-white-emc/. “Portia White: In honour of the 75th anniversary of her Toronto debut.” Library and Archives Canada Blog, 31 Oct. 2016, thediscoverblog.com/2016/11/07/portia-white-in-honour-of-the-75th-anniversary-of-her-toronto-debut/.