Think on her: Portia White celebrated with Black all-star event
An all-star group of Black authors will on Feb. 9 lead an evening of education about Portia White, the iconic Nova Scotian singer.
Portia White: A Vibrant Presence will bring the contralto’s voice into the KTS Lecture Hall at the University of King’s College in Halifax, as well as an in-depth discussion of her life and work.
Dr. Afua Cooper is hosting the event as part of the multi-year project, A Black People’s History of Canada. Cooper is a regular contributor to Atlantic Books Today and the author of 12 books, including the nonfiction book The Hanging of Angelique and Copper Woman, a poetry collection.
Cooper said much of White’s life was a contrast of her extraordinary talent and drive in the face of intense racism and sexism. “To think you’d be able to sing in a place, or perform in an establishment, but as a patron, you weren’t allowed, or members of your community and race weren’t allowed,” she told ABT.
White was born in Truro in 1911 and became the first Black Canadian woman to win international fame. She first sang publicly as a child at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, today called New Horizons Baptist Church. She studied teaching at Dalhousie University and taught school children in Africville and Lucasville.
White kept signing, and in 1941 made her formal professional debut in Toronto. It was a hit, and she spent much of the next decade performing around the world. “Portia said she was born singing and that’s all she wanted to do,” said Cooper, who in 2020 won the Portia White Prize.
Cooper worked with Nova Scotian filmmaker Dawn Harwood-Jones to create a new eight-minute film about White’s life, which will debut at the Feb. 9 event. They will be joined on stage by Dr. George Elliott Clarke, who is White’s grandnephew. Clarke will be in the spring ABT for his new poetry collection, Canticles III, which explores the inner life of another iconic Black Nova Scotian, Richard Preston. He wrote the illustrated Portia White: A Portrait in Words.
Dr. Sylvia Hamilton, who recently launched Tender, her new book of poetry, will join the panel. Hamilton also previously created a documentary about White called Think On Me. With them will be poet and regular ABT contributor, Abena Beloved-Green, and Sheila White, a niece of the singer.
Cooper said White followed her dream without an entourage, and booked all of her tours herself, and in the face of widespread anti-Black racism. She thinks people will leave inspired for their own ambitions.
“Knowing that today it might be easier to do that than in Portia’s time, because she was operating in the era of the colour bar in Canada and Jim Crow in the United States,” she said. “Studying Portia White will enable you, even a teeny weeny little bit, to build resilience. Because she was resilient.”
Cooper started on the project nearly a decade ago, but ran into funding shortfalls. She said after nine years of work, the film and event seemed to come together “in nine days” this time.
“I think the spirit of Portia is behind it because it just … happened in an incredible way. People were so generous.”
Cooper is the principal investigator for the Black People’s History of Canada project, of which a core aim is to add more Black history to Canadian schools to undercut the racism nurtured in what had previously been a nearly all-white version of Canada’s history.
“It’s pretty intense, it’s lots of work, but I enjoy the work,” she said.
“I’m learning new things, especially around Black aesthetics. We know that in almost every major Canadian city, a Black barber was the place to go if you were a man, to get your haircut, to get a shave. Barbers also did things that nowadays we’d call them spa. That was new, the extent to which Black barbers dominated the hair dressing trade in major cities, including Halifax,”
Project researchers uncovered a Black beauty contest held in St Catharines, Ont., in 1926. “That was new. I had no idea that there were Black beauty contests way back then,” she said.
White is the first fruit of the project focused on Women in Music. “It’s really exciting to see how far back you had these trailblazing women: Portia White, Eleanor Collins from Vancouver, Phyllis Marshall in Ontario.”
The ticketed event is free and will start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb 9, at the KTS Lecture Hall on 6350 Coburg Road.