THINK ON ME
In the 1940s contralto Portia May White was celebrated as Canada’s singing sensation.
ONE EVENING IN FEBRUARY 1968, SINGER JUDITH LANDER WAS SITTING IN her small apartment in Toronto. She was in her early twenties and had recently moved there from Winnipeg. With a few television gigs on her resumé, her career in popular music was taking shape. The telephone rang. It was her teacher, the famous Canadian contralto Portia White. Her voice was unusually husky, not the soft, honeyed voice Lander was used to. A caring and attentive teacher, White asked her how she was. She expressed regret that Lander would not be pursuing a career in opera but said she was certain that, whatever Lander decided to do, she would be successful. White said that, although she would no longer be teaching her, she had one request: “Judy, please take your vitamins.”
As they said goodbye, Lander told her she would see her soon.
It was not to be. A few days after that memorable telephone call, Lander learned that White was quite ill. Unsettled by the news, she sat at her small piano as some lyrics came to her, and she composed a pleasing melody to accompany them. “Lady of Ginger,” a song for Portia White, was born. The lady of ginger and velvet and honey and light Breathed a child’s awe into me
The lady of ginger and velvet and honey and light wore the cloak of dignity….
A raindrop fell on her nest of earth and nurtured her sparrow song of purity
She rode on the wings of a nightingale
And her colour was liberty.
The next morning, Lander heard on a radio newscast that White had died in a Toronto hospital at the age of fifty-seven. Those were troubled times. White’s death occurred barely two months before Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. As for me, I was a teenager in Beechville, a Black community near Halifax, counting the months to June, when I expected to graduate, and at the same time wondering if I would be accepted into university. After all, when I entered high school, my grade nine teacher advised me to take the general program: “If you make it through,” she told me, “you might get a little job for yourself.”
Such were the low-level expectations and unjustified racist attitudes — whether intentional or not — faced by so many Black students of my generation and of the generations before mine, including White’s. She earned accolades in the 1940s, when race, gender, and class determined what people could do and were expected to do, and in a province and a country marked by a legacy of slavery (which was legal in the British North American colonies until 1834) and ongoing racial discrimination. But she was a dreamer, she was brave. How audacious of this Black woman to aspire to perform on the concert stage. It wasn’t done — that is, until Portia White. One journalist christened her “the New Canadian Star of the Concert Stage.” Hers is a remarkable story but one tinged with more than a touch of sadness. Named after Portia, the heroine of Shakespeare’s The Mer
chant of Venice, White was born in Truro, Nova Scotia, on Saturday, June 24, 1911. An adage says, “a Saturday child works hard for a living.” White did not disappoint. An early