February 03, 2009

What You See Is --?

"What you see is what you get." It's a phrase that means that what you're looking at is all that's there -- you can take it for its face value.

Is that ever true of a person?

Soprano Anne Wiggins Brown was born on August 9, 1912, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the great-granddaughter of a slave. Her ethnic background was a jumble of Cherokee, Creole, Scottish and African, and her first love was music. She and her three sisters sang and were involved in musical theater in their segregated neighborhood.

There wasn't any future in that, however, for an African-American, and so after getting turned down for music schools in the area, Anne went to teacher's college. But she still loved music, and took voice lessons with a woman from Julliard, the famous music school. Anne became the first African American to win Julliard's prestigious Margaret McGill scholarship, and she was in.

Do I need to tell you that she had a chance to audition for Ira Gershwin? And she was given a part in a jazz musical called Porgy, but because of her input the name was later changed to Porgy & Bess -- because she was such an amazing Bess?

Yet, Anne wasn't allowed to perform in some theaters -- and she, in turn, refused to perform in theaters which were segregated. She finally went overseas in 1946, like so many other famous African American artists and musicians. It was just too hard to stay in her own country.

In Sherri L. Smith's Flygirl, Ida Mae didn't ever stop being an African American, but she chose to live as a Caucasian person, in order to be treated as part of her own country. To her mind, what was seen wasn't worth more than the truth, but what people saw was able to give her what she wanted, in part.

What's worth passing for? What's not? Read our conversation with author Sherri L. Smith, and drop us a comment.

Also, if you're not stopping by The Brown Bookshelf this month, you're missing some great authors and illustrators. Today, check out Nicole Tadgell, who recently illustrated the picture book No Mush Today.