As a little girl in Augusta, Georgia, Jessye Norman absorbed the lessons of preparing to do a task well. Every Monday morning as she set off for school, her father would ask her if she had her poem ready to recite, and her mother would exhort Jessye to “stand up straight.” Norman discovered in those years that the act of standing in front of crowds and performing came as naturally to her as “passing around the Ritz crackers with pimento cheese at the end of a program.”
In the same soaring voice that has made her one of the world’s most beloved opera singers, Norman delivers an inspiring memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, in which she reveals her deep love for her family and community and the many ways that music is the thread woven through all aspects of her, and our, lives.
Growing up, she scarcely imagined that she would become a singer; in childhood, she wanted to play the games the boys were playing, like baseball and basketball, and by the time she was in junior high, she had set her sights on a career in medicine. Whatever she does, Norman credits her mother Janie for her strength: “My sense of self was inspired by Janie Norman, her mother, her sister, and the women who came before them—the people of whom I am wonderfully and fearfully made. . . . It is my legacy as a ‘little Norman’—a legacy of strength. A reverence for honesty and a will to speak to inequity when it rears its head.”
Norman profusely thanks her teachers for recognizing a gift that she herself had not acknowledged, and she gratefully recalls Mrs. Sanders, her middle school choral director, and her high school principal, Lloyd Reese, for encouraging and supporting her to participate in the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia. Although Norman did not win that contest, Sanders took the opportunity to introduce Norman to Dean Mark Fax and music professor Carolyn V. Grant at Howard University, both of whom saw Norman’s tremendous potential and offered her a full scholarship.
Norman plainly and forthrightly shares the struggles she has faced as a black woman singing opera around the world, but it’s her joy that echoes gloriously throughout her book: “Singing gives me many rewards and blessings for all the hard work it requires and on which it depends,” she writes. “Singing, for me, is actually life itself. It is communication, person to person and soul to soul, a physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual expression carried by the breath. Life!”