Once word got out about the way I sing the world wanted to bleed all the sass out
my name. To scratch out the gift my mother gave me and shove a would-be white
diva in my spotlight. They couldn’t imagine the colored in coloratura just standing
on its own on stage, so they claimed I was just part of Adelina Patti’s chorus. They
stuck me beneath her name, a shadow sentenced to the borders of her light, called
me Black Patti.
But the darkened sense inside my name won’t be silenced. With its sister and shush
and gospel of ocean, I sing each night from the way I’d stand on the docks of
Providence, a straggle boned bundle of lungs and tremble lifting wave after wave
into wave after wave of Atlantic. Its applause keeled over me, calling me with its
bell of salt, its belly of sunken hulls, its blue green fathoms of tremolo. Every night,
in the dark off stage, I hear my mother’s voice in my head, her backyard hum, the sea
in her distance with the weather of storm. She’d look out and see the thrall of water
heave its back to the sky. I’d look out and hear my true name.
*Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933) was the first African American soprano to sing at Carnegie Hall. She was labeled “Black Patti” in reference to Italian opera singer Adelina Patti.