Before You Begin: An Introduction to ‘Voices of Change’ by Georgette Norman

October 27, 2020


Turbulent times are part of our human history reminding us what needs attention to build a more humane nation and world society. If we truly want freedom to ring in the world, we must recognize the interrelated flaws in the societies in which we live: racism, poverty, militarism, materialism.

The 10 portraits in Voices of Change remind us it matters not where you come from, you can make a difference. And we are provided an opportunity to reflect on their portraits and their words of optimism, courage, selflessness, and commitment to create a better world for all. What do you see in the portraits…hear in the words?

King, Baez, Tutu, Schweitzer, Norman, Mandela, Robeson, Weisel, Anderson, Ali. Speak to the issue of voice. How much of what they spoke is screaming as loud or in some cases louder today. All elicit an ethical call to action. How will you answer the CALL, in the darkness or in the light?

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Are you captivated by his gaze, the tilt of the head, the shimmer of light? What is he looking at…what does he see? The Mountaintop, perhaps? Are you reminded to be awake, stay awake to our ever-changing world? Are you sleeping through the current revolution we find ourselves in, indifferent to it, confused by it, or engaged in self-examination? How do you deal with the challenges of change?

Joan Chandos Baez

As you gaze upon her visage pensively sitting, head bowed, hands each on crossed legs delicately holding something filled with light. Are her eyes open or closed? Are her still fingers receiving the next tune to remind or encourage us to use whatever gifts we have to make a difference? What is she thinking? What does her life ignite in you to think about and take action? Free speech? Non-violence? wage disparity? prison reform? Whose side are you on?

Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu

Leaning forward into his clenched fist with a sideward glance, what is he thinking? Was he in prayer before he looked up? Whose voices are still unheard? Reminding us we don’t live on an island, he asks to think about our individual role in creating a just world. Is he asking, where are you in the fight for justice for All? What talents do you possess that can be used to create “justice-seeking actions in the world”? Neutrality is not an option. How can you be a voice for the voiceless?

Albert Schweitzer

Head slightly bowed with a furrowed brow, tightly shut eyes, and a loosely clenched fist at the mouth, are we gazing on self-reflection, inquiry, torment, grief, heartache? Is he questioning the why of his actions on the immorality he witnessed, asking us to accept the challenge to make ethical choices? What is his agony? Did I not do enough? I did what I could? Conflicted and unsettled what is enough? Have you done what you could to ease someone else’s suffering?

Jessye Norman

Regal and composed, she exudes an air of confidence poised to unleash a powerful “mansion of sound.” We are drawn to her face, a mask, looking at us through downcast eyes asking, which voice today? From an arsenal of Southern ancestral voices in the fields yearning to be free in the South, to European elite patronaged houses, to the polyrhythmic improvisation rooted in the blues her voice is a nimble dance of versatility. Un-masked she urges us to call on the voice that fits the audience you address. How are you using your voice to help place this dissonant universe in tune?

Nelson Rolihahla Mandela

A potent symbol of black resistance, we see the face of survival, freedom after 27 years of bodily imprisonment. A faint smile and eyes not fully open contemplating next moves void of anger or hostility and unclasped hands one atop the other ready to build. Written on that face, “you persecuted a body but not a mind, a mind sometimes troubled but not distressed…against all odds I’m here to finish what I started.” He asks, “who or what imprisoned you, and what do you need to do individually and/or collectively to become free? How am I engaging in the call for justice for All?

Paul Leroy Robeson

A face resolute, adamant, unwavering…slightly tilted, chin resting on the left clavicle, eyes glaring, pursed lips but not tight. A man whose achievements as a scholar-athlete and national-international artistic reputation was rivaled by his reputation as a political activist. His portrait displays the face of a man without a county. Refusing to recant his actions at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. I have no alternative…freedom or slavery.” Passport seized and wealth diminished, he stood by what he believed. He would not be silenced. What belief do you hold so strong that you are willing to lose it all?

Elie Wiesel

Standing in the darkness of his past, he takes a step into the light not quite ready to smile because there is still too much suffering. Is the left hand on the side of his face with middle finger resting on the corner of his eyebrow poised to “flip history the bird?” Is he in thought? If so, what is he thinking as he steps into the light as his right hand seems to hold the handle of a cane maybe a stabilizer as he walks the road of an activist. He asks, “are you standing in darkness avoiding the light or in search of light?” What is the light you do not want to see? The portraits say, “Find the light and walk the road it leads, never the victim and never in silence.” Will you walk in the light?

Marian Anderson

A dignified face of shadow and light, looking backward and forward at the same time stares at us. Her talent was recognized early in the church. Without money for lessons, financial assistance from the People’s Chorus and the black community enabled her to receive singing lessons and attend and finish High School. Refused admission to the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was black, she continued to sing to whoever would listen. Winning 1st prize in a competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, singing an aria and some spirituals, led to performing in concert with the orchestra and a career began. Marian recognized helping hands and was ready to receive but never lost sight of how she got there. What have you left behind that got you where you are? What help have you yet to acknowledge? Think about “how you got ovah?”

Muhammad Ali

Eyes look through us from a resolute face and clenched fists at his waist depict a man unbroken. Still “the greatest” saying, “you stripped me of my heavyweight title but you did not defeat me. I’ve been battered but not broken.” Though he thrived in the spotlight, Ali lived by principle, not celebrity. His strong message on black pride and black resistance to white domination by refusing induction in the army made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation. Ali was not always “the greatest”, he became the greatest because he believed in himself and kept on going until he got better…disappointment made him stronger for the final round. What makes you stronger? How do you deal with disappointment? Are you defined by what you have achieved or your principles?

Georgette Norman, former director of Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum and local creative

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