"Walk tall girl...don't lean over" Barbara Smith Conrad advises a young black woman after an opera masterclass. These words characterize her attitude, clearly reflected throughout the documentary When I Rise. Growing up in a small rural east Texas town, Barbara developed her vocal abilities and eventually found herself at the University of Texas, Austin in the 1950s amongst a group of approximately 100 African American students enrolled there for the first time. The film shows the racial prejudice of the time, highlighting her experience at the university.
Due to her gorgeous voice and talent, Barbara Smith Conrad was cast in the school's production as of Dido and Aeneas, as the leading lady. Cast in a sea of white males, the Texas legislature, characterized by Klan hatred, put pressure on the university to remove her from the cast. A newspaper headline announced the decision "Negro Girl Withdrawn From UT Opera Cast." Despite the huge racial intolerance, Barbara Smith Conrad decided to stay at UT Austin, even after being offered money by Harry Belafonte to transfer to a more supportive university.
After finishing her studies, Barbara Smith Conrad went on to a successful international career as an opera diva. The film traces her rise to stardom, but essentially concentrates on her journey to heal the wounds she experienced while at UT Austin. Despite returning to UT Austin as an honorary alumnus years earlier, her final healing does not occur until she returns in 2009 for a series of events, including teaching a masterclass. While there for the visit, the Texas state legislature officially passed a resolution apologizing to Barbara Smith Conrad for its actions more than half a century ago.
As she sings the lyrics "When I Rise" from the spiritual Give Me Jesus, her words illustrate the triumphant spirit that withstood the pervasiveness of racism.