SXSW 2010: Forgiveness on Film and Barbara Smith Conrad


The following post is a continuation of BustedHalo’s coverage of the 2010 South By Southwest festival.
The guest contributor for this post is Lynn Freehill, an Austin-based writer.

After 25 years of on-again, off-again lessons about how God asks us to forgive each other, I came to a group discussion of forgiveness with fair confidence that I could hold my own. Forgiveness was a challenging concept, I’d come to believe, but a beautiful one.

But when one group member, James, launched by asking how we each defined forgiveness, my confidence whooshed away. Here I was a writer, and I couldn’t even articulate the idea in simple words. How to explain it: accepting something that had gone wrong? Telling the wrongdoer it was okay after all?

WIR_poster_27x40Fortunately, James offered his own definition: restoration of relationship.

Those three words resonated with me that evening, and they came to me again as I took in a South by Southwest movie premiere.

This premiere had a red carpet and a regal star in a glittering full-length dress, but the film being screened was no fluffy Hollywood concoction. When I Rise was a documentary about the most painful period in the life of its subject, opera star Barbara Smith Conrad.
Conrad has been a famous mezzo-soprano for decades now, living in New York and traveling to places like Paris, Hamburg, and Caracas to perform.

She has the air of a diva — though only in the best sense of the word. She favors dramatic head wraps and striking jewelry. Her posture is not only perfect, but also demands to be described with words like “dignity” and “grace.” Rounding out this woman are a warm smile and a measure of good humor. She is, in short, a presence.

While she was a college student, however, a man once walked up and spit on her face.  Other men made terrible, ominous phone calls, threatening her with rape.

When_I_RiseConrad, an African American, had been cast as Dido in “Dido and Aeneas.” A young white man had been cast as Aeneas. It was at the recently integrated University of Texas. It was 1956. When I Rise reminded us just how high racial tensions were with footage of speeches from the time.

Conrad as Dido was “a role that is not traditionally, socially acceptable to the people of Texas,” said Conrad’s own state representative, Joe Chapman.

Chapman and other legislators pressured university administrators hard, threatening to cut off the school’s appropriations if the female lead in this production were black. The administrators gave in, and Conrad was removed from the role.

Despite offers to finish her studies anywhere in the world, Conrad dug in and stayed at Texas. Once she graduated, though, she set off for New York and blocked the experience from her mind. She had no contact with the university for 25 years.

In 1985, a letter arrived. The Ex-Students’ Association had chosen her a Distinguished Alumna of the University of Texas. When the movie camera lingered over that letter, the crowd actually laughed.

Now, I work full-time for the magazine that the Ex-Students’ Association publishes, so I was familiar with Conrad’s story well before seeing the film. I wasn’t among those laughing. But I was trying to assess what made the audience react that way.

The letter announcing the Distinguished Alum selection seemed to the audience to have come out of nowhere, I suppose. It was far from a donation solicitation, but in the context of the film, it might have come across as the university wanting little to do with Conrad until she became successful.

In reality, I think, it came from a genuine desire to make amends. For healing to happen, someone has to take the initiative. But reaching out first — particularly from the side that did wrong — is a risk. That’s the first lesson the film showed me about the forgiveness process.

Paramount_When_I_RiseThen there’s that “restoration of relationship” business. That takes more than an apology. That’s slow. The trip back to Austin to accept the award warmed Conrad’s relationship with the university community again. This time, she was welcomed on campus. Still, it was only a start.

“Things changed, but it was not completely resolved, because it was still only a symbol,” Conrad said on film. “How do you ever really find peace? A part of me was holding a spot for that healing to happen.”

It took more experiences in Austin over the next 25 years — teaching master classes, re-reading letters from that time, and being honored at the State Capitol last spring — to help her come to terms with the past. She’s come to other events, like her 50-Year Reunion, and this premiere. She’s revived or begun friendships with classmates, administrators, and others from the university community. It’s taken a quarter century, but relationship is restored.

When someone takes a risk to reach out and make amends, the gestures are accepted, and relationship is restored, that’s forgiveness. Through Barbara Smith Conrad’s story, I understand the process better now. I think we all can.

To read Tom’s reflection about the premiere of When I Rise, click here.

For more information on the film when I rise, visit

Lynn Freehill is a writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. A would-be sociologist who thrives on observing different societies, she’s lived in and reported on places as varied as Iowa, Illinois, Arizona, El Salvador, and the Virgin Islands. She is now an editor at The Alcalde, the University of Texas’ alumni magazine.
Read her recent profile of Claude Simmons, who spent 12 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, at