At home, her worst nightmare settles in for a double feature. Her mother insists she sit down for Easter dinner. “You have a bite of my holiday ham and get something green and filling in you. Specially if you’re taking a trip.”
“Mama. Please. Just this once. I’m going to miss her. I have to make the early train, or she’ll be done singing before I even—”
“Nonsense.” Her father dismisses her. “You won’t be late for anything. What time is she supposed to start? When has a singer of our race ever started a concert at the advertised hour?” He repeats the same litany each week when he takes her to Union Baptist for choir. His mirth is a running testament to how bitterly she has dashed his hopes.
Black’s not even half the battle. She, William Daley’s firstborn—cleverest baby ever birthed, either side of the line—has been his dream for achievement beyond even the unlikely heights he’s scaled in this life. She should go to medical school. He did. Pediatrician, internist, maybe. Do anything, if she weren’t so headstrong. Pass him up. Go to law school, first black woman ever. Force them to take her, on pure skill. Run for Congress, Lord help him.
Why not? Look at our neighbor, Crystal Bird Faucet. Rewriting all the rules— and she makes you look like Ivory soap. Washington’s next. Has to happen someday. Who’s going to move it down the line, if not the best? And the best, he insisted, was her. Somebody’s got to be the first. Why not his little girl? Make history. What’s history, anyway, except uncanting the can’t?
This is the measureless confidence that has led her astray. His fault, her singing. Stroked too much while growing up. Be anything. Do anything. Dare them to stop you. When she found her voice: You sound like the angels raised from the dead, if they still bothered with the likes of us down here. A sound like that could fix the broken world. How could she help but be misled?
But when he learned she meant to make singing her life, his tune changed keys. Singing’s just a consolation prize. Just a pretty trinket, to be put away for the day when we have some decent clothes. No one’s ever freed anybody with a song.
In her father’s house, standing over her mother’s linen table, Delia feels the creases in her shoulders. She gazes at her little brother and sisters spreading the holiday plates. Poor souls will have the fight of their lives just making it to adulthood. Just as much pressure from inside as from out.
Her mother catches her looking. “It’s Easter,” Nettie Ellen says. “Where else you going to eat, if not with your family? You’re supposed to set some example for these young ones. They’re growing up lawless, Dee. They think they can run around and do it all, no rules, just like you.”
“I have rules, Mother. Nothing but rules.” She doesn’t push. She knows her mother’s real terror. The doctor’s boundlessness will do his offspring in. There’s a lesson outside this house, a
truth too long and large to do much about. He should be readying his children, tempering their illusions, not setting them up for the kill.
Lawless Delia sits to dinner. She almost chokes, wolfing down a hunk of sugar-glazed ham. “It’s good, Mama. Delicious. The greens, the beets: Everything’s perfect. Best year ever. I have to go.”
“Hush. It’s Easter. You don’t have to leave for a while yet. It’s a whole concert. You don’t need to hear every song. There’s your favorite mince pie, still coming.”
“My favorite train to Washington’s coming before that.”
“Long gone,” brother Charles sings, twelve-bar, in a good tenor wail, new as of last year. “Long gone. That train that’s gonna save ya? Long gone.” Michael joins in the taunts, warbling his parody of a classical diva. Lucille starts to cry, sure, despite all reassurances, that Delia’s putting herself in danger, traveling to Washington all by herself. Lorene follows suit, because she always finishes anything her twin starts.
The doctor gets that look, the glare of domestic tranquillity. “Who is this woman to you, that you have to curtail Easter dinner with your family in order to—”
“Daddy, you hypocrite.” She wipes her mouth on her napkin and stares him down. He knows who this woman is better than anyone. He knows what Philadelphia’s daughter has single-handedly accomplished. He’s the one who told Delia, years ago, opened her eyes: The woman’s our vanguard. Our last, best hope of getting the white world’s attention. You want to go to singing school? There’s your first, best teacher.
“Hypocrite?” Her father stops in midforkful. She’s overstepped, one shade of will too deep. The doctor will rise up, a pillar of righteousness, and forbid her to go. But she holds his eyes; no other way out. Then the side of his mouth skews into a smirk. “Who taught you those big two-dollar words, baby? Don’t you ever forget who taught you them!”
Delia walks to the head of the table and pecks him high up on his balding crown. Through puckered lips, she hums “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” just loudly enough for him to hear. She hugs her scowling mother and then she’s gone, off to the station on another musical pilgrimage. She has made them for years, ever since the chance broadcast that changed her life.