For the first four years of his life, Richard Antoine White slept on a piece of cardboard wedged between the roots of a tree on Riggs Avenue in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. He bathed in public drinking fountains and scrounged in trash cans for food, always holding back one bite under his tongue in case he was hungry later. He walked barefoot through the snow.
He doesn’t remember rats gnawing on his belly when, as an infant he was left unattended in an abandoned building. But, he still has a small scar to the right of his navel where the rodents’ teeth pierced his flesh.
White sees that scar every time he takes a shower, every time he puts on his tuxedo for a performance with the New Mexico Philharmonic, where he is principal tubist. White, who has a doctorate in music in tuba performance, is also a professor at the University of New Mexico.
Richard Antoine White didn’t merely beat the odds; he stomped them into the ground.
“To survive those early years, I had to develop an almost superhero-like imagination,” he says. “As I lay on the cardboard, I would close my eyes and imagine that I had a full tummy. I would cross my arms over my chest and imagine that a warm blanket was covering me.”
Imagination partly answers the question that everyone asks, which is how White did it. It’s difficult enough for the homeless son of an incarcerated father and alcoholic mother to propel himself into the middle class. But White got there by securing a berth in one of the most competitive fields there is: classical music, a bastion of European high culture that has not historically welcomed African American performers.
“It’s easier to get into the NBA than into a symphony orchestra,” White writes in his memoir. “I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream” is being released Tuesday. At 7 p.m. Thursday the author will talk about his life and work in a free online event co-sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Greedy Reads Bookshop.
A 2018 documentary about White, “RAW Tuba” (the first word is the acronym for the musician’s name) produced by Baltimore-based Early Light Media can be streamed on the Magnolia Network’s biographical series of “Hi, I’m...” documentaries.
“I had four or five years of a really rough life,” White says. “Some people have 30 bad years. I got lucky.”
His first break was meeting his adoptive parents. Richard and the late Vivian McClain took the boy to live with them, no questions asked, after the 4-year-old was found sleeping in the vestibule of an unheated building during a blizzard.
The McClains lived near the Pimlico Race Course. By Sandtown standards, their single-family home “was Buckingham Palace,” White recalls.
But by demographic measures, the family was middle-class. Richard McClain drove a bus, and Vivian McClain was a shipping supervisor at Mercy Medical Center. When Richard came to live with them, the McClains were raising their biological son and three adopted teens.
The McClains had taken in the boy’s mother, Cheryl White, as a toddler. When it became clear she couldn’t care for her son, Richard McClain went to pick up the 4-year-old, details to be worked out later.
“We all went to the same church,” McClain said, “so we were all part of the same big family. We took care of one another.
“I had no problem taking Richard in. After his brother was born, I’d have taken him in, too, but that isn’t how it worked out,” McClain said, referring to the author’s younger half brother, rap artist William Maurice Smith, no relation to The Fresh Prince, Will Smith.
Cheryl White couldn’t keep her eldest son safe, but she sometimes made him feel cherished. Richard remembers lying in his mother’s arms beneath the big “Grandpa tree” on Riggs Avenue while she crooned Minnie Riperton’s lyrics: “Loving you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful.”
“I have a great ear [for music],” he writes in the memoir dedicated to his birth mother and to the McClains. “I have my mom’s ear. Cheryl could really sing, and she’d sing all the time.”
He didn’t adjust overnight to his new family. Shortly after moving in, he set fire to the McClains’ house. Clouds of smoke billowed everywhere, but miraculously, no one was harmed.
It was the first of numerous infractions that were punished with a seemingly endless list of chores.
“Whenever I see females disciplining their kids, I almost cry,” White said. “I can hear Vivian saying, ‘Wash those dishes and take out the trash.’ That hard love will pay big dividends.”
Richard began playing the trumpet in the fourth grade at Fallstaff Elementary/Middle School and in seventh grade, switched to the sousaphone, a type of tuba. He developed an affinity with the oversized and comical-looking instrument that, like him, was easily underestimated.
“The tuba is the butt of all jokes,” White said. “It is the instrument that no one else wants to play, the underdog instrument.
“Based on my circumstances, you would also bet that I would not succeed. My reaction was, ‘I’ll show you.’ ”
White’s second stroke of luck was winning admission to Baltimore School for the Arts. When he auditioned, he couldn’t read music. But a teacher saw something in the kid.
“It’s not about accuracy or accomplishment,” said Chris Ford, who recently retired as the school’s principal. “It’s about communicating in your medium in a special way.
“There was something about how Richard was able to work in sound. He would take a simple task and keep at it until he’d mastered it. His attitude was, ‘I’m going to do this right now, and I’m going to do it better than this older person could have imagined.’ ”
At School for the Arts White fell under the spell of an older classmate. Tupac Shakur was an Oxford-shirt wearing “nerd with a nose ring,” White writes, who introduced the younger boy to the Black Panthers and the writings of activist Malcolm X.
“Tupac could spout facts like you wouldn’t believe,” White said. “He gave me references to look up. He made me embarrassed that I didn’t know our history.”
In high school, Richard began acting out, neglecting his studies and damaging school property. Nonetheless, BSA administrators resisted numerous opportunities to expel him.
“I pushed people to the point of exhaustion,” the 48-year-old musician admits now. “I made every mistake. But no one gave up on me. My family, my teachers and my mentors kept me from falling through the cracks. They saved my life.”
White began showing up early at school to practice the tuba “You hungry,” school janitor Sonnie Miller would tell the boy approvingly as he unlocked the door. Before long, Miller began bringing White breakfast.
By the time White graduated high school, he had stopped throwing obstacles in his own path. He was launched on the career trajectory he would follow for the next three decades.
Other mentors followed — at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, where White attended college, and at the University of Indiana, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. Teachers and friends volunteered free music lessons, a spare room, plane tickets to symphony auditions.
“It really does take a village, ” White said. “I could not have gotten here by myself.”
White has lived in Albuquerque since 2004 and has become a much-loved fixture in the community.
Pamela Viktoria Pyle, a music professor at University of New Mexico praises the “beautiful, deep, dark tone” of his tuba and his community involvement; when White’s first orchestra went bankrupt in 2011, he was instrumental in founding a successor symphony, the New Mexico Philharmonic.
Cellist Carla Lehmeier-Tatum recalled the year a winter storm struck Albuquerque, canceling a statewide music competition and stranding 30 out-of-town youngsters in a hotel.
“Richard hopped in his car and drove through the ice storm,” she said. “On two hours’ notice, he led several music workshops.”
White has learned that a small intervention can have a big impact.
“I’m still trying to sort this out,” White said, “but when I read my own book, I’m astonished at how little it takes to make a difference. Sometimes all you have to do is feed a kid of a meal.”