This post is supporting my week long look at just some of Russell Freedman’s collection of work.
Marian Anderson never expected to become an activist in the struggle for equal rights. Away from the concert stage she valued her privacy and preferred a quiet family life. She disliked confrontations. And she never felt comfortable as the center of a public controversy.
“I would be fooling myself to think that I was meant to be a fearless fighter,” she said in her autobiography. “I was not, just as I was not meant to be a soprano instead of a contralto.”
Actually, Anderson had to fight hard to win her place in American music history. As she pursued her career, she was forced to challenge racial barriers simply to succeed as a singer. (91)
Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, as Russell Freedman points out three decades after the end of slavery. It’s astonishing the things this woman went through before making her mark by singing an Easter concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 40 years later. Originally earning just twenty-five or fifty cents to sing a song or two, the support of her church and family, as well as the president’s wife and her amazing voice elevated her to becoming an international phenomenon.
I had only a vague idea of who Marian Anderson was before reading Russell Freedman’s book. I knew that she was originally denied the use of Constitution Hall (owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution) for a concert because she was African-American. The incident gained national attention when Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization and publicly announced it in her national column. With the help of Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, and NAACP chief Walter White, Marian Anderson was invited to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a free Easter Day concert.
What I didn’t know about her could fill a book, and that’s exactly what Freedman did. Citing several books, including Anderson’s autobiography, Freedman compiles a thorough look at her early life before her thrust into fame. Most interesting was her courtship with a singer named Orpheus Fisher, which began in high school and finally ended when they finally got married in 1943 over 20 years later. I find it funny because I’ve been dating my boyfriend for almost five years and people are already asking us when we are going to get married. I can only imagine the look on their faces if they had to wait another 15 years!
The one complaint that I have about the book is that the included newpaper clippings covering the events in the book are not included in their entirty. I would have liked to read these first hand accounts of people’s perceptions of these events, especially since someone took the trouble of scanning them in and adding them to the book. But the book gives a nice perspective of Marian Anderson’s growth in the musical arena, detailing her trip overseas and the criticism she received upon first singing at New York City’s Town Hall. It also goes to great lengths to emphasize the practice and hard work that went in to developing her voice, which kids trying to learn anything should take to heart.
The book gives just a cursory look at her life after the famed performance, glossing over her service as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. But one thing that stands out is that she exited life as she came into the world.
At a memorial service in Carnegie Hall, attended by two thousand admirers, a silent piano stood at center stage, flanked by flowers. James DePriest told the crowd that on the single occasion when he and his aunt had discussed the idea of a memorial service, she had told him ‘Jim, don’t let them make a big fuss. And no speeches.’
And so there were none. As DePreist left the stage, Marian Anderson’s recorded voice rose up and filled the hall with the words of the spirituals she loved. Fourteen of her recordings were played with neither comment nor applause between them. And when the last one ended, the audience responded with a standing ovation. (88-89)