Monday, December 1, 2008

The Voice that Challenged a Nation

Award winning author Russell Freedman published this biography of African American vocalist Marian Anderson in 2004. I selected it as background to the novel that I'm working on and was not disappointed.

Anderson was born in 1897 and grew up in the ethnic neighborhoods of south Philadelphia. Her mother was widowed when she and her two sisters were young; her father was injured in an accident at the Reading Terminal Market where he worked as a front loader. (On a personal note, my German grandmother would take me and my brother and sister to the market once a year to buy delicacies from home. I can still remember the crammed rows of stands that sold sausages, chocolates, breads, and cheeses.) Anderson's church recognized her talents as a contralto when she was only 8 years old and helped raise the money that she needed for lessons. Her instructors included Guiseppe Boghetti who was moved to tears after hearing her sing, "Deep River."

In the 1920's Anderson began touring the country singing at black churches and colleges. She received a boost in her career when she beat 300 rivals and won the prestigious the Lewisohn Stadium competition in 1925. But her performances in the United States were mostly to fellow African Americans; and she knew that her career would never advance unless she had a wider audience. She decided to go to Europe to study Italian and German so that she could be better equipped to sing operas. During the 1930's Anderson was enthusiastically received by heads of state and famous composers in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, and Russia. Arturo Toscanini, a very well-known conductor, heard her sing and said, "Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years."

But when Anderson returned home racism and prejudice still haunted her. She frequently received third or fourth class hotel and travel accommodations and even into the mid 1950's was blocked from walking unto a "Whites only" train platform in the Deep South. The pinnacle of her fight against racism occurred in 1939 when her manager wanted to arrange for a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The hall was operated by the DAR (Daughters of the American Republic) who had initiated a "white artists only" policy in 1935. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and public outrage followed this act of outright racism. As a result, Anderson performed for 75,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial: establishing the Memorial as the "moral high ground" for protest rights. You can view a short video of this event at: . From that website you will find links to other historical videos, including her reminiscing about her hero, Roland Hayes .

Although Anderson did not begin her singing career in order to combat racial injustice, she tenaciously conquered many racial barriers. In recollecting the 1939 concert she said: "I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don't like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. …. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."

When I listened to this book on CD, I wished an audio clip of her singing had been included. Middle school and high school students will appreciate reading this book and teachers should consider using it as a resource for Black History Month. I. Go to or for more details about Marian Anderson and her contribution to American history.

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1 comment:

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

I read a biography of Marian Anderson when I was young. Loved it! I really do want to read this book.

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