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Posts Tagged ‘Marian Anderson’

(In honor of Black History Month)

 

No sooner did Mama open the front door than Marian was in her arms, sobbing.

“Oh, Mama! It was awful. There were so many empty seats, and the critics—one said I sang as if by rote.” Marian’s throat constricted around the hurtful words.

If anything, she always put heart and soul into her music. To be told she sang by rote was as painful as being told she sang flat.

“I’m done,” Marian announced through tears. “I need to find a different profession.”

Mama paused, then quietly suggested, “Why don’t you think about it a little, and pray a lot first?”

For a full year, 1924-1925, twenty-six-year old Marian didn’t sing a note.

But a gift for music like Marian’s isn’t easily put away. She’d been singing all her life, including church solos from childhood. Her proud Aunt Mary took her to other venues in Philadelphia so everyone could hear Marian’s glorious voice with its three-octave range.

She longed to develop the gift God had given her and sing the music of the classical composers. So at age eighteen, Marian waited in a long line of applicants for a nearby music academy. Finally someone told her, “You can’t attend here; you’re Negro.”

Of course, she understood. African Americans of the time were prohibited from many establishments. But the pain didn’t come just from the words; it was how they were spoken. The young woman seemed to take delight in deflating Marian’s hope.

“That’s all right,” Mama told her. “God may have something better in mind.”

Mama was right. The principal of Marian’s high school introduced her to esteemed vocal teacher Guiseppe Boghetti, and asked him to take her as a pupil.

“No new students!” he barked, but agreed to hear her sing one song. Marian chose “Deep River,” and Boghetti miraculously found time for her.

But how would she pay him? Papa had died when Marian was twelve; Mama took in laundry and cleaned for Wanamaker’s Department Store to support her three daughters. Marian contributed as she could from her sporadic earnings as a soloist. It was their church who paid for the lessons as members contributed pennies into a special fund for her.

Soon invitations to sing arrived from outside Philadelphia. But travel, especially in the South, presented challenges and indignities. Trains did not serve food or offer sleeping berths to African Americans; hotels would not provide rooms. Marian stayed in homes or at the YWCA. And she sang to segregated audiences—Whites on one side, Blacks on the other.

Marian absorbed the ill treatment—even deflected it—by standing tall and dignified on every stage, in front of those who respected her voice but not her personhood.

Then came the devastating concert at New York City Hall, and her hiatus from singing. But within a year, Marian had returned to Boghetti for more lessons.

In 1925, he entered her in a vocal competition with 300 soloists. Marian won first prize: a concert with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Positive reviews fueled her courage to leave home for Europe, where she not only studied singing but the languages of the music she loved: German, Italian, and French.

From 1933-1939 she toured the continent. As those around her focused on her talent, Mama kept Marian focused in her spirit. “Grace must always come before greatness,” she would say.[1]

 

(1940)

 

As the Great Depression raged, Marian concluded each concert with several Negro Spirituals. Many were brought to tears as she poured her own emotions into each word, each note.

In 1939, Marian’s agent sought to book a concert at Washington D. C.’s Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the Revolution. They refused the request, asserting their policy forbade African Americans from performing there.

The incident became a national headline when Eleanor Roosevelt heard of their affront. She expressed disapproval in her newspaper column and announced withdrawal of her membership from the organization.

 

(Eleanor and Marian, 1953)

 

Meanwhile the Executive Secretary of the NAACP approached the Secretary of the Interior with an alternative venue. Could Marian sing from the Lincoln Memorial steps and the audience stand on the Washington Mall? Permission was granted.

Seventy-five thousand people gathered to hear her sing. Black and White attendees stood together that day, shoulder to shoulder—a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream—nearly three decades before his famous speech, given from the same location.

 

(April, 1939)

 

More tours abroad and across the United States followed, keeping Marian away from home and family. But her mission compelled her forward:

 

“I sing to all, of course, but to that one, that one over the ninety-nine

whom you’d like to bring back into the fold—

if I reach that one soul, and reach it well–

then the concert was not in vain.”

—Marian Anderson [2]

 

By the mid-1950s the Civil Rights Movement gripped the country. Marian received criticism for not using her influence more vehemently. Perhaps they didn’t know her quiet battle behind the scenes.

For example, when the DAR sought to correct the wrong from 1939 and invited Marian to sing at Constitution Hall in 1943, she graciously accepted—with the stipulation that seating be integrated. The DAR complied.

Marian has been described as “a silent fighter who quietly opened doors for others.”[3]

Others. That was Marian’s focus, whether she was singing, serving her community, or giving interviews. In fact, she was known for questioning her interviewers, taking genuine interest in their lives.

Her nephew James LePriest remembers that even into her nineties people would comment, “You look just like Marian Anderson!”

She’d reply, “You’re the third person who’s told me that today,” and never reveal her identity.

Grace before greatness indeed.

(You can access a recording of Marian singing here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aO9yDb_9NVw&list=PL-J_hJ4fmXTik1Z1NuWrH2mXrTAk-8HVe&index=43)

 

Notes

[1] https://www.guideposts.org/faith-and-prayer/prayer-stories/power-of-prayer/guideposts-classics-marian-anderson-on-the-power-of-faith

[2] https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/Series/1165

[3] Ibid.

 

Other Sources:

  1. http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/ead/ead.html?q=year%20of%20first%20concert%20at%20New%20York%20City%20Hall&id=EAD_upenn_rbml_MsColl200&
  2. https://whittakerchambers.org/articles/time-c/marian-anderson/

 

Photo credits:  http://www.loc.getarchive.net; http://www.flickr.com (3).

 

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