Since February is Black History Month I decided to pick up a book on Marian Anderson, one of my favorite civil rights icons, A Sound of Freedom by Raymond Arsenault. The book I picked up tells the story of April 9th, 1939 when Marian Anderson sang on the Lincoln Memorial steps after being denied the ability to the perform at Constitution Hall because of a policy that refused black performers the ability to perform on Constitution Hall’s Stage. Because of this outright racist decision she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in an open air concert that was free to everybody and became a civil rights icon.
Her Road to Stardom
Marian certainly didn’t start her career thinking she would become an icon but that is indeed what she became. Her story starts with a child who loved to sing. After several concerts that grabbed the attention of her community of a section Philadelphia she realized that she wanted to sing for a career. Soon she realized that in order to become a professional singer she needed an education but voice lessons were expensive and she had quit school in order to work and earn money for her family. The community however, had recognized her talent and hosted benefit concerts and fundraisers to raise the money for her to gain a musical education and eventually went back to school and studied with a private teacher. One community event led to her meeting Roland Hayes, a celebrated black tenor soloist. Her local fame spread and began touring throughout the country. She gained fame a positive reviews pretty much everywhere she toured but eventually she became disenchanted with the indignities of traveling in the Jim Crow South. She left The United States and toured all over Europe garnering fame and prestige, becoming as Arturo Toscanini described “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.” After gaining fame in Europe her reputation as a serious concert singer preceded her to the United States and her return to the United States was highly anticipated by the classical music community, as well as the people who had heard her sing before.
The Concert at the Lincoln Memorial
When trying to book Marian Anderson in the Nations Capital, the two places that were large enough to host her performances, Constitution Hall run by the daughters of the American Revolution and a District of Columbia Public High School, denied her performance based on her race. The community thought that this was unconscionable so a committee was formed to protest. The problem which started as local went national when Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization in highly public manner, by writing about it in her column that was published in newspapers around the country. “To remain a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning.” The people of Washington D.C. as well from around the country decided they would hear Marian Anderson and since no concert hall could hold all the people that wanted to hear her sing it was decided that she would perform a free outdoor concert in front of the great emancipator (Lincoln) himself. The concert was extremely powerful to all who heard it. I think one of the most important messages was said by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes “Genius draws no color line.” This was a remarkable achievement to show that all voices should and would be heard musical or otherwise. Marian Anderson did sing once more at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave his powerful and famous I Have a Dream Speech.
I’ve always loved Marian Anderson’s story especially after working at the Lincoln Memorial. This book was a good read for anyone wanting to learn more about Marian Anderson and the situation that led to her singing at the Lincoln Memorial. I thought that the book was fairly well written however, I felt like this author did not really feel much passion about his subject. The book was informative but it was rather dry and since I am a musician, a biography of a musician who inspired countless people in the United States should have been anything but dry. I thought that there were several digressions that interrupted the Marian Anderson’s story some I enjoyed especially the ones about Eleanor Roosevelt but I thought the ones about FDR were rather unnecessary. I’m sure plenty of people would disagree with me there.
Overall, I did enjoy this biography and I certainly enjoyed the many quotes that were littered throughout the text especially the ones Marian Anderson who showed through her words, her modesty and her desire to change the situation that faced blacks in the United States. The book definitely proved that Marian Anderson believed that if she proved to the white critics that she was a voice that could compete with other white classical artists than Black Americans were certainly able to compete with white artists and she certainly did open many doors for other aspiring singers and musicians to gain entry into the top musical institutions like the Metropolitan Opera.
Overall I did enjoy this book and rated 3.5/5 stars.
How did you celebrate Black History Month?
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