Marian Anderson: What I Had Was Singing

My favorite female singer is, and has been since I was a preteen, Marian Anderson, but I didn’t read her biography until I picked up Jeri Ferris’ book. Maybe I was afraid of being disillusioned, that her personality would not match her singing. A more comprehensive biography will undoubtedly reveal human flaws, but there’s no indication of anything that would let me down.

This book is written for younger readers, but this short version is written with an excellent selections of well-described incidents and includes a range of photographs. I’ll read a more comprehensive biography some other time. Jeri Ferris includes the main events of Marian’s life and if I were teaching about Jim Crow laws and discrimination, I’d use it as a teaching tool. From Marian’s first experience on a Jim Crow train to The Daughters of the American Revolution refusing to let her sing in their hall, the history of discrimination is effectively portrayed.

There was the time in Atlantic City, New Jersey when she was honored with keys to the city–and refused a room in a hotel…There was the time in Springfield, Illinois when she sang at the opening of a film on Abraham Lincoln–and was refused a room in the Lincoln Hotel.

Jeri Ferris, What I Had Was Singing

Marion’s mother told her to remember that, always, someone would be watching her and she must base her behavior on that.

Marion remembered hearing, as she walked along a residential street, a woman playing the piano. She peeked through the window and saw that it was a Black woman. She realized that she, too, could learn to play the piano. She found pictures of the keyboard, and taught herself. That woman never knew how the sight and sound of her playing had given one little girl the encouragement and incentive she needed, and coincidentally an object lesson illustrating her mother’s advice.

I’m not sure how the subject came up, but I remember clearly the evening my mother told me about the Daughters of the American Revolution keeping Marian out of their Constitution Hall. Some relative had offered to sponsor me as a DAR member, and my mother was not enthusiastic about it because when she asked whether I’d be interested, she told me about the DAR event and that killed any enthusiasm I might have had. At the time, I thought that snub was recent–in the 1950s; actually it was on Easter Sunday of 1939 that Marian sang at the Lincoln Memorial, by invitation of the Department of the Interior. That outdoor arena allowed 75,000 to hear her, twenty times the capacity of Constitution Hall. How I would have loved to be there! But that was before my time.

For a video on Eleanor Roosevelt’s part in this, and a bit of Marian Anderson’s concert,

Marian Anderson, the legendary African-American contralto, sang at the Lincoln Memorial exactly 75 years ago after she was refused a performance at Washington’s Constitution Hall. On Wednesday [2014], young people gathered to commemorate Anderson’s effort to strike out against racism through the power and beauty of her voice. View more from Marian Anderson:…

Been there? Done that? Read the book? What do you think?