By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 8, 2007
At Easter time 68 years ago -- that is, within living memory -- the Daughters of the American Revolution denied permission for the black contralto Marian Anderson to sing before an integrated Washington audience in DAR Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, and in a now-legendary aftermath, Anderson instead sang an open-air recital, organized by the Department of the Interior, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She began by singing "America" before the very large, integrated audience.
This famous event is the basis for a poem by Kevin Young, serving poetry's traditional role of providing a compact, vocal record of what is worth remembering:SPRINGTIME COMES TO THE CAPITOL
The Revolution's Step-Daughters
will not let
Marian Anderson clear
her brown throat
onstage, among the blinding lights
of Constitution Hall --
it will take a First Lady to invite
Anderson to thrill
a throng at Lincoln's stone feet.
(In the wings, Anderson trills
of practice drills.)
Like sky her throat is clear.
folks stop to hear her
voice's bright thunder --
Git all board, little chillen
Dere's' room for many -- mo'
bringing springtime to the streets
Benjamin Banneker helped sow:
The podium a bouquet
of microphones --
This bloom that begins
all along the spine.
The engineer and thinker Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was the child of slaves who had bought their freedom and helped survey the land for Washington. His gifts and knowledge are part of the poem's interest in technical matters. That people stopped to hear Anderson's performance "everywhere" is not mere hyperbole: The performance was broadcast to a large, attentive radio audience. Young's poem is partly about broadcast media: Radio, with its "bouquet of microphones," enabled this historic event that still blooms along some central avenue of our national imagination. ·
(Kevin Young's poem "Springtime Comes to the Capitol" is from his book "For the Confederate Dead." Borzoi. Copyright 2007 by Kevin Young.)
Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."