Book Review: 'The Sound of Freedom' by Raymond Arsenault

By Jabari Asim
Sunday, July 5, 2009


Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America

By Raymond Arsenault

Bloomsbury. 310 pp. $25

In 1983, a rising young comic superstar named Eddie Murphy appeared before a capacity crowd at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., a venue that had once been the focal point of our nation's continuing struggle to provide equal rights for all.

For most of his performance, Murphy declined to mention the hall's historical import -- not unreasonable considering the ribald nature of his material. But just before curtain, he offered a brief nod to history. He told his audience, "I think maybe like 30 years ago there was a woman who wanted to sing in here, a black lady that sang opera, what was her name? Mary Anderson? This place was segregated. And they couldn't sing here. She couldn't even sing in this place. Here we are, not even 50 years later. . . " Murphy went on to cite his freedom to fondle his genitalia onstage as evidence of social progress. One could imagine Marian Anderson, the singer whom Murphy struggled to recall, rolling over in her grave -- except that, of course, she was still alive at the time.

Nearly forgotten in 1983, Anderson once was one of the best-known women in the country, if not the world. In 1939, her promoters tried to parlay her European triumphs by booking a concert for her at Constitution Hall. She was turned away by the building's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

The DAR's refusal ultimately led to Anderson's outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, the event that history professor Raymond Arsenault makes the centerpiece of his new book, "The Sound of Freedom." Before an estimated 75,000 people, Anderson performed arias, spirituals and a stirring rendition of "America." The program was broadcast over NBC radio, and, Arsenault reports, millions more subsequently "read about it in newspapers and magazines or watched the newsreel footage in movie houses."

The concert lasted less than an hour, but its consequences resonated for decades. Mary McLeod Bethune, a friend of Anderson's and perhaps the most influential black woman in the country at that time, noted, "Something happened in all our hearts. . . . Through the Marian Anderson protest concert we made our triumphant entry into the democratic spirit of American life."

While Anderson lived until 1993, the concert eventually became a historical footnote. In recent years, however, artists, scholars and writers have turned their attention to that fateful Easter Sunday. Allan Keiler's comprehensive 2000 biography offered a fine, carefully detailed rendering of Anderson's musicianship. "When Marion Sang," a beautiful 2002 children's book by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick, introduced Anderson's accomplishments to a new generation of young readers. "The Time of Our Singing" (2003), Richard Powers's sweeping novel of social change, pivots around the concert. Now, in "The Sound of Freedom," Arsenault attempts to revive our interest in Anderson's feat by examining it in the context of a complex and often turbulent racial landscape. And he succeeds handily.

By 1939, Anderson was the toast of European musical circles. Four years earlier, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini had told her, "Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." She was, Arsenault reminds us, "a curious mixture of cultural and class traditions -- a black woman from South Philadelphia who not only sang songs in German, Italian, and Swedish but who also spent much of her life in Europe surrounded by members of the continental elite, who vacationed in the south of France, and who wore high fashion and expensive jewelry. In 1938 alone she grossed nearly a quarter of a million dollars from concert fees, making her one of the wealthiest black women in America."

Her life not only differed dramatically from her impoverished origins in Philadelphia, where she was born in 1897, but also contrasted sharply with those of most other black Americans. "A dearth of black celebrities and a disregard for black achievement extended to virtually every aspect of American public life," Arsenault points out. Only a handful of African American standouts were known beyond their own communities -- Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, for example -- but Anderson was nearly alone in her ability to affect the course of national events by way of a single, dramatic performance. In the battle for racial equality, Arsenault argues, "the seminal event, when it finally materialized in 1939, occurred not in the ring or on the playing field but rather at the Lincoln Memorial, where a single voice became a clarion call for freedom."

Post-concert, Anderson went on to devote much of her long life to various causes and organizations, including the NAACP and the National Urban Leagues. In 1954, when she was 57 and "well past her prime," she became the first black performer in history to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. In 1958, she served as an alternate delegate to the United Nations, becoming "only the third black" to serve in such a capacity. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today she is still revered in her field as the Jackie Robinson of the classical musical world who paved the way for every black star who has followed in her wake, from Leontyne Price to Denyce Graves.

But the Lincoln Memorial concert remains the high point of her trailblazing career. Arsenault pays appropriate attention to all of the principal actors involved in the event, including Anderson's manager Sol Hurok; the brilliant black activists Charles Hamilton Houston and Walter White; Harold L. Ickes, the brave secretary of the interior; and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose timely resignation from the DAR brought national attention to Anderson's cause. They and others made it possible for Anderson to concentrate on what she did better than nearly anyone else on Earth: sing. But, Arsenault argues, none of it could have happened without Anderson, "the one indispensable element -- the proverbial right person at the right place at the right time."

Arsenault, also the author of a well-received history of the Freedom Riders, persuasively compares Anderson's place in civil rights history with that of Rosa Parks, another important figure who also has occasionally been reduced to a punch line in a comic's routine. Neither Parks nor Anderson was an accidental catalyst, in his view. "They did not just appear on the scene offering weary feet or a transcendent voice," he writes. "They were historical agents in their own right."

As Arsenault makes clear, Anderson played her part with sustained and admirable grace. The remembering is up to us.

Jabari Asim, a former deputy editor of Book World and a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is editor in chief of Crisis magazine, published by the NAACP.

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