The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert wasn’t the moment of racial reconciliation we like to think

Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

With one little click, suddenly I was down the memory hole.

I had been writing about the symbolic use and abuse of the Lincoln Memorial, about its basic message of reconciliation and how some politicians have co-opted it for their own, divisive agenda. I mentioned, in passing, Marian Anderson, whose 1939 open-air concert at the memorial helped launch the modern civil rights movement. And it suddenly occurred to me that it had been a long time, way too long, since I had revisited Anderson’s performance.

While watching her sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on YouTube, something snapped in me. The slight tremolo in the voice, so confident, so perfectly pitched, seemed to represent all the hope and squandered promise of that moment. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to use Constitution Hall because she was Black (and the city’s Board of Education also denied her access to the auditorium of one of its Whites-only schools), first lady Eleanor Roosevelt engineered the idea of a concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

The pressure on Anderson as she sang in front of a crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions is unfathomable. And she nailed it, not just singing beautifully, but with a voice that seemed to enfold within it a desperate craving for a better world. It was a voice that pulsed with utopian hopes and touched hearts, not unlike the way that the short speech given by a 13-year-old boy who stutters touched Americans who watched the recent Democratic National Convention.

From that first song, an unofficial anthem set to the same melody that American colonists once used to sing “God Save the King,” I was hooked.

So, for the first time in years, I listened to the whole concert. Newsreels capture the highlights but not the substance of the event, which can be heard on an archived radio broadcast. Anderson followed “My Country ’Tis of Thee” with an aria from Donizetti’s opera “La favorite,” which almost certainly wouldn’t happen today. The segue, from a simple hymn-like melody, known around the world, to a full operatic scene, with shifting emotions and musical textures, would be too jarring. But Anderson nailed that one, too.

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The Donizetti aria is sung by a character who has been both loved and spurned, and fears that she will be humiliated again. Anderson, who stayed the night before her D.C. concert in a private home because hotels in the city were segregated, had a meteoric career in Europe, was lionized in cultural capitals from London to Moscow and was now singing for a country in which many states and municipalities, including Washington, treated her as a second-class citizen. Perhaps she sang the Donizetti simply to show her country what she was capable of; but I hear a singer dissolving herself into the anguish of another woman, speaking clearly, but in code, her own sense of fear and alienation.

Critics must be suspicious of their emotions. That doesn’t mean that we can’t feel them, but we must also step back and be analytical. The manipulation of emotion isn’t just an aesthetic sin, against authenticity and truth in art, it is the essential tool with which demagogues control populations. The ability to distance ourselves from strong feelings — to resist appeals to fear, to hatred, to selfishness — is fundamental to a functioning democracy.

But what about the appeal to love? Throughout the radio broadcast, I felt an admiration that surpassed mere pleasure in her singing, or awe for her nerves of steel. It transcended even the illusion of intimacy and connectedness that great performers can conjure with their artistry. I had felt this before, once with particular force while reading a scene that even the author, Frederick Douglass, acknowledged was so strange that it “might well enough be dramatized for the stage.”

In 1877, the same year he was appointed federal marshal of the District of Columbia, Douglass visited the death bed of Thomas Auld, who had owned him when Douglass was a young man and still enslaved. It was an emotional meeting. Auld, wrote Douglass in his third autobiography, “had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattel, hired me out to a noted slave breaker to be worked like a beast and flogged into submission.” And now they were face to face, Auld in his 80s and near death, Douglass not only a free man but a legendary figure in the resistance to and destruction of slavery.

Auld sheds tears, Douglass chokes up. But by my reading of the encounter it is Douglass who comes closest to an apology — for having attributed “to him ungrateful and cruel treatment of my grandmother” in an earlier account of his enslaved years. Douglass’s magnanimity through these 20 searing minutes of American history is as astonishing and surpassing as Anderson’s poise and grace some 60 years later.

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These scenes are extraordinarily powerful, which is one reason we should be cautious about them, just as it’s wise to be cautious about the dream of hope and healing embodied in the Lincoln Memorial — built as much to honor the post-Civil War reconciliation of northern and southern Whites as it was to honor Abraham Lincoln’s role as “the great emancipator.” Love for someone we have never met, whom we know only through works, deeds and character, is only a partial kind of love, requiring no sacrifice. Scenes of forgiveness are often premature or incomplete, glosses of good feeling that hide persistent divisions and inequities, and it is easy to wallow in the fantasy of absolution. All of this amounts to a kind of escapism that shuts us off from the real work of love in the world.

It’s curious that we have a name for this kind of naive indulgence of a generalized love for people different from us, and it’s a word derived from the same musical tradition that Anderson explored in the second half of her Lincoln Memorial concert: kumbaya. The word is used in a refrain to an African American spiritual (of uncertain origins), which is known today largely through its appropriation by White singers during the folk music revival and the protest era of the 1960s. To “sing kumbaya” now means: to get stuck in a moment of sham togetherness, to willingly indulge the illusion of unity and love despite hard realities that are all too readily apparent.

The most extraordinary moment of Anderson’s 1939 recital is little remembered or commented on.

Among the spirituals she sang was “Trampin’,” which pushed her contralto voice into its lowest register. The words, “I’m trampin, trampin, try’n a make heaven my home” are simple and repetitive, but Anderson’s voice is androgynous and otherworldly. She could have sung this in any key, but she placed it in her voice in a way that changes one’s entire sense of her character. The sweetness and open appeal of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” is gone, replaced by weariness and determination, the voice seemingly de-gendered by a sackcloth of misery. This change of character echoes that odd phrase of Douglass — that his former master “had struck down my personality” — and it warns the audience that the wounds of slavery and racism cleave more than skin and bone.

We tend to forget moments like these, the ones that aren’t kumbaya moments, rather like we forget the hard and searing metaphor of the promissory note — the debt owed to the descendants of enslaved people — that Martin Luther King Jr. explored in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” They unsettle the warmer feelings, the comfortable ones and the self-reassuring sense of love. Suddenly the gulf between people, especially between those who have suffered greatly and those who have not, seems terrifyingly wide.

I don’t believe Anderson’s recital, or Douglass’s encounter with Auld, were kumbaya moments. We can make them into that, but they are richer and more miraculous than our petty need for instant healing or blanket forgiveness. The challenge, as is always the case with love, is to move past its easier manifestations, to its complexity, rigor and sacrifice. The first step, which is also the first step of learning our larger history, is to listen, and to listen to the whole thing.

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