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Listening For Marian Anderson In The Past And Present

Marian Anderson is known more for two events than for the talents that made them possible. But there is more to be told, and so she asks us to listen again for who and what we know her to be.
© Yousuf Karsh
Marian Anderson is known more for two events than for the talents that made them possible. But there is more to be told, and so she asks us to listen again for who and what we know her to be.

I learned relatively early the importance of paying attention to silence. Long pauses and refusals to answer were forms of evidence at home as well as school. What I didn't hear or wouldn't say was often as laden with meaning as what I was told or said, and it's in part the conversations shared between sound and silence that led me to study music. I came to the decision honestly, though not easily. As a college student I struggled to commit to the major, delaying my declaration on multiple occasions because I rarely saw or heard anyone who looked or sounded like me in my music classes. Eventually I stopped expecting others to give me what I could find on my own. I began to search, read and listen for those beyond the looming canon of dead white men. It sometimes was a lonely effort and always far from romantic, but I did eventually recognize that, whether welcomed or not, my presence in those vibrating halls was no accident.

My effort led to knowledges that I carry still: genealogies of creation and the names of those creators, including that of a woman who has quietly occupied my thinking and listening for years. Though many decades removed from my experience, Marian Anderson too wanted a life in music, but lived in a world in which her race and ambitions were structured in opposition to one another. Turned away from an elite school of music for being black, she pursued studies outside of the classroom and within a few years was singing with the New York Philharmonic. She made a spectacular way from no way and has continued to do so well after her lifetime, revealing that she is still with us and more capacious than many acknowledge. She is known more for two particular events than for the talents that made either possible. Each is significant — historic, in fact: the Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939 in which she sung for the nation in defiance of the Daughters of the American Revolution's racist refusal to host her at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall, and her role in Un Ballo in Maschera that broke the color barrier at The Metropolitan Opera in 1955. But those are part of a 40-year career. There is more to be told, and so she asks us to listen again for who and what we know her to be.

Though less dangerous than the radical Paul Robeson and more reserved than the early blueswoman Ethel Waters, Anderson composed her repertoire in willful harmony with both. She negotiated what Nina Eidsheim has called the "phantom genealogy" of black singers by expanding how and where popular and critical audiences would hear black voices. She took Negro spirituals, arias and lieder, patriotic hymns and psalms, and locked them in her graceful embrace en route to stages around the world. Traveling thousands of miles over her career, she inspired flight in her listeners as well. "When I hear Marian Anderson sing, I am a STUFFless kind of thing," wrote poet-chronicler Gwendolyn Brooks. "Heart is like the flying air. I cannot find it anywhere." As we listen to her voice, our bodies escape piece by piece into the atmosphere where we join a chorus who continues to sing her praises.

Anderson is the great contralto from Philadelphia who, despite racial injuries large and small, revolutionized the concert world. Described as possessing "stunning range and volume," she was revered for both her technique and her ability to connect with her audiences. She preferred the intimacy of the stage over what she called the "dead space" of the recording studio, and never particularly enjoyed hearing the sound of her voice in playback. Her aversion to hearing her own voice might be an invitation for us to listen and explore elsewhere; to imagine a detailed audibility beyond what our ears might reveal. Her home videos, for example, suggest that her life offstage was not traditionally musical but nonetheless flush with interactivity. Taken in the 1940s and compiled by the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania library, videos capture her in some of her favorite places: Mariana Farm in Connecticut, Philadelphia, Europe, and Mexico. In each location, she and her family enjoy everyday events in silence. Watching a singer with no sound is a strange experience, but one that provides a unique narrative of its own; one that might productively speak if we listen closely enough. "Quiet," according to literary scholar Kevin Quashie, "is a metaphor for the full range of one's inner life — one's desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears." What we learn in these videos are all of the things that she as a public figure would be unlikely to share from the stage: her head thrown back in laughter, a skip along the dock, the brush of her hand against that of a loved one. So we watch in order to allow other gestures, proximities, and movements to speak.

Mexico. May 1943. Anderson sang on and offstage, serenading unknown witnesses and public figures alike including the president of Liberia, Edwin Barclay, from whom she later received a decoration and diploma of the Order of African Redemption. Her silent home videos briefly mark a 1943 visit to Mexico — likely this one — dedicating approximately one minute of footage to its archive. Undoubtedly shot by an amateur videographer, the frame is uneven in its attempts to document a star-studded event in Coyoacán, which included artist-intellectuals Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias and dancer Rosa Rolanda Covarrubias, as well as Cuban-born impresario Ernesto de Quesada. This moment is rich with talents but striking for the encounter between Anderson and Kahlo, two beautifully loud women. Beginning with shots of anonymous dancers performing in costume, the footage cuts abruptly to the icons — each sitting or standing single-file, shoulder to shoulder, facing the cameras. Posing for both filmmakers and photographers, they lean over and speak to one another somewhat awkwardly and while we see Anderson in conversation with Miguel Covarrubias, there is no footage of her speaking to Kahlo, who sits to her right.

A still image of that day shows the pair in closer detail. Anderson is pretty and coiffed in her gray striped suit and white blouse but even with a large jeweled horse brooch on her lapel, she appears conservative next to the brightly colored and amply adorned Kahlo. The pink flowers in Kahlo's hair offset an otherwise unyielding countenance; she knows something that we won't hear from either the photo or the film. Anderson is aware of something too, though it is equally as hard to discern. While her face offers a softer sensibility, she sits uncomfortably. Her lips are pursed and while Kahlo leans right, Anderson leans left, creating a space large enough for the child who stands between and behind them. But the women are certainly communicating, in spite of our inability to hear them. Perhaps they discussed Paris or Philadelphia, where Kahlo was recently exhibited; perhaps their global labors for justice, Anderson's NAACP Spingarn Medal, Kahlo's Communism or each other's experience of sexism. It may have been all of the above, as these complicated women shared what they knew best and that which bespeaks all: art.

The silence appeared too in Anderson's recollections. Though Mexico figures in her 1956 autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, Kahlo, Rivera, and the rest of the participants in Coyoacán do not. "The most sympathetic memory I have of Mexico," she wrote, "is of the way people greeted me. When I walked down the street or when I strolled through the market, they would smile as they recognized me and call out gently, 'Ave Maria, ave Maria.'" Anderson's narrative tells nothing of Kahlo's mysterious voice or their interaction. Yet even as we miss voices, we have song. Her soaring "Ave Maria" might be all we need to hear in order to know that she was there, meaningfully, for its memory transcends a singular event or moment. It becomes a proxy for speech when she is silent and presence when she is absent. Knowledge of her music renders her animate and multiple.

I encountered her recently in Los Angeles. In April singer-songwriter-producer Alice Smith performed "Alice Smith: The Sound of Freedom" at the University of Southern California's Bovard Auditorium. The event title borrowed from a book by Raymond Arsenault that properly sets Anderson's Lincoln Memorial concert within the rise of a U.S. civil rights vanguard. Commemorating the 80th anniversary of that concert, Smith's performance additionally was "inspired by those who have lent their voices to struggles to end systematic oppression and uplift the freedom of all people." Smith was in wonderful form that night. She sang her songs of love and defiance, including her haunting cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' (and, later, Nina Simone's) "I Put a Spell on You." Her huge voice was disarming, forcing those who listened to be utterly present even as we were called to remember.

Smith did not sing Anderson's songs that night, but the evening's muse was there nonetheless. The presence and intimacy that Anderson cultivated in her performances existed in that hall, as members of the audience spoke to Smith and she to us. Anderson's 80-year-old triumph was our entrance to an experience in which one could not help but hear the faint sound of her breath under Smith's song. We carried Anderson with us, and asked her to stay. She obliged, as she's done before, in the process teaching us how to listen and imagine widely and more deeply.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 29, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Marian Anderson performed in Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She actually performed in Un Ballo in Maschera.
Shana Redmond is a professor at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA and the author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson.
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