When Marian Anderson Sang

Marian Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Marian Anderson performing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

I love that my wife is a kindergarten teacher. It means we have a vast collection of good children’s books—so many that I haven’t read a lot of them.

So today when Lexi pulled When Marian Sang off the shelf for her pre-naptime book, I was reading it for the first time. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells the story of black singer Marian Anderson and her struggles in the segregated, pre-civil rights America. I’d never heard of Marian Anderson before, but her tremendous voice was respected around the world.

In 1939 Howard University brought Marian to Washington, D.C., to perform. They tried to book Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), who ran the hall, refused to allow Marian to perform because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. over the incident.

Marian eventually performed on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial to a mixed-race crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions.

In 1943 the D.A.R. invited Marian to perform at Constitution Hall in support of the war effort. She agreed on the condition that the seating be mixed (as opposed to an all-white crowd or only allowing blacks to sit in the balcony). The D.A.R. agreed and it was the first time in the history of Constitution Hall that blacks and whites sat together.

I got choked up a few times reading the story and could barely keep it together. The injustice and cruelty of America’s history of racism is just stupid. I don’t have a better word for it.

At the point in the story when Marian isn’t allowed to apply to a music school—”We don’t take colored,” she’s told—there’s a picture of Marian’s mother comforting her. Lexi and I had this exchange:

“What’s wrong with her?” Lexi asked, pointing to the picture.

“She’s sad,” I said.

“Why is she sad?”

“They wouldn’t let her go to school because of the color of her skin.” My voice was already wavering, trying to hold it together.

“That’s not fair!” Like most kids, Lexi exclaims this over the most mundane things (no dessert, bed time, etc.), but she had real anger this time.

“No, it’s not fair,” I said, shaking my head and biting my lip to keep from sobbing.

Knowing her experience makes the words of the spirituals she sang all the more poignant: “Oh, nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow…”

2 thoughts on “When Marian Anderson Sang”

  1. My son has this book and I had to reply when reading your post, because every time I read it to him, the old waterworks start up. I simply can’t read it aloud without my voice getting all trembly and hoarse, so it’s difficult to actually get through it. My son always says I have to get his dad to finish it, he can’t hear the story. Also, I like the illustrations very much. There’s only one other book that I read to my kid that makes me do this, and that is Thank You, Mr._______(I’m blanking on the complete title. It’s about a little girl who has dyslexia but doesn’t know it, and is teased for not being able to read until she has a great teacher who spots her disability and teaches her to read.) Written and illustrated by a woman who is telling the story of what actually happened to her as a child. I’m in tears by page 4. Every time. And I am so not a crier.

  2. Adding: The book is Thank You, Mr. Falker, by Patricia Polacco. Sorry to have changed the subject. The Marian Anderson book is a great one, and one of a series I think.

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