Reviewed by Danielle K. Little
THE QUINTESSENTIAL ACCIDENTAL REVOLUTIONARY
There is a wonderfully haunting scene in Dino de Laurentis' film, Ragtime, (based on the acclaimed novel by E L. Doctorow) in which the dapper, justifiably enraged though beautifully dignified protagonist, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., seeks advice from an African American attorney. Walker is there to "seek justice" for a vile act of whitefolk viciousness levied against him (he was arrested after complaining that some white men defecated in and vandalized his car). After listening to Walker, who indicates that he intended to use money meant for his upcoming wedding to cover any legal costs because, under the circumstances, such an event would have to wait, the attorney advises Walker to spend his money on his wedding, settle down "find some comfort and forget that some damn white man caused [him] offense." Walker is floored, asking his elder brother--also dapper and beautifully dignified--if that was his advice.
"That's my advice," the attorney said, "and I pray you take it to heart. I've spent my whole life forgetting. You a young man, you better start learning now." It is a tempering scene indeed and follows through to its inevitable tragic end, as it must always when people, particularly African Americans, live by principle. In our society, still, despite the supposed harmony that now exists post-911, the one who follows such a path will most assuredly die by it as well. But not everyone, as the re-released autobiography by Marian Anderson, My Lord, What a Morning, originally published in 1956, suggests.
Anderson (1899-1993) was born and raised in Philadelphia and grew to become the internationally renowned contralto most known for being the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She is also recognized for her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial on the heels of Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution, the group who owned and refused to permit Anderson to perform at (of all places) Constitution Hall.
Anderson's narrative, written with crisp, technically flawless language, is autobiography in its purest form: an examination of one's life at a macro-level, effectually treating life experiences as a serial compilation. Anderson takes great care in thanking all of those people who helped her along the way and occasionally mentioning a few of those, and only a few, who had not. And while one wants to give the text every benefit of literary doubt, it doesn't take long to feel somewhat oppressed by the hallmark acknowledgements and elevation of insignificant details (ie., purchasing her first concert dress on sale, the food served her on a train, etc.) with other occasions that deserved at least a more than passing reflection.
For instance, sometime after Hitler came to power and she had been performing in Europe, Anderson writes about how her management received persistent requests for her to sing in Berlin. Anderson merely comments that she was "not eager to appear in the Germany of those days." This is an understatement of such magnanimous proportion that happens so often throughout the text, that not even the rather humorous anecdote about her manager informing Berlin, who had wished to confirm the fact, that Anderson 'was not 100% Aryan' does not even cure. Like Coalhouse Walker, and by extension many of us, it soon becomes apparent that Anderson too, made conscious decisions to forget, in her case early on, of which there is no (or not a lot) of critique. After all, the bombardment of petty, stupid whitefolk mess that she had to endure despite her management's attempts to shield her from them - such as being told she could not hold her white accompanists' hand while on stage and having train conductors ensure that the doors were closed so that whites would not be forced to accidentally look upon an African American seated in another car - become so trifling that even recalling them becomes a bore.
But forgetting so much and making it one's mantra to do so at the expense of soul-searching reflection, makes Anderson appear fatuous. This is especially so in this time where memoir, a literary form that demands a keen and unrelenting awareness of how our outer and inner landscapes informs us is so (appropriately) popular.
In this way, Anderson's text, like the Hitler story, is filled with similarly missed opportunities. She describes the Constitution Hall fiasco as "the unpleasantness" and admits avoiding reporters and being content to let her management team handle things. But history would not let Anderson out so easily, a fact she reluctantly came to accept.
"I was informed of the plan for the outdoor concert before the news was published," Anderson writes, "indeed, I was asked whether I approved. I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don't like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. In principle the idea was sound, but it could not be comfortable to me as an individual. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear." And so Anderson, who in merely doing that which she did best with dignity and grace, became the quintessential accidental revolutionary. And indeed, this is how most revolutionaries are born. One finds themselves simply out driving a car with a smile on one's face as did Walker, or in Anderson's case, merely wishing to perform one's craft, which Anderson believed was a blessing from God, and another's act of idiocy alters the course of history.
For these reasons, Anderson's book is extraordinarily important and is a necessary addition to every American's library, particularly if one has children in the home. Anderson's acts of simply being not only opened doors, but inspired a generation.
"If it had not been singing," Anderson writes, "it might have been medicine. At least that's what I dreamed about when I was a youngster and I came back to whenever there as difficulty and disappointing moments in connection with singing. In my doll days I kept imagining that the dolls were ill or wounded and needed to be ministered to, and thinking just how I would do this. When childhood friends were hurt--and often when they were not hurt--I forced excuses to do some bandaging. I wanted to be a surgeon, to do something grand like correcting deformities." Which is precisely what Marian Anderson did, even if she refused to acknowledge it.
Danielle K. Little is an attorney who practices in Manhattan. She is completing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org