A Rich Voice, Singing in Memory
RECENTLY I turned the page of a magazine and saw Richard Avedon's magnificent photograph of Marian Anderson. Her great hooded eyes were closed, yet her spirit, her essence, had been captured in the camera's eye. I remember being told as a child that ``Miss Marian Anderson always sings with her eyes closed.'' I also remember that at our house, she was referred to as ``Miss'' Marian Anderson, a far cry from the familiarity in use now with well-known personages.Skip to next paragraph
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I've read many times that Marian Anderson was not political and, according to Anthony Heilbut in The New Yorker, ``never wanted a political role.'' Yet unwittingly, she became for many people a symbol of a grave wrong that needed to be made right. To try to explain what she meant to me as a child would be to attempt to explain a way of life in the South that for many would be so remote, so foreign, that I could never make it understood. Here in the Deep South, we still have people arriving on buses and in minivans who are trying to find Tara. They are seeking what never was.
At my Aunt Margaret's house in Alabama, Virgie, who was the cook, arrived early on weekdays to start breakfast. From my room above the kitchen, I'd hear the thump of the back screened door. A minute later, the radio would be turned on, and the sound of Virgie's gospel music would drift up the stairs. My days began with ``My Lord, What a Morning,'' and often ended with ``Goodbye, Mourner, I'm Going Home.'' My grandmother, who also lived in the house, sang old Presbyterian hymns. Her soft, reedy voice singing ``Lead, Kindly Light,'' and her slender foot on the treadle of the sewing machine provided counterpoint to Virgie's spirituals.
One summer day, I went into the kitchen. The radio was playing softly, and the floor fan stirred the warm air that still smelled faintly of that morning's coffee and bacon and of the peach pie baking for dessert. Virgie was sitting in the small wooden rocker shelling peas. I watched as she split a pod with her broad thumbnail. The peas fell into the metal bowl with a tiny rushing ``ping.''
``Get us some tea, Baby,'' she said, ``I'm 'bout to burn up.'' In the heat, her dark skin was faintly beaded with silver. Filling two large glasses with ice, I poured the tea, and the two of us sat in the kitchen talking. Suddenly, over the radio, a magnificent voice filled the room. Virgie stopped shelling peas and leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes. I stood at the kitchen table, tea glass in hand, listening.
In memory, I can recall everything about that day with perfect clarity; the sugary smell of a peach pie baking, the sound of peas hitting the metal pan, the whirring of the fan, the green leaves of the pecan tree shadowed against the kitchen window, Virgie's thumbnails, the cool surface of the metal table where I stood, and the moisture-beaded glass of iced tea that Virgie held up to her forehead. And the words of the song that Marian Anderson sang:
Oh, what a beautiful city,
oh, what a beautiful city,
Twelve gates a-to the city,
``Who was that?'' I asked, when the song was finished.
``That's Miss Marian Anderson,'' replied Virgie.
``I never heard anybody sing like that,'' I said.
``Don't nobody else sing like that,'' said Virgie. ``Miss Anderson sings with her eyes closed.''
``How come?'' I asked.