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.

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.

``I don't know,'' said Virgie, taking the pan of shelled peas over to the sink. ``She sang at the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C. And she was the first colored to ever sing at the White House.''

``How come?'' I asked.

``How come what, Sara?'' said Virgie, rinsing the peas and putting them on to cook. ``How come her to sing or how come her to close her eyes when she sings?''

``How come she was the first colored to sing at the White House?'' I said.

``Nobody ever asked before Mrs. Roosevelt, I guess.''

``Maybe the other presidents didn't like music,'' I said, watching Virgie add salt to the peas.

Virgie looked at me, straight on. ``Coloreds weren't allowed to sing, Sara. Not at the White House, and not at other places.''

``That doesn't make a bit of sense, Virgie,'' I said. ``What's being colored got to do with it?''

Virgie shook her head. ``You go ask Miss Margaret about Miss Anderson,'' said Virgie. ``She'll tell you.''

My aunt told me about Marian Anderson being refused the use of Constitution Hall because she was a colored woman. I tried my level best to understand, but it didn't make any sense. Maybe I was unaware of subtleties in language and demeanor among my own kin, but racial prejudice had not entered my world at that time.

``They didn't let her sing because those Daughters of the American Revolution women didn't have the sense to recognize a God-given talent when it was right smack in front of `em,'' said my aunt, and that was the end of the discussion.

FOR Christmas that year, I received a record of spirituals sung by Marian Anderson. At the time, one of my mother's friends questioned her judgment. ``Why on earth are you givin' that child an album by that colored woman?'' Lettie Mina asked.

``Because she wants it,'' was the reply. ``And because Miss Anderson is a treasure.''

I never saw Marian Anderson perform, and I was too young to understand the implications of the DAR's refusal to allow her to sing on the stage at Constitution Hall. However, I doubt that her chances would have been any better closer to home. My chance of actually seeing one of her concerts was nil, but I heard her. I heard her on the kitchen radio in Camden, Ala., and I heard her on the big radio in the living room in Savannah, Ga. That glorious voice still sings in my memory.

I cherish that memory because, as Alistair Reed wrote in ``A Poet's View of Childhood,'' published in a 1963 Atlantic Monthly, it represents ``the dimension of amazement, where a few fortunate adults come upon an unencumbered point of pure memory, a day, an instance, a happening ... quivering with sheer life, pure and inexplicable.''

In her book, ``The Green and Burning Tree,'' Eleanor Cameron talks about the dimension of living that the majority of humans seem to lose as they mature. ``It is a loss that can have the saddest, sometimes most frightful consequences.'' Those of us who can recall the astonishments of childhood, those dimensions of amazement that filled the earth and sky before we were 12, are blessed.

Marian Anderson's voice, ``pure and inexplicable,'' still sings in my memory. Call it wonder or awe; call it the gift of recognition, but I recall the ``dimension of amazement'' with perfect clarity. Her voice opened up more than the ``twelve gates'' for me. She opened the gates and allowed me to pass through to what is pure instinct, to what is true and beautiful in this world.

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