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Lift Every Voice: Marian Anderson, Florence B. Price And The Sound Of Black Sisterhood

Marian Anderson's story reveals a longstanding legacy of black women amplifying black women's perspectives through the politics of concert performance.
Michael Ochs Archives
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Marian Anderson's story reveals a longstanding legacy of black women amplifying black women's perspectives through the politics of concert performance.

"When will we listen to black women?"

This has been the crescendoing, rallying cry echoed throughout the streets, in journalistic thinkpieces and on social media, escalating in the wake of the 2016 presidential and 2017 Alabama senatorial elections that revealed black women's collective voting power in arguably the most contentious political contests in the 21st century thus far. According to journalist Steven W. Thrasher, writing in the New York Review of Books, black women have dominated the resistance in electoral politics: "Unlike a majority of white women on election day 2016, some 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton—the largest concentration of any demographic to go for any candidate in the presidential election."

We are in an era of movements founded by black women, such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #SayHerName, and some even use messianic language to characterize those women as "saving the day" through their collective action. This recent surge in direct action represents a lineage of black women lifting their voices for themselves that has its historical antecedent in demonstrations such as Marian Anderson elevating Florence Price's composition in her most notable recital at the Lincoln Memorial.

Throughout history, black women have demonstrated independence and ingenuity in creating spaces for themselves and for one another in quotidian life and in musical performance, lifting their performative and civil voices. As the antebellum women's rights movement grew in the late 19th century, African American women perceived their political isolation and "began to re-imagine and implement new strategies anchored in strategic performance of black femininity in public acts of protest," according to Treva Lindsey, author of Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in D.C.They have also viewed personal access as an opportunity for the entire community to enter new spheres of influence with them.

Philadelphian contralto Marian Anderson's story reveals a longstanding legacy of black women amplifying black women's perspectives through the politics of concert performance. After having sung for dignitaries around the world, in 1939 Anderson was famously refused desegregated concert space at Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall, due to its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, choosing to enforce a lax city segregated-audience policy. She eventually accepted an invitation from Howard University, the host of the concert, as well as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 people on Resurrection Sunday. More importantly, Anderson closed the recital with an arranged composition of the Negro spiritual "My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord" by Florence B. Price. Unlike the male composers on the printed recital program, including her friends Harry T. Burleigh and Edward Boatner, Price's name is listed in full, revealing her gender. She was also listed last, suggesting that she was one "to watch," while simultaneously positioning Anderson as an impresario of black women's new works.

This strategy of sharing the stage and radio broadcast constitutes a collaboration that can be described by Alice Walker's womanism: a black feminism "that prefers "women's culture, women's emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women's strength... [is] committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female." This concert was a pivotal event that is continually revisited by scholars and artists such as, most recently, the conductor, composer, and Howard University alumnus Damien Sneed in his new chamber opera Marian's Song,set to debut at the Houston Grand Opera in 2020.

The significance of the collaboration between Anderson and Price has been overlooked until recently, due in part to a revival and retrieval of Florence B. Price's compositions. The film The Caged Bird: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price places the apex of Price's career in 1933, when her Symphony in E minor was premiered by the all-white male orchestra at the Chicago Symphony, under the baton of Frederick A. Stock. That revealed a white male-centered bias privileging the grand lineage of symphonies in E minor, which includes Antonin Dvorak's 1893 "New World Symphony" — a work that drew heavily from Negro spirituals. However, I am inclined to move away from proving Price's proximity to Great White Male Composers as her life's goal and career highlight. It took self-awareness for her to program Negro spirituals for the 1939 recital, in spite of the white dominant culture's ridicule of programming black folk repertoires for the concert stage. That derision was based in the Eurocentrism that is prized in formal music education to this day. Price used African American folk idioms to illustrate her multiple-consciousness identity that embraced what English and Africana studies scholar Salamishah Tillet refers to, in her book Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination,as an African American "critical patriotism" championed by black women suffragist leaders such as Mary Church Terrell.

Black composers collaborating with concert musicians and setting folk musics for concert performance was a political strategy to express black nationalism. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University sets forth that "proponents of black nationalism advocated economic self-sufficiency, race pride for African Americans, and black separatism" to navigate anti-black structures. In musicologist Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.'s research on Harlem Renaissance musicians, he wrote, " was in the realm of concert music that [Harlem] Renaissance thinkers hoped for great achievement, expecting that black folk music would serve as the basis for great symphonic compositions that would be performed by accomplished black musicians... [Musicologist] Eileen Southern has most appropriately identified as black nationalist composers such figures as Harry T. Burleigh, Clarence Cameron White, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Harry Lawrence Freeman, Florence Price, J. Harold Brown, and William Levi Dawson, writing that all 'consciously turned to the folk music of their people as a source of inspiration for their compositions...'"

In the spirit of critical patriotism, several individuals and black organizations made that 1939 recital possible through unmarked, free labor. Sustained by a web of black women-inclusive networks — black churches, black women's clubs, Howard University, the NAACP and the National Association for Negro Musicians — Anderson ascended the stage voicing Florence B. Price's composition as the "final say" on that landmark moment.

The NANM is particularly important. Price met Anderson in the 1930s, and both women became deeply entrenched in a network of black women artisans. They found refuge, exposure, and collaborative partners in black musician's guilds such as the NANM. Public music education provided by guilds have long been a culturally relevant means through which talented African Americans could pursue training, and the NANM, founded in Chicago in 1919, is the country's oldest organization dedicated to the preservation, encouragement and advocacy of all genres of the music of African Americans. Price went on to tailor fifty art songs and arrangements for Anderson and in fact, following that Lincoln Memorial recital, Anderson often closed her recitals with "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," establishing it as her signature piece.

Sonically, Anderson's contralto fach (German for one's vocal classification) signified on the rare vocal range and warm, velvety timbral qualities that are celebrated in the aesthetics of black vocality. Imagined to be the sonic domain of men, her contralto vocal range traversed the lower treble to bass timbral realms. The lyrics of Price's arrangement were choice commentary on the undisputed significance of the moment: emphasizing God's steadfastness, community, and black sisterhood. "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord" conveys piety; however, upon closer inspection of the context we find musical signifyin(g) — an African-American rhetorical device used to artfully critique a person, entity, or situation. Using the folk Negro spiritual, Price tailored for Anderson a witty remark upon the moment that only one she can count on is God, echoing the wisdom of Harriet Tubman, who once reportedly said, "Oh, dear Lord, I ain't got no friend but you."

Visually and musically, Anderson was deployed as an inter- and intracultural tool. Interculturally, the way she held herself onstage was an embodiment of being anchored: imagery consistent with stillness and rootedness, quietude of the body indicative of both ladyhood and the proper, Eurocentric concert stance of a vocalist trained to sing without amplification. Intraculturally, Anderson looked like black ladyhood at the 1939 recital: her hair neatly finger-waved and pinned into place, the chromatic colors of her attire complete with a brown mink fur coat and matching hat. The fur coat in particular is a multi-referent to black ladyhood, achievement, and posterity emblematic of what journalist Lolly Bowean called "a rarely recognized ritual in the African-American community, one in which older black women pass their expensive coats on to younger women in their family and friendship circles as a gentle way to affirm the younger woman's elegance and grace... In a way, passing down a fur coat is a modest gesture to prophesize a life of opulence and grandeur for a younger woman..."

Bowean interviewed cultural critic and professor Tanisha C. Ford, who attests "At a time when segregation was still the law of the land, and de facto the law onward, for a black woman to walk outside her house in something that was as luxurious and glamorous and that was normally designated for a white woman — it was a big deal." In fact, several divas who have been interviewed about Anderson's impact, including Marian Anderson Prize winner Denyce Graves, have attested to the fact that she regularly gave her garments to them as an investment in their promise as cultural ambassadors. Through visual and musical performance, Anderson performed the communal goals of what Tillet calls "shared responsibility" and "collective freedom".

Much evidence of Anderson's practice of musical sisterhood can be found in the Marian Anderson papers in the University of Pennsylvania library, where one can find her correspondence with many women composers, including Price's letter in 1937 referring to plans for orchestrating "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord." An enclosed Western Union receipt indicates Anderson's plans to record the song. In the online summary of Anderson's papers housed at the University of Pennsylvania's Kislak Center, librarian Margaret Kruesi documents that "approximately a third of the composers who sent manuscripts to Anderson for her consideration were women." The volume of women's composition in her collection proves that Anderson's impact was more than as a culture bearer. She opened up black women's musical possibilities to being programmed internationally, where doors had been shut by the dominant gatekeepers.

Anderson used her sounded voice to claim the sociopolitical and mass-mediated soundscape in the public sphere. Among the black elite, Anderson and Price's approaches were emblematic of what activist and educator Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote of in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, in 1915, describing the liberality and praise that arises when black women are permitted to lift their civil voice: "When Black women get the vote, it will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken and scholars have never written."

Since the inception of the US women's suffrage movement, black women's myriad perspectives have been systematically excluded from the agenda. With her Lincoln Memorial performance, leading lady Anderson set the stage and took the lead for African American women to reject white women's unsisterly role in erecting barriers to black women's full experience of free womanhood: the D.A.R.'s refutation of black women's eligibility as descendants of people who died for this country in the American Revolution and beyond; white women's dissociation with black women's ladyhood in broader society, and particularly white women suffragists' willful obliviousness to black women's lack of access to full rights of citizenship that included voting rights, desegregated education, and desegregated patronage of performance venues like Constitution Hall. In popular accounts of that recital, much attention has been given to Eleanor Roosevelt's resignation from the D.A.R. after its rejection of Anderson; however, it is lesser known that her resignation was almost two months after Anderson was not permitted to perform in the venue to a desegregated audience. Viewing Roosevelt as "the lady white savior" incorrectly places her at the center of the triumph, when she was actually late to the show. On the contrary, at the center of the triumph was the extent to which Anderson utilized the 1939 Resurrection Day recital to exhibit the musical fraternal and sororal bonds that contributed to her ascent to world-class notoriety.

As Anderson envoiced Price's composition in particular, she provided a musical rebuttal to the concert domains that predominantly comprised white male decision makers, an exclusionist industry bolstered by unsisterly white women patrons that stemmed from a joint colonial past of chattel slavery plantation hierarchy. And these are barriers that African American women still face in the concert music industry and in their homes today.

To truly listen to black women's music making is to deeply pursue true sisterhood in the United States. To believe black women is to acknowledge the thickest intersections of identity in the United States. Therefore, it is a transgressive, womanist act for women of the African diaspora to collaborate musically under oppressive regimes "in the quiet, undisputed dignity of our womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage," to borrow from Anna Julia Cooper, on the world stage. As we breeze through this digital age, the black women-founded movement #SayHerName beckons us to utter the names of music tastemakers Marian Anderson and Florence B. Price, sounding their signatures, like music to our ears, to undo with music what decades of sociopolitical inaudibility has done.

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Alisha Lola Jones
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