Review of "The Voice That Challenged a Nation"

The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights
Review by Catherine Baty

Freedman, R. (2011). The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights.

The book opens with Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial, then goes backwards to Anderson’s childhood where the reader learns that she always had a gift for singing. As Anderson gets older she meets challenges to her musical education, but her church congregation is often there to support her. While training with Giuseppe Boghetti, she toured with Billy King. They struggled to find hotels and restaurants in segregated America. After singing in New York Town Hall and receiving critical reviews she fell into a depression, not singing for months. With time, she saw that the criticisms were not without their merit and she decided to go back to singing. After winning a contest and singing in front of an audience of 7500 people in Lewisohn Stadium in New York, she regained confidence. She recognized that she was challenged by foreign languages and sought out language study in Europe. She went on to have successful performances in many countries there. Throughout her career, she made earnest efforts to perfect her foreign language singing and after performances she would always go over the music after and see where she could make things better. Her audiences grew. Needing a bigger auditorium in which to perform, Constitution Hall was sought out as the largest space in Washington D.C.. However, the Daughters of the Revolution banned Black artists from performing. Anderson performed at Armstrong High School instead. In 1939, they again tried to book Constitution Hall and were again denied, but they decided to fight the decision. The DAR was criticized for their prejudiced attitude. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to help. She publicly resigned from the DAR, denouncing their stance against hosting Black artists. Instead of performing there, it was decided that Marian Anderson would put on a free concert on Easter Sunday of 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where thousands of people could attend. She was now a symbol of her people. Her concert made history, led to advances in civil rights, and made the Lincoln Memorial a pivotal place for future protests and movements. Years later, the DAR invited Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution hall. She agreed, but only if the concert would be completely unsegregated, they hesitantly complied. That same year, Anderson married. She continued her career and in the early 1950’s she began refusing to sing before segregated audiences. Later she became the first Black soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She opened the door for future singers and performers of color in the United States. Marian Anderson sang her final concert on Easter Sunday in 1965 at New York Carnegie Hall. The final chapter discusses Anderson’s feelings and efforts about the racial barriers that she faced and helped to dismantle.

This biography of Marian Anderson unlike other informational books does have elements of story. The plot of Anderson’s life is woven throughout the details gathered by Russell Freedman. There is no lull as facts and quotes are brought in to create narrative. Character and setting are highly influential in this book as well. It is reiterated again and again that Anderson was a strong woman, but that she harbored no ill will towards anyone. Actually feeling sorry for those that felt hate when she had something so beautiful to offer. As far as setting, in order to properly interpret events, the reader must be given an opportunity to learn of segregated America as it applied to Anderson. It is due to the organization of this book, with many photographs artfully and meaningfully positioned throughout the pages, that the reader is able to create an accurate picture of events as they unfold. When I turned a page to see the two-page photograph of Anderson looking out into the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, I gasped, enthralled. I did not notice any filler, or manufactured dialogue in the book. All of the quotes came directly from the person mentioned, giving this book more authority. The reader is brought to feel Anderson’s feelings at the Memorial when she says, “I sang, I don’t know how”. The theme of the importance of representation is made abundantly clear when Walter White describes seeing one young Black woman after the performance, “Life which had been none too easy for her now held out greater hope because on who was also colored and who, like herself, had known poverty, privation, and prejudice, had, by her genius, gone a long way toward conquering bigotry. If Marian Anderson could do it, the girl’s eyes seemed to say, then I can, too”. My heart is still tender after reading. This book is recommended for grades 5 through 8, but I think it would make a wonderful addition to high grades biography modules as well.

“This inspiring work once again demonstrates Freedman’s talent for showing how a person’s life is molded by its historical and cultural context.” – Ginny Gustin, School Library Journal on July 1, 2004

“Anderson never saw herself as an activist, though, and Freedman never treats her as a symbol. He offers instead a fully realized portrait of a musical artist and her times. Well-chosen, well-placed archival photographs, clear writing, abundant research seamlessly woven into the text, and careful documentation make an outstanding, handsome biography. Freedman at his best.” – Contributor, Kirkus Reviews starred on April 1, 2004

“In his signature prose, plain yet eloquent, Freedman tells Anderson’s triumphant story, with numerous black-and-white documentary photos and prints that convey her personal struggle, professional artistry, and landmark civil rights role.” – Contributor, Booklist on June 1, 2004

Gather with other nonfiction books about influential Black women in the US like,

  • Campbell, Janis Kamala Harris (Women Who Won’t Be Silenced: The Stories Of Strong Women) ISBN 9781534566514
  • Shetterly, Margot Lee Hidden figures: the untold true story of four African-American women who helped launch our nation into space ISBN 9780062662385
  • Hulick, Kathryn Leading Women: Kimberly Bryant founder of Black Girls Code ISBN 9781502627049

Gather the class to watch videos of Marian Anderson on YouTube like,

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