Arsenault (History/Univ. of South Florida, St. Petersburg; Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, 2006, etc.) examines the life of singer Marian Anderson (1897–1993), focusing on her landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
A prodigiously talented vocalist, Anderson embarked on a career in music at a time when prevailing racial prejudices hindered African-American performers from attaining national prominence. Though she gained limited notoriety in the United States during the 1920s, it was her exhaustive tours of Europe during the following decade that established her as one of the world’s most renowned vocalists. Her critical and popular success abroad enabled her to reach a wider audience in America, even though she continued to face discrimination. Notably, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, which maintained a strict “white artists only” policy. The DAR’s decision sparked a nationwide controversy. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest, while several newspaper editorials drew parallels between racial discrimination in America and the rising fascist movements in Europe. With the DAR standing its ground, Anderson and her supporters staged an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In front of 75,000 people on Easter Sunday in 1939, Anderson gave a concert that, writes Arsenault, provided a “starting point” for the civil-rights movement. The author excels at contextualizing the concert, probing the ways in which Jim Crow laws and racial prejudices permeated all aspects of African-American life. He is less adept at humanizing Anderson’s struggle. The author’s dry prose fails to capture the emotions surrounding the historic concert, or to convey the full impact of Anderson’s performance. Looking back on the event, Anderson recognized that she had been turned into “a symbol, representing my people.” Arsenault is unable to draw out the individual behind that powerful symbol.
A concise but flat-footed chronicle of a seminal event in civil-rights history.