On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson, one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th Century, sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 people. It was an unprecedented event. Already world-famous, Anderson had been summoned by European royals, had toured the great concert halls in Russia and Scandinavia and had done over seventy recitals in the U.S. In the spring of 1939 she was scheduled to perform at Constitution Hall.
But Marion Anderson was black and wanted to sing to an integrated audience. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) who ran Constitution Hall refused her request. Eleanor Roosevelt, a long time fan, quickly stepped in, championing Anderson’s cause to her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Marian Anderson’s legacy continued to grow. She sang at Eisenhower and John Kennedy’s inaugurations. She was the first African-American to sing with the New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was named a U.S. Goodwill Ambassador and was one of the original recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I did not know of Marian Anderson, nor of her historic Easter Sunday concert in 1939 until Richard Powers used the historic moment for the opening of The Time of Our Singing.
Powers’ story begins with a young black woman from Philadelphia, an aspiring vocalist, named Delia Daley. Hardly able to contain her excitement on her Easter Sunday train ride to Washington to hear for the first time in person the most celebrated black singer of her era, she is, at the same time, automatically vigilant of her surroundings, ever wary of crowds or locations that could spell trouble for a black person, especially for a young black woman in 1939 America. But, Delia is so enraptured by the concert that she lets her guard down, finding herself between songs and afterward in a deep Anderson-praising conversation with a white man, a young quantum physicist and music lover named David Strom. This chance meeting at the history-making Marian Anderson concert, that leads to marriage and three children, defines the contours of theirs and their children’s lives. Like Einstein, Strom is a Jewish German immigrant who is uninfected with American racism and unwilling to accept it.
Consider for a moment America’s history from 1939 to the 21st Century. Now overlay that expanse with Black History in America, not just the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Watts Riots and other highlights that made the white history books, but black struggle itself, the daily, never-ending struggle of being black in America. Such are the vast dimensions of The Time of Our Singing.
David Strom is a genius. When given a problem in quantum theory he would go to the future where the problem was solved then work his way back to the present with the answer. The theorists working on the Manhattan Project turn to Strom every time they’re stuck. He is so immersed in his work he pays scant attention to the racial tension that surrounds his mixed marriage. Ever vigilant, Delia takes the initiative, riding in the back seat so the cops don’t take then for a couple, finding as tolerant a neighborhood as can be found in New York at the time, homeschooling her children so they don’t have to learn the survival tactics of public schools and the streets.
Music is the life blood of this family, rhapsodizing together every evening when the kids are five, four and two, Einstein stopping by to play his violin, churches inviting the whole family to bless them with their harmonic voices, music on their lips at every waking moment. Joseph and Jonah, a year apart, flourish in the world of recitals and vocal competitions – a very white world. The racism they encounter when they begin to travel the national circuit snaps Joseph into a reckoning with his blackness. His older brother Jonah, light enough to pass for white when not alongside his darker brother, tires of the black struggle and finds a life in Europe where he pursues the purity and the roots of classical music. Their little sister, Ruth, struggles even harder.
Ruth rebels against her white father and begs Joseph to explain what being black meant to their mother. He explains that she was, “Black inflicted and black held on to. Black by memory and invention. The daily defensive backing off and smiling, twenty generations of remembered violence that doubled you over when you thought you weren’t doubled. Black in the way that is the sole property of high yellow. The day never passed when she didn’t store it up, when didn’t have to touch its protecting core. . . . Black, Ruth, she was black.“
Powers has enormous talent, every ounce of it needed to write the six hundred thirty-one page The Time of Our Singing. Perhaps growing up in Thailand (after living in Illinois until age 11) gave him a unique outside perspective, a unique overview grasp of sixty years of American history. Certainly his music skills, — a vocalist and proficient with four instruments – provided the passion and the language that lifts so much of this story into ethereal music metaphor. Nor is his physics background a neglected resource for this story. But, the heart of this story is a Herculean attempt by a white man to understand and describe what being black in America means. For that I can only site his humanity, a soul blessed with empathy and compassion.
Do I think a white man can understand being black? No. I am not quite that naïve. But I am naïve enough to applaud someone who tries.