Seven decades have passed, and yet every detail of that memorable evening remains indelibly entrenched in heart and memory.
Mother picked me up from school and explained that we had some urgent shopping to do at Rowe & Co, the most popular Department store in post-war Rangoon, Myanmar. This three-story grocery had survived an onslaught of bombs that ravaged much of the city reducing mammoth edifices to piles of debris. As we climbed the second flight of stairs to get to the floor that catered to our particular needs that day, we were stopped briefly by a friend of mother’s who was racing down the steps with all the speed her legs could muster.
“What’s the matter, Mrs Rivers?” enquired my mother in a rather anxious tone. “Oh Jesus, I am late! I have to accompany a Negro singer on the organ this evening at 6.” “What’s her name?” my mother queried. “I don’t know, but it is at Scot’s Kirk at 6 p.m. tonight,” the shouted until she disappeared from view.
Mother, an organist herself who was gifted with a lovely voice and loved choral music, promptly turned around and clutched my hand. Dragged me along as she walked down the steps she explained, “If it is at the Kirk it could possibly be a noted performer.”
And so it was that by a quarter to six mom and I were seated in the front pew of the church. Mrs Rivers was at the organ looking pleased with herself, and judging by the empty pews mother surmised that it must not be a well-known artist. At the most there were fifteen people which included mother and me.
At six o’clock in walked a beautiful woman dressed in a shimmering blue silk dress with a splash of silver. “Oh my God, this is Marian Anderson.” My mother could not stifle her amazement. It was as though the singer had heard it, for she beamed a smile at mom and me as she walked to her place by the piano.
Perhaps deeming it presumptuous on their part to accompany so celebrated a singer, Mrs Rivers’ nervous fingers struck a wrong note now and then! Neither disconcerted by this nor the unoccupied pews, Marian Anderson’s voice rose above it all resonating richly with melody and meaning as she poured forth Spirituals and sacred music.
I remember her repertoire as thought it was yesterday: “Swing low, Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and how did she serenade us with “Were you there When They crucified my Lord.” Sining songs of sorrow, joy, faith, and hope Anderson ended on a triumphant note as she sang with all the conviction and assurance she could muster, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” And when she sang the verse, “He’s Got you and me brother in His hands, He’s Got you and me sister in His hands,” I was almost sure she pointed her finger in my direction. The youngest in the audience I was completely enraptured by the “voice that one hears but once in a lifetime” as a music critic so aptly described it.
As we drove home after the performance, my mother told me the story of Marian Anderson’s life. As a young woman in the slums of Philadelphia Anderson earned a meagre living doing laundry work. My mother shared how her only respite mentally and physically from her chore-ridden life was sining in the choir at the Union Baptist Church.
But Marian Anderson did not just have to contend with poverty. As an African American woman in the 1940s and 1950s her world renowned talent was constantly challenged, critiqued, and restricted due to Jim Crow racism. Such a social climate forced her to endure constant vitriol and scathing remarks simply because she was Black. Anderson did not allow such cruelty and injustice stop her. In fact, despite the social and racial barriers that existed for Black women, especially those in entertainment, Marian Anderson made history by becoming the first African American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera Concert Hall.
Everyone’s journey is marked by misfortune. Even I have endured my fair share of calamity. Whether the trauma of loved ones dying from grave illnesses, the anxiety that accompanies bankruptcy, unemployment, and endless house-hunting, or the sadness and depression that comes with losing a son in the prime of his life, I too know deep hardship. But what is powerful about the story of Marian Anderson is that she did not allow her hardships to limit her life. She did not allow the social barriers around her that were actively working to restrict her rise and her gift to stop her from singing.
What has God called you to do? What gift or talent has God given you? If Marian Anderson allowed her circumstances to silence her voice then a ten-year old sitting in Scot’s Kirk in Rangoon would have never experienced the comforting assurance of knowing that in spite of it all God still has the whole world in His hands. Who are you keeping from experiencing God because you’re still holding on to your gift?