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PBS New Documentary Looks At The Life Of Marian Anderson: ‘The Voice Of The Century’

"Voice of Freedom" aired on PBS Feb. 15.
"Voice of Freedom" aired on PBS Feb. 15.
Credit PBS

This Sunday at 9 p.m., our PBS station Public Broadcasting Atlanta will air “Voice of Freedom,” a documentary about the great singer Marian Anderson. The film is offered in honor of Black History Month as part of the PBS series “American Experience.” “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes was joined by two scholars who are featured in the documentary, professors Alisha Lola Jones and Adriane Lentz-Smith.

Interview Highlights:

About Anderson:

“Marian Anderson was someone whose rise was powered by a formidable inherent talent coupled with some really important interventions by a supportive community and mentors. She was someone with tremendous inherent talent whose career could have easily have been derailed at the very beginning because of the arbitrary cruelty of segregation,” said Lentz-Smith.

In 1939, Anderson made history by performing in front of 75,000 people at the Abraham Lincoln memorial in D.C. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on that brisk April evening.

“She was supposed to do a benefit concert for Howard University. She needs a place to have this concert. There aren’t a lot of sites in D.C. at the time that can accommodate this. Walter White [then executive secretary of the NAACP] has the idea of asking the Daughters of the American Revolution to turn over Constitution Hall, they say, ‘Oh no I’m sorry we can not.’ And so the NAACP led by White uses that as a campaign to shed a light on absurdities and hypocrisies of segregation particularly on the cusp of conflict with the Nazis who’ve made white supremacy their rallying cry,” said Lentz-Smith.

She continued, “White gets Eleanor Roosevelt involved and she resigns from the DAR and announces it as a protest. That brings national attention to it. They go to [Secretary of the Interior] Harold Ickes to see if they can use the Lincoln Memorial. Ickes and Eleanor go to FDR who says in what I imagine a careless way, ‘She can sing from the top of the Washington Monument for all I care.’ And thus, the concert is okay. Then they say ‘Oh hey, Mary you’re going to do this gigantic outside concert with tens of thousands of people in D.C.’ Anderson understands that this is a moment that requires her and requires her voice. The train has left the station so you mine as well make it a beautiful ride.”

How her activism was centered on her artistry: 

“She showed this [her activism] through subtle ways. Body language, through repertoire, through remarks along the way were her modes of showing the humanity in what she did as an artist,” said Jones.

Lentz-Smith added, “I’m always a little ambivalent when people describe her as an activist because I think her self-understanding and self-presentation was really as an artist primarily. And as a woman who insisted on her dignity. It is out of ‘vogue’ to talk about the politics of respectability, but if we think of it in the context of the time when saying ‘I am worthy and worthwhile and you will see what shines from within me,’ in some ways she embodied that. And that ends up doing powerful, occasionally transformative work.”