Aretha Franklin and Marian Anderson

Of the many inspirational moments of President Obama’s inauguration Tuesday, for me one of the most touching was Aretha Franklin’s singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” While most comments have focused on her hat, of all things, I’ve seen little mention of the historical threads that came together on that chill January morning.

Marian Anderson, born in the late 19th century, was a supremely talented contralto. She was the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera and won many well-deserved plaudits for her talent. She kicked off her career with a ten-year stint touring Europe, due in part to the greater acceptance of African-Americans’ talents at the time.

In 1939, she planned a concert for Constitution Hall, Washington DC’s biggest venue for classical music. The Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, refused to allow her to sing because she was Black. This was one of a number of stinging incidents of discrimination, but its blatant racism made it a very high-profile case.

The great Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s leading forces in her own right, helped organize Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And so it was, on a chilly April day in 1939, as Hitler’s shadow loomed large over European democracies, that Marion Anderson held her concert. The centerpiece? Her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”

The irony of the lines “Land where my fathers died / Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” was too loaded for people not to see. The whole question of racism and discrimination took on a new urgency, and at different levels of society, than had previously been the case. It is still a stunning sight to see her calmly singing the piece with Lincoln looming behind her.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years to Capitol Hill and the site of the Inauguration, where another African-American woman, veteran of the civil rights struggle, sang the same song. In that moment is wrapped up the efforts of Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr (“I have a dream!”) and countless others.

While Aretha’s voice was not in as fine a form as she would have liked, her mere presence drew the threads of the historical tapestry together. The shadow looming over democracies today comes from within, as the Bush administration quashed civil liberties (though Obama is dismantling some of Bush’s oppressive measures). African-Americans still face discrimination and racism, but nowhere near the frequency and intensity of 70 years ago. There is also a greater understanding of how complex the intersection of ethnicity, class, and gender is in our country. And the hunger of people from all backgrounds to hear the talent of African-American performers integrated our performance spaces long ago!

If I believed in an afterlife, I would say Marian and Eleanor were very happy with Aretha’s performance. Regardless, her presence put to rest a shameful chapter of American history and celebrated how far we’ve come since those vicious days.

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