I have been listening to the run up to the celebrations of this day, and of course the speeches made today at the Lincoln Memorial. It is strange that the first time I heard about that memorial, it was through my mother and father speaking to me about Marian Anderson. My mother had heard her sing at the Peradeniya University where they, my parents, were students, a performance broadcast to the standing-outside multitudes via loudspeakers. Neither of them have ever spoken of any other voice with quite the same reverence. Through her recollections, I heard of this voice that had rung over the assembled in a city called Washington DC in a country called America. Much later I learned to sing ‘A Church is Burning,’ as one among our repertoire for an entry to a national festival of ballads. I’d heard of Birmingham, but I didn’t really know what any of this truly meant. It came to me in music that I could sing with heart, but not in history that I could actually see in my heart. It happened before I was born, in a country I wouldn’t really know until I was a college student, and not very well until many years after, when living here had become what I would choose to do, when colour became more complicated than saying someone was “fair” or “dark,” the only words I’d ever used before to describe complexion, when the word “colour” became, by itself, no longer a descriptor but an unwieldly, shape-shifting misnomer.
And so, to today, when I found myself watching and listening, but as a bystander rather than a participant. I know what I have come to know, and witness, and speak out on behalf of, but this is a struggle whose roots go back to a place of origin that I can only glimpse. I was delighted, therefore, to receive this note from a friend, someone who had been “here when,” whose life was transformed by the events of this day, fifty years ago, and by that speech. A speech whose candence and words would have made a deep impact on someone who would dedicate their own life to the celebration of words. It gave me a chance to relive this day as it might have seemed to me if I had been not a still unborn future hyphenated dual citizen, but rather a boy growing up in Nebraska.
Thinking this morning of how old I was, fifty years ago. I had just turned ten. Getting ready for fifth grade. Mrs Armstrong, Calvert School. A bored, end of summer day on my hands. I had two best friends then – they lived on our street – Bill and Mike. Neither must have been about, so on my own I went into our basement where we had the tv to see what was on. Then it was about three or four channels that gave you what you might get., I don’t know if I tried changing channels, if what I was ran on all three or not, but what I saw was so spellbinding that I found myself riveted – and watched for however many hours I did.
First, this incredible marching, assembling crowd. I had never seen as many people thronging about like this – walking, these signs … I hadn’t been to Washington, DC, but had seen photographs – the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, all of that, all usually depicted with these park-like swaths of open grounds around them, that long reflecting pool. Here were all these people. I knew what they were about, what the march was about., There had been so many stories in the news – both on tv, and in the weekly magazines that came to our house – Time, Life (lots of photos), Look (ditto). I knew (then) this was about the South – where slavery had been, where basic rights were denied now.
But that this was a coming together – a demonstration (it must have been a new word to me) in Washington. I was trying to comprehend, I suspect, what this was, what was intended, how it related to what was happening in the South. A demonstration … Commentators must have helped with some of that. The sight of all these people – Negroes, as it was couched then, and white people. So many. With signs which said things that made impressions.
At some point the moving, the marching must have stopped, for a program with speakers was then shown. There wasn’t a lot of moving camera work. I remember a pretty fixed shot close to the speakers’ podium. I then remember various people speaking. This – all in black and white – must have been the first time I remember little white captions, words on the screen saying who people sometimes were. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP seemed to moderate, or at least was there talking a lot. I felt like he was introducing and/or making announcements. There was also Bayard Rustin – I remember the name ‘Bayard’ being unusual and that he was from the porters’ union – one of the most powerful organized groups of Negroes, a labor union of train attendants (I had to figure out what a porter was). There were famous people there, actors – Harry Belafonte. Probably Sidney Poitier and I think, Sammy Davis, Jr. That would have been about it for people I would have known. A James Baldwin would have been lost on me. People who sang there – The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan (at age 22,, I would later figure) would have been lost on me.
Whatever I knew of him before – I knew some things – by the time he was done speaking, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not lost on me. Not to go into all of what he said. I doubt I remembered much on the spot. But the long, slow, deliberate pace and weight with which he spoke (he who was only 34). The rising, peak and valley crescendo of talk came at the end, the part that short clips all play, but those really got their soaring, wave-like power from the slow buildup that preceded it. I remember all of that pouring right into me, including that at the end.
And then it must have been over. I must have climbed the stairs out of the dark basement (it was like coming out of a cave), I must have stepped back out into the late afternoon … and resumed whatever was up, seen if Bill or Mike was home yet, heard what our own house’s schedule was like (when Dad would be home, what time dinner, what dinner might be) … I don’t think I felt like I could really talk about what I’d seen, at least not to the places in me it went. Even as I was going about my 10-year-old daily business, something in me felt deeply altered.
How wonderful to think of the way that moments change our lives, particuarly the lives of children. I think about all that this boy would go on to do, the words of relevant people ushered forth, not simply what is deemed famous or fashionable, but what is good and important and life-altering.
Today is a good day to remember these things. To remember, also, that odd-sounding name, Bayard Rustin, opined upon today in the Wall Street Journal, a central figure without whom no march might have taken place, a gay man whose personal life was reviled in public by many who also participated in that march. To place that bit of information next to this other remembrence today: this day on which we mourn a young transgendered woman, Islan Nettles, murdered in Harlem because of her sexual preferences. And to remember what we choose to say and do when we are given the opportunity. A good day to remember exactly which anthem Marian Anderson chose to sing on that long ago day, and why she might have done so.
Here she is.