My mother and father walked everywhere; neither one of them drove a car. My family has its share of dancers, actors and athletes whose bodies are the tools of their trades. Yet on the downside, that same family has been ravaged by the devastating consequences of hypertension and heart disease. At the risk of sounding morbid, we’re all going to die of something. But too many of my relatives’ lives were cut short too early by strokes and heart attacks. So I am literally running with the clock. As I say in this video, I think I’ve found what works for me.
Reposting this in honor of the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard to believe that I wrote that Boston Globe editorial 25 years ago.
Regular readers of this blog know that the legacy of singer Marian Anderson looms large in my consciousness. My mother held her up as a hero. My sister was named for her. My father, a contemporary, was apparently smitten with her.
One of the first assignments as an editorial writer for the Boston Globe was to write a piece in honor of the 50th anniversary of Anderson’s concert on the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday 1939.
In that first Globe editorial, published on April 9, 1989, I wrote:
“Fifty years ago today, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 awed spectators and offered up her brilliant operatic contralto.
The concert was a triumph in an era of legal and customary segregation. Anderson, by then an accomplished performer in the US, Europe and South America, had hoped to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform there because she was black. Amid protests from musicians and public figures, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, and with her help, the show went on at the Lincoln Memorial.
Since then, Anderson has been a symbol of pride and achievement. Introducing her at the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday in 1939, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes said: “Genius knows no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts any individual above his fellows as a matter of exulted pride to any race.”
Unbeknownst to me then, my father had written about that concert in 1939:
“‘Whereas only about four thousand persons usually listen to her concert, seventy-five thousand persons in a visible audience and millions in an invisible audience heard Marian Anderson sing her program of triumph on Easter Sunday afternoon in the Lincoln Memorial Park within striking distance of the Capitol’s dome.
Miss Anderson’s unusually large audience was swept to her on the wings of bigotry and racial intolerance. Since a couple of nations in Europe seem to vie with each other in acts of racial persecution, it seems to be Uncle Sam’s serious ambition today to be on the right side of the pale – a sort of see-how-good-I-am attitude.
America’s escutcheon is well blotched with racial intolerance, discrimination and persecution. Up to now it’s the Negro who is borne the brunt, if not all, of this form of treatment. Lynching, ruthless lynchings, the Scottsboro Boys are inerasable marks. Scoldings, however, from within and jeers without are gradually bringing about actual efforts to earn herself a cleaner slate.
The old Devils of the American Revolution ran true to the Old America and cried ‘color’ to Miss Anderson. . . . But seeking no ally with Nazism and Fascism, official America loaned Miss Anderson the Lincoln Memorial Park and facilities for a worldwide audience. “
Coincidentally, Anderson died on April 8, 1993, almost exactly 54 years to the day after her triumphant concert. In another Globe editorial, I wrote that to my mother Anderson “represented a triumph over segregation and a counterweight to Aunt Jemima images.”
“As a youngster, Anderson was denied admission to a Philadelphia music school because she was black. She was given the keys to Atlantic City, but was not allowed to stay in a hotel there. When she sang in segregated concert halls, she demanded that seats be allotted to black ticket buyers in every section of the auditorium. . . Anderson often referred to herself with modest detachment. But for several generations of black women in America such modesty is unnecessary. Marian Anderson’s name and her memory are synonymous with the magnificence of her voice.”
I spent most of Friday, Dec. 28, which would have been my mother, Mary Ray’s 93rd birthday, reading letters like this one.
I missed her too. Even those times when I would be called upon to help her find her misplaced dentures.
Most of my mother’s notes were chronicles of her life as an empty nester, her reviews of cultural events, her updates on neighbors, friends and relatives and her travels.
“Wish you could’ve been at Uncle James’ on Sunday past. It was beautiful,” she wrote in a card dated Aug. 23, 1977. Then she listed the relatives whom I’d missed during her trip from Pittsburgh to New Jersey.
“Cousin Mollie said she had a magnificent time. Diane and her daughter were there; John, Jr. and Larry and family. Peanut [my cousin Robert] has a son named Lyle – looks just like him.” [It’s actually Kyle; we’re now Facebook friends.]
“All of Aunt Evie’s sisters and some of their families were there.” She referred to my cousin David as “The Lover,” and mentioned my cousin Michelle, whose eldest son was just a “fat baby boy of 10 months,” back then.
She loved her grandchildren: “You wouldn’t believe that my little Xmas tree is still up,” she wrote on Jan. 24, 1978. “Waiting for a visit from Chano and Lamman. They didn’t get over for the holidays, but boy did they enjoy the toys everyone sent them.”
“Today is M’Balia’s birthday, so they’re all here,” she wrote on Aug. 30, 1976.
In each letter she shared her worries. “Ellen will need some rest!!!” she scribbled along the side of a note dated Sept. 18, 1976. (I believe she was referring to the fact that my sister Ellen-Marie had just returned from a trip to Tanzania.)
“They’re trying to work out their difficulties. I’ve suggested a professional counselor,” she wrote about another relative and her husband.
Then there was my mother’s love life: “Uncle Fred has his house almost completely painted outside and wants me to select new furnishings, drapes and carpeting,” she wrote in one letter. In another: “He went on a Northwest trek with the AAAs from Western Pa. “Timing was bad for me, so was the cost, and he couldn’t afford it for us both.”
She never ended a note without dispensing some advice: “Glad the job is shaping up,” she wrote shortly after I’d taken my first job in Boston. “Don’t make any hasty moves until you thoroughly investigate any situation. Some sorority sisters might help.” [I assume she was referring to my search for housing.]
On her troubles with high blood pressure, she wrote: “It’s something that runs in the family. We seem to be victims of stress. Please watch it!”
She also was generous with her praise:
“Your March article in Essence is excellent. Keep up the good work.”
“So very happy for you, (Always) but particularly now as you join the Boston Globe staff.
But to her, being a good friend was as important as any professional accomplishment.
“I’m so proud of you, particularly as a very caring person. Pam and others are lucky to have you as a friend!” she wrote in May of 1988. “Continue to care about others and to render assistance in some small way when you can. Sharing our knowledge and comfort with our fellow man is truly our purpose for living on this universe or any other. You will be blessed manifold!”
It was as if she was talking to me from the grave, setting the stage for my New Year’s resolutions.
“I’d like for you and Ellen to keep the family home for a while. Daddy worked hard to acquire it. It took all his savings for a down payment. You may find it worth your while one day,” she wrote. She ended that same note with, “P.S. Don’t mourn for me. I enjoyed life and living and loved my family dearly! Mom!”
That note was not dated, but based on its other contents, it was written in the 1970s. She definitely got a lot more living and loving in before she died in 2002.
Well, ok, then Mom. I hope you are resting well, dispensing your wisdom and comfort from whatever “universe” you happen to be on.
Happy New Year to all, and here’s to “manifold” blessings in 2013.
Today is my sister Malaya’s birthday. She is my parents’ second born, a dancer, storyteller, stage mother, earth mother – an artist in every sense of the word. It was preordained. Before she was Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, the name she uses now, she was Marian, named for Marian Anderson.
I always knew my mother revered the renowned contralto. My mother admired Anderson’s quiet dignity in the face of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who refused let Anderson sing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall. To my mother, Anderson’s victorious concert on Easter Sunday 1939, before a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial was a milestone in black history.
But for my father the connection may have been more personal. Marian Anderson was his contemporary. They were both born at the end of the 19th century. I believe he was smitten.
“With scores of her elated and admiring auditors standing at the footlights literally drinking the melodious strains which flowed from the fountain of her golden voice, Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed contralto, sang a farewell number on Sunday evening last, he wrote in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Age on May 14, 1938. “This was Miss Anderson’s final appearance in America this season and was given at the Carnegie Hall.”
After that concert, my father wrote, well wishers “of both races then repaired to her dressing room to shake hands with her and tender their congratulations. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of tea roses.” I suppose he witnessed this firsthand. (Did he offer the roses?)
In a Nov. 13, 1943 review of a Pittsburgh concert, also written for the New York Age, Ebenezer called Anderson the “world’s greatest contralto.”
“Miss Anderson was in excellent voice and charmingly gowned,” he wrote. His only complaint was that the “motley” Pittsburgh audience was too subdued. Yes, there were plenty of compliments from the audience as they left Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, where the performance was held.
“To this erstwhile New Yorker, however, two things were missing from this recital. There were no shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the ‘peanut gallery,’ which was only two tiers up, and there were no American Beauty roses, nor orchids. In brief, Miss Anderson received no flowers. But this is Pittsburgh!”
Ebenezer would come to love, or at least accept, Pittsburgh. He would fall in love with my mother and out of that love would come three daughters, the second of whom was born on this date.
Malaya is very different from her namesake. She leans more toward classical African and Caribbean beats than Scarlatti or Schubert. Of course, these two women came of age in different times. I can only imagine what Malaya would have told the DAR. She might have even taken over the stage.
I’ve often wondered why the only one of the three of us who was named after a historical figure would change her name. The answer is simple. Malaya always has been, and will forever be, her own person.
Happy Birthday, Malaya!
Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’ — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!'”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.