February 27th: John Steinbeck & Marian Anderson

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 112th birthday of John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, among other American classics. Here at Speaking Up, I’m finding it incredibly refreshing that the first 3 U.S. Doodles of the year honored women, so that in 2014, Steinbeck is the exception thus far. We’ll learn about another American artist born on this day: Marian Anderson.

I first wrote about Anderson a year ago, as one of my nominees for February 2013’s Doodle-Worthy Women. Born on this date in 1897, her voice remains a benchmark for achievement in singing. Anderson was known for her ability to perform in a range of vocal styles, and her career ranged from performing opera arias to world folk music to traditional African American spirituals.

Anderson got her start in her church’s choir, when she was only 6 years old. Her aunt nurtured Anderson’s ability and helped expose her to music events throughout Philadelphia. When she was older, Anderson’s church raised funds to allow her to pay for formal training. Like other artists we’ve written about of this era, Anderson’s “big break” came when she won a singing competition. By 1928, Anderson was performing in venues like Carnegie Hall and touring Europe.

Marian Anderson, circa 1940, photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

Marian Anderson, circa 1940, photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

While her talent and fame thrust her into the limelight, she was refused access to certain venues as an African-American performer, and access to hotels and restaurants also served as barriers to a career as a traveling singer. As a consequence, she was often hosted by friends and fans, including Albert Einstein. For a long period, she also toured primarily in Europe, where she faced less open discrimination, and where she built relationships with leading composers.

Anderson thus also became a prominent figure in the struggle for black artists to gain full access and recognition as performers. In 1939, a scandal arose when the Daughters of the American Revolution turned Anderson away, because their event space was for whites only. The NAACP organized a protest, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt left the DAR as a statement. The Roosevelt administration and the NAACP then organized an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, to which Anderson’s fame drew 75,000 spectators, and even more over the radio.

Anderson eventually became the first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her incredible voice took her around the world, and she even performed at Presidential inaugurations. She also served as a “goodwill ambassador” for the United States and worked with the United Nations.

Anderson is a recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United Nations Peace Prize, and the National Medal of Arts.

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