Marian Anderson: The Goodwill Ambassador
At a post office one day, I saw stamps with Marian Anderson’s portrait printed on and told the clerk I wanted ten of them. As she handed them to me, I told her that I had heard Anderson sing in Korea when I was in high school.
“I didn’t know she went there,” said the clerk.
I told her it was a part of Anderson’s ten-week concert tour of the South Pacific and Asia in 1957, and that two years earlier, the State Department in Washington had awarded her with the position “Good Will Ambassador,” a prestigious honor any American could dream of. “I am one of the lucky ones who heard her live performance.”
“Wait a minute,” the clerk said. “I thought Marian Anderson was an actress, not a singer.”
I couldn’t believe how ignorant she was. I almost said, “Do you consider yourself an American, not knowing who Marian Anderson was?” But fortunately my gentler side (if applicable) took over the situation. “Maybe we are not talking about the same Marian Anderson,” I said, and quickly left the post office.
If the clerk had listened, I would have told her more about Anderson, especially the way her fellow Americans treated her due to her non-white skin, and what powerful messages she delivered to her fellow African-Americans of today, with her magnificent voice and elegant stage manners.
That summer evening in 1957, our family sat on the balcony of Ehwa University’s auditorium/gymnasium in Seoul, anxiously waiting for Anderson’s recital to begin. After the Korean War had ended with the Truce in July 1953, our country’s door was wide open, and world-level engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and experts in all areas of life poured into our war-wrecked country--some to help rebuild it and some to seek fortune.
Musicians, artists and entertainers came too. As horrifying as it was, the Korean War introduced us to the rest of the world, and now we were indulging in a healthy diet of cultural nourishment from all over the world.
As a sophomore in high school, I had just started playing cello, and my anticipation of hearing Anderson’s recital was beyond words. This was the singer the grand conductor Arturo Toscanini complimented by saying, “The world can hear such a voice only once in a hundred years.” How could one not be excited?
Ehwa University auditorium wasn’t built for music performances. The hardwood floor squeaked whenever someone walked on it, and the stage was poorly lit. The black velvet curtains on both sides of the stage weren’t the best things in music halls, but we didn’t know it back then. This auditorium was the only building in Seoul spacious enough to accommodate a thousand music lovers, and we proudly called it “The Korean Carnegie Hall.”
The hall lights suddenly dimmed, and tall black lady in a long, snow-white dress appeared on the stage. The applause shook the hall. She reminded me of a black swan with gleaming white feathers.
The program began in a hushed silence. As Anderson’s rich velvety voice echoed through the auditorium, I was led into her music world. While she sang Schubert’s Ave Maria, I wanted to rush to our church and kneel and pray; while she sang the Negro Spirituals, I was one of the cotton-pickers in southern America. At some point of the evening, I felt as though it was I who was singing my heart’s content, telling of my sorrow, my faith in God, and my longing for peace and freedom. It was something I had never felt before.
When the recital ended with three curtain calls, I wanted to be a musician. What would be more rewarding than being able to express my deeper feelings, like Anderson could with her voice?
Ten years later, I joined the Kansas City Philharmonic (now the Symphony), after two degrees from two music schools--one from Seoul, Korea, and another from Paris, France.
One day, during an out of town concert, I overheard the conversation that Marian Anderson had been the featured soloist with the Philharmonic a year before. It wasn’t a happy story at all. While the local newspapers raved about Anderson’s luscious voice and outstanding accomplishments, all hotel owners in downtown Kansas City refused to give the black singer a room. Anderson had no choice but get a room in all black area, miles from the Music Hall!
It was the first lesson that taught me about racial discrimination the white Americans inflicted on their black neighbors. I revisited the summer night in 1957 many times, while practicing cello or walking or riding a metro. How wonderful it would have been, had I joined the Philharmonic a year earlier and met her in person? I would have mustered some courage to go up to her on the back stage and introduced myself, saying I had heard her in Seoul. I am sure Anderson would have been glad to learn that her music so inspired a teenage girl on the other side of the globe that she eventually found her way to the United States.