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The Voice that Challenged a Nation

The Voice that Challenged a Nation Freedman, Russell.  2004.  The voice that challenged a nation: Marian Anderson and the struggle for equal rights.  New York:  Clarion Books.  ISBN:  0618159762.

With a narrative that flows as beautifully as one of the arias mastered by Anderson, Freedman tells the story of an unlikely player in the struggle for civil rights in America.  Marian Anderson began as a singer in her church choir as a little girl.  Through her dogged focus on developing her talent despite the obstacles placed before her because of the color of her skin, she was able to become one of the world's most famous and accomplished contraltos.  Because of her talent and the time in which she was born, she also became a symbol of the African Americans' struggle for civil rights when she was treated differently because of the color of her skin, such as being unable to get a hotel room in a city where she was to perform or being denied venues that the size of her audience demanded.  Through it all, Marian simply continued to elevate her singing, and that was enough to be a catalyst for change, although she did not see herself as an activist.  "I would be fooling myself to think that I was meant to be a fearless fighter,"  she said in her autobiography.  "I was not, just as I was not meant to be a soprano instead of a contralto."  (Freedman, p.91)

Freedman's concise and fast-paced biography gives equal time to Marian's struggles and triumphs.  By telling of the scathing reviews Anderson received after her first concert in New York City (Freedman, p.25) and her disappointing first tour of Europe (Freedman, pp.33-34), Freedman lets readers know that Anderson's voice was supported by hard work as well as talent.  It also allows readers to celebrate all the more when she returns triumphantly to New York (Freedman, p.27) and when she is told by Arturo Toscanini on her second European tour, "A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years."  (Freedman, p.41)  In his review in Horn Book Magazine, Sutton comments on Freedman's style by noting, "Because his account of Anderson's burgeoning career is so comprehensive, Freedman gives the familiar events surrounding the Lincoln Memorial concert fresh resonance and drama, and here moves into his forte, showing the accomplishments of an individual as both an actor in and an emblem of her times."  Freedman's extensive research is shown in the depth of detail, but it is also clear that every extraneous bit of information has been cut so that the text reads quickly and smoothly. 

The design of the book further lends it to a quick read.  The typeface and spacing of the text is pleasing to the eye.  Many photographs, newspaper clippings, and musical programs give further insight into the life of Anderson.  Readers are shown aspects of both her public and private life through family photos and concert pictures.  Pictures of events relative to the civil rights movement also show scenes from the times.  Detailed chapter notes (Freedman, p.97) give sources for quotes throughout the book.  Also included are a selected bibliography, selected discography, acknowledgments and picture credits, and an index. 

Sutton, Roger.  2004.  The voice that challenged a nation: Marian Anderson and the struggle for equal rights (book). Horn Book Magazine 80 (3). In EBSCOHost (database online). Available from  Accessed 13 February 2005.

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Holly S.
Graduate Student at Texas Woman's University