Paul Robeson: Standing Tall Now, as Then
By John Pietaro
“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.
I have made my choice; I had no alternative”
The conception of art as a weapon has been promoted during various trying times in the people’s history. Within the twentieth century, the period bridging the earliest 1900s and the close of the Great Depression is most often cited for its protest arts. While many voices rose to prominence during that time, none have experienced both popular adulation and systematic governmental assault like Paul Robeson. Robeson embodied the “cultural worker” by choice and necessity as he fought for his own civil rights while struggling for global justice.
Some today wrongly see Robeson as a marginal figure, lost to the shadows of decades past; in this sense he is something of an enigma. That he was marginalized, indeed erased from much of our collective memory, was purposeful and a product of those who sought to silence him. Here was a figure beyond categorization. Robeson never forgot that his father was born into slavery and this shaped much of his future philosophy. Even in the adversity of his youth, Robeson strove to great heights. He attended Rutgers University, graduating in 1919, and there became an award-winning athlete. His achieved status of All-American on the sports field, however, did not eclipse his other areas of study: the young Robeson also became a champion of the Rutgers Debating Team, won Phi Beta Kappa honors and actually graduated as Class Valedictorian. His graduate studies would lead him to Columbia University law school and, indeed attorney status. But at the dawn of his New York law career he was confronted by an openly hostile and racist secretary who sought to humiliate the firm’s first African American. Robeson angrily resigned and while he recognized that he had another calling, he was sure to carry the emotional tumult throughout his life, seeking broad creative expressions of it daily. As he put down his briefcase and reached out to the stage lights, Paul Robeson as we know him came to be.
Always driven toward the theatre, he’d engaged in numerous productions during his college years. In 1925 Robeson leapt wholeheartedly into it, and turned professional as an actor and vocalist, rapidly achieving critical acclaim. His breakthrough role was that of “Joe” in the operatic Broadway musical ‘Showboat’, a work known as much for its early commentary on race relations as it is for its brilliant score. “Old Man River”, always the showstopper in ‘Showboat’, became Robeson’s signature song beginning with the initial run of the show. He embarked on a series of solo concert tours, usually performing with piano accompaniment and always taking on a huge range of material, from opera to spirituals to folk songs. “Old Man River” remained in his repertoire throughout his career, albeit adapted to its times. Over the years Robeson would modify the lyrics to better signify the struggle for the rights of Black Americans, changing “You gets a little drunk and you lands in jail” to the telling “You show a little spunk and you land in jail” (not so subtle commentary on the Red Scare as well as the Southern resistance to civil rights). More to the point, he altered “Tired of living and fear’d of dying” to the staunchly courageous “I’ll keep on fighting until I’m dying!”.
Robeson was a heroic figure to the American Black population, during decades in which a civil rights movement was but a wish for the future. Perhaps more than any other figure, he stood as a model to not only African-Americans, but to the white population as well. As much as he posed a threat to the powers that be, his image was that of a highly respected performer and thinker. The Left embraced him as both artist and activist, particularly during this period prior to the folk music revival – Robeson was the theatre component alongside other progressive ‘higher-art’ figures such as Stuart Davis, Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes and the Composers Collective of New York. Robeson’s schooled performance practice fit into the 1920s and 30s intellectual Left as an American original. On multiple levels, he stood as revolutionary.
Rather than taking advantage of his supposed naïveté, as the Communist Party had been accused of by reactionaries, American Communists met Robeson exactly where he was. He became a cherished comrade even if the specifics on his membership have never been made clear. But this man needed no encouragement to defy the standards that had created oppression, only a forum in which to stage his protest. Much of his activism was drawn from personal experience, that at home as compared to the treatment he received abroad. In contrast to the racial hatred he saw in the US, European audiences and particularly those in the Soviet Union, greeted him like royalty. He stood with and performed for striking British miners and he would continue to speak out for labor and other progressive movements all over the world. Thus, the entirety of the global Left, regardless of partisanship, held him in highest esteem.
It was during international tours that Robeson became deeply interested in other cultures and languages. He learned folk songs of various peoples, and then made a serious study of linguistics, eventually having conversational command of many languages. There never could be more of a “people’s” artist. And whether on these shores or overseas, Robeson brought his own culture to his audience. He introduced powerfully rebellious slave songs to mixed audiences, interspersing them with patriotic American works, as Robeson had a deep love of country, as much as he fought the separation and repression of its people.
However, popular acclaim would not elude him either! In the later 1930s to earliest 1940s, Robeson took on what is viewed as his greatest role, “Othello”, and he also became a film actor of note. Concurrently, he recorded several songs that became hit records, including compositions by Earl Robinson (another CP-oriented musician) “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans”. Both offered a strong visualization of American ideals and pride. Though the Cold war was dangerous to the Left as a whole, it hurt Paul Robeson in a most profound way. Opportunistically using the fear factor of the hour, Right-wing zealots pursued him, inasmuch charging Robeson with speaking out while Black. Immediately after the War, he began building a committee to sustain peace and he became targeted. Within a few years, the McCarthyites had something tangible-- a 1949 interview he engaged in with a French journalist. His comments concerned the invalidity of a US government that would call on its Black citizens to fight in war when they had no real rights at home. Reactionaries immediately branded him as “anti-American”. That same year, he performed at the concert that would be recalled only as the Peekskill Riot. Due to the slander of his own government, Robeson’s presence gave racists, many of which were Klansman and American Nazis, a chance to attack him as a “traitor”. The violence that ensued is legendary, with performers and audience members alike bearing the brunt of a brutal assault with clubs and rocks. Quickly, Robeson would see the walls of the Blacklist begin to surround him and do what no one else could----silence him.
What Red-baiting, physical assault and censorship could not fully achieve, the revoking of Robeson’s passport could. Beginning in 1950 and continuing for nine years thereafter, this international voice of the people was prohibited from travel. It was this lasting wound that would rupture contact with his audience and begin to see his erosion. How insidious the attempt to silence Robeson was can be seen in the Executive Order inflicted by President Truman in 1952 which stated that should Robeson attempt to exit the country, US border personnel were instructed to apprehend him, “by any means necessary”. It was this same order which was read aloud to him when, in 1952, he was scheduled to perform a concert at the Peace Arch in Canada. Unable to cross the border into British Columbia, he set up a stage on a flat-bed truck, performing to the Canadians from the edge of Washington State, while Border patrol officers stood cocked and ready.
Somehow Robeson remained a fighter in the face of this assault. Subpoenaed before HUAC in 1956, he angrily lashed back at his accusers, spitting back their own insults to them, reminding them that his father was a slave and that his people had died coming to this nation. He offered no space for the HUAC chair’s pounding gavel to interrupt him as he told the Committee that they were the unpatriotic ones. Famously, Robeson ended his statement with “You are the un-Americans and YOU should be ashamed of yourselves!”
He released his autobiography Here I Stand in 1958. Though systematically ignored by all US major media, foreign journalists hailed it as a great and noble work. An Indian tabloid’s review called it “The Black voice of God”. He continued intermittent performance for several more years, through bouts of major depression and several physical illnesses. Worn from many years of battle, he left public life in 1964. By the time of his death in 1976, Robeson was but a shadow of his former self. Few could believe that he had commanded such international renown. Far ahead of his time, he was perhaps the ultimate victim of a frightened, racist system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, suppressing rebellion and preaching hatred where and when it’s needed.
--An earlier version of this article was published in Z Magazine in 2004 --