by Dr. Mark
Paul Robeson is the most complex and challenging African-American cultural figure of the 20thcentury. During the 1930s and 40s, Robeson had the international stature of a Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson. He was not only the best known African-American performing artist of his era, he was also one of the world's highest paid commercial entertainers. Robeson's prodigious talents spanned the spectrum of the performing arts, ranging from classical and contemporary theater to film, radio and the concert stage. At the peak of his popularity in the mid-1940s, Robeson was commanding over $2,000 per concert, making his annual rate of pay higher than that of Joe DiMaggio, and had an international audience for his films and music that extended into Africa, Asia, Europe and the Soviet Union. Among African-Americans, he was also widely admired as one of the greatest college football players of the first half of the 20th century and as the valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University. Throughout the 1940s, he was far and away the best known person of African-American descent in the world, far more widely recognized than his closest competitor, the great heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.
Yet within a span of ten years, 1947 to 1957, Robeson was virtually erased from historic memory. In response to a coordinated effort to impugn his patriotism, that extended from the FBI and US State Department to Congressional and state investigating committees, Robeson was barred from the commercial theater, the Hollywood film industry, radio and television, and from the concert stage. During those years, no major concert hall, stadium or amphitheater would sponsor a Paul Robeson concert, and two of his largest concerts held on private land, his Peekskill concerts of1949, were the subject of mob attacks spurred on by veterans organizations. The American establishment also tried to erase the record of his achievements. His trophies were removed from the display case at Rutgers University and he was excluded from the Football Hall of Fame. Many prominent African-Americans, under pressure from government security agencies, felt compelled to denounce his ideas. The NAACP and the Urban League, which had once treated him as the most honored of black Americans, excluded him from their meetings and from the pages of their publications. Even private individuals felt compelled to hide their respect for his ideas or attachment to his music. During the 1950s, possession of Paul Robeson records, or books and articles about his life, could mark a person as a security risk and get one hauled before a loyalty board if they were a government employee.
In a country that called itself democratic, that proclaimed itself the"leader of the free world," it is sobering to think that a person of Robeson's talents and stature could be silenced and marginalized so quickly, strictly for his political beliefs. What does it say about America that the most talented African-American of the century a scholar, athlete, artist and human rights activist, a man whose singing voice sent chills through those who heard it and who mastered thirteen languages could be turned into a non-person by the hysterical manipulation of public opinion? Paul Robeson broke no laws. His crime, to those who attacked him, was that he refused to denounce the Soviet Union as the major source of evil in the world and to sever ties to American communists he worked with in civil rights organizations, labor organizations, and campaigns to end European colonialism. The political and cultural leaders of the United States were so threatened by Robeson's political outlook and his utter lack of deference to the leaders of white America, that they decided to make an example of him that would redound through the ages.
In the last thirty years, Paul Robeson has been slowly rehabilitated. His trophies have been restored to the display case at Rutgers, his recordings have been reissued as CDs, books and articles have been written about his life, and he has been the subject of several museum exhibitions and documentary films. He is now mentioned in college history texts, and a few cities have even named schools and community centers in his memory. But Robeson still remains far less known in the United States than in England, Germany, Russia, China and South Africa. In the course I teach on the 1960s, which begins with a section on the Cold War, less than five of the forty students in my class had heard of Paul Robeson before I gave a lecture about him. Compared to the other great African-American activists of the twentieth century Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X Paul Robeson remains a shadowy presence, someone that many African-Americans, not to say Americans generally, are still reluctant to claim as a hero.
Why this ambivalence? Marcus Garvey held ideas that were extremely controversial in his time andwas arrested, persecuted and deported by the American government, yet he is respected by scholars and the general public as the leader of a mass movement which exerted great influence on African-American life. But, Robeson is, in some ways, a far less accessible figure. There are things about Paul Robeson that Americans in the 1990s find very difficult to grasp, and frankly, very difficult to identify with.
First of these is Robeson's connection to the Soviet Union and American communism. At a time when most people believe that communism is a failure as a social ideal and a political system, it is hard to understand why a person of ability and intelligence would sacrifice his career for such a flawed principle. But, we need to look at the world as Robeson saw it when he began gravitating to the Left in the 1930s. We have to remember that Paul Robeson left the United States in 1929, only to return in 1939, because he no longer wanted to subject himself to American racism. American society, the golden child of global capitalism, was poisoned by white supremacy. Not only were the southern states zones of political terror where people of African descent could not vote, serve on juries, or run for political office, but the rest of the country had apartheid-like social relations which humiliated black people at every turn. Even in liberal New York, Robeson was barred from service in most restaurants, hotels and night clubs, was confined to balconies inmost theaters, could not live in most neighborhoods, and could not work at most occupations. The other major centers of capitalist power the nations of Western Europe were less color conscious than the United States, but held the colored peoples of the world as colonies, denying them political independence and the right of self-determination. When Robeson became politically conscious under the influence of European and African radicals he met in England, he began to see that everywhere global capitalism had influence, it generated patterns of racial inequality or imperialist control that kept people of color in poverty and transformed them into cheap sources of labor. The Soviet union, and the parties under its influence, appeared to be the major force in the world challenging this system. When Robeson met communists, whether in Europe, the Soviet Union, or the United states, they described the ending of racial prejudice and the freeing of colonial people as one of the more important consequences of their war against capitalism. It also impressed Robeson that when he visited the soviet Union in 1935, he was welcomed with uninhibited enthusiasm by the soviet people and experienced a complete absence of color prejudice. So impressed was he by the egalitarian atmosphere in this predominantly white, but multiracial society, that he decided to send his son to be educated there.
When Robeson returned to the United States in 1939, he gravitated to people and organizations connected to the American Communist Movement because he presumed that communists would be the Americans most opposed to racism and imperialism. At that point in american history, his judgement was sound. Communists were an embattled minority in a conservative nation, but their movement was virtually the only organized group in American society political or religious that forced white Americans to confront and overcome their own racism. Not only did the Communist party and its affiliated organizations which included trade unions, peace organizations, fraternal societies and cultural organizations have many African-American leaders, but the Communist party's social life was proudly and militantly interracial. Communist social clubs, summer camps, resorts and housing developments welcomed African-American participation and actually encouraged interracial socializing, interracial dancing, interracial dating and interracial marriage. In a society where interracial intimacy was seen as a source of shame and illicit desire, the Communist party, virtually alone among political movements, insisted that fraternization across the color line was a natural and inevitable component of the practice of racial equality, something that would help, not hinder the struggle for social justice. For Robeson, being connected to the American Communist Movement not only meant that his cultural and intellectual achievements would be respected, but that his family and friends could socialize among people of different races, free of insult or suspicion something which was not possible in any other setting in the United States at that particular time in history. Robeson's connection to communism was not, in short, irrational; it was part of a principled protest against a world-wide capitalist system that appeared to promote the exploitation and social ostracism of people of African descent. While capitalism today may not have such a firm connection to racism, we can hardly blame Paul Robeson for responding to the world as he perceived and experienced it.
Another aspect of Robeson's legacy that confuses current generations was his working class internationalism, his conviction that there was a powerful commonality in the experience of workingclass people that crossed lines of color and nationality. When Robeson returned to the UnitedStates in 1939, he rarely performed concerts which only featured African-American music. Rather, he sang African-American spirituals and work songs in the context of a presentation of songs of the common people of Europe, Africa and the Far East, as well as immigrant workers in the United States. At the high point of his fame, Robeson was an artist with apolitical mission, someone who was determined to devote large portions of his time and energy to helping workers of different races and nationalities fight for their economic and political rights. Robeson always expressed great pride inhis African ancestry, and presented the cultural legacy of the African-American people with unprecedented eloquence and power, but he felt that to deal with black issues in isolation was to weaken their force. At a time when the American labor movement was reaching out to black workers for the first time in its history and when independence movements were arising through the colonial world, Robeson believed it would help African-Americans to see their struggle as part of a worldwide movement of oppressed peoples of all races. In particular, he saw African-American shaving a strong affinity with the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America who were oppressed both as workers and as victims of European and American imperialism.
Paul Robeson's record of fighting for his political beliefs, of giving substance to his vision of working-class solidarity, was quite simply unparalleled by any other cultural figure in American history. From1939 to 1956, Paul Robeson sang before more audiences of working class people, representing people of more racial and ethnic backgrounds, than any American artist, whether folk, classical or commercial. He did so, at great financial sacrifice, when he was at the height of his commercial popularity, and he did so when he was an outcast in his native land, unable to find a commercial concert hall which would rent him space. He sang to African-American tobacco workers in the Carolinas in schoolyards and Baptist churches, around the campfires of Filipino and Japanese pineapple workers in Hawaii, to black and white stevedores and factory workers in union halls in Memphis, to Jewish-American garment workers in Catskill bungalow colonies and Bronx social halls, to Finnish miners in their social clubs in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota, to Mexican-American miners in Colorado and Arizona, to black Panamanian government workers assembled in a stadium in Panama City, to crowds of thousands of auto workers outside of factories in California and Michigan, to an audience of Canadian miners and metal workers on the border between Washington state and Vancouver, to congregations of his brother's AME Zion church inhale. He marched on picket lines in the Bureau of Engraving with black workers seeking to gain access to the skilled trades, and with black and white housing activists seeking to open the largest privately financed housing development in the Bronx to black tenants. He was an honorary member of the Fur and leather Workers Union, the National Maritime Union and Leather Workers union, the Food and tobacco Workers Union, the International Longshoreman and Warehouseman, the McNeill and Smelters Workers Union, and the United Public Workers Union. He performed regularly at pageants and festivals of the International Workers Order, the left-wing fraternal order that had insurance societies among twenty odd language groups, including Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Finnish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, South Slavs and Jews. Because of his commitment to performing for and among workers, and his ties to unions that were trying to organize the most persecuted and marginalized of American workers, Robeson experienced the American working-class as multiracial and multi cultural. Although his deepest emotional connection was to the African-American tradition, Robeson understood that the United States was not simply a black-white society, but had peoples from Asia, the Pacific and Latin America doing much of its agricultural and extractive labor, especially on the west coast, and that their contributions to the building of America society, as well as their sufferings, had to be recognized and understood. At a concert which he gave in 1947 before a convention of the National Maritime Union, a multiracial organization that had an Afro-Caribbean secretary-treasurer, Ferdinand Smith, Robeson told his audience: "this is the reason I have come into the struggle, so that I can go back today to the people, to the Negro people, to the forces of labor. Speak to them not from the Carnegie Hall stage...but in their small meetings, in their churches, wherever they may be and it is with them that I will stand until the final victory."
Did Robeson's internationalism and his laboristic ideology dilute his civil rights activism? Did his concern for the suffering of workers of other nationalities make his fight for the rights and dignity of the African-American people less powerful? To arrive at an answer to this question, we must take a closer look both at Robeson's concert repertoire and the theory of American nationality that infused all his spoken remarks, whether formal speeches or commentary during his performances. Robeson's concerts were a living embodiment of his profound belief, shared by a small number of other progressive intellectuals, that beauty derived from labor and that virtues such as courage, solidarity, compassion and endurance found their highest expressions among the lives of the common people. Robeson's intonation, his diction, the timber of his voice, the controlled emotion he placed into each note and his extraordinary physical presence made his audiences, especially those of working class background, feel they were in the presence of something that ennobled them and gave their lives new meaning. Those who heard Robeson sing in the intimate setting of a union social hall or African-American church rarely forgot the experience. One of the most courageous people I have ever met, the radical minister and union organizer Claude Williams, a person who had been beaten, tarred, feathered and whipped, run out of three states because of his efforts to organize black and white southern workers in interracial unions, told me that the highlight of his life was being in the same room with Paul Robeson. I have seen a sixty-five year old musicologist, a head of the music department at the Library of Congress, start crying unashamedly when trying to describe to younger scholars what it was like to listen to Paul Robeson, telling us w could not have a Paul Robeson exhibit without hearing his music. I have spoken to a seventy year old schoolteacher from the Bronx who told me that her most vivid childhood memory was of sitting on Paul Robeson's knee while he sang a lullaby to her in the social hall of a Jewish workers bungalow colony in Peekskill. If the purpose of great art is allow us to feel a higher sense of our own possibility as human beings, then Paul Robeson was perhaps the greatest artist of his time, someone who found beauty in lullabies, work songs, the chants of road gangs, prisoners of war, peasants and soldiers, the music people sang in churches and on picket lines, making those whose work received little recognition feel that their labor made civilization possible.
And where did African-Americans fit in Robeson's pantheon of laboring peoples, this musical celebration of those whose labor built America and the modern world economy? They were at the center, the core; they were the people whose experience would ultimately be the test of whether America would reach its potential as a democratic country. Wherever he sang, Robeson placed the songs of the Negro people in the most prominent position, using them as the base of his entire concert repertoire. "When I sang my American folk melodies in Budapest, Prague, Tilfis, Moscow, Oslo, the Hebrides or on the Spanish front," Robeson told an interviewer,"the people understood and wept and rejoiced with the spirit of the songs. I found that where forces have been the same, whether people weave, build, pick cotton or dig in the mines, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering and protest.... When I sing, 'Let my people go,' I can feel sympathetic vibrations from my audience, whatever its nationality. It is no longer just a Negro song it is a symbol of those seeking freedom from the dungeon of fascism."Robeson also insisted that his audiences recognize the centrality of African-American labor, paid and unpaid, to the building of American civilization. "The great primary wealth of this land," Robeson told an audience of Canadian miners assembled at the Peace Arch in Vancouver, "came from the blood and suffering of my forefathers. ...I'm telling you now that a good portion of that American earth belongs to me."
With a power that has remained unmatched to this day, Robeson insisted that African-Americans were foremost among the diverse laboring peoples whose work and suffering made America a great nation. "Who built this land?" Robeson proclaimed. "Who have been the guarantors of our historic tradition of freedom and equality? Whose labor have produced the great cities, the industrial machines, the basic culture and creature comforts of which our Voice of America spokesmen talk so proudly about? It is well to remember that the America we know has arisen out of the toil of many millions who have come here seeking freedom, from many parts of the world: the Irish and Scottish indentured servants who cleared the forests, built the colonial homesteads, and were part of the productive backbone of our early days; the millions of German immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century, and the millions more from Eastern Europe whose sweat and sacrifice in the steel mills, the coal mines and the factories made possible the industrial revolution; the brave Jewish people from all parts of Europe who have so enriched our lives on this continent; the workers from Mexico and from the East Japan and the Philippines whose labor has helped make the West and Southwest a rich and fruitful land; and through it all, from the earliest days before Columbus the Negro people, upon whose unpaid toil as slaves the basic wealth of this nation was built! These are the forces that have made America great and preserved our democratic heritage."
What did African-Americans,
and indeed all Americans lose when this voice was silenced? One way to
answer this is to try to imagine where Paul Robeson would be today in an
America where even our most perceptive, class conscious young people sing
"It's All About the Benjamins" and "Cash Rules Everything Around Me". He
would be in the sweatshops of New York and California, where women from
Asia and Central America are making garments for Kmart and J.C. Penney.
He would be with the Nike workers of Vietnam. He would be with dishwashers
from Guatemala and E l Salvador who work 18 hours a day in the kitchens
of our restaurants. He would be with housekeepers and janitors in universities
throughout the country, trying to help them win union contracts. He would
be with African-American women in chicken processing plants throughout
the South, helping them fight for better wages and working conditions.
He would be with the people of all races in New York City, protesting the
police execution of Amadou Diallo. He would be with homeless families and
former welfare recipients who fill the food pantries in our cities and
towns. And he would be at our prisons and penitentiaries where hundreds
of thousands of African-American men, denied decent work at living wages,
are being confined and humiliated, treated like parasites in the land their
ancestors toiled so hard to build. In his time, Paul Robeson was the conscience
of a country that feared the very democracy for which it claimed to stand.
We need to incorporate his vision and example into our personal lives.