Thursday, February 28, 2008

Looking Back At Paul Robeson( from

Paul Robeson

(b. April 9, 1898, Princeton, N. J.; d. January 23, 1976, Philadelphia, Pa.).

American dramatic actor, singer of spirituals, civil rights activist, and political radical.

Paul Robeson was one of the most gifted men of this century. His resonant bass and commanding presence made him a world-renowned singer and actor and proved equally valuable when he spoke out against bigotry and injustice. By the 1930s Robeson was active in a wide range of causes, but his radicalism led to a long period of political harassment that culminated in his blacklisting during the McCarthy Era. Although he resumed public performances in the late 1950s, this return to active life was brief. In the 1960s, serious health problems sidelined him for good.

Family Background and Education

Robeson's father, William Drew Robeson, was a North Carolina slave who escaped to freedom at age 15, graduated from college, and entered the ministry. Robeson's mother was Maria Louisa Bustill, a teacher and member of one of Philadelphia's leading black families. The youngest of five children,
Robeson was only six years old when his mother died. His father set high expectations for his children and sent them to high school in the neighboring town of Somerville, New Jersey, because Princeton's segregated system offered no secondary education for blacks.

In 1915, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College, where he excelled academically, becoming a junior-year Phi Beta Kappa, a champion debater, and class valedictorian. He was equally triumphant on the athletic field, where his imposing 6 ft, 2 in (1.89 m), 190-lb frame served him well. Twice named an All-American in football, Robeson also lettered in baseball, basketball, and track. He graduated in 1919. Two years later, while a student at Columbia University Law School, he married Eslanda Goode. Paul and Essie Robeson's relationship would be a rocky one, but her assertiveness and gift for organization proved vital to his career. Their only son, Paul Robeson, Jr, was born in 1927. In 1923, after earning his law degree and joining an otherwise all-white firm, Robeson decided to leave the legal profession. He
had found his true calling as a performing artist.

Stage, Concert and Film Career

While in law school Robeson had occasionally taken parts in amateur theatrical productions, leading in 1922 to his first professional roles - a lead in the short-lived Broadway play Taboo and as a replacement cast member in Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's pioneering all-black musical, Shuffle Along. Robeson's career-making opportunity came when he was asked to join the Provincetown Players, an influential Greenwich Village theater company which included the playwright Eugene O'Neill among its three associate directors. In 1924, Robeson appeared in a revival of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and premiered in the playwright's All God's Chillun Got Wings. In reviewing the latter, the American Mercury drama critic George Jean Nathan praised Robeson as "one of the most thoroughly eloquent, impressive, and convincing actors that I have looked at and listened to in almost twenty years of professional theatergoing." Soon Robeson was offered other roles, most notably a 1930 London production of Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft; a 1932 Broadway revival of Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern's musical, Showboat, which featured Robeson's dramatic rendition of "Ol' Man River"; and a long-running, critically acclaimed 1943 production of Othello on Broadway.

Equally significant were Robeson's musical contributions. Robeson and his longtime pianist and arranger Lawrence Brown played a pivotal role in bringing spirituals into the classical music repertory. Robeson's 1925 recital at the Greenwich Village Theater was the first in which a black soloist sang an entire program of spirituals. The concert garnered superlative reviews, propelling Robeson into a new career as a concert
singer and inspiring similar recitals by other black artists. Robeson also signed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company which released his first recorded spirituals later that same year. Although Robeson would sing a wide range of material - including sentimental popular tunes, work songs, political ballads, and folk music from many different lands - he made his mark as an interpreter of spirituals.

During the 1930s Robeson also emerged as a film star. His first role was in the black director Oscar Micheaux'sBody and Soul (1925), but he was most active on the screen between 1933 and 1942, a period in which he was prominently featured in Hollywood versions of The Emperor Jones (1933) and
Show Boat (1936), Tales of Manhattan (1942), and several British films. Robeson, however, was dissatisfied with his work in motion pictures. He came to believe that - with the exception of Song of Freedom(1936) and The Proud Valley (1940) - his characters reflected current racial stereotypes, or what Robeson derided as "Stepin Fetchit" comics and savages with leopard skin and spear." Working in films like Sanders of the River (1935), which sang the praises of British imperialism, became particularly distasteful as Robeson discovered his African heritage.

Paul Robeson Sings 'Old Man River'

His Discovery of Africa

During the 1930s, Robeson made London his primary residence, and "it was there," he recalled, "that I 'discovered' Africa." In 1933, he undertook the study of several African languages at the University of London. He also took part in activities sponsored by the West African Students Union and became
acquainted with future African leaders Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria. Robeson began to stress the positive aspects of African life. African culture, he argued, was more spiritual and more grounded in community than that of Europe or white America. Long before the Black Power Movement, he stressed the need to be "proud of being black .... For no one respects a man who does not respect himself."

Unlike many American blacks, who saw their role as one of helping to "uplift" and modernize the African people, Robeson thought it imperative that the American-born regain their own African roots. He rejected the assimilationism then prevalent among the black elite, insisting that "in every black man flows the rhythm of Africa." Indeed, he wrote, "I came to consider that I was an African." Yet Robeson clearly saw this "return to Africa" as a spiritual, rather than a literal journey. He rejected separatism no less than assimilationism and never abandoned his vision of an integrated society. Instead he fashioned a world view that anchored cultural diversity in universal values, among which the most important was a faith in
human solidarity that lay at the heart of his encounter with socialism.

Socialism and Political Activism

During the 1930s, Robeson began reading about socialism and taking part in political discussions with various activists and scholars, including C.L.R. James, the radical Caribbean theorist; William L. Patterson, a black Communist and American trade unionist; and the American anarchist Emma Goldman. In 1934, Robeson made the first of many visits to the Soviet Union. He was impressed by the seeming lack of racial prejudice in the USSR and by the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed citizens equality, "irrespective of their nationality or race." About the same time Robeson became active in various radical causes. In England, he took part in labor and peace rallies, Save China assemblies, and meetings to protest British colonialism in Jamaica. He spoke at a London rally for India's Jawaharlal Nehru, performed at benefit concerts for the Spanish Republic, and in 1938 traveled there to sing for Republican troops.

In 1939, Paul and Essie Robeson returned to the United States, where he continued to be politically active. Robeson sang the egalitarian "Ballad for Americans" over national radio late that year and recorded a best-selling version of the song for Victor. He supported the United Auto Workers and other unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); he served on the board of the new Negro Playwrights' Company; and he became chairman of the Council on African Affairs, an American-based organization that provided information on African struggles for freedom and lobbied African concerns.
During the Second World War, Robeson committed his prodigious energies in support of the Allied war effort and in protests against the poll tax, the segregation of America's armed forces, and the segregated venues for some of his own concerts. After the war, Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Bartley
Crum, a liberal white lawyer called for a national conference to secure a federal antilynching law. Robeson also protested the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act and campaigned for the Progressive Party in the 1948 election. Robeson highlighted the black struggle for equality in all his campaign speeches, even those he delivered - at considerable risk - in the Deep South.

Difficulties During the Cold War Era

However, as the United States entered the cold war, Robeson found himself increasingly isolated. Although he was not in fact a member of the Communist Party, he had close ties to many in the party's leadership, and he staunchly defended the Soviet Union despite the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and Khrushchev's 1956 revelations about Stalin's purges. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) placed Robeson under surveillance as early as 1941 and compiled a massive dossier on his activities. Yet it seems clear that he was targeted as much for his militancy on civil rights issues as for his alleged
Communism. The real turning point for Robeson came in 1949 when the Associated Press, in reporting his criticisms of the U.S. at a Paris peace conference, quoted him as saying:

It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.

Most Americans were outraged. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) announced that it would hold hearings to investigate Robeson and the loyalty of black Americans. White liberals and the black establishment, offended by his growing stridency and fearful of the taint of Communism,
distanced themselves from him. Even one-time friends, such as Walter White, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Max Yergan, former executive director of the Council on African Affairs, denounced his remarks.

Later that year, a mob of young white men disrupted an outdoor Robeson concert near Peekskill, New York, attacking concertgoers and sending a dozen to the hospital. Robeson himself narrowly escaped injury. A rescheduled concert, guarded by members of several left-wing CIO unions, came off without incident, but at its conclusion the audience found itself facing a gauntlet of enraged, rock-throwing locals. State and local police did little to restrain the attackers; indeed many joined the mob. But a grand jury
investigation wrote off the violence as having been provoked by Robeson's previous unpatriotic remarks.

Ultimately, Robeson was silenced, but doing so required the combined efforts of the black establishment - including leaders of the fledgling Civil Rights Movement- white liberals, the entertainment industry, and the government. In 1950, the State Department rescinded Robeson's passport, preventing him from performing or traveling abroad. At home he found himself blacklisted by Broadway and Hollywood, by concert halls and record companies, radio, and television. His only opportunities to perform were at small affairs organized by a dwindling core of radicals and at a few black churches like Harlem's Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church whose pastor was Robeson's brother, Rev. Benjamin C. Robeson. Denied a public voice, Robeson struggled mightily to vindicate himself and win back his freedom of travel. In his 1956 testimony before HUAC, Robeson offered a powerful indictment of
America's continuing racial injustice, but he steadfastly refused to condemn the Soviet Union, to provide the names of American Communists, or to answer whether he was a Party member, a question which he viewed as a violation of his Constitutional rights. In 1957, after a seven-year delay, the State Department finally granted him a hearing on the revocation of his passport. The result was a six-hour grilling, but no change in the government's policy.

The Final Years

Robeson fought his lonely battle at great personal cost. In 1955, he began to show the first clear signs of the emotional difficulties - probably bipolar disorder, a condition once known as manic-depression - that would eventually halt his public activities. It is ironic that he should pay so dearly for his alleged Communism. In truth, what lay at the heart of Robeson's political convictions was not Marxism so much as an empathy for African culture and an identification with common people, the poor, and the oppressed.

By the end of the decade, the worst years of the cold war had passed, and Robeson's troubles began to ease. In 1958, he gave his first commercial concerts in several years, appearing in Chicago, Portland, and several California cities. He published Here I Stand, a trenchant autobiography written with Lloyd Brown. And a Supreme Court decision once again permitted him to travel abroad. The next few years were busy ones, with American concerts and recording sessions for Vanguard; concert tours of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; visits to the Soviet Union; and in 1959 another London production of Othello. But on March 27, 1961, Robeson suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. For the rest of his life, he would struggle with severe depression, and his public appearances would be extremely rare. Robeson dropped out of public awareness and was largely ignored by the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, except for the militant young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At a gala celebration for his 67th birthday, Robeson was deeply moved when keynote speaker John Lewis, then the chairman of SNCC, proclaimed, "We of SNCC are Paul Robeson's spiritual children. We too have rejected gradualism and moderation." Yet there was more to Robeson than this. Beneath his militancy - and intertwined with it - was a profound compassion and a deep bond with Africa best seen in a passage he wrote in 1936:

I am a singer and an actor. I am primarily an artist. Had I been born in Africa, I would have belonged, I hope, to that family which sings and chants the glories and legends of the tribe. I would have liked in my mature years to have been a wise elder, for I worship wisdom and knowledge of the ways of men. Sphere: Related Content

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