Thursday, February 28, 2008

Remembering Paul Robeson

An odd legacy of segregation in our country is the career of Paul Robeson.Undoubtedly a genius, Robeson graduated with highest honours in law from Rutgers University, majoring in law. A white with his credentials would have had a promising career in law, but in the twenties, an African American in the practice of law faced formidable barriers to professional acceptance.
The career path chosen instead by Robeson was acting and music rather than law.It is hard to imagine how he might have enriched the practice of law had that been an unimpeeded path, but the wealth of his recordings and films are a gift to posterity that has left our generation much the richer.
An underlying theme of his musical career was bringing the folk music of other languages to audiences around the world.It did not escape his notice that when abroad, he enjoyed a legal equality enhanced by his artistic stature. Although never a member of the Communist Party, he had close friendships with members of the party. He was welcomed and acclaimed in the Soviet Union, defending many of their policies, and even singing the Soviet anthem in concert, which at the time mentioned Stalin by name.
During the McCarthy era, this was an major liability his career suffered major setbacks when he refused to testify against communist friends in front of the House Un American Activities Committee.
I visualise the American political scene as a baseball field, in which the extreme left and the extreme right champion ideas not yet accepted in the political mainstream. Robeson had the misfortune to live in a time when the ball of racial equality was still out in left field. Lesser men were probably less adept at converting their social anger into something of public benefit, but Robeson was far above the crowd. Unfortunately, the personal acceptance he enjoyed in the USSR blinded him to its many injustices.
Examining the life of Paul Robeson is a lesson to me to watch the political outfield for ideas that need to be brought into the political mainstream. Society's march forward has always been a struggle for perfection waged by imperfect individuals. Like a bonsai tree that is sculpted into a tiny and peculiar beauty by pruning and trimming, I look at the emotional scars left on the generations of Jim Crow as having a haunting beauty.
The rich and complex life of Paul Robeson deserves study and remembrance. Our study of his and our nation's history should be considered a dialogue with the past about the future.
copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe
Please click on the title to this post to view and listen to Paul Robeson. Additionally, you can cut and paste the following link in the address window of your browser to view the Soviet Anthem Video Sphere: Related Content

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