Rescuing Paul Robeson

The great singer/activist, written out of history during the Cold War, is now being re-evaluated
by Gordon Campbell

Would it be any harder these days, for the US government to destroy the career of a famous American entertainer and disappear them from history – purely because of their political beliefs? You would hope so. In 1940, Paul Robeson – a gifted black athlete, singer, film star, Shakespearean actor and orator – was one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet.

Back then, Paul Robeson had been safe while the Soviet Union was still an ally of the “free” world in the fight against Hitler, and while the US had in Franklin D. Roosevelt, a President nominally committed to civil rights.

Within ten years though, he was an outcast. The US State Department dubbed him ‘one of the most dangerous men in America’ and seized his passport. As the US writer Eric Foner noted, Robeson learned at first hand that his own country had its secret police, its internal exiles, severe travel restrictions and persons written out of history. As the Cold War hysteria mounted, books and newspaper files about Robeson were removed from US libraries. In 1949, white bigots attacked the audience and performers at a Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, and reportedly put 132 people in hospital. A timid black leadership turned its back on Robeson. By 1960, he was all but forgotten by the civil rights movement he had supported. From there on, the tale is one of sickness, suicide attempts and depression until his death in 1976.

Last month, however, the British film director Steve McQueen ( who made Hunger and 12 Years a Slave) announced that his next project would be a film about Robeson’s life. This is welcome news, if it means Robeson will finally be rescued from virtual oblivion. On the other hand, how can a big budget Hollywood film possibly go about trying to explain – to a modern audience – Robeson’s lifelong commitment to Communism ? The temptation to resort to parlour psychiatry and to treat the Communism as either a ‘pathological’ response to US racism, or as an abiding ‘ flaw’ in the personality of an otherwise great man, will be immense.

Reportedly, McQueen’s creative colleague on this project will be the veteran entertainer Harry Belafonte, now 88 years old. As long as Belafonte is on board, one can feel assured that Robeson’s social activism will not be glossed over. Of late, Belafonte has been highly critical of the expansion of US state power, and of the reluctance of today’s leading black entertainers ( eg Jay Z and Beyonce) to make any comment whatsoever about it.

As Belafonte recently told the US entertainment industry magazine, the Hollywood Reporter:

“What we had during the Bush period, what we still continue [to see] even with Barack Obama, is the continuency (sic) of the paradigm…We still have laws that encourage torture, we did not change Guantanamo, we have laws that allow the police to arrest you at any time, not having to tell you why, and take you wherever they want. This kind of capitalism is taking us to the doorstep of [a] Fourth Reich, I think.”

Belafonte belongs to a generation of black artists who used their success (and their money) to try and advance the civil rights movement. He feels a sense of obligation to advance the lot of others that otherwise appears lacking among most other celebrities today :

I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility,” he accused. “That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”

So if Belafonte is on board, at least the political activism will be central to the story. The greater risk is that Robeson could end up being sentimentalised, given the giant shadow that Robeson has cast over Belafonte’s own life. A few years ago, Belafonte expressed his deep admiration to a gathering of Spanish Civil War veterans:

It is interesting to me that I should have been blessed in those early years of decision-making by having been embraced by a man who had a profound effect on my life . . . Paul Robeson. And it was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. And that if art were put into the service of the human family, it could only enhance their betterment….

To his credit, Belafonte did keep in contact with Robeson during the dark years leading up to his death :

Shortly before he died, I visited him in Philadelphia. He was living at his sister’s. And I looked at this giant of a man who was quite frail in body, but still strong in spirit. And through all that had engulfed him — McCarthyism, the difficult times that he faced in this country because of his beliefs, because of his resistance to oppression — I looked at him, and I said, ‘Paul, I must know. Was all that you have gone through, really worth it? Considering the platform you had gained, and how easy life could have been for you, was it worth it?’ And he said, `Harry, make no mistake: there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn’t worth it. Although we may not have achieved all the victories we set for ourselves — may not have achieved all the victories and all the goals we set for ourselves, beyond the victory itself, infinitely more important, was the journey.’

Which is touching, but is also the hollow stuff of eulogy. It is the sort of homage that embalms what it came to celebrate. Who was Paul Robeson? Who-ever you wanted to see. McQueen is going to have his work cut out making a living, breathing person out of such an icon.

What we do know about Paul Robeson are the basic facts. Born in 1898, his father was a Presbyterian minister and former slave, who was finally driven from the pulpit for preaching against social injustice. At college, Robeson had been a marked man on the football field. He responded to the racial baiting by becoming one of the greatest footballers in US college history. Later, the stenographer who told him “ I don’t take dictation from a nigger” taught him the likely limits on his planned career as a lawyer. Even at the height of his fame, he still could neither eat in the dining hall nor rent a room in good hotels in the northern states of the US– or stay at the Savoy in London, for that matter. It is easy to overlook that Robeson was also the first prominent black actor in American film not cast as an object of comic relief. He was also the first black artist to refuse to play to segregated audiences.

What made him into a Communist? The stereotype – still alive and well in some quarters – is that the big, genial fellow was too naïve to resist the wiles of the Muscovites. Tyler Branch for instance, in his 1988 prize winning biography of Martin Luther King, blames the Communists – and not the FBI – for “ruining” Robeson. It is unlikely however, that Robeson needed anyone to teach him about the existence of racism in America. Early on, Russia had undoubtedly struck him forcefully as a place where racial equality seemed far closer to realisation than it was in the United States. By the time he became famous, if he did have any misgivings about Stalinism – and there is no record of them – he would have been fiercely reluctant to be cast as an apostate, and used as a tool in the Cold War to denounce a country that had embraced him, and inspired him. In the early 1950s, he fiercely resisted the attempts of the House Un-American Affairs Committee to denigrate him as a puppet of Moscow. It was a tactical decision as much as anything:

Even during the post-war period Robeson was unwilling to denounce Stalin, claiming instead that the Soviet Union stood between the Third World and its exploitation by the United States. “If there wasn’t a Soviet Union to offset western colonial power,” Paul Robeson Jr explains, “Dad believed you’d have to invent it. That was a black view, not a white one. I don’t say he was a saint, but this was his conscious view of world affairs, not a naive position formed without understanding. Complex political issues like that are hard to explain in a bumper sticker! If people want a politically correct hero, then Paul Robeson’s not the man…”

Good luck to McQueen. It is not a simple story.

For anyone wishing to read more about Paul Robeson, the definitive work is the excellent 1989 biography by Martin Bauml Duberman. As a seasoned historian, playwright and advocate of gay rights, Duberman had direct experience of theatre and politics, Robeson’s milieux. The gap at the centre of the book though – once again – is Robeson himself. This man of ‘stubborn reserve’ wrote few letters and confided in few people. The reason why, for instance, he pursued so many extra-marital affairs – almost always, it should be noted, with strong women with whom he maintained lasting friendships – is left for the reader to speculate upon.

As for the music, this is probably even harder to communicate to a modern audience, and McQueen will find this problematic in his film as well. Personally, I find the 1930s recordings unbearably dated – and theatrical, in a bad way. The later recordings where Robeson sang with only his friend Larry Brown on piano (such as on the Songs of Free Men album of 1946) have lasted well, by comparison. The concert albums, where again he is backed only by piano, are also worthwhile. Someday, some kind soul might digitise and upload to Youtube the impromptu a capella performance that Robeson gave to the workers at Addington Railway Workshops in Christchurch, when he visited New Zealand in 1960.

Ass an introduction to Robeson, there is his lovely rendition of the gospel song ‘Balm in Gilead’. Another highlight is “The “Four Insurgent Generals” – a Spanish Civil war song. …and “This Little Light of Mine” is a gospel children’s song. It may sound like a traditional black spiritual, but was actually written in 1920 by a white music teacher from Kalamazoo. Later, it was adapted into an r&b hit by Ray Charles, and later again, into an Everly Brothers pop hit under the title “This Little Girl of Mine.”



Ironically, the FBI files that have since come to light indicate that it wasn’t his alleged support for the Soviets that had really bothered J Edgar Hoover and the rest of the American security apparatus. The FBI had been far more worried that Robeson would inspire the black civil rights struggle at home. By the time he could have played such a role however, he was already sick and broken, and had withdrawn from public life.

At the height of his popularity, Robeson gave a speech in 1937 that had begun by setting out his own position on the responsibilities of an artist. Given what happened to him later, it seems almost prophetic, and the opening words of the speech are now inscribed on his gravestone:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I have no alternative.