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Paul Robeson: Standing Tall
T he conception of art as a weapon has been promoted during various trying times in history. Within the 20th century, the period bridging the early 1900s and the end of the Great Depression is most often cited for its protest art. With April being the anniversary of Paul Robeson’s birth, it is a good time to remember one of the voices that rose to prominence during that time. While there were many, none experienced the popular adulation and systematic governmental assault like Paul Robeson. Robeson embodied the “cultural worker” by choice and necessity as he fought for his civil rights while struggling for global justice.
Robeson never forgot that his father was born into slavery and this shaped much of his future philosophy. He attended Rutgers University (graduating in 1919) and 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 graduated as class valedictorian. His graduate studies would lead him to law school but, though he achieved attorney status, his heart led him to the theater.
Robeson engaged in numerous productions during his college years, turning professional as an actor and vocalist by 1925. 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 for its brilliant score.
“Old Man River,” always the showstopper in Showboat , became Robeson’s signature song. He subsequently 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.” 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.”
Perhaps more than any other figure, Robeson stood as a model to not only African Americans, but also 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. Robeson’s schooled, classical approach and performance practice fit into the 1920s and 1930s intellectual left as an American original.
In contrast to the racial hatred he saw in the U.S., European audiences, and particularly those in the Soviet Union, greeted him like royalty. He stood with and performed for striking British miners and he continued to speak out for labor and progressive movements all over the world. It was during these global tours that Robeson became interested in other cultures and languages. He learned folk songs in many languages and then made a serious study of linguistics, eventually having conversational command of many languages.
Whether on these shores or overseas, Robeson brought his own culture to his audience. He introduced powerfully rebellious slave songs to mixed audiences, often interspersing them with patriotic American works.
From the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Robeson took on what is viewed as his greatest role, “Othello,” and also became a film actor of note. Concurrently, he recorded several songs that became hit records, including compositions by Earl Robinson, such as, “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans.”
Though the Cold War was dangerous to the left as a whole, it hurt Paul Robeson in a most profound way. Opportunistic right-wing zealots pursued him . Immediately after the war, he began building a committee to sustain peace and was soon targeted. Within a few years, McCarthyites had something tangible—a 1949 interview with a French journalist. Robeson’s comments concerned the invalidity of a U.S. government that would call on its black citizens to fight for freedom when they had no real rights at home. Reactionaries immediately branded him as “anti-American.”
That same year, he performed at a concert that would be recalled as the Peekskill Riot. Due to the slander of his own government, Robeson’s presence gave racists, many of whom 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 surround him and do what no one else could—silence him.
What red-baiting, physical assault, and censorship could not fully achieve, revoking Robeson’s passport could. Beginning in 1950 and continuing for nine years thereafter, this international voice of the people was prohibited from traveling. It was this lasting wound that would rupture his contact with his audience. 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, U.S. border personnel were instructed to apprehend him, “by any means necessary.” It was this same order that 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 with guns cocked and ready.
Robeson remained a fighter and released his autobiography Here I Stand in 1958. Though systematically ignored by all U.S. major media, foreign journalists hailed the book as a great and noble work. He continued intermittent performances for several more years, though this period saw him struggling against bouts of major depression and several physical illnesses. Worn out from years of battle, he left public life in 1964. By the time of his death in 1976, Robeson was a shadow of his former self.
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.
John Pietaro is a protest musician, writer, and labor organizer.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.