Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
Christopher r. Martin
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
Eleanor J. Bader
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
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
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.