Saturday, April 9, 2016

Paul Robeson: The Lost Art Of A 20th Century American Activist

Paul Robeson                                          Gordon Parks, 1942        

One of the finest natural singing talents of the last century was the American bass, Paul Robeson, born on this day in 1898. Robeson was a scholar, athlete, actor and singer, and a graduate of Rutgers University and Columbia Law School. You can read more about his biography here.  

In 1927 Robeson found instant fame singing "Ol' Man River" in the Broadway musical, Showboat. He achieved extraordinary international success over the next decade as a singer and actor. At the same time he was deeply concerned with discrimination affecting his fellow black Americans and Africans world-wide. A 1934 visit to the Soviet Union where he met Joseph Stalin and was treated like royalty helped turn him from art to Marxist activism. Sadly for the next 25 years his role as a Soviet propagandist completely derailed his arts career. Opposition to Robeson's political stance softened by 1960 and he attempted to restore his place as a singer. Unfortunately, ill health intervened and he returned to the United States where he lived a near reclusive life until his death in 1976.  

Although Robeson always denied Communist Party membership, in 1998 during the centennial celebration of his birth, Gus Hall, General Secretary of the Communist Party USA revealed that he was indeed a secret member of the party for several decades. More telling perhaps was Robeson's Stalinist dedication. This is what he wrote in tribute on news of Stalin's death in 1953:

Today in Korea -- in Southeast Asia -- in Latin America and the West Indies, in the Middle East, in Africa, one sees tens of millions of long oppressed colonial peoples surging toward freedom. What courage -- what sacrifice -- what determination never to rest until victory!
Colonial peoples today look to the Soviet Socialist Republics. They see how under the great Stalin millions like themselves have found a new life. They see that aided and guided by the example of the Soviet Union, led by their Mao Tse-tung, a new China adds its mighty power to the true and expanding socialist way of life. They see formerly semi-colonial Eastern European nations building new People's Democracies, based upon the people's power with the people shaping their own destinies. So much of this progress stems from the magnificent leadership, theoretical and practical, given by their friend Joseph Stalin.
They have sung -- sing now and will sing his praise -- in song and story. Slava - slava - slava - Stalin, Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands.
In all spheres of modern life the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. From his last simply written but vastly discerning and comprehensive document, back through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remain invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin - the shapers of humanity's richest present and future.

It may be difficult for some to understand how in 1934 Robeson as a scholar could be driven by the social ills of his native country into the welcoming arms of a dictatorship actively murdering millions of its own people. At least three factors were at work: the social and political devastation of World War I, a capitalist economy in depression, and in the case of the United States, an activist federal executive backed by a sympathetic national press. Had Robeson used his gifted voice rather than political ideology as the basis for his activism, I have no doubt he would have become a well-known, widely respected civil rights leader as well as a beloved American entertainer with a historic, lifetime career in opera, popular song, and jazz. 

Here's why I hold that opinion:


Photos and Illustrations:
Gordon Parks, Office of War Information photo, 1942, Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division, Farm Security Administration


Robeson, Paul (1978). Sheldon, Philip; Foner, Henry, eds.  Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, and Interviews, A Centennial Celebration, Citadel Press 

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