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PAUL ROBESON FOR BEGINNERS
By PAUL VON BLUM, ELIZABETH VON NOTIAS, RAMSES
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2013 Paul Von Blum
All rights reserved.
PAUL ROBESON WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST RENAISSANCE persons in American history. An exceptional scholar, lawyer, athlete, stage and screen actor, linguist, singer, and civil rights and political activist, he performed brilliantly in every professional enterprise he undertook. Few human beings have achieved his levels of excellence in one field, much less several. Any serious consideration of civil rights and radical politics as well as American sports, musical, theatrical and film history must consider the enormous contributions of Paul Robeson.
And yet, Paul Robeson remains virtually unknown by millions of educated Americans. People typically know him for only one, if any, of the major successes of his life: the concert singer best known for "Ol' Man River," the star of Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway in the early 1940s, or the political activist blacklisted for his radical views and activism during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s.
From the late 1950s until the centennial of his birth in 1998, Paul Robeson remained frozen out of the national consciousness, even though he was the most well recognized African American in the world during the 1930s and 1940s. His multifaceted talents were overlooked by his increasingly unpopular political activities; his support for the Soviet Union made him a pariah in his native land during the Cold War following the defeat of the Axis powers. He was excised from the history books, an erasure reminiscent of Stalinistera removal of "enemies" from photographs and other official Soviet documents. His disappearance from the official record, including from school textbooks and references in mainstream media sources, constituted an egregious example of reputational censorship in the twentieth century. This tragic reality has prevented millions of Americans from understanding Robeson's contributions to American cultural and political life. As historian Joseph Dorinson ruefully noted, "Paul Robeson is the greatest legend nobody knows."
The irony of Robeson's disappearance from public consciousness is striking and tragic. Members of the general public and prominent personalities alike held Paul Robeson in the highest regard, including world-renowned political and cultural figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Pablo Neruda, Sergei Eisenstein, Jomo Kenyatta, Jawaharlal Nehru and many more. American athletic and entertainment figures like Joe Louis, Canada Lee, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Zero Mostel, Odetta, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones and scores of others viewed Robeson as a cultural giant and moral role model, whose trailblazing efforts paved the way for decades of African American advancement in every walk of life. When Paul Robeson's life ended in loneliness and obscurity in 1976, a deep stain on American history surfaced dramatically with the media announcements of his death. This stain will take decades to wash out of the American social fabric.
The long overdue restoration process has begun. Several events and creative developments converged after Robeson's death to propel him back into national recognition, and reverse the process of reputational obliteration. An early example occurred in 1978 when Phillip Hays Dean wrote and produced the play "Paul Robeson." This dramatic effort chronicled the life of Paul Robeson from his childhood to his death, and focused on the racism he encountered and combated in every aspect of his life and career. Numerous actors played the starring role of Robeson, notably James Earl Jones, Ben Guillory and Avery Brooks. While the play was not without its share of controversies and mixed critical responses, it exposed Robeson's life and work to audiences, many of which were uneducated about his accomplishments.
The 1979 production and release of the short documentary "Tribute to an Artist," which Saul J. Turrell directed and Sidney Poitier narrated, continued the process of public reeducation about Paul Robeson. This engaging film, which received the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 1980, chronicled Robeson's versatile life as an athlete, artist and activist, as well as his blacklisting, relying on news and film clips, interview segments and photographic still shots. The presence of the universally respected and admired Poitier in this documentary added substantial gravitas to the project and bolstered the drive to restore Robeson's presence in American cultural and political history.
"Official" Hollywood also acknowledged Paul Robeson in 1979. The Hollywood Walk of Fame consists of more than 2,400 five-pointed stars embedded in the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood, California. These stars represent achievement in every aspect of the entertainment industry. Honorees include actors, directors, producers, musicians and more. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce administers the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Historic trust maintains it. In 1978, the selection committee, reflecting the anti-Robeson bias of the era, voted against a star for him. Widespread protest from more enlightened entertainers, politicians and civic leaders caused the committee to reverse its decision and a Robeson star was installed.
In 1980, the Recording Academy inducted Robeson into the Grammy Hall of Fame for "Ballad for Americans." Eighteen years later, in 1998, Robeson received an actual Grammy posthumously, thereby solidifying his belated recognition as a premier vocal artist of his time. These honors that acknowledged and celebrated Paul Robeson's exemplary musical talents propelled him back into the public arena after decades of forced obscurity.
Higher education entered the Robeson revival arena in 1988 when the UCLA African American Studies Center offered the first university course focusing entirely on Paul Robeson. Entitled "Paul Robeson: An American Life," this interdisciplinary course opened with "Tribute to an Artist" and covered the essential aspects of Robeson's life and career. The course attracted undergraduate and graduate students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and because it was well received, the course was offered every year for more than fifteen years. More importantly, the UCLA Robeson course was initiated at the dawn of the Internet era. By the early 1990s, its syllabus became available on several websites and other institutions began making it accessible to faculty and students worldwide. The course instructor made numerous presentations about the class in scholarly conventions and popular venues, and published articles in professional journals about its existence and success.
Likewise, in 1988, Beacon Press reissued Robeson's 1958 account of his life and political views, Here I Stand. On its original publication in 1958, Here I Stand was largely ignored in the mainstream press and reviewed almost exclusively in African American newspapers and magazines and in left-wing publications. With an introduction by historian Sterling Stuckey, one of the few Robeson scholars in the United States at the time, the new edition was well received and widely reviewed.
The 1989 publication of Martin Bauml Duberman's magisterial biography, Paul Robeson, marked a powerful turning point in reversing the Cold War obliteration of Paul Robeson from the historical record. A distinguished and prolific historian, Duberman drew on a vast array of primary sources, including family papers, letters to and from Robeson, interviews, government documents and other records to provide a sweeping view of Robeson's life. The biography presented a highly favorable view of Robeson while also addressing some of the more problematic features of his personal life, including his long record of marital infidelity, and his psychiatric struggles. While this narrative disturbed some of his more zealous admirers, it humanized Robeson's accomplishments by putting them into the context of a man who struggled to transcend the adversity of his personal life.
Duberman's biography was favorably reviewed throughout the scholarly press and the mass media. It helped catalyze Robeson's reentry into intellectual life. He was once again a respectable subject of discourse in serious academic circles.
The athletic world also took steps to remedy the long historical injustice when Robeson was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995, seventy-seven years after his greatest triumphs on the gridiron at Rutgers University. It is not unusual for Hall of Fame inductees to wait, sometimes for several years, for formal recognition of past athletic achievements. In Robeson's case, however, this protracted delay had nothing to do with ambiguity or controversy over his collegiate football brilliance. It had everything, on the contrary, to do with his political unpopularity and blacklisting in the post-war era. Nevertheless, the 1995 action constituted another step in the reputational rehabilitation.
The most significant factor in restoring Paul Robeson's reputation occurred in 1998, and it resulted from the massive national and international celebrations for the centennial of his birth. There were approximately 400 joyous affairs, usually complete with visual and musical expressions celebrating Robeson's career in numerous fields. Frequently, Robeson's friends and associates, including fellow victims of Cold War blacklisting, made dramatic appearances. Celebration committees were established in several American cities and throughout the world, while film showings, plays, concerts and other performances marked the one hundredth anniversary of his birth on April 9, 1998. Some of these centennial committees remain in operation and have sponsored community programs that reinforce contemporary memories of Paul Robeson, and bring his legacy to students and young people who may receive, even now, inadequate exposure to accomplished persons of color in their education.
In New York, in February 1998, Long Island University sponsored a well-attended Paul Robeson Conference that attracted scholars, students, labor leaders and multigenerational members of the general public. Several other colleges and universities held panel discussions and related events to reinforce academic interest in Paul Robeson. Many of these activities received substantial media coverage and numerous publications and curricular materials about Robeson and his life appeared shortly thereafter.
Centennial events were also held in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia, Portugal, Israel, Australia and elsewhere during that time. These international celebrations reinforced the American "reincarnation" of Paul Robeson's reputation. His removal from the historical record did not exist throughout much of the rest of the world, a reality that caused many American newspaper and magazine readers and television viewers to wonder how a man of such stunning talent could have faded so dramatically from public view. The international celebrations in 1998 reflected the isolation of the American destruction of Paul Robeson's powerful life and legacy and brought increased attention to the unsavory era of McCarthyism in American national history.
The belated issuance of a Robeson US postage stamp in 2004 constituted an oblique public apology and encouraged others to explore his diverse artistic and political contributions. Other countries had previously issued postage stamps honoring Robeson, including the German Democratic Republic (formerly East Germany), Guyana, and Mali. The US version was the twenty-seventh stamp in the Black Heritage Series, resulting from a lengthy and frustrating political struggle that lasted eight years. The campaign for a Robeson stamp, launched by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger in 1996, attracted almost one hundred thousand signatures on petitions to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, the entity that evaluates and recommends subjects for new United States postage stamps. Petitions were regularly circulated at Robeson centennial gatherings, and various other events.
This campaign attracted numerous letters, newspaper editorials and individual letters to the Advisory Committee as well as most members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Eventually, this political pressure succeeded, and the first stamp unveiling occurred at Princeton University on January 20, 2004, with Paul Robeson, Jr. in attendance. Similar unveilings occurred in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and elsewhere, often organized by local Paul Robeson centennial groups. These festive events usually included brief presentations by political figures, community leaders and academics, and were accompanied by musical performances featuring Robeson songs.
In 2005, moreover, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania organized an international conference, "Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual." The gathering attracted scholars, artists and community and labor activists who explored the many dimensions of Robeson's life. A key feature of the Lafayette Conference was the contemporary significance and implications of his work in such fields as theater, film and politics.
Finally, in January 2012, the United States Information Resource Center in Jamaica was named after Paul Robeson, recognizing his 1948 visit to the Caribbean nation, and his continuing stellar reputation throughout that region. With the US Ambassador and Robeson's granddaughter Susan in attendance at the ceremony, this event marked yet another step in Robeson's historical rehabilitation.
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, material on Robeson had proliferated throughout the world. Books and articles about him and various aspects of his life now exist in abundance. His vocal recordings are widely available; listeners have easy access to his magnificent voice and younger people may now hear his singing for the first time. Above all, the Internet is replete with material about Paul Robeson, addressing every feature of his life from 1898 to 1976. A simple Google search yields thousands of results, making it easy for researchers and the general public to re-discover the amazing accomplishments and controversies surrounding one of the most accomplished figures of twentieth-century American life.
The Robeson reputational rehabilitation process, however, is far from complete. The resurgence of interest in his life and work is modest, and millions of ostensibly educated Americans have still never heard of Paul Robeson. College and university teachers regularly report that the mere mention of Robeson evokes puzzled responses from their students. Although historical texts now sometimes make brief note of his efforts in sports, theater, film, music and politics, comprehensive discussions and analyses of those contributions remain scarce.
It is important to explore the deeper reasons for Robeson's long absence from public consciousness. The obvious reason for his disappearance from public view emerged from the anti-communism of the late 1940s and 1950s, often known as McCarthyism. This era has been extensively documented, with compelling firsthand accounts and perceptive scholarly and journalistic treatment. The record of federal and state investigations, loyalty boards and oaths, subversive hunts and FBI informers, political prosecutions, State Department restrictions on travel, censorship of mail and blacklists that led to thousands of people losing their jobs, most notably liberals and leftists in the entertainment industry, government service, journalism, the arts and education, remains a major blight on American history. As historian David Caute noted in his detailed analysis of American anti-communist hysteria in The Great Fear, "[t]he wealthiest, most secure nation in the world was sweat-drenched in fear."
Yet of the thousands of people demonized as "communists" during this time, Paul Robeson was among the most viciously attacked, with horrific consequences to his physical and mental health, and to the deeper principles of a constitutional democracy. Robeson was not only blacklisted from his American artistic career on the stage and in the concert hall and recording studio; he had his passport lifted from 1950 to 1958 and was unable to make a living abroad, despite his worldwide fame. He was under surveillance by the FBI from 1941 until near the time of his death. Government investigators harassed his friends and associates, ensuring that major segments of his own African American community would turn away from him, fearful for their own livelihoods and reputations. At the height of McCarthyism, sympathetic commentary about Robeson, even possession of a Robeson phonograph record, was widely regarded as evidence of suspicious conduct and political disloyalty.
Excerpted from PAUL ROBESON FOR BEGINNERS by PAUL VON BLUM, ELIZABETH VON NOTIAS, RAMSES. Copyright © 2013 Paul Von Blum. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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