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Happy Birthday, Paul!

by Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor

The life of actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson bears the deep, horrible and wondrous marks of America as perhaps no other. For who else could there be a Hollywood Walk of Fame award, a Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement and a Stalin Peace Prize?

His birthday on April 9 annually invites us to consider the greatness, controversy and tragedy of this Renaissance man—the magnificence and pain of his lush bass-baritone; the profound parallels between Robeson and "Othello," which he played on Broadway and in London, declaring, "I have done some service to the state, and they know it;" the measure of Robeson as eulogized at Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem: "This was a man," said his boyhood friend Bishop J. Clinton Hoggard, "who bore on his body the marks of Jesus... marks of vengeance."

Robeson was marked as he walked America's jagged, rocky color line, the line that W.E.B DuBois called the "problem of the 20th century." After winning a scholarship to Rutgers University, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and went on to Columbia Law School. He was an All-American football player who lettered in three other sports, a star of Broadway and film and a popular recording artist who spoke 20 languages. His friends would include many of the century's luminaries, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Noel Coward, Sergei Eisenstein, Jomo Kenyatta and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Robeson was also the son of an escaped slave. His childhood was fired in the kiln of a turn-of-the-century America that increasingly offered grisly murder, violence and disenfranchisement to its African American citizens. The film, "Birth of A Nation," which glorifies the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, was a national hit in 1917 and prominent educators promoted the inferiority of blacks as a scientific fact. When Robeson tried out for the football squad at Rutgers, his own schoolmates broke his nose, dislocated his shoulder and crushed his bare hand under metal cleats, ripping off every fingernail.

Growing up on that line made Robeson identify with the oppression of his people, eventually finding links between racism at home and fascism abroad. It dictated how he viewed slavery and freedom, justice and inequality, life and death. As a result, he elevated slave-honed spirituals to a form of classical music. He walked out on a lucrative film career rather than continue to perpetuate characters he described as "Stepin Fetchit comics" or "savages with leopard skin and spear." And finally, to his eventual downfall, he would remain a staunch critic of capitalist America—where black soldiers returned from World War II and were lynched still wearing their uniforms. At the height of this country's anti-communist fervor, he would defend the Soviet Union, where he felt during his several visits, beginning in 1934, that he had walked "for the first time as a human being."

Folksinger Pete Seeger once said, "If it hadn't been for race prejudice in America, Robeson might have been president."

 

Early Years

I got a home in-a-dat rock. Don't you see?

It was in the churches pastored by his father, William Drew Robeson, that Robeson learned the spirituals that would fuel his fame. His father had escaped a North Carolina plantation in 1860 at the age of 15 and trained as a minister. After speaking out one too many times about racial equality, the elder Robeson was forced out of a black but white-controlled Presbyterian church in Princeton, N.J. in 1901. Seven years later, he reestablished himself in Westfield, N.J. where he built the Downer Street St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church. He later pastored in Somerville, N.J.

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton on April 9, 1898. When he was six years old, his mother died due to burns from a fire. The Westfield congregation helped to look after him and his brother Ben, the only two of the family's five children still living at home. As the baby of the family, Paul was doted upon by his elderly father and older siblings.

In taking this heritage into concert halls, Robeson was among the Harlem Renaissance artists who spread the flowering of African American culture to the larger nation.and world. Though he received his degree from Columbia Law School in 1923, Robeson learned that racism would make it difficult to actually practice law. With prodding from Eslanda Goode Robeson, whom he married in 1921, and friends like his lifelong musical collaborator Larry Brown, he sort of stumbled into singing and acting.

At his New York concert debut in April 1925, in a small Greenwich Village theater, the crowd was packed beyond the fire safety limit. Given advance buzz by writer, artist and arts patron Carl Van Vechten and by a generous column in the New York World, more clamoured on the sidewalk for tickets to hear a new voice singing this trendy new thing called Negro spirituals.

Some black intellectuals such as Alain Locke, in promoting the idea of the "New Negro," argued to Robeson that folk sources, such as his spirituals, were not important. Some middle class blacks considered spirituals—often rendered in dialect—a throwback to slavery. But like his contemporary, Zora Neale Hurston, Robeson stressed the importance of elevating indigenous African American culture as opposed to parroting Euro-American classical culture.

When he was bound for Kansas City in 1927 to perform, this debate raged in the local black press for months. Most readers supported Robeson but others accused Robeson of "commercializing our backwardness." One reason for the endurance of the African American spiritual is because it has always served the double purpose of worship and social commentary—as it did for Robeson: "Didn't my lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?"

Music

On dozens of his recordings, such as "Paul Robeson: Songs of Free Men" (Sony); "Paul Robeson: The Peace Arch Concerts" (Folk Era), "Paul Robeson: Live At Carnegie Hall" (Vanguard), you can hear his unmistakable voice giving dignity to spirituals and slave songs. He sings with passion songs of the labor movement like "Joe Hill" and gives warmth to international songs—particularly Chinese and Russian—that he often delivers in their native tongue. He felt a kinship with folk music from around the world, and found parallels between it and African American spirituals.

He is most popularly remembered for singing "Ol Man River," in both a theatrical and film production of "Show Boat." Eventually, he changed the final lyrics to "I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin" to "I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin.'" Even until the end of his singing career—when the song could have sounded antiquated—people all over the world, Russians, anti-Franco forces in Spain, miners in Wales, a fashionable Carnegie Hall crowd—went wild when he rumbled its first bass notes.

His musical career chronicles his restless life. Increasingly in the 1930s, his concerts were dedicated to political causes. In 1938 he went to Spain to sing for the troops battling the fascist revolt of Francisco Franco. After having lived in England for a decade, and during that time educating his son, Paul Robeson Jr., in the Soviet Union, he returned to the United States in 1939 to play a greater part in politics at home.

"I saw the connections between the problems of all oppressed people and the necessity of the artist to participate fully," he said.

That same year, he enjoyed national pop star status with his recording of the patriotic "Ballad For Americans." "Our marching song" to a land of freedom and equality "will come again," he sang. "For I have always believed it and I believe it now!"

After his triumph with "Ballad for Americans," Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times theater critic wrote him, saying that "Ballad" had made a "deep impression" on him and thanked him "for your voice, which God gave you, and especially... for the fortitude and honesty of your character, which are qualities for which you are responsible."

But in a few years, voices of praise would be drowned out by voices of condemnation. Where once huge crowds packed arenas like the Hollywood Bowl to hear him sing, they would soon want him to sing but be silenced politically.

"We want him to sing, and go on being Paul Robeson," said the New York Times in 1949. One English critic wrote that, compared to the new Robeson, he preferred the old one in one of his unfortunate film roles, wearing feathers and carrying as spear as an African named "Bosambo."

You could say that White America ultimately embraced Paul Robeson as an artist but denied him his political stance. Most African Americans embraced his outspokeness—particularly about racial inequality?but often sharply debated or criticized his work as an artist—particularly his images on stage and in film.

Film and Image

Look here, white man? Do you think I'm a natural born fool??
— Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones

Despite failures and embarrassments, Robeson set a precedent for Black actors—Sidney Poitier in the 1960's, and a newer crop of actors, including Denzel Washington, to portray Black men on stage and screen who are not one-dimensional stereotypes.

As with Josephine Baker, his Black image would become an emblem. Standing six-foot-three and muscled, with a broad chest and kingly African features, he was besieged with requests from artists to photograph, paint and sculpt him. British sculptor Jacob Epstein's bust of him renders his eyes wide and terrible as if Robeson has the ability to see heaven and hell. A series of nudes of him, by photographer Nikolas Murray, portray him as a fine ebony Atlas.

"That Mr. Robeson should be stripped to the waist is my first demand of any play in which he appears," one English critic wrote in 1931.

But it was a long, tough road. He actually began acting before he began professionally singing. While he was still in law school and living in Harlem, he lived next door to a rehearsal hall for the Amateur Players, a group of students, and finally consented to their continual requests to join them in a production, which he did in 1920, appearing in "Simon the Cyrenian.11 After that, a series of roles came his way in productions, including: "Shuffle Along, (1921),11 "Taboo," later titled "Voodoo (1922), "Plantation Revue" (1922), "All God's Chillun Got Wings," "The Emperor Jones" and "Roseanne (1924), "Black Boy," (1926), "Othello," In England (1930), "Hairy Ape," (1931), "Show Boat (1932), "John Henry" (1939) and "Plant in the Sun" (1938).

In his Broadway rendition of "Othello" beginning in 1943, the longest running production of Shakespeare there, Robeson crashed theater's color line, interpreting the role as he thought a black man betrayed by whites would react. Variety wrote, "no white man should ever dare presume to play the role again." He appeared in a dozen films, ten of them British, including, "Body And Soul" (1925); "The Emperor Jones" (1933); "Sanders of the River" (1935); "Showboat," (1936) and "Jericho" (1937).

In the best of his roles, he provided a measure of fresh air to black audiences desperate for something other than the usual cast of denigrating characters.

In "Proud Valley," for example, he purposely counters the popular stereotype of the lazy, shiftless Negro. Robeson identified with the average guy. He wanted to be Everyman, even though his size, presence, voice and—in these British films—his color made that next to impossible.

This presence would have served him well as a dashing leading man but few such roles were available. He gets close in "Jericho," in which he played Jericho Jackson, a soldier with skills as a doctor who avoids capture and wrongful prosecution.

Even in his more questionable roles, Robeson has his moments. In "The Emperor Jones," based on the play by Eugene O'Neill, he gets to look good in his Pullman porter uniform, slick city suits and, finally, his ridiculous emperor tailcoat. He gets to outsmart white people. Poking out his chest and his lip, Robeson parodies the petty tyrant with attitude and gusto.

In playing "Emperor Jones," which ultimately reinforced stereotypes of blacks as uncivilized and incapable rulers, Robeson showed the compromises black actors had to make to get the scarce roles available.

"Japhet in search of a father was not a more forlorn figure than Mr. Robeson in search of a play," wrote one critic.

In both "Showboat" and "Tales Of Manhattan," the two American films in his repertoire, his parts are marginal. They both cast Robeson and the African American community as bit players to whites. At first glance, his role in "Showboat" would appear to be positive. His character sits on the dock whittling. He looks strong and reflective, not bug-eyed and slow.

Similarly, in "Tales," Robeson's character lives in a rural community where a coat whose pockets are filled with thousands of dollars has just fallen from the sky. Some writers for the black press said that by portraying the town folk as grateful for the money "from hebben," the film makes them look ignorant and foolish. But critics could just as well have noted that Robeson gets to make a good sense speech about using the money to buy land and build hospitals and schools.

Though England would provide him with his best roles in films like "Jericho" and "Proud Valley," it would also provide him with his worst. Just as Hollywood placed African Americans within a framework of stereotypes, English films did the same for Africans and the continent of Africa, still held as colonies by England and other European countries. By far the worst of these Robeson films is "Sanders of the River," a paean to European colonialism in which entire African nations quake at the feet of a nerdy British civil servant named Sanders. As a king, Bosambo, Robeson declares himself to be Sandy's servant, uses his lush voice to sing Sandy's praises: "Sandy the strong! Sandy the wise!" and heaps worshipful praise on the English monarchy: "Every time I've seen the beautiful face of your king, my heart has filled with joy."

In the 1940's he would give up on film making, deciding that the industry was not ready for a celluloid version of black life that did not grin, shuffle or run with a spear shouting "ooga-booga."

Political Furor

By the 1940's, he was also increasingly estranged from his wife who, according to his biographer Martin Duberman, lived apart from him for most of her life, though she remained a fervent supporter. During this time, he became increasingly uninterested in any art that did not allow him mix in politics.

Paul Robeson as Othello
by Alfred Bendiner.

"I do the singing and acting because it helps me to make a statement, gives me a platform to say what I believe," he told his "Othello" co-star Uta Hagen.

On the heels of his success in 1939 with "Ballad For Americans,," he supported the American war effort by touring with the first integrated U.S.O. show. He also performed concerts at war plants at home. Like many leftists of his generation, he was full of optimism about Soviet socialism in its early fits and starts as a new society. World events and the Soviet Union's increasing corruption were processed through this hope. He saw the Hitler-Stalin pact as a fact of life forced on the Soviets because Western countries refused to cooperate with them.

For a long time, his marriage of art and politics was fine. In addition to championing the cause of colonized people in Africa, Asia and in Central and South America, he was a fervid anti-fascist. In defending the Spanish Republic against Franco and defending the Soviet Union, his views were not too far out of line from those of many Americans, especially during World War II after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and when the Soviet Union and the United States were war allies. But the post-war climate was something else. Across the United States the focus was on the Soviet Union's expansion into countries like Poland and Romania and later on the revelation of millions killed under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But Robeson was alarmed, instead, by the fact that the war just fought for freedom had not brought an end to the brutalities and death in South Africa from colonial domination over much of the world by Europe.

"Little is said of the cold war of racial hatred, malice and intolerance, which is being waged with an intensifed fury in an attempt to hold millions of people of non-European race in permanent subjection," he said at the time. "A Negro may be lynched in the Southern States of America if he attempts to use his vote. In South Africa he is in no such danger, only because he has no vote."

He turned more of his energy toward speaking out on his beliefs. He was never, by all accounts, a member of the Communist Party. Yet he had close and enduring ties to members of the party and other major leftist organizations. He headed the Council on African Affairs, at that time the country's most important organization concerned with the welfare of Africa. In 1946, he spent a great deal of energy campaigning for the Progressive Party's presidential candidate, Henry Wallace and, when he could have remained snug in individual privilege, he told President Truman that if anti-lynching laws weren't passed, black people would collectively arm and defend themselves.

As early as 1943, while Robeson was receiving accolades as "Othello," F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover placed him on "custodial detention list," a list of suspected subversives who would be rounded up and detained during a national emergency. In 1948, he was brought before a Senate subcommittee investigating whether all Communist and so-called "Communist-front organizations" should be required to register with the government.

When he spoke out at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in 1949, it was a major turning point in his life. In a famous though apparently universally misquoted statement, he questioned why in the increasingly cold climate of the cold war African American or colonized people should make war against the Soviet Union.

After that he was attacked broadly in the United States for his views. His persecutors began to close around him. Years of F.B.I. surveillance and harassment was coming to fruition (at some point a federal investigator believed that Robeson was part of a conspiracy to set up a Soviet satellite country in the southern United States).

Concert halls barred his performances, two concerts in Peekskill, N.Y. turned into violent attacks against leftists, Jews and blacks. In 1950, The U.S. State Department stripped him of his passport, stating that his travel "would be contrary to the best interests of the United States." In a footnote to court documents filed in the case, the State Department added that his outspokeness against racism and in support of the colonized people of Africa was a "diplomatic embarrassment."

The banning effectively prevented him for making a living around the world where he continued to have support. His records were taken out of stores. Neighbors "reported" neighbors who played Robeson records. It didn't help when in 1952 he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize— which honored leftists and supporters of the Soviet Union those who oppose war. His name was obliterated from athletic record books. His income dropped from $100,000 in 1947 to $6,000 in 1952 He independently published his 1958 book, "Here I Stand," because no commercial publisher would touch it.

At issue were differing definitions of patriotism and loyalty. When he was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955, Representative Gordon Scherer (R-Ohio) asked him why he didn't just go and live in Russia. He replied, "Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?"

The years of confinement took their toll on both his physical and mental health. By the time his passport was returned in 1958 and he attempted a resurgence, he was once again received with enthusiasm among his hardcore supporters, by this point primarily African Americans, in the United States. In that same year, he gave his first New York concert in ten years at a sold-out Carnegie Hall and the next year starred as Othello at the 100th season of England's Stratford-upon-Avon Memorial Theater.

But his health was in jeopardy. In 1963 while in Europe, he suffered a series of mental breakdowns and attempted suicide. His son, who also suffered a breakdown, stated his belief that both of them were victims of poisoning by the C.I.A. In England he received a treatment of 54 electric shock treatments during one single year that was considered excessive by independent specialists reviewing the case. Later, the treatments were determined to have caused brain damage. When he returned to the United States at the height of the civil rights movement, he was often forgotten by a new generation of activists who did not know the pioneering role he had played in speaking out for human rights and in forcing America to confront a black man who would not bend.

He lived his later years bearing the physical and emotional marks of a lifetime of battle. His poor health prevented him from attending a celebration of his 75th birthday at Carnegie Hall in 1973 but he sent a message that said, in part, "Though I have not been active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.

But I keeps laughing
Instead of crying.
I must keep fighting until I'm dying.
'And Ol Man River He just keeps rolling along!'"

His wife had died in 1965. He was cared for by family, primarily his sister Marian Forsythe, at her home in West Philadelphia. He died in Philadelphia in January 1976.

Endnotes

On a grassy hill in Hartsdale N.Y., Paul Robeson's tombstone reads: "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." This grave marker is the final mark he bears and it is his last statement to the world.

"He forces us to rethink what it means to be an American citizen and to question whether citizenship should be based on solely on loyalty to America, right or wrong," says Jeffrey C. Stewart, editor of "Paul Robeson: Artists and Citizen," which accompanied the traveling exhibit of the same name.

"The word 'class' is almost a dirty word today," says his son, Paul Robeson, Jr., who lives in Brooklyn. "Most African Americans and most Americans in general are working class, not middle class. Paul Robeson's culture was very much geared to and strongly identified with the working class. His view was that you can't solve the race problem without first solving the class problem. But this society goes to great pains to try to separate the two.

Because of his complete package of intellect, star quality and activism, Robeson's legacy is often claimed by today's student activists.

"We feel that Paul Robeson basically symbolizes the artist-activist, that whole notion of a performer or artist who is professional but also takes a political stand," says Ray Davis, who two years ago was executive director of the D.C. Student Coalition Against Racism.

As he is being re-examined as an actor, his films have been brought out on video. Though his Broadway "Othello" is widely considered one of the finest Shakespeare performances of this century, he forbade its filming and there exists no record of it.

Many books on Robeson, including Martin Duberman's biography, have been reprinted. The "Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen" catalogue from Rutgers is one of the most recent to take stock of him in total and assess his contemporary significance.

In exhibit halls, dinner tributes and festivals, his recordings are played. There is often his rich voice overhead. He sings:

"There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole."

-- April 9, 2001

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