Paul Robeson

  Jerome Shea       May 4, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Last month I promised you a wonk on Paul Robeson, one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century. Only one (older) student in my UNM class knew who Paul Robeson was. If that survey is at all representative, I would like to try to remedy it in some small way. Robeson, the whole man, needs to be remembered, and as much for our sake as for his. That would take a book, of course. This wonk will have to do.

My own picture of the man was admittedly sketchy. The magnificent voice, of course, stretching from basso profundo to basso cantante. “Old Man River” was in my memory somewhere, though whether I had ever actually heard a recording of it or just imagined I had is uncertain. I knew that he was multi-talented (though I didn’t know the half of it). Finally, I knew that he became a more and more controversial political figure in his last years, and died a bitter and angry man. If the cliché “larger than life” can ever really apply to anyone, it applies to Paul Robeson.

But first, do yourself a huge favor: get a Robeson CD. You can make your own by downloading iTunes. “Old Man River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Shenandoah,” “Deep River”—these will get you started. Then find a comfortable chair, shut out the clamoring world, close your eyes, and listen. You will thank me. You’re welcome.

He was born on the 9th of April, 1898, the last child of William Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was a slave who had fled north, graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and become pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church of Princeton (formerly known as the First Presbyterian Church of Colored Princeton). His mother was from the genteel free black “aristocracy” of Philadelphia. The Bustills always felt that William had married above his station. And the attitude of the white Presbyterian elders at Lincoln and on the church board was deeply patronizing of their black charges. The black man as child was still the paradigm, even of the well-meaning.

Nonetheless, Paul’s childhood and teen years were not, for the most part, unhappy ones, and he showed his talents early on. He was not only a gifted athlete in several sports—he would grow to be over six feet tall and solidly built—but he was also an excellent student. He won a scholarship to Rutgers, only the third black student to be accepted. He was a standout there, too, Phi Betta Kappa and twice an All-American in football.

There were and would be, however, incidents that would form the dark backdrop of his life or the life of any black man of the times. Washington and Lee in 1916 refused to play Rutgers at their Homecoming game if they fielded a black man (Robeson graciously sat out the game; it was a tie and everyone knew that with him in the game Rutgers would have won). In 1923, Robeson, a newly minted lawyer, resigned his first and only position with a New York law firm when a secretary refused to take dictation “from a nigger.” He was welcomed more warmly abroad than at home.

He had paid his way through Columbia Law School by playing professional football and taking acting jobs. When he quit the law he also quit the playing field. It was clear that the stage—theater stage or concert stage—was his real calling. He starred in Othello, to great acclaim, and also in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. The role of Joe in Showboat was written for him, and he brought the house down time and again with “Old Man River,” on stage and in the 1936 film version. He brought negro spirituals to the concert stage for the first time. To hear Robeson sing was to be, if only for a moment, released from everything petty and ignoble in one’s soul.

He became world renowned, packing concert houses from New York to London to Moscow. In the 1930s he was what we would today call a megastar. He and his wife, Eslanda, had a son, Paul Jr., and all the world’s adulation. Everything was going his way.

But it would not last. His travels abroad had thrown the racial situation in America into sharp relief for him. World War Two had been fought to make the world safe and free, and yet blacks were still being lynched in the South, and de facto segregation—Jim Crow—ruled. He was not shy about speaking out and his sympathies began expanding to include any oppressed groups. He became a champion of civil rights and the labor movement. It was rumored that he was a Communist.

The reaction was swift and brutal. In 1949 a planned concert in Peekskill, New York, for the Civil Rights Congress resulted in a vicious riot while police stood by or even abetted the rioters. Suddenly concerts were being canceled left and right. The Cold War era was not a shining moment for civil rights. Anti-Communist fervor spread its poison, and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) drew a bead on him, as did J. Edgar Hoover. In 1950 his passport was withdrawn, not to be restored until, in 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that the State Department had no right to withhold a passport because of a person’s political beliefs.

Robeson did make missteps. In a blind reaction to what was going on in the United States, he began to idealize Communist Russia, and the Russians were happy to give him first class treatment. He felt that Russia was on a path to social perfection and that Joseph Stalin was a great humanitarian and a great leader. Stalin and company of course could not believe their good fortune at this propaganda coup. When even the most diehard Russophiles realized the truth about Stalin and his murderous policies, Robeson, trapped, stubbornly stood by his old convictions. He could sometimes be his own worst enemy.

The late 1950s actually saw a kind of last hurrah. His passport restored, he could travel abroad again and he also gave sold-out performances in Carnegie Hall. But then his health began to fail precipitously. For the last decade of his life he was more a rumor than a living man. He died of a stroke in Philadelphia on the 23rd of January, 1976.

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