Paul Robeson

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Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (April 9, 1898–January 23, 1976) was an American actor of film and stage, All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator, lawyer, and basso profondo concert singer who was also noted for his wide-ranging support of Josef Stalin and Communism. A forerunner of the civil rights movement, Robeson was a trade union activist, a so-called "peace activist," Phi Beta Kappa Society laureate, and a recipient of the Spingarn Medal and Stalin Peace Prize. His outspoken beliefs and friendships with Communists led to his passport being revoked from 1950 to 1958 under the McCarran Act and he was under surveillance by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency and by British MI5 for well over three decades until his death in 1976. Robeson pled the Fifth Amendment before the House Unamerican Activities Committee when questioned about CPUSA membership.

Career pre-Cold War

After graduating with top academic and athletic honors from Rutgers University in 1919, Robeson attended and graduated from Columbia Law school. Racism at the time limited his options in the field of law so he drifted into entertainment.

In the 1920s, Robeson found fame as an actor and singing star of both stage and radio with his Bass voice and commanding presence. He was one of the few true basses in American music, with his beautiful and powerful voice descending as low as C below the bass clef. In addition to his stage performances, his renditions of old negro spirituals were acclaimed for there beauty in singing and Christian lyricism. Robeson and his accompanist and arranger Lawrence Brown were the first to bring them to the concert stage. Paul Robeson recorded over a hundred songs. He also demanded that many of his films defy stereotypes of blacks, making him first black actor to attempt to play roles which had dignity and stressed African pride.

His first roles were in 1922 playing Simon in Simon the Cyrenian at the Harlem YMCA and Jim in Taboo at the Sam Harris Theater in Harlem. Taboo was later re-named Vodoo. He was acclaimed for his 1924 performance in the title role of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in 1920.

Othello and Showboat

In 1930 Robeson starred in the title role in William Shakespeare's Othello in England, when no U.S. company would employ him for the part. Peggy Ashcroft co-starred as Desdemona. He would reprise the role in New York in 1943, and tour the U.S. with it until 1945. His Broadway run of Othello is still, as of 2009, the longest of any Shakespeare play. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1945 for his portrayal of Othello. For the Broadway production Uta Hagen layed Desdemona, and José Ferrer played Iago. Robeson's final portrayal of Othello in 1959 at The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon was directed by Tony Richardson and also proved to be his theatrical swan song.

Robeson also played the role of Joe, which was written for him, in the 1928 London production of Show Boat, and repeated his performance in the 1932 Broadway revival of the show, the 1936 film version, and a 1940 Los Angeles stage production. His rendition of "Ol' Man River" is widely considered the definitive version of the song with Robeson making alterations to the lyrics to transform it from a song of black lament to one of defiance and perseverance.[1]

Hollywood and international film career

Robeson's earliest surviving film is 1924's Body and Soul a silent film directed by Oscar Micheaux in which Robeson played a preacher with a split personality.

At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Robeson became a major box office attraction in British films such as Song of Freedom and The Proud Valleyabout Wales. Briefly returning to the US he reprised his title role in Dudley Murphy's film version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in 1933.

The 1936 Universal Pictures film Show Boat was a box office hit for Robeson, and the most frequently shown and highly acclaimed of all his films. His performance of "Ol' Man River" for this film was particularly notable. He was also King Umbopa in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines.

Ballad for Americans

After a return from Europe during the Communazi period, he performed Patriotic cantata with lyrics by John La Touche and music by Earl Robinson. Originally titled, The Ballad for Uncle Sam, it was written for a Works Progress Administration theatre project called Sing for Your Supper.[2]

Robeson performed "Ballad" on the CBS radio network in 1943, accompanied by chorus and orchestra. Bing Crosby would also record a commercially successful recording of the piece but the song is almost always associated with Robeson as it represents the pinnacle of his music and radio career prior to the Cold War[3]He would perform it at The Hollywood Bowl to the largest sold-out crowd in its history.[3]

Communist Party membership

Robeson's political statements and activism, including sympathies expressed towards the Soviet Union, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Josip Broz Tito and Joseph Stalin were the subject of great controversy in the mass media, in particular rumors of membership in the American Communist Party.

According to records released under the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI believed that Robeson might have joined the Party under the name "John Thomas" but "his Communist Party membership book number is not known." Robeson's biographer, Martin Duberman, denies that "he was never a member of CPUSA, never a functionary, never a participant in its daily bureaucratic operations."[4] Paul Robeson, Jr. has also stated on numerous times that his father was never a member of the CPUSA.

However in 1988, Robeson's membership in the party was confirmed by CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall in a pamphlet entitled, Paul Robeson : An American Communist. [1] Hall wrote, "My own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA. I and other Communist leaders like Henry Winston, the Party's late, beloved national chair, met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles."[5]

One of the most vocal contemporary conservative voices to challenge Robeson's legacy for his CPUSA membership is David Horowitz the founder of David Horowitz Freedom Center. David Horowitz mentioned in his 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America the historian Eric Foner lauding Robeson at a 2003 teach-in at Columbia University and then responded by saying,:"It's true that Paul Robeson was never satisfied with his country. He was an icon (and member) of the American Communist Party, who received a Stalin Peace Prize from the dictator himself."[6]

In accepting the Prize, Robeson stated, "We know how Truman betrayed the American people in their hopes for peace, how he betrayed the Negro people in their thirst for equal rights, how he tore up the Bill of Rights and subjected the whole American people to a reign of FBI-terrorization."[7]

The Soviet Union and communist advocacy

Following Paul Robeson's first trip to Russia in late 1934, he became an ardent lover of not just the Soviet Union's and its peoples, but Russian culture and history.[8] Robeson became fluent in Russian, studied Russian history in depth, learned about the many national minorities (eg: Yakuts, Uzbeks, Tartars) and wrote numerous essays and articles demonstrating his deeply held beliefs that the US should seek peace and understanding with Soviet Russia.

Support for Stalin

Despite the fact that in 1947 Stalin joined the United States in supporting the creation of Israel, and supported Israel in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, he ordered the murders of many Jewish intellectuals and artists living in the Soviet Union during the 1940s and 1950s. Robeson is often criticized for continuing to support the Soviet Union despite his awareness of state sponsored intimidation and murder.[9] Having experienced firsthand for himself during the 1930s a climate in Russia that he perceived as free from racial prejudice and then to see no western country or superpower actively attempt any comparable commitment to the rights of minorities or blacks, Robeson indefatigably refused any pressure to publicly censure the Soviet experiment.[9] In his opinion, the existence of the USSR was the guarantee of political balance in the world. During a 1949 address to the Communist front National Council of American-Soviet Friendship[10] , Robeson spoke:[11]:

"Yes, all Africa remembers that it was Litvinov who stood alone beside Haile Selassie in Geneva, when Mussolini's sons flew with the blessings of the Pope to drop bombs on Ethiopian women and children. Africa remembers that it was the Soviet Union which fought the attempts of the Smuts to annex Southwest Africa to the slave reservation of the Union of South Africa... if the peoples of the Congo refuse to mine the uranium for the atom bombs made in Jim Crow factories in the United States; if all these peoples demand an end to floggings, an end to the farce of 'trusteeship' in the former Italian colonies.... The Soviet Union is the friend of the African and the West Indian peoples."[12]:

According to Joshua Rubenstein's book, Stalin's Secret Pogrom, Robeson also justified his support on the grounds that any public criticism of the USSR would reinforce the authority of anti-Soviet elements in the United States which, he believed, wanted a preemptive war against the Soviet Union.[9]The serious consideration by the US of a pre-emptive strike against the USSR is documented in Gregg Herken's ,'The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950.[13]

Stalinist apologists which include Martin Duberman, Philip S. Foner, Marie Seton, Paul Robeson Jr and Lloyd Brown also concur with Robeson's own words, that he felt that criticism of the Soviet Union by someone of his immense international popularity would only serve to shore up anti-communist elements in the U.S.[9] Robeson is on record many times as stating that he felt the existence of a major socialist power like the USSR was a bulwark against Western European capitalist domination of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Stalin Peace Prize

In 1952, Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. In April 1953 shortly after Joseph Stalin's death he wrote a eulogy entitled To You Beloved Comrade,[14] which included these sentiments:

"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. … his contributions to the science of our world society remains invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin -- the shapers of humanity's richest present and future. … Yes, through his [Stalin's] deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. ... How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom."[15]

Dr. R. J. Rummel, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, is the scholar who first coined the term democide (death by government). Dr. Rummel states,

"[T]he Soviet Union appears the greatest megamurderer of all, apparently killing near 61,000,000 people. Stalin himself is responsible for almost 43,000,000 of these. Most of the deaths, perhaps around 39,000,000 are due to lethal forced labor in gulag and transit thereto. .[16]

Though Robeson would continue to praise the USSR throughout his life, he would neither publicly denounce nor praise Stalin personally after Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 Secret Speech exposing Stalin's "mistakes."[4]

Rumors of disillusionment with communism

During the early days of his retirement and even after his death, rumors about his health and its connections to his supposed disillusionment with the USSR continued to persist. There were even claims that he was living in self imposed exile in the Soviet Union with The New York Times calling him "The disillusioned native son."[17]

At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or his unwavering devotion for the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of thousands interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.[18]

Modern opinions on Robeson and the Soviet Union

Many anti-communist scholars and journalists cite Robeson's friendship with the peoples of USSR and his deep admiration of Russian culture and refer to him a Stalinist which effectively negates his other achievements and political affiliations including his lifetime connections and friendships with American and European Jews[19][20] Movie reviewer, Richard Corliss wrote in 1998 that Robeson "... was also a stubborn apologist for communism, Stalin-style." and that he "... could sell sand to Saharans, but he couldn't peddle Stalin to America.... If Robeson rejected a homegrown system of oppression to embrace another, more toxic one, that was his right."

See also

Notes and references

  1. Robeson, Susan. A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson: The Whole World in His Hands, 1981, pg 37
  2. Online notes from 2005 Paul Robeson Conference at Lafayette College. Accessed 31 January 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, pg 241.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, pgs 301, 318, 440.
  6. Horowitz, David, "Moment of Truth (for the anti-American Left)", Jewish World Review, March 31, 2003
  7. Thoughts on Winning the Stalin Peace Prize, Paul Robeson, January 1953.
  8. Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, pg 190.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, pgs 354
  10. In 1953 the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) found that the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, "advances positions...markedly pro-Soviet and...anti-United States a Communist-action organization which has as its primary purpose to advance the objectives of the world Communist movement under the hegemony of the Soviet Union; it has the policy to support and defend the Soviet Union under any and all circumstances...We conclude that the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, Inc., is substantially directed, dominated, and controlled by the Communist Party of the United States...and is primarily operated for the purpose of giving aid and support to...the Soviet Union, a Communist foreign government."
  11. Foner,Phillip.Paul Robeson Speaks:The Negro and The Soviet Union, 1978,pgs 237
  12. Foner,Phillip.Paul Robeson Speaks:The Negro and The Soviet Union, 1978,pgs 238
  13. Herken, Gregg. The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950, 1980.
  14. To You Beloved Comrade”
  16. Murder by Communism, R.J. Rummel, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994.
  17. Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, Attempted Renewal.
  18. Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson, 1989, chapters "Broken Health" and "Attempted Renewal".
  19. Faingold, Noma. "Paul Robeson: forgotten hero of Jews, African-Americans" Jewish News Weekly, July 1998
  20. Karp, Jonathan. "Performing Black-Jewish Symbiosis: The "Hassidic Chant" of Paul Robeson", American Jewish History, Volume 91, Number 1, March 2003, pp. 53-81

External Links

Testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities