Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Paul Robeson

My daughter and her husband live on Robeson St. in Boston. They are union organizers. I have admired Paul Robeson since I first learned about him (Arthur Gilbert, my colleague, is dedicating a human rights fellowship at Metro to Paul Robeson and asked me to speak about him in giving the award).

I guess this journey has to do with me also. In 1999, I had a fellowship in Spain. Sage, my then four year old, was into dragons and St. George. Somehow we ended up staying in San Giordi in Mallorca (St. George) and later, when I taught in Paris at the Hotel du Dragon on the Rue du Dragon. It occurred to me that in these journeys, it was certainly not me who was leading. Somehow, finding my daughter in Robseson St. had a comparable resonance.

We listened to Robeson sing "Joe Hill," one artist who was blacklisted and temporarily forgotten in white America, honoring another, Joseph Hillstrom, Swedish immigrant, riding the rails as an itinerant worker/bum, composer of marvelous Wobbly songs, framed up and hanged in Seattle. “The copper bosses killed you, Joe, they killed you Joe, says I…” The song is here.

Robeson was a great football player at Rutgers, one of the greatest ever. I once heard about him during a college game halftime in the 1980s, the announcers wondering if he would finally get into the college football hall of fame. I don’t know if he did.

Robeson went to Columbia Law School, but could get no job practicing law. He was, however, a marvelous singer and actor. He went to London (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and studied five African languages (he had great gifts for language, song, acting). He met Welsh miners on strike and learned from them, travelled in continental Europe where fascism was grimly on the rise – the most extreme racism brought home to Europe from colonialism in Africa was the order of the day. Nazism is European racism at home.

He went to the Soviet Union where nationalities had been liberated (and this feature of Communism made an enormous impression on him).

He returned to the United States and pursued two careers, one as a famous artist (soon as famous internationally as Louis Armstrong), the other as a radical who walked picket lines and sang or on marches supporting the Republicans in Spain against Franco. A Straussian friend whose family were San Francisco radicals, once told me that Paul Robeson had once sung him a lullaby as a child. My daughter has friends in Seattle whose family growing up were neighbors to the Robesons.

During World War II, he sang songs of the Volga Boatmen and the Red Army in Russian as well as Joe Hill and many others (he also had a Southern repertoire for commercial purposes though some of the songs may have a hidden anti-racist message).

He also took London by storm. He was famous then and before for Othello. His repertoire in the theatre and in Hollywood – the Emperor Jones – was limited by politics. In song, he was free…

In the late 1940s, as head of the American Committee on Africa, he said that black people would never fight the Soviet Union. For this act of courage protected by the First Amendment, he was stripped of his passport – he could have made a living internationally – and of any contracts at home (the FBI as a secret police doing its Gestapo-like duty…). The Robeson story (and that of many others who were blacklisted for thought and speech) reveals how frail the protections of the First Amendment are, how they must be fought for.

He was stripped of income, isolated, forgotten among later whites (everyone, particularly everyone who knew anything of radicalism, knew of Robeson, however). In my first classes at the University of Denver, only Condi Rice knew vaguely who Paul Robeson was.

There is a mountain carved out to Paul Robeson in Bangla Desh and another in Soviet Central Asia (I am not big on defiling natural beauty and what humans do to the earth, but it does say something about Americans abroad – there is no other honored in this way). He was a big man with an even more powerful spirit. Listen to Robeson sing Joe Hill here and you will know why.

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