Triumphant struggle

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

Paul Robeson is remembered on the occasion of his birth centenary.

Robeson: I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country and they are not. They are not in Mississippi and they are not ... in Washington... You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people... That is why I am here today.

Scherer: Why do you not stay in Russia?

Robeson: 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?

- from Paul Robeson's deposition before the House Committee of Un-American Activities, 1956.

ATHLETE, lawyer, actor, singer, scholar, linguist and political activist, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was named, in 1972, one of the ten most important black men in American history. Websites carry information about him: There is a campaign for a stamp commemorating his birth centenary. Just log into http: // stamp.campaign. All this is recent and in keeping with the trend of U.S. ethnic groups fighting for their rights. Paul Robeson was among those who made such struggles possible.

For years, the U.S. tried to make Robeson an "un-person". Most newsreel footage on him in the U.S. has vanished. The available footage has had the sound track erased from it. That was bound to happen to a U.S. black of the time who said on his first visit to the Soviet Union that "for the first time in my life I walk in full honour and dignity. You can imagine what that means to me as a Negro."

Robeson countered the official silence with a weekly column in a black newspaper, The People's Voice, in the 1940s. He also published his own monthly, Freedom, between 1951 and 1955. Since the 1971 Freedomways special issue on Robeson, there has been a Robeson revival in the U.S.

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898. His father was a slave who escaped and went on to become a preacher and his mother was a teacher from an abolitionist Quaker family. He graduated from school with high honours and won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University, becoming the third person of African descent to join Rutgers College, the "jewel" of Rutgers University, which was founded in 1766. An outstanding sportsman (baseball, track events, football) and scholar, he learnt 20 languages, including Chinese, Gaelic and Russian.

Robeson's football career is worth recalling. He was the first black to join the Rutgers football team, the first Rutgers student to achieve the All-American status twice (1916 and 1917). Walter Camp, the most famous of All-American team selectors, said that there had never been "a more serviceable end, both in attack and defence, than Robeson." Robeson was also on all the "consensus" All-American football teams but his name is missing from the official record. As a black, he was considered invisible.

During the trials for the football team selection, Robeson was almost mutilated by the rest of the squad which resented playing with a black person. He was allowed to join only after Rutgers had been roundly defeated by Princeton, 10 to 0.

The College Football Hall of Fame is located in Rutgers, but Robeson was inducted into it only in 1995, two decades after he died and eight decades after being an All-American player. Till well into the 1970s, "black officialdom" also kept its distance from Robeson. The Black Athletes Hall of Fame inducted him only posthumously in 1976.

THE year 1917 saw the start of America's anti-Communist propaganda. The U.S. was trumpeted as a land of equal opportunity. Robeson's "success" at Rutgers was touted as an instance of how blacks could and did do well in the U.S. The story of the violent racism he faced was suppressed.

Robeson joined the Columbia Law School (1919-1923), paying for his studies with the $ 500 a game he reportedly earned as a professional footballer. He joined a law firm but left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.

He then became a singer and an actor. For Robeson, the artist was a political activist.

When "Showboat" opened in 1928 at London's Drury Lane Theatre and Robeson sang "Ol' Man River", Marie Seton wrote, "His was the voice of man speaking in the midst of a puppet-show." Robeson's first public concert was of Negro spirituals which he inserted into the concert canon as an art form. Encouraged by Patrick Campbell, he accepted the role of Othello, the first time since the 1860s that a black played Othello. Robeson's "Othello" opened at London's Savoy Theatre on May 19, 1930 with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Sybil Thorndike as Emilia. Robeson's "Othello" appeared on Broadway only in 1943.

England feted him. "I was made a fuss of by Mayfair," he wrote, "Then one day I heard one of your aristocrats talking to his chauffeur in much the way he would speak to his dog. I said to myself, 'Paul, that is how the southerner in the United States would speak to you.'... That was how I realised that the fight of the oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle."

He teamed up with Eugene O'Neill for "The Emperor Jones" and "All God's Chillun Got Wings", which takes its title from a Negro spiritual. The latter was perfectly cast, Paul Robeson's dignity setting off Flora Robeson's "meagre" souled Ella.

Robeson acted in 11 films, hoping to show the Negro as an ordinary human being. The Song of Freedom, he said, was the first film to give a true picture of the black "as a real man, with problems to be solved, difficulties to be overcome." Hollywood did not want this. So Robeson quit, vowing to work only for small independent film companies. Proud Goliath, about Welsh miners, was a result. Native Land, narrated by Robeson, was "Communist-inspired", according to the Un-American Activities Committee chairman. Robeson's last film, Song of the Rivers, about working peoples along the Mississippi, the Ganga, the Nile and the Volga, with Brecht's lyrics and Shostakovich's music, has been called the "acme of (Robeson's) political and artistic development."

ROBESON was still learning about politics. When Bernard Shaw asked him what he thought of socialism, Robeson realised that he had never really thought about it. But he learnt fast. In London, he met Saklatvala and became acquainted with Communism. Soon thereafter came his brush with Nazism. In February 1933, Robeson went to Moscow to see Tairov's production of "All God's Chillun". A stopover at Warsaw brought him closer to Nazism. In 1934, Storm Troopers hurled racial epithets at him at Berlin railway station when he was again on his way to Moscow. "I never understood what Fascism was before," he said. In contrast, the "Soviet Socialist programme of ethnic and national democracy is precisely the opposite of the Nazi, fascist, South African, and Dixiecrat programmes of racial superiority.... there is a natural alliance between the country of socialism and the oppressed people the world over." From film maker Sergei Eisenstein, among others, Robeson learnt that work songs, folk songs and Negro spirituals were strong ideological weapons.

Robeson became increasingly militant, lending his talents to anti-fascist organisations and changing his rendition of familiar songs. "Ol' Man River" became less sepulchral and more forceful, the spirituals became battle cries. Robeson's contribution to America's war effort was forgotten as he continued his fight for blacks and workers in the middle of the Cold War. His manager received letters accusing Robeson of propagating Communism through his concerts and objecting to the Russian songs in them. Robeson decided to give up commercial concerts and sing only for trade unions, colleges, and "gatherings where I can sing what I please."

Then came the Peekskill riots of 1949. Peekskill is to the U.S. Civil Rights movement what Peterloo was to the Working Class movement in 19th-century England and Jalianwalla Bagh to India's national movement. Charles Wright, author of Robeson: Labor's Forgotten Champion (1975), documents it well.

Robeson was probably targeted by a hostile right since 1947 when he sang "Joe Hill" at the University of Utah. The song laments the death of labour organiser Joseph Hillstorm who was killed by an Utah firing squad earlier in the century. The audience was stunned. No one had dared sing it in Utah before. Then some clapped, others clenched their fists.

Robeson's fate as a performer was sealed. Eighty concerts were cancelled, including those for conformist trade unions. Many of them had made Robeson a life member. Now they followed Harry S. Truman's policy of "Communist containment."

In 1949, the business community applied pressure on Robeson by cancelling his recording contracts and barring him from radio and similar public appearances so that his income was a fraction of what it had been. But abroad, he had sell-out audiences. In England, he announced that he would testify in support of Communist leaders then on trial in New York.

Then, at a 1949 Peace Conference in Paris, Robeson said:

It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who had oppressed us for generations... against (the Soviet Union) which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity of mankind.

The federal government closed in. Robeson was accused of treason and cited 200 times by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1947, Richard Nixon had asked a witness how he identified a Communist. The witness said that those who clap at Robeson's concerts were Communists. In July 1949, the Harlem Chapter of the Civil Rights Congress announced that Robeson would give a benefit concert for them on August 27 in Peekskill.

The Peekskill Post of the American Legion had attacked Robeson at Albany in 1947 and issued a warning against his Peekskill concert in 1948. Now this anger was fanned by War veterans' groups and local radio stations joining issue against the concert. Governor Dewey was asked to intervene to prevent violence. He left it to his subordinates. The militant right considered this a signal to go ahead with "group action". The ground was blocked by legionnaires. The stage was splintered. The audience turned back to anti-Jewish, anti-black, anti-Communist abuses. Robeson had been met at the station and whisked to safety.

But he returned to sing at Peekskill on September 4, 1949. Thousands of Robeson supporters were outnumbered by better organised right-wing forces. In all, 2,500 trade unionists formed a protective ring around Robeson and the audience. Robeson began with "Go Down Moses", closed with "Ol' Man River" and left. Then all hell broke loose. Missiles flew. Cars were smashed. Those trying to escape were booked by the police for driving with broken wind screens or for speeding. About 145 people were injured.

The world press denounced the violence. Domestic opinion was sharply divided. The noncompliant unions and the left-wing press compared the Peekskill attackers with Nazis, but given the fear of Communism, most people supported the anti-Robeson right. Little action was taken against the attackers. In September 1949, Robeson, novelist Howard Fast, and 26 others filed a civil suit for $2,020,000 against the Westchester County veterans' groups. In 1952, the federal court dismissed all charges against all defendants.

After Peekskill, federal, State, and local legislations of "dubious constitutionality" threatened freedom on all sides. The power and money of the House and Senate Committees for Un-American Activities were increased in the name of national security.

Robeson's refusal to "apologise" for receiving the Lenin Peace Prize from Stalin compounded accusations of treason. Asked by the Un-American Activities Committee whether he was a Communist, Robeson said he was not. However, he wrote in his autobiography, Here I Stand, that "a socialist society represents an advance to a higher stage of life - that is, a form of society which is economically, socially, culturally, and ethically superior to a system based upon production for private profit."

In 1950, Robeson's passport was impounded and returned only in 1958 after a world-wide campaign and a Supreme Court order. Economically and politically suffocated, Robeson's health failed but not his spirit. Just before he died, he said that "there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn't worth it."

Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji is a Reader in English at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University, and an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla.

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