Paul Robeson, from blazing success to oblivion for his defense of freedom | Culture


Paul Robeson, surrounded by shipyard workers in Oakland, California, performs the US anthem in 1942.
Paul Robeson, surrounded by shipyard workers in Oakland, California, performs the US anthem in 1942.Editorial courtesy Dreamcatcher

The following epitaph defines a vital attitude: “The artist has to choose between fighting for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative ”. This inscription appears on the grave of Paul Robeson (Princeton, New Jersey, 1898-1976), an actor, singer, athlete, lawyer and intellectual – he learned 20 languages ​​and was fluent in 12. who became one of the most respected black leaders in the United States in the 1940s. With his political activism he not only denounced racism, but also showed an unwavering adherence to socialism and his criticism of the situation of black and white workers. In a postwar environment characterized by anti-communist hysteria, McCarthyism singled him out as public enemy number one.

Cover of the book 'Paul Robeson'.
Cover of the book ‘Paul Robeson’.

In 1936, the British cultural and political magazine New Statesman described Robeson as “one of the most impressive living actors” and, in 1943, Time he defined him as “probably the most famous black man alive.” But starting in 1949, a curtain of silence brought down his artistic career for two decades. “Robeson was virtually erased from historical memory. Disappeared from the media. It was excluded from all concert halls. His records disappeared from the stores and, surprisingly, his name was removed from the lists of the college football teams of 1917 and 1918 “, highlights Raquel Bello-Morales, author of Paul Robeson. Artist and revolutionary (Dreamcatcher) ―signed under the pseudonym of Paula Park (in tribute to her biography) -, the first biography in Spanish about this precursor of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Robeson earned a law degree – he was the third African American to earn an academic degree from Rutgers (1919), the University of New Jersey, and the third black graduate from Columbia University School of Law (1923) – but saw in the prevailing racism an insurmountable obstacle to develop your professional career. Faced with this dead end, the young lawyer chose to turn his professional life completely around and in 1924 he began his artistic career obtaining a meteoric success.

The artistic successes of the thirties and forties

The projection of his talent was reflected in the theater where he triumphed with All God’s children have wings and Emperor jones, both works by Eugene O’Neill, and also with an accomplished Othello on Broadway (296 performances and half a million spectators in 1944) and at the Savoy Theater in London. During the thirties, he developed his career in the cinema participating in Bosambo, in the role of a tribal chief, and The Proud Valley, a film about Welsh miners that earned him his greatest personal reward as a performer. The author of Robeson’s biography recovers the words of actor Ossie Davis to explain his charisma: “We learned from him that you were involved just because you were born. All the young black actors, William Marshall, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte … were in love with him. “

Peggy Ashcroft, as Desdemona, and Paul Robeson, as Othello, in the Shakespearean production of the Savoy Theater in London in 1930.
Peggy Ashcroft, as Desdemona, and Paul Robeson, as Othello, in the Shakespearean production of the Savoy Theater in London in 1930.getty

On the musical level, he recorded numerous albums of black spirituals, the truffled style of biblical phrases and humble melodies that arose from the violence exerted on black slaves so that they would forget their African religion and identity. Robeson’s bass-baritone voice wrapped in a mixture of strength and tenderness is described by Pete Seeger as “deep, so deep and resonant that it seemed to represent all of humanity.” In 1998, now deceased, he received the Grammy Award for Artistic Career, a belated recognition of wonders such as Ol’ Man River, including in what was film and musical Show Boat.

A communication that “united the emotional with the political”

It was precisely hearing this song that led Raquel Bello-Morales, who develops her professional work as a virologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, to become interested in the figure of Paul Robeson. “I discovered that there is nothing about him in Spanish and what surprised me the most was his magnetism, courage and honesty. I fell in love with the character, ”says the author. Robeson’s biography is the result of more than two years managing the secondary sources that exist on the artist, research in declassified archives and the written press of the time. “Something that distinguishes Robeson from other activists,” Bello-Morales continues, “is that when he attended a conference in a union, for example, he spoke and also sang. The communication he achieved with the people was much more powerful because he united the emotional with the political ”.

From 1927 to 1939, the artist settled in the United Kingdom, where he discovered his interest in socialism and his sympathy for the British trade union movement, especially among the Welsh miners. “It is in these years when Robeson becomes deeply politicized and forges his political conscience,” says Bello-Morales, and when he ends his relationship with the great American film production companies. According to Robeson himself, these “insist on presenting a caricatured image of blacks, a ridiculous image, which amuses the white bourgeoisie, and I am not interested in playing their game.” “The adoption of socialism would gradually lead to a profound change”, continues Bello-Morales in his book, a change that, according to the author, “moved away from the defense of black values ​​to get closer to the defense of human values”. His conclusion was that to defeat racism “an alliance of blacks and whites was necessary.”

From left: Henry Wallace, Vice President in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration and Progressive Party candidate, Albert Einstein, Lewis L. Wallace, and Paul Robeson, in 1947.
From left: Henry Wallace, Vice President in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration and Progressive Party candidate, Albert Einstein, Lewis L. Wallace, and Paul Robeson, in 1947.Dreamcatcher Editorial

Robeson led initiatives such as a bill for the lynchings of blacks, which were the most violent expression of a white supremacism that always went unpunished and that the state and the ruling classes had normalized, be considered federal crimes. The proposal was presented to President Truman in 1946, who rejected it on the grounds that it was “not the right time.” This defense of global human values ​​led him to claim with his presence the rights of workers in multiple countries as well as to support decolonization movements. All this activity placed him under the scrutiny of the FBI at the beginning of the Cold War.

Paul Robeson, in Moscow in 1959.
Paul Robeson, in Moscow in 1959.Dreamcatcher Editorial

The energy of their struggle seemed to have no limits, but the position that generated the most problems for the artist was his admiration for the USSR. “When walking through the streets of Moscow, he did not consider himself a black, he saw himself as a human being due to the absence of racism and he witnessed the great cultural and economic advance that with the Soviet revolution they experienced peoples and ethnic minorities of Central Asia such as the Yakuts and the Kyrgyz ”explains Bello-Morales. Sympathy for the Soviet Union and his commitment to his friends in the Communist Party of America – although he was never affiliated with any party – destroyed his career. In 1951, the State Department withdrew his passport and in 1956 he was forced to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities. He neither betrayed any other activists nor condemned the USSR and communism. Those who questioned him and questioned his patriotism and love for what he called “the real America” ​​were unaware that he had already made his choice and had no alternative.


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