In Paul Robeson’s day, Russia was the enemy
Paul Robeson must be turning over in his grave.
That’s what we say in the South when something unbelievable happens that a now-deceased person had fought/spoken for or against.
That saying keeps coming to my mind whenever I hear President-Elect Donald Trump embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin like he’s an old drinking buddy. Russia and the Soviets have always been perceived as the mortal enemy of the United States, turning up their collective nose at its democratic principles and bent on destroying them.
America has not always lived up to those principles, even when it at the same time snubbed the Soviets’ socialistic ideology.
No one knew or felt that more than Paul Robeson during the early part of the 20th century. He and others were the victims of a crusade to silence anyone who even hinted that Russia was a more ideal society than the United States.
I’ve been delving into the history of Robeson – a scholar, actor, writer, linguist, singer, lawyer – and a true Renaissance man for an exhibit this month that I’m helping to curate at the Paul Robeson House in Philadelphia. The beloved singer spent the last years of his life – 1966 to 1976 – in the safe haven of his sister Marian Forsythe’s home in West Philadelphia. That home has now been converted into a place of homage to him.
As part of my research, I’ve been able to learn a lot about Robeson, his activism and his life. He was related to a prominent African American family with roots in Philadelphia, although he himself was born in Princeton in 1898 to a minister father and Quaker mother. Robeson (it’s pronounced “Robe-son,” with two syllables, as he pointed out in 1933) attended Rutgers University where he was an All-American football star, member of Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian. He went on to become an acclaimed singer and actor – with the help of his wife Eslanda, an anthropologist and chemist.
Robeson was a very successful African American actor and singer in both the United States and across the world. When he appeared in the theater production of “Showboat” in the 1930s, he was the highest paid actor (at $1,500 a week) in the cast that included white actors.
“In the early days of my career as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers — that the content and form of a play or a film scenario was of little importance to us,” he said in his autobiography “Paul Robeson: Here I Stand” in 1958. “What mattered was the opportunity, which came so seldom to our folks.”
Around 1941, the couple bought a Colonial Revival house in Enfield, CT, with a bowling alley, swimming pool, billiard room and servants’ quarters.
Through his travels, Robeson found kinship with other oppressed people around the world. Their oppression, he found, was no different from that of blacks in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, and he spoke of their oneness.
“When I sang my American folk melodies in Budapest, Prague, Tiflis, Moscow, Oslo, or the Hebrides or on the Spanish front, the people understood and wept or rejoiced with the spirit of the songs,” he said in a 1939 interview. “I found that where forces have been the same, whether people weave, build, pick cotton, or dig in the mine, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering, and protest.”
In the 1930s, he went to Russia:
“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being,” Robeson said in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. “No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being.”
Robeson’s proclivity for Russia was not taken lightly in the United States. His speeches and actions became suspect. He was making nice with Russia at a time when political differences between the two were fierce. Soon this country would lose its mind during the Cold War’s “Red Scare” of the late 1940s and early 1950s, persecuting Robeson and others considered subversive based on their perceived fondness for that country.
Many of those were artistic people – many were Hollywood types – and other outspoken black and white activists whose livelihoods were stifled or lost.
Robeson was ensnared in the madness:
The FBI started a filed on him and Eslanda in 1941, paying spies to report about meetings they attended and comments they made.
His income dropped tremendously, from around $100,000 in 1947 to around $2,000 to $3,000 in 1950. He and Eslanda had to sell their Enfield home.
The U.S. State Department revoked his passport in 1950, so he couldn’t travel overseas to perform and make a salary. Eslanda’s passport was also revoked.
He and Eslanda were separately called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where both took the Fifth when asked if they were members of the Communist Party. (Jackie Robinson had been called a few years earlier to testify in opposition to Robeson’s views on communism.)
“I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist. I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America,” Robeson told the committee in his 1956 testimony.
The majority of his concerts in this country were canceled, and record companies would no longer record him. (He founded his own company and made his own albums.)
At a concert in Peekskill, NY, he was burned in effigy. (He founded his own magazine “Freedom”; among its writers was a young Lorraine Hansberry.)
His name was stricken from the All-America football teams. (He was named to the Rutgers Sports Hall of Fame in 1988 and College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.)
Robeson’s passport was reissued in 1958 after the Supreme Court ruled in the case of artist Rockwell Kent that the State Department could not cancel a person’s passport based on their political beliefs.
“The persecution of Paul Robeson by the Government,” activist W.E.B. Du Bois (who also lost his passport in 1950) wrote at the time, “has been one of the most contemptible happenings in modern history.”
It’s ironic that the same country that condemned Robeson and others so long ago for acknowledging Russia is being embraced by Trump. Our president-elect chooses Putin over the country’s former secretary of state and its intelligence community for no real practical reason. It’s as if he knows none of our history.
The saga of Paul Robeson shows the fickleness of politics – even over more than half a century. Today, Russia may or may not offer the same type of threat to democracy as it once did, but based on how it snuck onto our soil and interfered in our most recent election, its motives are still suspect.
How would Robeson view the relationship now? I’m sure he’d be much more proud of the United States. Unfortunately, not enough people know the role he played – and the sacrifices he made – in what it has become.