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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 197

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This is the grave of the great Paul Robeson.

Born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a father who was an emancipated slave and a mother who came from a prominent Quaker family, Robeson had a tough childhood. His father became a Presbyterian minister but had to resign in 1901 over the white funders of his church disliking him. His mother died in a house fire when he was 6. Until 1910, they lived in great poverty before his father finally found another church to lead. Robeson went to high school in Somerville, New Jersey where he became an athletic prowess and excelled at acting as well. In 1915, Roberson became the only African-American enrolled at Rutgers University. Again, he excelled at sports and theater and started to get attention for his politics. He was profiled in the March 1918 issue of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. He also criticized segregation openly, noting that black soldiers could die in World War I but not share basic rights in the United States. He finished Rutgers as valedictorian of his class and the man Walter Camp said was the greatest end he had ever seen on the gridiron. He then went to law school, first to NYU and then Columbia. He played a bit in the NFL when he had time, but he quit that in 1922 when he graduated.

Robeson soon found the law too frustrating because of the racism he experienced. Meanwhile, he became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, becoming an acting and singing legend. His big break came in 1924 when he won the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, the great playwright’s attack on racism while the KKK was at its height. Soon after, Robeson got role after role, became famous in Europe, hung out with Gertrude Stein in France, had a lot of affairs, recorded the definitive version of “Old Man River,” and just generally was a big star.

Robeson always had a political edge but the relative level of equality he felt in Europe raised his expectations and when he returned in the U.S. to star as the lead in the 1933 film The Emperor Jones, he chafed at every racial slight. He began to take classes in African history and culture, turned down opera performances that he felt did not reflect his cultural experiences, and traveled to the Soviet Union as the guests of the great Sergei Eisenstein in 1934. He came back a communist sympathizer dedicated to both racial justice and fighting fascism. He would now only take roles that showed black men in dignified roles and in 1936, sent his son to the USSR so he could go to school in a culture that was anti-racist. Nevermind the reality of Soviet race relations for a minute; in 1936, if you were African-American in the United States, the promise of the USSR was a hell of a lot better than you were going to get in the United States. At least the USSR paid lip service to anti-racist ideology whereas black men were getting routinely lynched in the United States. His concert performances became fundraisers and information sessions for the Spanish Republicans during the Civil War, traveling to Spain in 1938 to sing to wounded soldiers. He advocated for the freedom of African colonies and became an early supporter of the Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion.

When the British entered World War II, Robeson finally returned to the United States. He supported the American war effort through his anti-fascist songs. He became the first black actor to play Othello on Broadway with a white supporting cast. The FBI and its miserable racist head J. Edgar Hoover also started targeting him. Labeling him a communist, they laid the groundwork for their postwar persecution of Robeson. In 1946, after the lynching of 4 African-American men, Robeson, meeting with Harry Truman, told the president that if he didn’t propose and fight for anti-lynching legislation, “the Negroes would defend themselves.” At this point, Harry Truman, Matt Stoller’s hero as the greatest progressive of all time, immediately ended the meeting and refused to support any anti-lynching bills. Robeson was a big supporter of Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign to defeat Harry Truman from the left, traveling into the most segregationist and violent states in the nation to campaign for him. The FBI began pressuring concert halls to cancel his shows and he had to go to Europe to make a living. Robeson was supposed to perform in Peekskill, New York in 1949, but when local citizens found out that SUBVERSIVES were going to be in town, they rioted and lynched Robeson in effigy, burned a cross, and several dozen joined the KKK. But of course racism is just a southern problem. He finally did perform, with communist unionists providing security but all the performers, including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, faced mob violence trying to get out of there. John Rankin then condemned Robeson on the floor of the Senate. This sort of thing was now Robeson’s life in Cold War America.

By 1950, Robeson suffered from the full blacklist. His career as a college football player was erased from books about the sport for instance, he could not schedule concerts, NBC cancelled his appearance on an Eleanor Roosevelt TV special, and his passport was revoked. State Department officials told him the reason was “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries.” Wouldn’t want any truth getting out there! That would be communism! The Crisis, which had given Robeson his first publicity back in 1918, now published an article, probably by Roy Wilkins using a pseudonym, attacking him, which the U.S. government made sure had wide publicity in Africa. By this time, Robeson was a full communist and he praised Stalin upon his death. Before anyone attacks him for this, remind yourself what Robeson himself was facing in his own life from our free and fair government.

In 1958, Robeson published his autobiography, Here I Stand. By this time, the worst of McCarthyism was beginning to fade. He got his passport back that year and traveled to the Soviet Union to huge crowds. He again played Othello in London and gave his final concert performance in that country in 1960 to raise money for anti-colonial movements in Africa. By this time though, his mental health began to break down under the pressure of right-wing attacks for so many years. He attempted suicide in Moscow in 1961 and was given both electroshock therapy and high doses of medicine for the next two years while abroad. But he never really recovered from his depression. There were some attempts to get him involved in the civil rights struggle in the U.S. after he returned in 1963, but between his health and his refusal to denounce communism, he never did. He mostly lived with family until his death in 1976.

I have to say that I am personally not a big fan of the operatic style of singing Robeson used, but that’s nothing against him. I’ve seen some of his leftist film work and the films themselves are pretty ridiculous, although his performances are certainly more than credible. Here’s a few clips.

Paul Robeson is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

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