Paul Robeson: Standing Tall
he conception of art as a
weapon has been promoted during various trying times in history.
Within the 20th century, the period bridging the early 1900s and
the end of the Great Depression is most often cited for its protest
art. With April being the anniversary of Paul Robeson’s birth,
it is a good time to remember one of the voices that rose to prominence
during that time. While there were many, none experienced the popular
adulation and systematic governmental assault like Paul Robeson.
Robeson embodied the “cultural worker” by choice and necessity
as he fought for his civil rights while struggling for global justice.
Robeson never forgot that his father was born into slavery and this
shaped much of his future philosophy. He attended Rutgers University
(graduating in 1919) and became an award-winning athlete. His achieved
status of All-American on the sports field, however, did not eclipse
his other areas of study. The young Robeson also became a champion
of the Rutgers debating team, won Phi Beta Kappa honors, and graduated
as class valedictorian. His graduate studies would lead him to law
school but, though he achieved attorney status, his heart led him
to the theater.
Robeson engaged in numerous productions during his college years,
turning professional as an actor and vocalist by 1925. His breakthrough
role was that of Joe in the operatic Broadway musical
a work known as much for its early commentary on race relations
as for its brilliant score.
“Old Man River,” always the showstopper in
became Robeson’s signature song. He subsequently embarked on
a series of solo concert tours, usually performing with piano accompaniment
and always taking on a huge range of material, from opera to spirituals
to folk songs. “Old Man River” remained in his repertoire
throughout his career, albeit adapted to its times. Over the years
Robeson would modify the lyrics to better signify the struggle for
the rights of black Americans, changing “You gets a little
drunk and you lands in jail” to the telling “You show
a little spunk and you land in jail.” More to the point, he
altered “Tired of living and fear’d of dying” to
the staunchly courageous “I’ll keep on fighting until
Perhaps more than any other figure, Robeson stood as a model to
not only African Americans, but also to the white population as
well. As much as he posed a threat to the powers that be, his image
was that of a highly respected performer and thinker. The left embraced
him as both artist and activist. Robeson’s schooled, classical
approach and performance practice fit into the 1920s and 1930s intellectual
left as an American original.
contrast to the racial hatred he saw in the U.S., European audiences,
and particularly those in the Soviet Union, greeted him like royalty.
He stood with and performed for striking British miners and he continued
to speak out for labor and progressive movements all over the world.
It was during these global tours that Robeson became interested
in other cultures and languages. He learned folk songs in many languages
and then made a serious study of linguistics, eventually having
conversational command of many languages.
Whether on these shores or overseas, Robeson brought his own culture
to his audience. He introduced powerfully rebellious slave songs
to mixed audiences, often interspersing them with patriotic American
From the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Robeson took on what is
viewed as his greatest role, “Othello,” and also became
a film actor of note. Concurrently, he recorded several songs that
became hit records, including compositions by Earl Robinson, such
as, “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans.”
Though the Cold War was dangerous to the left as a whole, it hurt
Paul Robeson in a most profound way. Opportunistic right-wing zealots
Immediately after the war, he began building
a committee to sustain peace and was soon targeted. Within a few
years, McCarthyites had something tangible—a 1949 interview
with a French journalist. Robeson’s comments concerned the
invalidity of a U.S. government that would call on its black citizens
to fight for freedom when they had no real rights at home. Reactionaries
immediately branded him as “anti-American.”
That same year, he performed at a concert that would be recalled
as the Peekskill Riot. Due to the slander of his own government,
Robeson’s presence gave racists, many of whom were Klansman
and American Nazis, a chance to attack him as a “traitor.”
The violence that ensued is legendary, with performers and audience
members alike bearing the brunt of a brutal assault with clubs and
rocks. Quickly, Robeson would see the walls of the blacklist surround
him and do what no one else could—silence him.
What red-baiting, physical assault, and censorship could not fully
achieve, revoking Robeson’s passport could. Beginning in 1950
and continuing for nine years thereafter, this international voice
of the people was prohibited from traveling. It was this lasting
wound that would rupture his contact with his audience. How insidious
the attempt to silence Robeson was can be seen in the executive
order inflicted by President Truman in 1952, which stated that should
Robeson attempt to exit the country, U.S. border personnel were
instructed to apprehend him, “by any means necessary.”
It was this same order that was read aloud to him when, in 1952,
he was scheduled to perform a concert at the Peace Arch in Canada.
Unable to cross the border into British Columbia, he set up a stage
on a flat-bed truck, performing to the Canadians from the edge of
Washington State, while border patrol officers stood with guns cocked
Robeson remained a fighter and released his autobiography
in 1958. Though systematically ignored by all U.S. major
media, foreign journalists hailed the book as a great and noble
work. He continued intermittent performances for several more years,
though this period saw him struggling against bouts of major depression
and several physical illnesses. Worn out from years of battle, he
left public life in 1964. By the time of his death in 1976, Robeson
was a shadow of his former self.
Far ahead of his time, he was perhaps the ultimate victim of a frightened,
racist system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, suppressing
rebellion and preaching hatred.
Pietaro is a protest musician, writer, and labor organizer.