I first heard about Paul Robeson in the mid 1980s when I acquired a copy of his autobiographical book Here I Stand. Reading this first person account from a veritable giant of a man filled me with awe; I was living in the United States then, actually on the campus of Rutgers University, the very university that he had won a scholarship to attend in 1915. Rutgers had only had two black students before Robeson.
At Rutgers Robeson became a national football superstar, and later, with his powerful baritone, an internationally renowned concert singer and actor perhaps best known for the song Old Man River. He was also an indomitable champion of equal rights for African-Americans as well as the oppressed anywhere, everywhere. Regularly invited to sing in different countries Robeson was the original citizen of the world, spending a lot of time in Europe, particularly in London and the former Soviet Union, a country he admired because it was a place “where coloured people waked secure and free as equals.”
Robeson would pay dearly for this during the McCarthy Era of the fifties when he was dragged before a congressional committee that grilled him about his ‘communist sympathies’. When the committee demanded to know why he had spent so much time in the Soviet Union Robeson retorted that it was because, “in Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being—no colour prejudice like in Mississippi, no colour prejudice like in Washington.“ Then why hadn’t he remained in Russia, why had he returned to the United States demanded a committee member.
Robeson’s answer was swift and impassioned.
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
Robeson’s defiance and refusal to bow earned him the revocation of his passport in 1950. Hard to believe that a mere 60 years ago such undemocratic behaviour was possible in the very United States that today champions human rights left, right and centre exporting so-called democracy worldwide at the tip of heat-seeking missiles if need be. Not only were Robeson’s wings clipped, the powers that be also subjected him to slander campaigns and vicious disinformation so that his power to earn from concerts diminished and he became virtually invisible.
Lloyd L. Brown who wrote the preface to Here I Stand, ended by making the following observation:
…In Robeson’s case there can be no doubt that the ‘fascist-minded people’ whom he challenged did all they could to obscure the man and his message.
It can be expected, however, that the inquiring minds of the new generation will break through to the truth about him. Inevitably, like a mountain peak that becomes visible as the mist is blown away, the towering figure of Paul Robeson will emerge as the thick white fog of lies and slanders is dispelled. Then he will be recognized and honoured here in his homeland, as he is throughout the world, as Robeson, the Great Forerunner.
Remarkably that time seems to have come. As a recent press release from the US Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica detailed:
In early 2011, the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Kingston launched an essay competition among high school students to name the embassy’s Information Resource Center (IRC), in observance of Black History Month. The aim of this competition was to have the IRC named after the historical figure selected in the winning essay. The legendary Paul Robeson was the character highlighted in the winning essay which was entitled “The Soul of a Continent.” The writer was Kathy Smith, then a Grade 13 student at Manchester High School in Mandeville, Manchester. Ms. Smith is presently a first-year law student at the University of the West Indies.
On the morning of January 23, Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, along with State Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Damion Crawford, Kathy Smith and Susan Robeson, unveiled at the entrance to the IRC, a plaque that bears the name “Paul Robeson Information Resource Center. This was followed by a ceremony in the embassy atrium to officially name the IRC in honor of Paul Robeson. The date for this event was set for January 23 because it coincided with the 36th anniversary of his death. The occasion was also used as one of the many cultural activities to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence.
The guest speaker was the award-winning U.S. documentary filmmaker and Chair of the Paul Robeson Foundation, Susan Robeson. Ms. Robeson is granddaughter of the African American singer, actor, athlete and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
Interestingly Paul Robeson actually gave a concert in Kingston on 19 November 1948. Unfortunately the sound system failed and the concert turned out to be a disaster with the stage collapsing from the crush of people who turned out to hear him and a few children getting killed in the melee. The occasion was documented by Edna Manley in her diaries:
Last night we went to hear Robson sing at the racecourse—the largest crowd we had ever seen. The sound system was hopelessly bad, and one could hear the words but the tone was hopelessly distorted—thousands of people heard nothing at all. The crowd was around seventy thousand. We were wading through the crowd to a spot where we could hear better, and the crowd around us, quite a small part of it, began to snowball behind us—so Norman stood still. It was terribly disappointing not to hear, and to feel the disappointment.
…went to the airbase to see Robeson go—he was in a terrible mood—savage over the failure of the ‘sound system’ and deeply hurt over the death of the child and injuries to the others. So typical of the Gleaner to headline the accident and give the type of presentation that almost made Robeson responsible for the tragedy.
Edna went on to note that Robeson subsequently phoned from New York asking Norman to contact the parents of the children who were killed and injured so that he could cover their hospital and funeral expenses.
In celebration of Black History Month the US Embassy in Kingston put on two performances of “Call Mr. Robeson: A Life With Songs,” a one-man show written and performed by U.S. actor and singer Tayo Aluko.” I was privileged to attend the Saturday performance, last weekend, which was an intense and riveting enactment of one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century. Aluko will be performing at Carnegie Hall on February 12th, 2012.
The Paul Robeson Information Resource Centre has the most comprehensive collection of materials on Robeson in the Caribbean, along with many other valuable documentary resources, and is freely available to the public.