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Paul Robeson
by Gene Gordon   

Last edited: Monday, December 16, 2002
Posted: Monday, December 16, 2002

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Text of a talk given at Sonoma State University on October 9, 2002

Thanks to Karen Brodsky I have the honor to be with you today to speak in this important series, 'Class Conscious Art and Writing of the 20th Century.' But I stand before you humbled when I consider the man for whom I am substituting: Alexander Saxton.

Alexander Saxton, who is ill and cannot be here today, is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Saxton is the author of scholarly books including "The Rise and Fall of the White Republic" and "The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement." Alexander Saxton has been a scholar for a long time, but before he was a college professor he was a merchant seaman and a carpenter.

Alexander Saxton’s talk here today was to have been "In Dubious Battle: Looking Backwards." Professor Saxton gave this same talk recently – back in April of this year - at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. But it was not just an academic exercise in an ivory tower: Professor Saxton related his remarks to what was happening outdoors at the moment – to the struggle of the strawberry workers in the fields attempting to organize a union.

That’s the kind of man Alexander Saxton is and has been all his life. As a young man he was a novelist, and wrote “one of the best novels ever to portray the lives of American Communists, 'The Great Midland' – about Chicago railroad workers also attempting to organize a union. It is a story of love and radical politics set just before World War II. It was published in 1948, when cold-war hysteria engulfed the United States; the publisher subsequently tried to pretend the book did not exist, and reviewers and bookstores ignored it.”

Let me tell you what Howard Fast – another great class-conscious novelist – has to say about Alexander Saxton’s novel "The Great Midland."

“With the publication of The Great Midland, Alexander Saxton emerges as one of the foremost American writers of our time. His new book has a monumental quality, a literary grandeur that in my opinion marks it as the finest and most important novel done by any American writer in the past several years.

“The author writes the adventures of Dave Spaas, railroad worker, onetime seaman, veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and rank-and-file Communist organizer. What emerges is a rich and broad canvas of Chicago railroad workers in the latter half of the thirties.

“It is a love story of great beauty. To Dave’s wife Stephanie, the Communist Party is the bitter rival for her husband's affection — yes, to Stephanie the Party is a force beyond her understanding, which places itself between her and comfort, security and the gentle flow of academic life, a life she has always yearned for and admired.

“Much of the book is devoted to the portrayal of a Negro worker Pledger McAdams. In his treatment of the Negro McAdams, Saxton's maturity as a creative writer becomes evident and the result is a portrait rarely equaled in our writing. Handled by the author with incredible tenderness and sympathy, it becomes integrated with the central struggle of the workers to break through the bonds of exploitation. Saxton paints the workers as they are, not as demigods, not as animals, but as men centrally involved in the basic contradiction of capitalism. Saxton’s fine achievement is the creation — for the first time in our literature — of a fully mature and believable Communist hero.

“I take pride in this book and in the great tradition of American literature, the tradition of Twain and Melville and Whitman and London and Dreiser out of which it came. My hat is off to Alexander Saxton.” HOWARD FAST

Now, Howard Fast was a very close friend of the person I want to discuss today – Paul Robeson.

In the university town of Princeton, New Jersey, in a Negro neighborhood of neat frame homes, stands the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. My partner June and I visited this church four and a half years ago.

On April 9, 1898, in the church parsonage, Paul Leroy Robeson was born. The father of this youngest of five children was scholarly William Drew Robeson - formerly a slave in North Carolina, now pastor of the church. The child’s mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, came from a long line of Northern free Negroes. Tragically, young Paul lost his mother before his sixth birthday when she died in a kitchen fire.

Paul and his father moved from Princeton on to a larger parish in Somerville. Here Paul finished eighth grade in a segregated school, then entered Somerville High School. Paul had been a happy boy, a good scholar and athlete in elementary school. Now, in Somerville High, he demonstrated the astonishing gifts of one destined for greatness.

Paul Robeson earned straight-A grades, was a dominant member of the debating team, and edited the sports page of the school magazine. As a member of the drama group he played Othello and Mark Antony. “In high school,” Paul later recalled, “I had a very fine teacher whose passion was Shakespeare.”

Paul sang in the bass section of the glee club; he was the star player on the football, baseball and basketball teams. Brilliant both in the classroom and on the sports field, the Black student was extremely popular: “It was a rich experience,” said one of his classmates, “to have four years in school with as great a human being as Paul - to have him as a warm and loyal friend.”

White folks in Somerville were fond of Paul: “Everybody liked him a lot. He was entertained and dined at all our homes. Everybody’s mother was crazy about him and was always holding him up as an example of what they would like us to be. We all felt Paul to be our superior, but we didn’t resent it, he was such a great guy.”

To cap off his fabulous high school career, Paul won a statewide competition for a four-year scholarship to Rutgers College. His tryout for the football team, for the right to wear the Rutgers scarlet, was a bloody beating which landed him in bed for ten days with a smashed nose, dislocated shoulder, and the nails ripped off all the fingers of his right hand. “They didn’t want a Negro on their team; they just didn’t want me on it!”

As the only Black student on campus, Paul was made to live alone in an empty residence hall.

In spite of this initial bigotry, Paul became the legendary “Robeson of Rutgers” with “a name and a record equaled by none.” “A football genius,” Robeson was twice named to the All-American Team - the first Rutgers player in its fifty year gridiron history to win that honor. “Robey” was acclaimed “the best player in the country” and “the wonder of the age.”

Robeson also won letters in baseball, basketball, and track, playing on a total of fifteen varsity teams.

Just as impressive was Paul’s academic record. He made the honor role consistently and took first prize annually in public speaking. At college Paul maintained his high school love of Shakespeare, naming "Hamlet" his favorite play.

In his junior year Robeson was selected for Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society of scholars; in his senior year his classmates elected Paul to Cap and Skull, the fraternity composed of only four men, those who best exemplified the ideals of Rutgers.

At his graduation Paul gave the valedictory speech. The school magazine predicted that Paul Robeson would become governor of New Jersey. “He has dimmed the fame of Booker T. Washington,” it prophesied, “and is the leader of the colored race of America.” The comments concluded with an invocation: “May Rutgers never forget this noble son and may he always remember his Alma Mater.”

“May Rutgers never forget this noble son!” Remarkably, the prediction of the school magazine did come true ; Paul Robeson did “dim the fame of Booker T. Washington,” and did become “the leader of the colored race of America.”

Paul Robeson became the best-known and most-loved black man in the world – singer and scholar, lawyer and linguist - athlete, actor, artist, activist. The truth is he was the greatest hero and renaissance man ever to live in this country. And yet, Rutgers forgot its noble son. At his Alma mater, in the 1970’s - at the height of the Black Power Movement - 75% of the black students at Rutgers University never heard of Paul Robeson. Is not that incredible? What happened to this great man?

Well, remember what we said earlier about "The Great Midland" – that magnificent novel by Alexander Saxton? “It was published in 1948, when cold-war hysteria engulfed the United States; the publisher subsequently tried to pretend the book did not exist, and reviewers and bookstores ignored it.”

Rutgers University tried to pretend Paul Robeson did not exist, and it tried to ignore him. Nay, more – they tried to destroy him. Robeson’s trophies were removed from Rutgers display cases. His name was expunged from the All-American football list at Rutgers so that the roster of the 1918 and 1919 teams contained only ten men! (Everyone knows that a football team has eleven men. But strangely, and for the first and only time in history, the All-America teams of 1918 and 1919 were ten-man teams.)

Here: take this picture in this book and tear out Paul Robeson from the rest of the team – that’s what Rutgers University did to its ‘noble son!’ This was done in the Fearful Fifties when to speak of peace was branded treasonous by McCarthyite witch-hunters in our government. Now I would like to follow the noble example of Alexander Saxton when he, in April of this year in Santa Cruz, related his talk – the one he was to give here today – related his talk to a contemporary struggle – to the plight of the strawberry workers. Today too, as in the 50’s, some in our very own government would call us unpatriotic because we call for peace and question the wisdom of an attack on Iraq.

But let us resume our overview of the life of Paul Robeson. After graduation from Rutgers, he attended Columbia University Law School. At this time he met Eslanda Cardozo Goode who worked as a chemist in a hospital. Two years later Paul and Essie married.

After graduation from law school, Paul went to work for a law firm on Wall Street, but only for a brief time. Among other indignities, a white secretary refused to take notes from him: "I never take dictation from a nigger," she said. Robeson realized that he had no future in law.

He took a part in a short play produced at the Harlem YWCA. Paul’s role was that of Simon the Cyrenian, the Black man who helped Christ carry his cross to the Crucifixion. This performance started Robeson off on a long and distinguished theatrical career.

His acting career took him to London where Paul made friends with Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Robeson became a Man of the Left: anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

In 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Paul gave an historic song concert. To an overflow crowd at a Greenwich Village theater, Paul sang sixteen Negro spirituals.

This sensational concert - first ever of a Black soloist singing nothing but Negro spirituals – catapulted Paul to fame. The New York World spoke of “...a turning point, one of those thin points of time a star is born. Paul Robeson's voice is difficult to describe. It is a voice in which deep bells ring.”

At the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City, Paul starred in Eugene O'Neill’s "The Emperor Jones." Theater critics called him “ fine an actor as there is on the American stage today.” Paul was praised in the press as “a great actor,” “a superb actor,” “a genius.”

In 1928, Essie and Paul moved to England with their infant son Paul Jr. Appearing in the London production of "Showboat," Paul stopped the show with his moving rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” This striking song by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II became Paul Robeson’s signature song, identified with him forever.

In London, Paul, long a lover of Shakespeare, took on the role of Othello. While at Rutgers and Columbia, Paul had tutored in Latin. In Europe he quickly learned French and German and began to study Russian as well as several African languages. He eventually would be proficient in thirty languages!

Paul accepted an invitation from film director Sergei Eisenstein to visit the Soviet Union. Robeson was tremendously impressed with the Socialist nation, especially the equality enjoyed by all races and peoples. He returned often, once staying an entire summer. “Here, for the first time in my life,” Robeson exulted, “I walk in full human dignity.” Paul and Essie enrolled their son Paul, Jr. in a Soviet school where the boy would not suffer the racism of America.

Paul’s agent warned him that his outspoken politics would endanger his career. But Robeson persisted: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery,” he declared. “I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

He remained enormously popular. Everywhere he appeared he was greeted by adoring fans. A cheering crowd in England lifted him on their shoulders and carried him into the concert hall. The British public ranked Paul Robeson among its top ten favorite movie stars.

Yes, Paul starred in a number of British films: "Sanders of the River," "Jericho," "Song of Freedom," "King Solomon's Mines," "Big Fella," as well as in the lavish Hollywood version of "Showboat." But of all the films Robeson made, unquestionably his favorite was "Proud Valley," about a Black American miner in Wales.

On the fifth of November 1939, Paul Robeson made radio history. At CBS in New York, he premiered a cantata written by John LaTouche and Earl Robinson. “Ballad for Americans” was a patriotic celebration of multiethnic and multiracial America. For fifteen minutes the studio audience stamped their feet and shouted “Bravo!” Phone lines were tied up for two hours, while for days letters streamed into the station. “Ballad for Americans” took the country by storm and Paul Robeson became a national hero.

In 1944, twelve thousand New Yorkers crowded inside the Park Avenue Armory to celebrate Robeson’s forty-sixth birthday. Another four thousand were turned away for lack of space. The Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras performed. Negro leader Mary McCleod Bethune called Paul Robeson “the tallest tree in our forest.”

During this period Robeson took an active part in the struggle to desegregate major league baseball. Addition-ally, he toiled almost to exhaustion to re-elect President Roosevelt. Paul also campaigned strenuously for his close friend Ben Davis, Jr., a Black Communist who ran for the New York City Council in 1944 - and won!

Also at this time Paul Robeson played Othello in New York, setting a record for the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway, 296 performances. When at last it closed, Robeson took "Othello" on a nine-month tour of the country, appearing in forty-five cities. So bright did Robeson’s star shine in the mid-Forties that The American Magazine entitled its feature on Paul “America’s No. 1 Negro.”

Then, on April 19, 1949, came the turning point of his career. He addressed a conference in Paris, a peace conference attended by 2,000 delegates from around the world. This was a gathering to prevent the ever louder shouts by people in our government for a war against the Soviet Union.

US SET TO BOMB RUSSIA FIRST proclaimed a headline in the Guardian of the United Kingdom: “British intelligence warned the government that the United States was ready to wage a ‘preventive’ atomic war on the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, whatever the objections of its NATO allies. The US military were convinced that ‘all-out war against the Soviet Union was not only inevitable but imminent.’ Senior British military officers who made regular visits to Washington argued that the Soviet Union was too cautious to start a war. The fascination of Americans with preventive war, however, was fueled by McCarthyism. Many people in America have made up their minds that war with Russia is inevitable and there is a strong tendency in military circles to fix the zero date for war.”

The article described “war-mongering fever” in America: “These and other Americans say: ‘We have the bomb, let’s use it now while the balance is in our favor. Since war with Russia is inevitable, let’s get it over with now.’ One US general was reported to have remarked that the west could not afford to wait until Europe or even America was devastated by a nuclear holocaust. ‘We have a moral obligation to stop Russia’s aggression by force, if necessary, rather than face the consequences of delay.’ Another US general said the country was already at war with the Soviet Union. ‘Whether we call it a cold war or apply any other term we are not winning... the only way that we can be certain of winning is to take the offensive as soon as possible...’”

Sound familiar? All too familiar! This happened in 1949. Paul Robeson said at the peace conference “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” Was this such an unpatriotic remark? Well, the reaction was vehement.

“Traitor,” “un-American,” the papers screamed – “ungrateful and disloyal to his country.” Even some Negro organizations denounced the Paris speech.

From Paris Robeson went to the Soviet Union where he declared “I was, I am, always will be a friend of the Soviet people.”

Robeson returned to New York for the marriage of Paul, Jr. to Marilyn Greenberg, a Jewish girl. He was incensed at the hostile racist crowds screaming at the wedding party. “I challenge this vicious system to the death,” he told 4,500 people at a four-hour ‘Welcome Home’ rally that evening in Harlem. “I’m looking for freedom - full freedom, not an inferior brand. We do not want to die in vain any more on foreign battlefields for Wall Street and the greedy supporters of domestic fascism. If we must die let it be in Mississippi or Georgia. Let it be wherever we are lynched and deprived of our rights as human beings.”

Robeson pledged to defend the eleven Communist Party leaders on trial downtown. “An undesirable citizen,” the Hearst Press editorialized. “It was an accident unfortunate for America that Robeson was born here.”

Now the House Un-American Activities Committee moved to discredit and isolate Paul Robeson. It summoned prominent Negroes to counter Robeson’s “disloyal and unpatriotic statements.” Star witness Jackie Robinson characterized Robeson's Paris remarks as “silly,” and insisted that Negroes did not want any help from Communists to fight discrimination. Robeson responded in a speech to the Civil Rights Congress. “I am a radical,” he told 1,200 cheering delegates. “I am going to stay one until my people are free to walk the earth.”

Robeson was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was asked if he wrote, "Moscow is very dear to me and very close to my heart. I want to emphasize that only here, in the Soviet Union, did I feel that I was a real man with a capital M."

DID YOU WRITE THIS they demanded of him. Robeson answered, "I would say in Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being, and no colored prejudice like in Mississippi and no colored prejudice like in Washington, and it was the first time I felt like a human being, where I did not feel the pressure of colored as I feel in this committee today."

Rep. Scherer asked “Why do you not stay in Russia?” Robeson replied “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”

"You are the real un-Americans,” Robeson shouted at his interrogators. “And you should be ashamed of yourselves."

So now we’re getting a good idea of what happened to Paul Robeson. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him. FBI agents spied on Robeson relentlessly – opened his mail, listened to every phone call, followed him everywhere. They intimidated managers of concert halls, and frightened them so that in one year alone 85 concert hall doors were closed to Paul Robeson. His livelihood was shattered: his income fell from $100,000 a year to $2,000.

The State Department took away his passport, preventing him from giving concerts overseas. He became the first American banned from television – to mention his name on radio, TV or newspaper was forbidden. Paul Robeson became a non-person.

"Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever!!!" declares Lloyd Brown, writer and a long time colleague of Robeson.

“Robeson’s pitiless harassment, character assassination, career destruction, and ultimate physical sickness and death, are another legacy of American slavery and the continuing rule of money:” Amiri Baraka, playwright.

By 1966 Robeson was ‘an invalid’ living in seclusion in the home of his sister Marian. So sick was he that in 1974 the FBI said of Paul Robeson – once “one of the most dangerous men in the world” according to J. Edgar Hoover - that “no further investigation is warranted.” All too well had the government done its job!

“What they have done to Paul has been the most cruel thing I have ever seen,” cried W.E.B. DuBois: “The persecution of Paul Robeson by the Government...has been one of the most contemptible happenings in modern history.”

And Bishop J. Clinton Hoggard, a friend from Paul’s boyhood, said of Robeson “This was a man who bore on his body the marks of Jesus... marks of vengeance."

Yes, imagine if you can a man who combined the dedication and the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., the talent and charisma of Denzel Washington, the fantastic athletic abilities of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali together. In fact, Paul Robeson was the Muhammad Ali of his time - in worldwide popularity he was the equivalent of Muhammad Ali.

Yet they almost obliterated almost all memory of him. But Paul Robeson is making a tremendous comeback. In 1998, the centennial of his birth, over 400 hundred celebrations took place in cities throughout the US and Canada and around the world. Robeson exhibits were mounted in museums, libraries, schools; his musical recordings were re-mastered on CDs. There were tributes, panel discussions, oratorical contests, magazine articles, symposia, commemorative programs, film forums and retrospectives. There were radio and TV specials, poster exhibits, lectures, conferences, concerts and citywide celebrations...

Rutgers University now boasts two majestic buildings named in honor of the alumnus it once shunned: the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at its New Brunswick campus, and the Paul Robeson Campus Center on its Newark campus.

Governor Christine Todd Whitman proclaimed 1998 ‘Paul Robeson Year in New Jersey.’ And the revival continues apace. Just a few months ago we attended in Oakland an all-day ceremony at the Board of Education. With many dignitaries presiding – including Barbara Lee who is playing such a magnificent role in today’s struggle for peace - The Oakland school district named its administration building in honor of Paul Robeson.

So let’s finish up by taking a look at the photo on page 124 of Susan Robeson’s book. It shows Paul Robeson at a summer camp for children. But it does not name the camp! Well, this was the legendary Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, where Robeson was the children’s great hero. My partner June Levine and I just published a book about this camp and we used this same photo as the Frontispiece of "Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca: Blacks, Whites and Reds at Camp."

And because I co-wrote this book I was asked to speak to you today. You see how all things are connected, how all things come around. So let me close the circle by urging you to read "The Great Midland" by Alexander Saxton, and yes, read everything you can about Paul Robeson.

In fact, I suggest we follow the example of Paul Robeson. Today, when the drums of war are beating so loudly, as wildly and insanely as when Paul Robeson was the Emperor Jones pursued in the jungle, let us stand up for peace as Paul Robeson did.

Yes, let’s work for peace, let’s read what we want and say what we like. Let us exercise our free speech. Let us defend the Constitution of the United States.

Thank you...

Web Site: Paul Robeson on the Web

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