Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Paul Robeson's Rancorous Heart

Vito Marcantonio may have been, for a time, the most powerful politician in New York City, yet the aftershocks of the Red Scare were enough to erase all but the slightest traces of his impressive legacy.

Paul Robeson was a man of like fame, in a different arena, that of the theater and the concert hall, but his blacklisting led to a similar forgetting.

From ALBA's "The Volunteer."
Like many blacklisted performers, Robeson lost work thanks to his defiance of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC).

He had an adoring overseas audience which, when he was permitted to travel by the State Department, sustained the actor and singer, but his personal American epic was reduced to a small blurb and a black hat to boot. 

He was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was minister of a small a New Jersey parish, a former slave, who reportedly drove his son hard. Robeson's mother died when her dress caught fire at the kitchen stove.

Robeson was just the third African-American to receive a scholarship to Rutgers where he was Phi Beta Kappa and an All-American collegiate footballer.

He attended and completed Columbia Law School (1920-1923) while rising in reputation as an actor with the transformative Provincetown Players. These included the works of Eugene O'Neill, such as “The Emperor Jones,” which was written specifically for the young thespian.

In an otherwise unkind portrait, later bound with similar accounts of American communists as “Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties,” Murray Kempton of “The New York Post wrote that, “Robeson was the Negro of the future, yet in Hollywood they would not let him portray anyone but the Negro of the legendary past.”

“Robeson,” Kempton added, “was especially appealing because he could act this Negro of theater tradition and appear thereafter at a [Greenwich] Village party as a guest of intellectual distinction. He looked like a tribal deity, and he could swagger for his audience as an Ethiop clown and then talk after the show with engagement and cultivation. He had some of the charm of a superbly tamed savage.”

Henry Wallace, Vito Marcantonio and Paul Robeson
Jeff Sparrow is author of a newly released biography of Robeson entitled, “No Way But This.” He told a “Guardian” podcast with Claire Armitstead, that the performer and activist's life “was circumscribed by the extraordinary racism that he was born into...Particularly as an actor, where he was constantly being shunted into roles that were demeaning or scripts that were racist for the entirety of his career, which was about trying to transform those roles into something less demeaning.”

Roles for blacks were hard to come by and Robeson, seemingly without effort, launched a successful singing career.

On May 15, WBAI radio in New York broadcast a special program on Robeson through its “Building Bridges,” offering.

It includes a discussion from historian (University of Houston) Gerald Horne, who said, “Being a man sensitive to social science, Robeson could recognize that, in terms of creativity in art, there is oftentimes a relationship between the capital investment in the particular art and one's ability to be progressive. If one is a poet with a pencil and pad, one can be exceedingly radical. Whereas, if you are working in a Hollywood production with millions of dollars in capital investment, and scores of workers involved, it's more problematic to be progressive.”

For that reason, Horne said, Robeson left the silver screen. “Many of his cinematic performances are not necessarily the Zenith of his artistic creativity.”

In 1920, Robeson relocated to Europe where he lived for a decade. In London, Horne said, he was exposed to important Marxist thinkers such as Maurice Cornforth and Harry Pollitt and was in close contact with the British Labour Party through which he drew his personal conception of socialism.

Marc with civil rights giants Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois
There he witnessed rising fascism first-hand. Horne said Robeson himself barely escaped a scrape with Nazi jackboots in a Berlin train station. He was, in fact, en route to Moscow where he met an old friend, William Patterson, a leading African-American communist and leader of the International Labor Defense.

Robeson subsequently joined the Communist Party.

“It's after his journey to Moscow that you find Robeson on the front lines in Spain," observed Horne. "The Spanish Civil War became an international cause for the left.”

The singer regaled the Spanish front with the rich timbre of his voice and raised money for the beleaguered Republic at the same time.

In 2009, our friends at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives(ALBA) published a special "comic book" issue recounting Robeson's travails during the epic conflict.

Drafted by Joshua Brown, the text includes the collaboration of Peter Carroll, a prominent Spanish Civil War scholar. Find it here.  

Sparrow explained how the singer sparked a revival of the Negro spiritual.

“When Robeson gave the first concert dedicated solely to spirituals in 1925," he explained, "it was this tremendous revelation for a lot of people to hear what W.E.B. DuBois had always talked about,” said Sparrow. “The beauty of this music and also its ability to speak to a new generation.”

DuBois was a champion of the form, explained Sparrow. He called them "Sorrow Songs." Harlem Renaissance intellectuals such as Richard Wright saw the spiritual as the legacy of a past better forgotten and preferred classical influences in the development of African-American culture.

Ishamael Reed, author of the newly resuscitated 1970's breakthrough novel, “Mumbo Jumbo,” also participated in the "Guardian” podcast.

He argued that there was more standing between the Harlem intellectuals and Robeson than culture.

“There was a clash between black nationalists and Communists going back to the 1920s,” Reed asserted. “Many black intellectuals and political leaders broke with the Communist Party over what they considered a betrayal. This is what Ralph Ellison's 'The Invisible Man' is all about. They felt black issues were being ignored in favor of rescuing the Soviet Union. Police brutality, foreclosure, dispossession. These are what Richard Wright and Ellison and the rest were upset about.”
Making Art.

Gerald Meyer, co-chair of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, remarks that, "Robeson, DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansbury and many other African-American intellectuals and political leaders supported the communist position. Ellison was an outlier and a very dubious one at that." 

There is photo-documentation enough attesting to the close relationship between Marcantonio and Robeson. Less is written about their collaboration. In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Meyer noted that Marcantonio's 1948 reelection campaign included projections from a soundtruck of a 10-minute film with a voiceover by Robeson.

Meyer observed that, when Marcantonio's Puerto Rican lieutenant Manuel Medina ran on the American Labor Party line for New York City Council, Robeson was part of his multiracial election committee. 

Such collaborations run counter to Murray Kempton's portrayal of Robeson as an American black separated from his people and national politics, while enjoying a perpetual European idyll.

Salvatore LaGumina, author of “Vito Marcantonio: The People's Politician,” called Robeson, along with Henry Wallace, one of the "big guns" in Marc's 1950 mayoral run.

At Marcantonio's funeral, Robeson distributed a statement that said, “Progressive humanity has suffered a shocking and grievous loss. He was the people's tribune. Standing, often alone, in defense of their rights and interests in the halls of Congress...

“....Perhaps no group of Americans is called upon to honor his name and memory more than the Negro people. Marcantonio was the Thaddeus Stevens of the first half of the 20th century.”

Actor Troy Hodges rendered this statement into a live speech at Marcantonio's gravesite during a celebration commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the congressman's death convened by the Vito Marcantonio Forum.

The WBAI podcast contains a recording of DuBois explaining how, at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference -- “a magnificent meeting” the venerable intellectual called it -- “Robeson said he didn't believe colored men would join in any war against Russia.”

The reaction was swift and brutal. Among other things, the U.S. government and the Brooklyn Dodgers tried drafting baseballer Jackie Robinson to smear Robeson. The actor/activist was branded a communist and criticized by government officials and African-American leaders alike. 

The State Department ultimately barred his application for a passport in 1950. He was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios and suffered the economic consequences of his stands on behalf of the rights of Negroes and workers worldwide.

According to “Smithsonian” magazine, his income dropped from $150,000 in one year, to $3,000 the next.

In 1958, his passport was reinstated. He toured internationally, enjoying renewed success, but struggling with depression and related illness.

In 1961, he was found unconscious in a Moscow hotel room, having tried to slit his wrists, according to Sparrow, an Australian author who noted that, while Robeson gave the impression of effortless success, his was anything but. “Being Paul Robeson was a difficult thing, from being a prodigy at an early and the expectations of so many people riding on him.”

Robeson published an autobiography, “Here I Stand.” He died from a stroke in Pennsylvania in 1976.

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