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Straddling Two Worlds

The Life of Paul Robeson

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, November/December 1997 | Volume 18, Number 6

"I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin'," Paul Robeson sang, changing the original Show Boat lyric -- "I'm tired of livin' and feared of dyin'" -- and transforming a song about passive acceptance into a militant anthem. He was signaling a turn in a career that straddled the worlds of artist and activist.

In 1936, Robeson had won fame for himself with his powerful singing of "Old Man River" in Show Boat. Variety said it was "the best piece of musical reproduction yet done in pictures." But Robeson was not happy at the portrayal of blacks as lazy or simple or barbarous. He began to question the attitude of the entertainment industry, and eventually gave up acting for concert appearances where he was freer to speak out on social justice. His views put him in alignment with the Communists, and eventually made him an outcast in American society.

A new exhibition at Rutgers University, Robeson's alma mater, examines his controversial life through photographs, concert and theater reviews, films, oral histories, and interviews. "Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen" opens April 9 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, on what would have been Robeson's one-hundredth birthday.

Born in 1898, Robeson was raised by his father, an escaped slave turned minister, in predominantly white middle-class New Jersey. He went to Rutgers, where he was valedictorian of the class of 1919, winner of the school's oratory award for four straight years, and an All-American football player. His classmates predicted that by 1940 he would be governor of New Jersey and the leader of the colored race in America, according to a biography by Martin Bauml Duberman.

By 1940 Robeson had deserted New Jersey for a larger stage-- New York. He was a lawyer briefly, but quit the firm after the secretaries refused to work for him and the partners relegated him to pushing papers. He became an actor. He said he would never have entered "any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to me."

The New York theater was more welcoming. It was the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro movement was in full swing. Writers and artists were exploring primitivism and celebrating the "unspoiled" qualities of African Americans. The highly accomplished and intellectual Robeson was sought out for his "primitive" dark beauty. Nickolas Muray made nude photographs of him and Tony Salemme did a statue called "Negro Spiritual."

Robeson was a commanding figure of that time. He felt optimistic. "If I do become a first-rate actor, it will do more toward giving people a slant on the so-called Negro problem than any amount of propaganda and argument."

He made these remarks in response to black criticism of his roles in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and in All God's Chillun Got Wings. From the reviews, the exhibition attempts to show how blacks were represented in American society. Dealing with an esoteric idea is tricky, says the curator, Jeffrey Stewart, a professor of history at George Mason University. "Most people come in and sweep through very quickly-- how do you catch them to think about something deeper?

"One thing we'll be using fairly dramatically are newspaper and magazine articles that were written about Robeson during his career. For example, when he was at Rutgers as an All-American football player, we have a caricature that was done of him for the newspaper in blackface with big white lips and elongated limbs." Stewart says the caricature shows that Robeson's blackness was the most important factor: "They couldn't represent how he really looked--they had to use this stereotype."

The reviews openly spoke of color. In talking about the Emperor Jones, the New York Herald Tribune said, "Physically this full-blooded negro fitted the role better than Gilpin . . . . He brings a full measure to the childlike volatility of his race . . . ." About Chillun, one critic wrote that Robeson had "all the unrestrained and terrible sincerity of which the white actor, save on rare occasions, is by virtue of his shellac of civilization just a trifle ashamed."

There was a furor that the story line in Chillun had a white woman married to a black man. Heywood Broun in the World, according to Duberman, found the play "very tiresome because Eugene O'Neill has no more than outlined his problem before he sidesteps it." Duberman explains the sidestepping: The white woman who marries the black student "turns out to be suffering from low self-esteem and, ultimately, madness, rather than from a courageous love that is colorblind." Chicago Defender critic Will Anthony Madden wrote that Jones and Chillun were "genius productions of subtleness of the most insidious and damaging kind." The field secretary of the NAACP contended that Chillun offered a warning against racial mixing -- "the Ku Klux would pay to have just such a play as this put on."

The criticism did not appear to affect Robeson. He toured as before in the United States and abroad. In 1930 he became the first black man in fifty years to play Othello in England. By the 1930s he commanded a salary of more than $1000 a concert, and hobnobbed in international society.

With all the success came a political awakening. Whether it was his wanderings through early fascist Spain, or his friendships in London with leftists such as Emma Goldman, C.L.R. James, and Ida Diamond is hard to say. Curator Jeffrey Stewart points to a third factor.

"I think it has something to do with the medium of film. It's one thing when an actor is in a performance on stage. He can't really see himself in the way he can see himself being used or being manipulated on screen. Probably the most pivotal movie of all is Sanders of the River in 1935." As Steward tells it, Robeson began the film project with enthusiasm; he was encouraged that the director had gone to Africa to shoot footage. "When the film came out, it was pretty clear that they had used Robeson and everyone in it to do a film that celebrated British colonialism," Stewart says. The plot is about a British colonial administrator named Sanders. When Sanders leaves, the natives fall to fighting among themselves; it stops when he returns. "There are stories of Robeson walking out of the theater when he first sees it or attempting to buy up all of the copies of the film," says Stewart. "It's not clear how true all the stories are, but it reflects that he was deeply embarrassed about this film."

Robeson would do a few more movies, including Show Boat in 1936, but he was beginning to focus more and more on his singing career--something he could have artistic control over. His concerts, which brought African American spirituals to the recital stage, had been a steady source of income for many years; now they carried a bigger incentive. Accompanied by pianist Larry Brown, Robeson traveled all over the United States and Europe, spreading the spiritual as a musical form and at the same time discovering the similarities in the folk music of peoples worldwide. He learned Russian, Polish, and other languages and sang foreign folk songs in his concerts. He selected music that he thought would convey an antifascist and pro-labor message.

He returned to the United States as World War II was breaking out in Europe, his patriotism intact. His "Ballad for Americans" was broadcast across the country. He performed in New York in 1943 in Othello. "The contradiction between American ideology of democracy and the practice of racism and segregation gets heightened during the war," comments Stewart. "With Othello there is an intersection between Robeson's talent, his growing stature in the industry, and the need and willingness of the society to allow the performance because it was consistent with the articulated ideology of the nation during the war."

He appeared at concerts and rallies for some of the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. But with the end of the war came disillusionment with Stalin, and what was once regarded as patriotism fell under suspicion. Robeson took anogther step, this one formally into the political arena. He helped found the Progressive Party and campaigned for Henry Wallace for president in 1948. The exhibition contains photographs and recordings of Robeson giving speeches during the campaign--speeches against racism, against colonialism, for socialism, and in defense of the Soviet Union. Stewart is trying to deal with the proper balance.

"In the past there has been a willingness on the part of some to cover up his Soviet involvement, and others who want to focus only on this. We're trying not to demonize or deify him," Stewart says. "He obviously underestimated Stalin's violence and antisemitism." The new exhibition, Steward says, is more concerned with his American politics.

The project director, Rae Alexander-Minter, puts it this way: "I think one of the reasons Robeson is exciting to us today is that he really talked about a world of people from different economic, social, religious, and racial groups working together for a national goal. He spoke about these groups coming together long before Martin Luther King did, before it was really accepted."

It was in 1949 at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris that Robeson alienated himself from mainstream America. According to the exhibition, Robeson was "misquoted as stating that American Negroes would not fight for the United States against the Soviet Union." Reaction was virulent and immediate. Violence erupted at a benefit concert for the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress on August 27, 1949, in Peekskill, New York. Robeson never made it to the concert. Duberman recounts the scene: ". . . the anti-Robeson mob moved on to attack the concertgoers, the stage, torch the camp chairs set up around it--and put a dozen Robeson supporters in the hospital." The concert was rescheduled for September 4 and preparations were made for better security. Despite the measures, effigies of Robeson were hanged the night before and two men with high-powered rifles were found on a nearby hill during the concert. Shortly after the performance ended, rioting began.

Stewart considers the Peekskill riot a pivotal point in Robeson's career. Video and photographic stills will barrage visitors as they walk through what Stewart calls The Peekskill Theater. "It was a tremendously well documented event. We're trying to give a sense of what it was like to be at the concert." As people leave the Peekskill section, the exhibition changes, becomes more somber, more constricted.

After Peekskill, life was bleak for Robeson--his albums were burned, his concerts were canceled, his name was erased from the published lists of All Americans, and as a final insult in 1950, his passport was revoked. Robeson continued to perform and speak where he could, usually at black or Unitarian churches. In 1952 he was stopped while attempting to cross the Washington-Canadian border for a concert. The State Department invoked World War I legislation that allowed the government to prevent departure or entry of its citizens "during the existence of a national emergency." Refusing to be defeated, Robeson eventually gave a concert via long-distance telephone for two thousand Canadian United Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. The event brought several more "Peace Arch" across-the-border concerts by Robeson to still- loyal fans in Canada.

Robeson remained under constant surveillance by the FBI. He was unable to travel, and was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He suffered an emotional breakdown in March of 1956. In 1958, after lawsuits filed by Robeson and others, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to require a loyalty oath to possess the right to travel freely. When news of the decision reached the world, Duberman writes, "a stack of glamorous offers began to accumulate." Robeson was asked by poet Pablo Neruda to sing in Chile; the Observer wished to publish a profile about him; and the director of Stratford Upon Avon asked him to appear in Othello for the 1959 season.

Despite the Supreme Court's decision, the damage to his career and to himself was already done. After a whirlwind return to the international stage, Robeson suffered another breakdown a year later in Moscow. Depression was to plague him the rest of his life. He kept apart from the public arena, even the rising Civil Rights Movement. He died on January 23, 1976--remembered by some as a great artist, by some as an activist for the oppressed, and by others as a Communist.

"He doesn't do anything criminal," Stewart reflects. "He is one of the most observed people of the whole Cold War, but he is never charged with anything." He transgressed in using his fame as a performer to advance his social agenda. He took to heart the question his friend Ida Diamond once asked him: "We expect plumbers to have political consciousness, why not artists?"

"Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen" opens in April at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers, where it remains until July 1998. It then goes to the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles from September through December of 1998; there will be a Robeson film series in Los Angeles and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In February 1999 the exhibition goes to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and to the Museum of the City of New York in September.

Several outreach programs round out the project. A play by Ossie Davis for schoolchildren premieres in March. A catalog of scholarly essays will be published, and curricula on civil rights and on Robeson's work songs will be added next fall in the Camden and New Brunswick schools.

About the Author

Funding Information

Rutgers University received $363,853 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support "Paul Robeson: Here I Stand."