Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Paul Robeson

(Go and read my new column on Paul Robeson and Yiddish and then come back and read the rest)

Once he was asked why, being so critical of the United States, he did not move to the Soviet Union. “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country,” Robeson said, “and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it.” 

from We Are Long Overdue for a Paul Robeson Revival by Peter Dreier

This year two anniversaries are bringing attention to the life of one of the towering American personalities of the 20th century: Paul Robeson. It's the 100th anniversary of his graduation from Rutgers University as well as the 70th anniversary of the Peekskill Riots, a shameful chapter in New York history sparked by a benefit concert at which Robeson was the headliner.

This week, my Golden City column is on the theme of Robeson and Yiddish. As usual, my only problem was too much material and not enough room. But I still managed to feature some great stuff and I hope you'll click over and read and enjoy.

It's disheartening that these days, more often than not, when Paul Robeson is the subject of serious discussion, it's being done by people who are pursuing an anti-Communist agenda, and, by extension, pursuing their case against Robeson as a tragic Stalinist dupe. For these people, the tragedy of Robeson's life was Stalinism.

I hardly think we need to gloss over Robeson's mistakes or apologize for his apologetics. As a matter of respect, we should be able to remember Robeson as a real person, who, along with his outsized talents, had his very human flaws.

But let me be clear. there was one great tragedy of Paul Robeson's life, and one alone: American white supremacy. 

Imagine that he was exactly one generation removed from American slavery and managed to get himself to a prestigious private college where he was only the third African-American to ever attend. 

  • At Rutgers Robeson was the star football player, yet, he had to be benched when the team from Washington and Lee wouldn't take the field against an African-American player.

  • He was Rutgers valedictorian and a Glee club member but couldn't travel with or socialize with the Glee club

  • After law school he suffered similar humiliations at the white law firm he joined. He finally left the law after a white stenographer refused to take dictation from him.

  • In 1924 he was starring in a Eugene O'Neill play in Greenwich Village but couldn't find a restaurant in the neighborhood that would serve him.

  • In 1940, when in Los Angeles to give a concert, he was refused a room at the fancy 'Whites Only' hotels. The Beverly Wilshire finally rented him a room, but at a much higher price, and on the condition that he registered under a fake name.

And on and on and on. This is only the tiniest sample of what Robeson, an extremely privileged and visible African-American of his time, experienced. You could literally be the most famous man in the world, but in the eyes of white Americans, and American law, you were just another *******.  To me, the emphasis from some quarters on Robeson's 'crimes' seem like a diversion away from those with real power, the people who created and sustained systems of inequality and oppression, both in the US and the USSR.

Even if Robeson had repented and issued his own denunciations of Stalin? Would that have saved Feffer? Or Mikhoels? Or one human being? The only thing that stopped Stalin's madness was his own death. The outsized denunciations of Robeson ascribe to him a level of power that borders on delusional.

Anyway, there is still much to be explored in Robeson's work and legacy and I hope you'll click over to my piece and be inspired.