Journeys in the Deep South II: The Lorraine Hotel, Memphis
The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics V
Paul Robeson was quite possibly nay certainly the most talented person in 20th Century America and a gigantic figure on the world stage. This will strike many people as an absurd claim: Robeson is now a largely forgotten figure, even if known in passing to many among those with more than a modicum of knowledge about American arts, letters, and politics. Some will object that he is commemorated with an American postage stamp, a sure sign of his recognition and even admission into the ranks of the establishment. At this juncture, I will not speak at length of the politics of postage stamps; suffice to say that the postage stamp is practically obsolete. The philatelist is now akin to a troglodyte, a remnant of a different age; certainly, judging from the example of my own children, the postage stamp is barely even an object of curiosity. Few American children of the present generation have ever mailed a letter: a subject for another set of reflections. So, all this is by way of suggesting that a postage stamp no longer redeems an individual or puts him or her on a pedestal, and one can barely conclude from Robinson’s deification on a postage stamp that America recognizes him for the supreme genius that he was.
Robeson first acquired a reputation as American college football’s greatest star, though as a black person even this recognition was very late in coming; he also went on to earn varsity letters in track, basketball, and football. It is doubtful that there was ever a more accomplished college athlete than Robeson. But should one think that he had merely set the example for the professional black athlete, and paved the way for a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Michael Jordan, it is well to recall that he graduated from Rutgers in 1919 as the class valedictorian. He then went on to build a reputation as an international opera star, singer, and movie and theater actor; he was the first black man to play the role of Othello, first in London and then, during World War II, on Broadway, in which role he had a longer run than any other actor, white or black: 300 performances. By the 1920s, Robeson, born in April 1898, had earned a law degree from Columbia University; he was, moreover, already a committed political activist, and in the late 1930s he became part of the international brigade of volunteers determined to confront the rise of fascism in Spain.
It is also in the 1930s that Robeson turned towards Africa, in an attempt to understood his own roots and heritage; at home, in the United States, this had already led him to become a forceful voice against lynching and a ferocious advocate of the rights of the working class, white as much as black. In 1934, by which time Robeson had made London his home, he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he is said to have studied a score of African dialects. To his many other gifts, which make words such as ‘extraordinary’ appear positively pedestrian, we can add his flair for languages. The National Archive webpage on Robeson mentions, quite casually, that he sang in more than 25 languages, a claim substantiated by the archival record and many of his biographers; the short biography of him that appears on the PBS website states “that he spoke fifteen languages”. In his late 50s, Robeson turned to the study of Arabic and Hebrew. The phrase ‘Renaissance Man’, clichéd as it is, seems wholly inadequate to describe a person of his oceanic accomplishments.
In 1939, on the eve of the war, Robeson returned to the United States where he was at once established as the country’s “Number One” entertainer. But Robeson’s political awakening had also taken him to the Soviet Union. His son has described his father’s intellectual journey aptly: “Freedom movements in the European colonies of Africa and Asia faced fierce repression, with many top leaders in prison or in exile. The eloquent voices of Gandhi and Nehru in India, as well the compelling appeals of freedom movement leaders from the length and breadth of the African continent, were eliciting ever greater international support as the Soviet Union threw its considerable weight behind the anticolonialist cause” (Paul Robeson, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001], 285). Though Robeson’s support for the American war effort was unequivocal, his concert tour in the Soviet Union (1936-37), refusal to criticize Soviet policies, and outspoken defense of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war earned him the enmity of anti-communist crusaders. He was among the most prominent people in the country to be investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee; his passport was revoked. The exchange that transpired between him and members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 12 June 1956 is a remarkable document, a timely and chilling reminder of the revival of brute strategies of compelling fealty to flag and country in our own times:
“Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. . . . The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too.”
“This United States Government”, Robeson told the court of inquisition, “should go down to Mississippi and protect my people. That is what should happen.” Why, as Robeson had asked more than once, would Negroes fight on behalf of a government that had ruthlessly put them down for 300 years against a nation [the Soviet Union] where racial discrimination was prohibited? Let us listen to another portion of the exchange:
“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.
“Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?
“Mr. ROBESON: 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? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.”
As their exchange winds up, Robeson ends with a devastating indictment: “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The damage, however, had been done; Robeson was a wounded, marked man. In consequence of his public defilement, he found that he was shunned by artists, intellectuals, and former colleagues and fellow-travelers in ideas. His income declined sharply and Robeson was forced into early retirement. In the late 1950s, by virtue of the decision of the Supreme Court, in the case of Kent v. Dulles, Robeson’s passport was returned to him. He had a triumphant thunderous concert tour in the Soviet Union in 1959, but this ‘rehabilitation’ came too late as the ostracism had taken a physical and mental toll of his life. For the remainder of his life, until his death in 1976, Robeson became largely a recluse.
This brings me, then, to the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and now a majestic Civil Rights Museum. I shall speak of it as a memorial site to King elsewhere. For now, I have another nagging doubt. Whatever the differences between the movement’s most well-known advocates, and whatever, for example, the strategic differences between major organizations such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and others, the adherence to nonviolence remained common to the movement’s different constituent elements. Even Malcolm X is acknowledged, with respect. How is it, then, that in this museum, where the struggle of African Americans to claim a rightful place for themselves in the history of America is documented with such sensitivity, the name of Paul Robeson is—as far as I can tell—entirely missing from the grand narrative which takes us from the Emancipation Proclamation to King’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain-top” speech and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)? How is it that Paul Robeson, a colossus among giants, remains unrecognized, unacknowledged, unsung in this shrine to the struggle of black people—a shrine shaped by Robeson’s own people? Is it the case that the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights movement, many of whom remained committed to a staunch anti-communism, were never reconciled to Robeson, perhaps seeing in him a well-meaning naïve human rights advocate who could not and would not recognize the unmitigated evils of Stalinist Russia?
Through the mid-1950s, after that is the murder of Emmett Till, the commencement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the activism of Medgar Evers that would lead to his assassination, Robeson continued to be recognized, more particularly in the African American press, as a unique spokesperson for black people. The Afro-American, published from Baltimore, was forthright in its headline reporting what had transpired at Robeson’s investigation by the House Committee: “Mr. Robeson is Right” (23 June 1956). The Sun-Reporter of San Francisco, on the same day, affirmed his place in the American public sphere: “Robeson as far as most Negroes are concerned occupies a unique position in the U.S., or the world, for that matter. Whites hate and fear him simply because he is the conscience of the U.S. in the field of color relations.” The Charlottesville-Albermale Tribune on June 22 declared the House Committee’s persecution of Robeson a “fiasco” and ventured to give forth the opinion that denying Robeson the right to travel or sing “is more hurtful to American prestige abroad than any intemperate statement he ever made.” Other black-owned newspapers, none that could be characterized as communist in their ideological predisposition, were similarly effusive in their praise of Robeson as the preeminent voice “for justice, happiness and freedom”, as the supreme embodiment of “the unrestrained and righteous rage that has broken bonds” (California Voice, Oakland, 22 June 1956).
What is thus clear is that Robeson remained not merely in the limelight in the mid-1950s but that he was generally recognized as the conscience of black America. His evisceration from the public record is deplorable enough, but the fact that he should have been excised from the memory even of much of black America and from the narratives of the struggle for civil rights is something that is profoundly troubling. In 1948, W. E. B. DuBois had been forced out of the NAACP, which considered DuBois’s sympathies for communism a liability; a decade later, the NAACP was itself marginalized as SCLC and the radicals of SNCC pushed for a more aggressive stance against segregation and racism. The Civil Rights Movement might well be the only revolution that the United States has ever had; even here, though, the absence of Paul Robeson from the received narrative points to what the conventional language of Marxism would characterize as its essentially “bourgeois” characteristic. Whatever else might be required to bring the still unredeemed promise of the Civil Rights movement to fruition, Paul Robeson will certainly have to be given his due, and more.