Artists must take sides

May 8, 2008

Annie Levin reviews a new CD that collects Paul Robeson's interviews and speeches.

IN 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Paul Robeson commemorative stamp as part of its Black Heritage series--a strange act by a government that did everything in its power to destroy the movie star, singer and outspoken communist, while he was alive.

Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, spoke at Robeson's funeral in 1976. She said that Robeson had been "buried alive" because "he tapped into the same wells of latent militancy as" King had done.

With their recently released CD Paul Robeson: Words Like Freedom, the Freedom Archives has produced a useful resource for helping to un-bury the radical Robeson. The Freedom Archives, a collection of over 8,000 hours of audio and video materials that document social movements in the U.S., have put together this collection of 26 short clips from speeches and interviews with Robeson, from the 1940s through the 1960s.

The highlight of the CD is the excerpt from Robeson's 1956 testimony before the House on Un-American Activities Committee, where the congressional witch-hunters are hopelessly outmatched against Robeson's oratorical skills and his moral outrage.

Paul Robeson surrounded by Moore shipyard workers in Oakland, Calif., in September 1942 (National Archives)

When one congressman whines, "Why do you not stay in Russia?" Robeson's commanding voice booms back: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I'm 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?"

The Freedom Archives hopes that Words Like Freedom will be used by teachers to introduce Robeson to a new generation, and it should be, with a couple of caveats. First, the CD does not have any of Robeson's songs on it, so it should be played alongside a collection of Robeson's music.

And the CD doesn't come with any liner notes that explain the context for individual speeches or give enough of an overview of Robeson's politics or his era. Teachers will have to provide that context for some of the speeches to make sense.

ROBESON, WHOSE father was born into slavery, earned a law degree from Columbia University in the 1920s, became a Hollywood movie star, a brilliant Shakespearean actor, and an international singer and performer, fluent in 12 languages.

The devastating impact of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and the brutality of racism in the U.S. drove Robeson, like millions of others, toward radical politics, and he dedicated the rest of his active life to fighting against racism and advocating for workers' rights and socialism.

As historian Mark Naison wrote, "No cultural figure in modern American history, with the possible exception of Woody Guthrie, so completely identified his life and art with the fate of American labor. In 15 years of political activism, Robeson spoke at hundreds of picket lines, rallies and demonstrations...Barred from major concert halls during the Cold War, excluded form film and radio, Robeson still found an audience in the halls of left-wing unions and the African American church."

In 1937, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Robeson declared at a rally in London, "Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear. The artist must take sides, he must elect to fight for freedom or slavery."

From the 1940s on, the state subjected Robeson to relentless political persecution in various forms. The FBI harassed him for over two decades. In 1949, politicians and police helped provoke vigilante riots at two concerts he gave in Peekskill, N.Y. After that conflict, Rep. John Rankin called Robeson a "nigger communist" on the floor of the Congress.

In 1950, the State Department revoked his passport when he refused to sign a loyalty oath. This harassment contributed heavily to Robeson's eventual mental deterioration and his erasure from public memory.

But in collections like this one, Robeson's voice of resistance and hope carries on to us. As Robeson once said as he marveled at the rise of the CIO, "As the Black worker takes his place upon the stage of history...a new day dawns in human affairs. The determination of the Negro workers, supported by the whole Negro people, and joined with the mass of the progressive white working men and women can save the labor movement...

"This alliance can beat back the attacks against the living standards and very lives of the Negro people...And it can help to bring to pass in America and in the world the dreams our fathers dreams--of a land that's free, of a people growing in friendship, in love, in cooperation, and in peace."

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