This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Paul Robeson
“As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will
always speak for peace, and no can silence me in this.”
When Paul Robeson is referenced today, it’s usually as a
victim of politics. Robeson was viciously scapegoated by the US government during the Red
Scare of the 1950s. His political interests were used to destroy his
career and turn him into a social pariah. Robeson deserves to be remembered as a
pioneer and one of the great Renaissance men of the 20th
There was virtually nothing Paul Robeson could not do well. Taken
individually, his academic, athletic and artistic exploits are enough to make
Robeson important. Combined in a single person, Robeson’s life seems superhuman.
By the time he was 25, Robeson had graduated Rutgers as valedictorian, been
named a football All-American, completed law school and played in the NFL.
Robeson then embarked on one of the critical artistic
careers in Black American history. He combined unparalleled vocal talent with breathtaking
acting chops to perform in a dizzying array of styles and contexts. Robeson’s
performances as Othello, Emperor Jones and in Show Boat opened doors for Blacks
to entertain audiences without playing demeaning or stereotypical characters. Stars
like Sidney Poitier and Henry Belafonte were able to be viewed as strong, dignified
Black men because Robeson had already created that template.
Robeson used his wealth and status to advocate for a slew of
political causes. He supported trade unionists, civil rights groups, progressive
politicians, anti-Fascist and anti-lynching groups among many others. Robeson’s
fight for the end of colonialism eventually led him to embrace communism and spend
time in the USSR after which he became one of the most prominent Americans to
be blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson had
numerous opportunities to salvage his reputation, rescue his career and
continue enriching himself monetarily. Instead, he willingly sacrificed himself
and his fortune, to stay devoted to his friends, comrades and beliefs. It can
be argued that few individuals suffered more from America’s anti-communist
excesses than Paul Robeson.
While his controversial politics discolors our collective memory
of him, Paul Robeson should be remembered as a fierce advocate for the freedom,
dignity and equality of all people. He broke the mold of what a Black person
could be and forced the world to acknowledge his gifts.
Today I am grateful for Paul Robeson. You should be too.