“'Kill the N****r Commie.' One of the placards said that. There were dozens of them, but that’s the only one I recall (I was only seven). And they were all screaming and shouting, those white men and women. Then he started to sing, with this impressive, commanding, deep voice. By the time the second song started, the placards had all come down, and they were all listening. I thought then that if music can do this, I want to play music.”
77-year-old retired drummer and plumber Roger Blank related this story last Sunday, after a Martin Luther King Day musical celebration at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn which included excerpts from a play about Paul Robeson. That encounter of his with Robeson had taken place in New Rochelle in 1946, at a rally in support of Henry Wallace’s unsuccessful campaign for President under the Progressive Party ticket.
Three years later however, another mob was less susceptible to Robeson’s artistry, and the outdoor concert resulted in what would become the infamous Peeksill riots - arguably one of the lowest points in modern American history, and an episode that lurks too dangerously in the subconscious, given its contemporary resonances.
Robeson, apart from being probably the most famous American artist in the 1930s as a singer of hundreds of songs and spirituals (Ol’ Man River being his most famous), and as a stage and screen actor, was also a forerunner of the civil rights movement. He was referred to as “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” by Blacks at the height of his fame. It seems something of an injustice that he remains largely hidden from public consciousness when compared to Dr. King, or even Malcolm X, who was himself assassinated days before a scheduled meeting with Robeson – requested by the young minister in recognition of the older man’s pioneering activism and personal sacrifice.
Today, most young activists (and even many middle-aged ones) of any complexion would struggle to recognize Robeson’s name, despite the fact that many of his sayings in the first half of the twentieth century can be applied to today’s national and international situation. Which supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement would argue with such dramatic action as leading a delegation to the United Nations in 1951 to lay a charge of genocide against Black people by their own country – not just through police and civilian brutality and violence, but through wide economic and health disadvantage? And for those who stress that ALL lives matter, he wrote of his personal “belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have often spoken in concerts and elsewhere, [which] has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race ... There is truly a kinship among us all, a basis for mutual respect and brotherly love.” And peace campaigners today would surely agree with his 1946 speech in which he declared that “The absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.”
The sudden and dramatic slide in his popularity began in April 1949 when he made a speech at the World Peace Congress in Paris suggesting that African Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union because they remained second-class citizens in their own country. Such a stance continues to land people in trouble decades later (most notably Muhammed Ali), illustrating how far ahead of his time he was. His mass appeal as an entertainer, when combined with his love for the Soviet Union, his socialism and internationalism, transformed him into one of the most dangerous people in the country in the establishment’s eyes, and the campaign to discredit and denounce him went into full gear immediately after that Paris speech. Those efforts to suppress his story have been largely successful, and in fact, it can be said that his character, career and reputation were assassinated and buried years before he actually died forty years ago - on January 23, 1976.
Despite whichever of his views can be considered to have been mistaken (particularly his unrelenting support for Stalin, some argue), or the phenomenon of Barack Obama, the fact that Robeson’s words ring so true today suggest that he needs to at least be part of the national conversation. He embodied the truth that through art, people’s hearts, minds and souls could be transformed. The 7-year-old Roger Blank would grow up to tour the country and the world with great artists like Sun Ra, Clark Terry and Sonny Rollins, not to make money, he says, but to “spread peace and be part of changing the rhythm of people’s lives, their spirit.”
Mr. Blank would agree with the beautiful words of the playwright Marc Connelly, who wrote this in tribute to Robeson on the occasion of his 44th birthday: “I suppose by that dreary instrument, the calendar, it can be contended that you are the contemporary of your friends. But by more important standards of time measurement, you really represent a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.”
He would also agree that even though it would be pure fantasy hope for a day for Robeson in the national calendar, the fortieth anniversary of his death should not go unmarked today.
Tayo Aluko is the British-Nigerian writer and performer of the award-winning play Call Mr. Robeson.
Some 40th anniversary events:
27 January 2016: Paul Robeson: Celebrating his Life, His Art, His Legacy. PCS Union Headquaters, London
12 February 2016: Paul Robeson: 40 Years Death. Marx Memorial Library, London