Celebrating Paul Robeson's Legacy of Art and Activism

One hundred years ago, Paul Robeson graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. To mark this anniversary, Rutgers will dedicate an outdoor plaza to Robeson as part of a series of centennial events for one of its most notable alumni. Robeson was already nationally known during his college years as an All-American football player and grew to become a nationally recognized vocalist and stage actor in Harlem in the 1920s. He became an early film star and crisscrossed continents on his way to becoming a globally beloved singer (perhaps most recognized for “Ol’ Man River”). Robeson’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello in the ‘40s was, perhaps, his most celebrated role and he was the first African American to play the Moorish general on Broadway. He toured with the show across the country to enthusiastic crowds.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, his was one of the most adored and recognizable faces in the world. To conceptualize Robeson in today’s vernacular, imagine the celebrity of athlete Colin Kaepernick, singer Donald Glover, and actor Will Smith combined in a single individual. Despite his historic prominence, an article in the New York Review of Books asserted “It is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest idea who [Robeson] is.” This review prompted a couple of fond remembrances of Robeson, published as letters to the editor, as well as a strong dissent in the Black Agenda Report. Is it true that no one under 50 has heard of Paul Robeson and, if so, why has his story been muted despite his immense fame?

Controversy was nothing new in Paul Robeson’s life and legacy. In addition to achieving artistic fame, he was a tireless champion of African American Civil Rights and global human rights. He shared the dignity of African American art alongside other folk culture as an actor and singer; he was a sharp critic of colonialism and fascism; and he believed that capitalism, which was built in part by African enslavement, was a deeply unjust system. During the anticommunist hysteria of the post-WWII era, theaters and concert halls in America closed their doors to Robeson. The US State Department revoked his passport, and he was trailed relentlessly by the FBI. Former colleagues and fellow activists turned their backs on him in fear.

Robeson was blacklisted in the mid-1950s, and his narrative was largely ignored throughout the Cold War. At the same time, a new generation of Civil Rights activists was gaining traction. Their heritage has sometimes overshadowed the work of Robeson and others of the earlier generation. Slowly, Robeson’s story was rebuilt in the public discourse through Martin Duberman’s 1989 biography and St. Clair Bourne’s documentary 10 years later. Robeson’s son, Paul Jr., penned two volumes on his father in 2001 and 2010. Since then, numerous scholars have added nuance to the Robeson historiography including Gerald Horne, Jordan Goodman, and myself. Recently, artists have also been honoring Robeson — actors Daniel Beaty, Stogie Kenyatta, and Tayo Aluko have performed Robeson’s story in separate one-man shows around the world. Artist and director Steve McQueen has publicly discussed making a film about Robeson. In 2016, his exhibit on Robeson’s FBI file was mounted at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The commitment of these artists and scholars, most of whom are under 50, shows that there is a population which has more than a slight idea of who Robeson is. Still, there is a generational disconnect around Robeson’s story.

For over a decade, I have traveled the country speaking about Robeson and have noted several patterns. Public programs on Robeson tend to attract a crowd that is mostly middle-aged and older, who are often very passionate about how Robeson touched their lives. I met the granddaughter of a lawyer who defended Robeson’s right to perform, and another woman recalled attending his 1949 Peekskill concert, which ended in riots. Her scars proved the extent of the violence that summer day.

On the other hand, I have been working with actor Grant Cooper for four years, taking Robeson’s story into schools and colleges. More often than not, the young people we encounter have never heard of Robeson. His story is also new to many teachers in middle and high schools. Anti-communism is commonly raised as a main culprit for the dearth of knowledge about Robeson — who traveled to the Soviet Union numerous times and allied with left-wing groups in the US, including the Communist Party, in the name of fighting for Civil Rights.

However, the pernicious influence of white supremacy cannot be discounted in his lack of remembrance. White supremacy sways school curricula and the writing of history.

Consider these examples: during a 1946 meeting, Robeson told President Harry S. Truman that Black Americans would be forced to defend themselves if he did not prosecute lynching. Robeson never failed to point out publicly that his passport was taken because of his condemnation of colonialism in Africa. Robeson called the House Un-American Activities Committee on their racism in his 1956 testimony. He was an African American who had wealth, fame, and a following, and was willing to advocate for people who did not have money or notoriety. His frank appraisals of racism threatened core structures of white power and privilege, which is far more dangerous to America than having Soviet friends and left-wing colleagues. The fear of communism was used to malign Robeson and restrict his influence, but protecting white supremacy was at the heart of those strategies.

It’s possible that the concept of celebrity has changed to make Robeson less accessible to young audiences. In his memoir, Robeson wrote that he always measured himself only against his own potential and never compared himself with anyone else. This kind of remarkable self-possession gave him the strength to be able to sacrifice personal fame for the broader goal of racial progress. Robeson’s self-assurance undergirded his memorable physical presence. He built an international following through face-to-face interactions: concerts, speeches, plays, conversations. Reviewers and audience members often noted his charisma and dignity onstage. Encounters with Robeson touched people in a way that might be tricky to convey in an era when celebrity is largely perceived through smartphones, Instagram, and Twitter feeds. Robeson made his community feel more connected, such that he was willing to give up wealth and accolades for them.

Getting Robeson back on the big screen may solve this generational disconnect. The recent films about James Baldwin’s work, I Am Not Your Negro and If Beale Street Could Talk, are piquing the curiosity of young audiences. Teaching Robeson can also be quite effective; I have seen middle and high schoolers come alive with questions after hearing Robeson’s speeches at school assemblies. Students, reading excerpts of Robeson’s memoir, asked in-depth questions about the courage needed to fight segregation. I once taught a pre-college humanities seminar framed around themes illustrated through Robeson’s life. A young African American student slid a handwritten note under my office door afterward. “It has been a pleasure taking your class,” he wrote, “learning about Paul Robeson was valuable information for me.” Robeson’s story is valuable. His commitment to civil and human rights is too significant to overlook in this, or any, era.

About the Author

Lindsey R. Swindall teaches U.S. History and the Freshman Colloquium at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles including The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello and Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art. Her book The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anticolonialism, 1937-1955 will be out in paperback in May 2019. Working with actor Grant Cooper, she has developed a dramatization of her biography of Paul Robeson for middle and high school students. She also co-facilitates public discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.