Gerald Horne, author of the new biography of Paul Robeson, writes about his subject’s monumental accomplishments in the worlds of theatre, music and Hollywood, all in the face of a vociferous US apartheid system – and what he’d make of the Oscars today…
A major ritual takes places annually in the U.S.: the nomination and awarding of ‘Oscars’ or awards for movie-making, particularly performances. And regularly, there is an outcry—in recent years a Twitter-storm—about the absence of nominations for African-Americans and other peoples of color in a nation that is increasingly diverse and elected its first black president in 2008.
To be sure, there are exceptions: 12 Years a Slave, directed by Britain’s own Steve McQueen, did quite well in the star-studded Oscar ceremony a few years ago but this tends to be the exception that proves the rule.
This unfortunate state of affairs would not have surprised Paul Robeson, who—among other accomplishments—was once among Hollywood’s brightest stars.
Born in New Jersey in 1898 and passing away in Philadelphia in 1976, Robeson was variously a star athlete, lawyer, singer, actor and an expert students of dozens of languages, including German, Russian, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Chinese, etc. But he met his Waterloo when he dared to express support for socialism at a time during the Red Scare of the 1950s when his homeland, the U.S., was moving in a diametrically opposing direction. His income dropped precipitously from the six figures to the four figures. There were numerous attempts to inflict mayhem upon him. His passport was taken way, preventing him from travelling abroad—particularly to London where he had presided during a good deal of the 1920s and 1930s—in order to pursue his livelihood. Repeatedly, he was hauled before congressional investigative committees in Washington, D.C., as his inquisitors sought to prove that he was a member of the U.S. Communist Party, an affiliation he denied (it is possible that he had been a member of the British Communist Party).
Finally, in the late 1950s, as the movement against U.S. apartheid gathered steam, which served to liberalize the political atmosphere, his passport was returned and Robeson headed directly to London, where he resumed his career as a singer and actor, notably reviving his portrayal of ‘Othello’, still considered to be the premier portrayal of Shakespeare’s Moor.
He also travelled and performed incessantly, particularly to Moscow, where he had first visited in the 1930s. Indeed, his hectic schedule doubtlessly contributed to a deterioration of his health and in 1965 he chose to return to the U.S. where he settled into retirement.
On this side of the Atlantic, despite his monumental accomplishments, Robeson is not hailed universally because of his refusal to abjure socialism and because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. My own opinion is that if Robeson is to be excoriated for his pro-Moscow sympathies, perhaps the same animosity should be directed toward President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For just as Robeson felt the need to ally with Communists in order to beat back his pro-apartheid antagonists, FDR acted similarly in order to defeat his pro-Nazi opponents. If anything, like many U.S. activists before and since, Robeson miscalculated the progressive potential of the U.S. itself, a topic I pursued at length in my book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA.
Robeson was a sacrificial lamb in that the attack on him was accompanied by an agonizing retreat from the more egregious aspects of U.S. apartheid—with the two being linked. That is, in order to compete more effectively with Moscow in the ‘Third World’ as African nations were surging to independence, with many of these leaders—including Kenyatta of Kenya and Nkrumah of Ghana—being personal friends of his, Washington found it necessary to ease Jim Crow pressures against peoples of African descent at home. But the price of the ticket was the battering of those like Robeson who had crusaded ‘prematurely’ for anti-colonialism, in his case beginning in the 1930s when he founded the Council on African Affairs, the organization closest to his heart.
During this ‘American Spring’, now encapsulated in the phrase, ‘Civil Rights Movement’, movie stars like Sidney Poitier surged to stardom and Oscar fame. But as the socialist project retreated and Robeson became little more than a distant memory, progress on many fronts dissipated, not least in Hollywood.
Thus, as we tap out our 140 character Twitter messages (#oscarstillsowhite), let us take a moment to recall how we arrived at such a parlous and perilous juncture. Let us recall the man once hailed as the ‘tallest tree in our forest’. Let us recall the great Paul Robeson.
Gerald Horne is the author of Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. He holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, and has published more than thirty books including The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA (2014) and Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle (2013).