Last week Serena Williams spoke out against the police killings of black Americans. Quoting Martin Luther King, the tennis player wrote ‘”There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I won’t be silent.’ Williams goes on to recount her fear whilst in a car driven by her nephew, the frequency and volume of the killings means we do not question the plausibility of Williams’ fear. She too could be pulled over, racially profiled, put under suspicion, prejudicially feared; Williams’ black body is, as Claudia Rankine writes, ‘as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background’. This hypothetical moment, when the American cult of celebrity doesn’t trump all, has basis in reality, even a historical precedence. Paul Robeson, like Williams, was an internationally renowned talent, declared ‘the best known American in the world’. In spite of his fame, Robeson was repeatedly the target of racial discrimination by film studios, the American public and the US government. His life provides us with a perspective on blackness in America and his activism highlights the need for public figures like Williams to protest racism in America. In this essay, written exclusively for UK Black History Month, the author of Paul Robeson’s biography Gerald Horne, looks at recent protests, notably by athlete Colin Kaepernick, and considers Robeson’s legacy.
Of late, the U.S. has been rocked by protests by professional athletes protesting police brutality targeting African-American communities.
San Diego, Tulsa, Baton Rouge, Cincinnati, Charleston, Charlotte, St. Paul, Cleveland, and Staten Island have been just a few of the cities where young Black men in particular have fallen victim to police bullets with the ghastly results often captured on videotape either by police officers with body cameras or, more frequently, passers-by or those in the company of the deceased.
The rise of social media—Facebook and Twitter particularly—fueled by the ubiquity of ‘smart-phones’, particularly those of Apple and Samsung, have helped to produce startling images that enlighten those who previously denied the gruesome reality of police brutality in communities of color.
Yet, what helped to propel what has become a ghoulishly routine bloodletting into a matter of national debate has been the protests of African-American athletes most notably, protest led by Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers professional football team.
It was in the latter part of August 2016 that he chose not to stand for the national anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, the singing of which has become a pre-game ritual. Subsequently, he chose to kneel on one knee in protest, a manifestation that has been duplicated by other athletes to the consternation of self-styled “patriots” and “republicans” (in the various meanings of the term).
Kaepernick, a multi-millionaire, has donated huge sums to groups fighting police misconduct and, as a result, this has ignited further furor including death threats targeting him.
This in turn has brought needed attention to the anthem itself, which in its third stanza promises gloom and doom to the enslaved population—it was written to celebrate the War of 1812 and the inability of British forces to liquidate U.S. sovereignty; as so often happened, the enslaved sided with the antagonists of the slaveowners and defected en-masse to the side of the redcoats with those fleeing to British lines then being transported to Trinidad and Tobago, where their descendants continue to reside.
In response a national conversation has emerged about junking this antiquated anthem in favor of a more modern version.
Kaepernick is walking in the footsteps of the great Paul Robeson, who not only starred in football but also became a leading thespian and, most of all, an energetic political activist. His advocacy of socialism caused him to be persecuted relentlessly with the onset of the Cold War, to the point where his passport was seized, preventing him from traveling abroad, particularly to London where he had spent a good deal of the 1920s and 1930s.
As the crisis of U.S. imperialism deepens, buffeted as it by the rise of China and ill-advised Cold War alliances with religious zealots that now are backfiring furiously, more and more individuals and groups—not just Kaepernick, not just professional athletes—will again seek to emulate the great Paul Robeson, the artist as revolutionary.
Gerald Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He has published more than 30 books including The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA (NYU Press, 2014) and Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle (University of Illinois Press, 2013).
Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary is available from Pluto