Saturday 14 February 2015

Ol’ Man River: A Song, a Drama and a Life

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large, February 14 and is reproduced here because I wrote extensively about fellow-travellers in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but only briefly alluded to Paul Robeson. In the context of reviewing a one-man show about him, I now have the opportunity of writing about him in greater depth.

"Nations go to war, but it’s always our culture that unites us.” – Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson.
Stogie Kenyatta as Paul Robeson in The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson. (Photo by Lexi Lewis)Add caption

Rarely do a song’s lyrics reflect the life of its singer, particularly one whose life is largely unknown today. Yet the African American, Paul Robeson, was possibly the most gifted artista polymath who could speak and sing in fourteen languagesand one of the most courageous activists of the twentieth century. Although he had appeared at the Cotton Club as a singer in Harlem in the early 1920s, Robeson’s career as an artist was inaugurated in 1928 when he performed the part of Joe in the London production of Show Boat (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II), which had been a huge hit in New York. The musical chronicles the lives of people working on a Mississippi River showboat, and its black characters reflected the era’s stereotypes. Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” that was specifically written for him, was its most memorable number, no doubt enhanced by his rich baritone voice and large physical presence, and became one of his trademark songs whose lyrics evolved throughout his career. In the 2006 Criterion tribute to Robeson, Sydney Poitier narrates with illustrative visual clips how the words changed as Robeson and the world changed. Beginning with “Niggers all work on the Mississippi,” he altered the word “niggers” to “darkies” within a few years And when he made the film version in 1936, he transformed the opening line entirely to “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi; that’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.” He also eventually changed the defeatist line “I’m tired of livin’ and feared of dyin’” to the more political “We must keep fightin’ until we’re dying” that he first sang in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, a day that the war stopped so that both sides could hear the man sing. This last lyrical alteration signified his shift from subservience to militancy, and his capacity for seamlessly weaving his artistry with his politics. That trend accelerated after the Second World War in a concert in Warsaw: “The Mississippi was no longer the man I want to be.” From being the most famous black man in the world triumphing artistically and commercially in theatre, film and on the concert stageand an icon to Welsh miners, anti-lynching marchers in the American south, and anti-fascists everywherehe became one of the most reviled activists in his native country after the Second World War for his outspoken support for the Soviet Union and his scathing criticism of the United States.

To explain that trajectory, it is essential to unearth his personal life from its beginnings. That is the challenge that actor, stand-up comic and screenplay writer, Stogie Kenyatta, embarks upon in his ambitious drama, which he also wrote, The World Is My Home – The Life of Paul Robeson. An NAACP award-winning solo show is now in its fourteenth year, and Kenyatta’s three-hour performance with intermissionwhich I attended in Santa Monicais riveting. I have not entirely been engaged by one-person shows in the past, yet Kenyatta convincingly plays multiple roles with energy which are by turns powerful, funny and poignant. Shrewdly, he takes slavery as its framing device. The World opens with Kenyatta playing Robeson’s father when he was a runaway slave aided by Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. It ends with an ill and debilitated Robeson sailing across the Atlantic on his last transoceanic cruise, imagining that the souls of drowned slaves are reaching out to him as a conduit for their suffering. I say shrewdly because without understanding how slavery and its successor, the Jim Crow era that legalized segregation and condoned lynching, were embedded in his psyche, audiences will have difficulty empathizing with an activist who appeared at times to repudiate his country and embrace what he regarded as a positive socialist experiment in the Soviet Union.

Paul Robeson, with the Rutgers football team, in 1917.
The first act, which tracks Robeson’s personal life up until his father’s death in 1918, is the more leisurely paced. It focuses upon pivotal episodes: the death of his mother by a kitchen fire when Robeson was a small boy, the youngest of five children; his athletic and academic experience in high school; his winning a scholarship to Rutgers University where he became only the third African American to attend this prestigious school, an All-American Football Player and Valedictorian of his class. Kenyatta is hilarious in recounting Robeson’s tryout for the football team when he picked up the racist quarterback and the alarmed coach intervenes to inform that he has made the team, the first of his race to play football at Rutgers. Kenyatta, like Robeson, is over six feet tall and has a similar physical presence. And yet he is able to persuade the audience to suspend disbelief when he speaks as a six-year-old boy. Kenyatta provides the narrative links to these episodes as a disembodied voice when one part of the stage turns dark. The thread that unites them all is the towering influence of his father who became a minister and instilled in him a confidence that he must not only excel for his own sake, but so that he would be an inspiration for other Negroes who wanted to play football and go to college. 

However entertaining and moving these vignettes, I was anticipating more the contentious second act that tracked Robeson’s artistic and public career, beginning with his acceptance at Columbia School of Law and appointment into an all-white Manhattan firm. Unable to practice law due to racism, he decided to denounce his legal aspirations. Not certain what direction his life would take, his wife Eslanda persuaded him to perform in small theatre roles, and he quickly began a new career as an actor and concert singer, specializing in spirituals which led to him becoming a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Kenyatta wisely does not compete with Robeson as a singer: we hear recordings off stage and the actor joins in on the last line. He also wonderfully stages the Robeson courtship and early marriage as he alternates between playing Paul and Eslanda. Since America was not ready for an actor to perform roles that did not conform to stereotypes of the black man, the couple decamped to England where they experienced less racism than in America. With his powerful voice and commanding stage presence, Robeson was able to play roles that were not available to him in America. He starred in two controversial Eugene O’Neill plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, about an interracial couple in which Robeson played an abusive husband, and The Emperor Jones, which was later made into a film starring Robeson. In 1930, he first played Othello in England. Thirteen years later, he played the Moor in the United States – the first black man to play him with an all-white supporting cast. In 1943, having a black man play a romantic lead, especially with a white woman as Desdemona, was controversial. After performing in Boston, the show ran on Broadway for 296 performances, a record for a Shakespeare play on Broadway. To a large extent, Robeson’s stage presence and thespian skills were responsible for that longevity. According to Robeson’s biographer Martin Duberman, his co-star, Uta Hagen, attributed Roberson's success to his “humanity onstage,” and his director, Margaret Webster, called him “a great black man.” But Robeson’s dream of making a movie about Othello was never realized. Instead, most of his films reinforced black stereotypes.

In London, Robeson embraced the substance in his African roots for the first time and began to identify with the African independence movement. He met Jomo Kenyatta and other young Africans who would soon lead independence movements, triggering Robeson’s awareness of the emerging struggles by non-white peoples against colonialism. In 1934, he visited Nazi Germany where he said he could read “hatred in their eyes,” particularly since Eslanda was light-skinned and they were mistakenly identified as a bi-racial couple. According to Duberman, Robeson contended that the Third Reich was “the most retrograde step the world has seen for centuries.” He donated money to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. That same year he visited the Soviet Union and noted the stark contrast with Germany: “Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life…I walk in full human dignity.” That remarkone that is uttered in The Worldshould not be underestimated. We may be tempted to judge Robeson harshly for his growing love affair with Stalin’s Soviet Union and dismiss him as a naïve fellow traveller who was blinkered or wrong-headed, but in my judgement that would be myopic because it does not take into account the larger context. From his perception, the time he spent there on several trips were positive experiences and he was treated with a respect that he rarely felt in his native country, even though he was largely shielded from peering into the Soviet Union's repressive side. His belief in the possibilities of what he called socialism made perfect sense as it provided a contrast with the racism he had experienced in America and elsewhere. Two examples could be given: he may have been recognized for his prowess on the football field, but he never forgot the sting of being benched whenever Rutgers played a team from the South. A team would not play any opponent that inserted a Negro on the playing field, just a judge would not rule in favour of a plaintiff whose lawyer was black.

Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson in Show Boat (1936).
Regardless, as his fame grew, Robeson filled the world’s largest concert halls and used his celebrity to speak out on political issues. He increasingly aligned himself with leftist movements in the United States, Europe, and Africa. At a June 1937 rally at London's Royal Albert Hall for antifascist forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Robeson called upon people everywhere to participate in the Spanish struggle “against the new slavery.” Duberman quotes his impassioned words. “The battlefront is everywhere…The artist must take sides. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” Taking his cue from the struggle against fascism in Spain, Kenyatta in The World utters the memorable line: “I was coming to realize that I no longer had just opinions; I was becoming a voice.” As long as America was fighting fascists in Europe and Asia, Robeson’s voice was tolerated, particularly since his sold-out concerts contributed greatly to the sale of war bonds and he was popular among the troops whom he entertained on the frontlines. Everything was to change after the war ended, once the Soviet Union was no longer an ally but the new enemy.

In the late 1940s as the Cold War emerged, rabid anti-Communists launched a smear campaign against Robeson to undercut his career and damage his reputation because of his political radicalism and his positive statements about the Soviet Union. Yet, when he visited Russia in 1949, he was saddened by the violent death of his friend Solomon Mikhoels, the actor-director. Robeson insisted on seeing his friend Itzik Feffer, a Jewish writer, whom, unknown to Robeson, the Soviets had arrested. In a bugged room over verbal pleasantries, Feffer told him through sign language about the massive purge of Jews in the Soviet Union, including arrests and show trials. At his concert in Moscow, Robeson defied his hosts by talking about Feffer (edited out in the broadcast) and then singing, in Yiddish, the anthem of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, clearly a statement of solidarity with Russian Jewish dissidents. Dubermanalong with Paul Robeson Jr. interviewed in the 1999 documentary, Paul Robeson: Here I Standsuggests that privately Robeson had begun to have doubts about the Soviet Union, particularly regarding its mistreatment of Jews. Duberman reports that the father pledged his son, who was there in Moscow as his translator, to remain silent about his conversation with Feffer during his (Paul Sr.’s) lifetime. As a result, Robeson never needed to utter any public criticism of the Soviet Union, fueling criticism of him as a Soviet apologist. In his biography of his father, Paul Robeson Jr. suggests that his father did not want to provide any ammunition to the powerful conservative establishment who he feared would persuade the Truman administration to launch a war against the Soviet Union. When in 1946 Robeson did meet with the President, he urged him to introduce an anti-lynching bill. Truman, according to Robeson Jr. in his biography of his father, said it was not expedientTruman was not willing to risk losing the support of Southern Democrats, as another President, Lyndon Johnson, did a generation laterprompting the singer to declare that Negroes had no choice but to arm themselves. It was this insubordinate attitude that ultimately convinced the white power elites that they must deploy the whole panoply of American power to silence Robeson’s voice. 

The attacks on Robeson escalated after he spoke at the Paris Peace Conference in 1949, attended by leftist writers, artists, and intellectuals from around the world. There Robeson, speaking not only for American blacks but colonized blacks everywhere, said that they would not fight against Russia or any other nation. Instead, they would fight for peace. In the United States, however, the media distorted his remarks. He never said that the policy of the United States was similar to that of Hitler and Goebbels, a line that was published in papers all over America. Consequently, he was dismissed as a misguided “fanatic” and condemned as a traitor. (What was not known then or later was that when Robeson met with Soviet officials, he refused to be their catspaw and be used by them to serve their propaganda purposes.) After his Congress speech, he was denounced by the media (especially the influential bloviator, Walter Winchell), politicians, and interests groups from all political stripes as being disloyal to the United States and a propagandist for the Soviet Union. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, particularly its leader Roy Wilkins, refused to support him. He was blacklisted; his concerts and recording contracts cancelled, and his passport revoked causing a dramatic drop in his income. By the mid-1950s, he had become a marginal figure – emotionally depressed, physically debilitated, and except for few close friends, such as Harry Belafonte, politically isolated.

Paul Robeson testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.

In 1949, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey pressured Jackie Robinson – whose entry into major league baseball, according to Duberman, Robeson had worked to facilitate – to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) so that he could publicly criticize Robeson. Robinson attacked American racism but challenged Robeson’s patriotism. If the statement attributed to Robeson in Paris about American blacks not willing to fight a war against Russia was true “it sounds pretty silly to me," Robinson said. In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson, now out of baseball, said he regretted his remarks that he had made over twenty years earlier about Robeson. “I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truth about America’s destructiveness,” Robinson acknowledged. And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.” 

In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, Robeson was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robeson refused to answer questions about his political activities or whether he was a member of the Communist Party. (He was not.) He refused to answer questions about Soviet camps. Instead, he parried those questions to his own personal plight that he was being punishing for speaking out in favour of the independence struggles of African and Asian peoples and against injustices against African Americans who were treated as second-class citizens. Whenever he spoke about prejudice, one of the committee members mockingly replied: “What prejudice are you talking about? You were graduated from Rutgers.” Robeson’s response was defiant and unequivocal: a few Negro success stories did not atone for the fact that thousands of still lived in a state of semi-slavery. A year later he was asked why, being so critical of the United States, he did not move to the Soviet Union. “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country,” Robeson said, “and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it.” Over and over again, despite his previous commercial success and the power he once exercised with his political voice, he alludes to slavery, racism and lynching. If we do not take into account these combustible elements that raged in his psyche, we cannot understand why he could not condemn the Soviet Union, even after Khrushchev in 1956 denounced Stalin.

For almost ten years, he had been shunted to the sidelines. Then in 1958 Robeson’s career revived after a Supreme Court ruling that overturned travel bans based solely on someone’s beliefs and associations. Despite pressure from the State Department, he was unstintingly welcomed in England, India and Russia where he was much cooler and more perfunctory in his comments toward to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In America he enjoyed enthusiastic receptions appeared on radio and television and began to record again, but the NAACP continued to question whether he could speak for the Negroes of America. But the travelling and constant harassment from the FBI had further damaged his physical and mental health. He increasingly withdrew from the public arena and spent the last fifteen years of his life in relative seclusion. Apart from Duberman’s 1988 magisterial text, Paul Robeson: A Biography, until recently, Robeson has been largely erased from public consciousness.
Stogie Kenyatta in The World Is My Home. (Photo by Lexi Lewis

The World Is My Home touches uponalong with Robeson’s regrets about his marital infidelitiesmost of these subjects, his career as a musical and film artist, his growing activism in the 1930s, the war years and the insidious voices of McCarthyism that sought to punish him for his refusal to denounce the Soviet Union and for his insubordination. But when Kenyatta’s character alludes to terror that existed in the Soviet Union, he is brief and almost dismissive. True he acknowledges the revelations about the Gulag and repression of its people, but he asks rhetorically how could he have known? This admission is a little disingenuous, since the historical Robeson learned about its horrors when he met with the imprisoned Itzik Feffer who was brought to his hotel room, an event that is not mentioned in The World. Kenyatta might have handled Robeson’s support for the Soviet Union more deftly by allowing him to express his personal reservations about injustices that occurred there. Yet, in drama, characters often deceive themselves with rationalizations. Perhaps given Robeson’s family and personal encounters with racism and political persecution, he could not relinquish his illusions: there had to be a system or place somewhere where individuals could be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their race or ethnicity. These critical remarks, however, are only a small caveat in an overall thrilling production that sparkled with insight and stellar acting.

After the show, Kenyatta returned to the stage as himself to offer an opportunity for a Q & A session. But he began with a remarkable story that went something like this: some people may dismiss any connection between Robeson and President Barack Obama. But in the late 1950s, three individuals inspired by Robesonperformer Harry Belafonte who knew Robeson personally and served as his mentee, actor Sydney Poitier and, yes, Jackie Robinsongave their written support to a fundraising letter that would provide scholarships to gifted students from Kenya that would enable them to study in America and return to take up leadership positions in post-colonial Kenya. One of those students was Barack Obama Sr. who met a woman from Kansas and the rest as they say is history. I had not heard about this connection before, but it can be confirmed in Tom Shachtman’s Flight to America (St Martin’s Press, 2009). What the actor did not tell us is the more decisive roles played by Kenyan labour leader Tom Mboya, an advocate for African nationalism, who helped his country gain independence in 1963 and by then-senator John Kennedy, who, as chair of the Senate subcommittee on Africa, arranged a $100,000 grant through his family's foundation to help Mboya keep the program running. This evidence may suggest a stronger link between the two Presidents than Robeson and three African-American celebrities. Nonetheless, Kenyatta’s anecdote is significant because he is part of a theatrical campaign to resurrect the almost forgotten artist and activist. Robeson may soon find a much larger audience given that Belafonte recently announced that as executive producer, he has asked Steve McQueen, the Academy Award-winning director of 12 Years a Slave, to direct a biopic on the life of Robeson. Whatever the aesthetic qualities of the upcoming film, we can hope that one of its benefits will be that a new generation will come to appreciate the substantial contributions made by Robesonto not only the American civil rights struggle but to marginalized and oppressed people across the globe.

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