“Robeson put his shoulder to the wheel of many specific liberation movements. He himself felt and acknowledged the unique burden of racism against Blacks in the United States.”
Last summer, as Greater Bostonians joined protesters nationwide in the streets with a justified outrage at the police murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other Black people at the hands of police, the spirit of Paul Robeson hovered above the crowds. Whether they espied his shade, so much of their political horizon has been defined by the life and legacy of the mighty scholar, lawyer, actor, football player, singer, and agitator—one who provides answers to many questions today.
For those pondering the strategic/structural nuances of the #BlackLivesMatter formations (such as pronounced emphasis on spontaneity, vertically defined organizing methodologies, and reliance on the nonprofit system coterminous with the Democratic Party), there are answers in the McCarthyite persecution of Robeson. For a decade beginning in 1946, he was nearly smothered by a state-sponsored COINTEL-PRO repression campaign under the banner of “anti-communism.” Robeson’s persecution for opposing the nascent Cold War, his defense of American Communists, and belligerent rebuttals of white nationalist police and governments south of the Mason-Dixon Line that he equated with Nazis was a microcosmic rendering of how the entire struggle for Black national liberation was subdued for nearly a decade while being forced to change its major organizational paradigm from secular labor/third party-based politics into houses of worship. It is these coordinates that the later civil rights era would emerge from and, to a certain extent, upon which activists still operate.
Sharon Rudahl has produced a beautiful primer for young people who need to become acquainted with The Tallest Tree in Our Forest (quoth pioneering Black educational scholar/activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and also the title of the 1977 doc about Robeson by Gil Noble). With gorgeous charcoal and colored-pencil work, the artist summarizes a globe-spanning 77-year life that touched down multiple times in the Commonwealth, beginning with a 1924 stint in Eugene O’Neil’s taboo-shattering Provincetown Players. (Few now may remember that, only a century ago, interracial romance was just as taboo in “polite society” as queerness, making the little village at the tip of the Cape a bohemian space to stage works featuring such “forbidden” love. But even there, the Klan led a terrifying siege on the theater.)
Just a few months later, Robeson’s first solo performance was at Copley Plaza in Boston with an esteemed, dignified Black spiritual songbook, a rarity in mainstream concert halls, which in those days preferred booking derogatory blackface minstrel or “Chitlin’ Circuit” acts. Three years later, Robeson was amongst the crowds in a Boston protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, a radical cause célèbre centered on two Italian-born Braintree anarchists wrongfully convicted in a trial laced with anti-immigrant nativism.
“Robeson was a frequent and beloved visitor to Boston venues in the 1940s, when the pre-McCarthy era movements for racial equality reached their strongest base in Cambridge, parts of Boston, Lynn, and elsewhere that progressive unions had a foothold or where Jewish cultural societies flourished,” says editor Paul Buhle, the retired Brown University labor historian whose Oral History of the American Left included many testimonials from Robeson’s Black radical contemporaries.
Robeson’s career is a testimonial to the history of racism in Boston. While he was touring his signature role of Othello in 1943, a Boston woman spat in the face of his co-star Uta Hagen upon sighting the two actors romantically linked arm in arm within a hotel elevator. In 1950, at McCarthyism’s peak, Boston Mayor John Hynes banned Robeson’s picture in a local exhibition, demonstrating that the hair-thin line between blatant anti-Black racism and liberal anti-communism was easily transgressed in a city led by a de facto Catholic theocracy. Robeson’s fate with such liberals demonstrated the odious (and still-extant) contours of “respectability” politics. Ten years later, Robeson’s wife Essie sarcastically quipped in a letter regarding the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign, “Millions, Irish Catholic Boston background, and the South. What a combination. I will be deeply interested to see if Negroes will vote for THAT combination” [emphasis in original].
“I did consider how Paul Robeson would have risen to the moment [last summer]. Of course, he would have supported the marches: speaking, singing, raising contributions. Would he have questioned whether the organizers shared his commitment to a common front of resistance to oppression? I don’t think so. Robeson put his shoulder to the wheel of many specific liberation movements. He himself felt and acknowledged the unique burden of racism against Blacks in the United States,” Rudahl says.
Robeson’s life and his legacy of struggle are sources of inspiration after decades of Orwellian erasure. While there is no denying the power and magnitude of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (colloquially known as Malcolm X), it is important to recognize the Tallest Tree. His work as a publisher, performer, and activist is a key link in a history that should matter to all Americans. Black organizers such as DiDi Delgado who today are using platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and blogging sites to promote their message follow much of the same publicity pattern Robeson utilized, which featured broadcasts and concerts with an overt political message, editing the periodical Freedom, and publishing his political testament Here I Stand with Boston’s Beacon Press.
The multiracial identity of last summer’s protests aligns clearly with Robeson’s internationalism, which included his longtime advocacy for and solidarity with dirt-poor working-class white miners in Wales. And the uncompromising indictment of systemic racism and white supremacy of today is clearly descended from the “We Charge Genocide” petition that Robeson helped compose with the Communist-aligned Civil Rights Congress and hand-delivered to the United Nations in New York.
We all still stand in the shadow of this tall tree. May the leaves of this volume inspire many.
BALLAD OF AN AMERICAN: A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY OF PAUL ROBESON. SHARON RUDAHL. RUTGERS UNIVERSITY PRESS.