Paul Robeson (Part II): a mind can be an impossible thing to change
In attempt to begin to answer the questions posed at the end of Part I, I did a bit of research.
Here, for background, is some general biographical material on Robeson, showing what a trailblazer he was, the sort of discrimination he faced, and some of the emotional turmoil of his life (notice, once again, how the article glosses over Robeson's Communist alliances, to the point of making him seem almost like an innocent victim of McCarthyism):
Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976)
Born Paul Leroy Robeson on April 9th 1898 in Princeton, Paul Robeson (as he was later to become known) was the youngest of 5 children. His parents were Reverend Drew and Maria Louise Robeson. His father was a former slave who had escaped to freedom at the age of 15 and had gone on to earn theological degrees at Lincoln University. Paul's mother was a schoolteacher.
When Paul was just 6 years old, his mother died after her clothing caught fire over a coal stove. He was not at home when the accident occurred. A couple of years later in 1907, his family moved to Westfield where Paul's father built a small church and started ministering. Paul started attending an integrated public school for the first time.
By 1910, Reverend Robeson had moved his family to Somerville and became the pastor of St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion Church. Around this time, young Paul started showing his talents in music, athletics and oratory.
When Paul was 17 he won a 4-year scholarship to Rutgers in a state wide written competition. He became the 3rd African-American to attend the 500-student private college. At 6' 2" and weighing 190 lbs, Paul made it into the football squad, but he was benched when Washington and Lee College refused to take to the field against a black man. His coach regretted it and didn't bow to peer pressure after that. In fact, Paul was placed on the All-American team of coach Walter Camp and during his 4 years at the university, Paul racked up 15 varsity letters in 4 sports and became Rutgers' star scholar, orator and singer.
In May 1918, Paul's father died at the age of 73. Two years later, Paul started attending Columbia University Law School and paid for his own tuition by tutoring Coach Sanford's son in Latin and playing professional football. It was during 1920 that he met Eslanda 'Essie' Goode, who was a pathology technician. She later became his wife and was the one who encouraged Paul to take the title role in 'Simon The Cyrenian' at the Harlem YMCA. His performance caught the eye of several experienced theatre people.
In April 1922, Paul made his professional acting debut as Jim in 'Taboo' at the Sam Harris Theatre. He also starred in a British production of the play entitled 'Voodoo' in London.
Paul graduated from law school in 1923 and was taken on by Louis William Stotesbury at Stotesbury and Miner, a New York law firm. However, a white secretary refused to take dictation from Paul and so he resigned ending his short law career.
Paul's path continued in the arts and he debuted in the lead role of Eugene O'Neill's 'All God Chillun Got Wings' in Greenwich Village. The play caused some controversy as it cast a white woman as Paul's wife. During 1924, Paul also sang his first formal concert at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and starred in his first film entitled 'Body and Soul'.
In 1925, Paul did a 16-sing concert of black spirituals in New York and it launched him into the spotlight. He was signed with an agent, James B. Pond, and toured and recorded 4 albums for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Although he was becoming a huge success, Paul was still being treated badly in the USA and was denied hotel accommodation in many cities during his concert tour in 1926. He continued to tour in 1927 and Essie gave birth to their only child, Paul Robeson junior in early November.
In 1928, Paul performed the song 'Ol Man River' in the play 'Show Boat' in London. It created such a sensation that he performed for the King of Spain after the Prince of Wales recommended it.
The following year Paul and Essie were refused entry into the Savoy Grill in England and repercussions about this were felt all the way to the Parliament.
In 1930, Paul played Othello and found it to be his most fulfilling role to date. His wife published a biography on him entitled 'Paul Robeson, Negro'. This fuelled the tension between them and they started speaking of divorce. In 1931 however, Paul fell ill with a nervous disorder after a 3-month concert tour of the USA and was bedridden for a week. This was to be the first sign of a depressive disorder that would shadow his life.
The divorce talks were back on the cards for the Robesons in 1932, but they reconciled after Paul's mistress, an English actress called Yolande Jackson, broke off their engagement to marry a Russian prince.
In 1933 Paul starred in his first "talkie", Paramount's 'The Emperor Jones' and a year later toured the Soviet Union and wanted to settle his family there in 1935 as he felt all races were treated equally.
In 1936 Paul featured in 2 films, 'Song of Freedom' and 'King Solomon's Mines'. He also decided to send his son, Paul Jr to a Soviet Model School in the hopes it would shield him from the racial oppression of American schools.
Paul filmed the movie 'Jericho' in Egypt and helped Max Yergan found the Council on African Affairs (CAA) in 1937. He went on to establish the Negro Playwrights' Company in 1940. When Paul became a chair for the CAA in 1941, the FBI placed him under surveillance believing him to be a Communist.
Paul received the NAACP's highest honour, the Springarn medal in 1945 at a ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel. His son, Paul Jr married a Jewish girl, Marilyn Paula Greenberg in June of 1949 and hostile crowds threatened their wedding procession.
Paul became the first American banned from TV in 1950 when NBC stopped his appearance on 'Today with Mrs. Roosevelt' under the new Internal Security Act. All this stemmed from his being labelled a Communist and in 1953 he was blacklisted from record companies, but he funded his own label and recorded 2 albums, 'Paul Robeson Sings' and 'Solid Rock'.
In 1958 Paul celebrated his 60th birthday and India declared a Paul Robeson Day on March 17th. Paul also released his autobiography entitled 'Here I Stand' and his passport was finally returned to him after many years.
During 1961 Paul suffered an emotional collapse whilst on a visit to Moscow and was hospitalised for several months. He suffered throughout the year from bouts of exhaustion and chronic depression. He was finally diagnosed in 1963 at a Berlin clinic as having Paget's disease (a bone disorder) and at the same time, Essie was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On December 13th 1965, Essie died just before her 70th birthday. The following year, Paul moved in with his sister, Marion, who cared for him.
It wasn't until 1974 that the FBI stopped investigating Paul Robeson and 2 years later, in 1976 Paul suffered 2 strokes in less than a month and died at the age of 77 in Philadelphia.
Note the staggering effects of racism on Robeson, and how it dogged his footsteps most of his life despite all his fame. Note that his father had been a slave. Note another Jewish connection through his son's marriage (more about that later). Note the fact that he had a severe emotional collapse while visiting Moscow in 1961 (the same site as his meeting with Feffer but over ten years later, and about five years after the shattering revelations contained in the Khrushchev Report, detailing Stalin's crimes).
This article offers some insight into what caused Robeson to become a Communist--or, rather, an extreme Communist sympathizer (apparently, he was quite careful never to officially join the Party):
A critical journey at that time, one that changed the course of his life, was to the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson author Duberman depicted Robeson's time there: "Nights at the theater and opera, long walks with [film director Sergei] Eisenstein, gala banquets, private screenings, trips to hospitals, children's centers, factories ... all in the context of a warm embrace." Robeson was ecstatic with this new-found society, concluding, according to New York Times Book Review contributor John Patrick Diggins, "that the country was entirely free of racial prejudice and that Afro-American spiritual music resonated to Russian folk traditions. 'Here, for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity.'" Diggins went on to assert that Robeson's "attraction to Communism seemed at first more anthropological than ideological, more of a desire to discover old, lost cultures than to impose new political systems. ... Robeson convinced himself that American blacks as descendants of slaves had a common culture with Russian workers as descendants of serfs."
And in the same article we find Robeson's response to the Khrushchev report and its revelations:
After World War II, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union froze into the Cold War, many former advocates of communism backed away from it. When the crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin became public--forced famine, genocide, political purges--still more advocates left the ranks of communism. Robeson, however, was not among them. National Review contributor Joseph Sobran explained why: "It didn't matter: he believed in the idea, regardless of how it might be abused. In 1946 the former All-American explained his loyalty to an investigating committee: 'The coach tells you what to do and you do it.' It was incidental that the coach was Stalin." Robeson could not publicly decry the Soviet Union even after he, most probably, learned of Stalin's atrocities because "the cause, to his mind," Nation contributor Huggins theorized, "was much larger than the Soviet Union, and he would do nothing to sustain the feeding frenzy of the American right."
So it seems that Robeson's love for Communism was rooted in his idea that it was the antidote to the racism that had tormented this very proud man all his life. In this, of course, he was utterly mistaken, but it was a powerful dream that he could not relinquish: "Here, for the first time in my life...I walk in full human dignity." When push came to shove and Stalin's crimes became known, Robeson, like so many others, faced a choice between clinging to an ideal and rejecting that ideal because of the horrifically flawed reality that it had become. Like so many others, he clung to the power of the dream rather than face a harsh reality. (Once again, in describing this, I am not offering an excuse; merely an explanation. Robeson is responsible for his own moral failures.)
By this time, Robeson's betrayal of Feffer had already occurred. Robeson was a brilliant man and one who believed deeply in human rights. If I had to guess, I would say that at some later point it became nearly impossible for him to continue to deny to himself that he had been tragically mistaken in serving a cause that in fact had made a mockery of those ideals. Caught in a trap, he couldn't see his way towards renouncing his Soviet dream and his own complicity in those very crimes. But the knowledge of what he had done may have seeped in anyway, causing a deep and irreconcilable depression. It is no accident, to my way of thinking, that Robeson's first breakdown occurred in Moscow, post-Khrushchev. The scene of the crime--or crimes.
(Conclusion tomorrow...Part III.)