Thursday, July 21, 2005

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.)


At 4:03 PM, July 21, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

Interesting and in most ways very sad. Interesting to me on a personal level also....I used to live in Westfield N.J.

At 4:13 PM, July 21, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

PS: nice to see that you got to visit with Roger L. Simon in L.A. I had a nice phone chat with him several months ago....nice guy!

At 5:43 PM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is indeed the sad thing about this man's life. Communism is a terrible creation; I'd go so far as to call it a blight on humanity. Yet, it held it's appeal for those that have truly suffered (as well as way too many who only imagined that they suffered, but that's a topic for a different day). Many found solace in the image (illusion, perhaps is a better word?) of an ideal society, and also the camaraderie and togetherness that belief in communism provided, as well as the confidence that their ideological indignation against their societies was justified and valid (Whether they were correct or not about that is another question; for the record, I strongly say "no", but that, too, is a discussion for another day).

The questions that arises, of course, are 1) To what degree was society responsible for Robeson's feelings of alienation, 2) To what degree is he responsible for his own alienation? That last I know will set me up for charges of blaming the victim, but I can't help it. The question still stands in my mind. I mean, everyone has a degree of personal and active choice in every life decision, and even for those who start life in poverty or subject to extreme racial hatred, it's still an active choice to select communism as their ideal in life over, say, civil rights or anti-poverty work, let alone admiring the Soviet Union over, say, Switzerland or Sweden. And I realize that not every American's experience in this society is positive, not even remotely so, but even then how is it some come to see a severely regimented and regulated, impersonal, totalitarian society to be better? Even given the injustices of the society they currently inhabit? I mean, I understand the debilitating, humiliating, dignity-denying, soul-killing effect that racism has on a person, yet I'm amazed that the debilitating, humiliating, etc. effect of a totalitarian government on it's citizens could be ignored to such a degree. Someone help me with this, because growing up in the 70's and 80's, I really have trouble understanding: How were some people so blind to the crimes and contradictions, let along the debilitating, humiliating etc. effects of such a totalitarian government as the Soviet one? Did it really have such a positive appeal to folks from the 30's through the 50's? Was the image of it really that wonderful? By the time I was cognizant of the differences between societies, it was fairly obvious how bad communism was. Did it truly appear to be a better way back then? Even taking into account the race and poverty issues of the United States? It just sort of strikes me as significant that, during the Civil War (late 1880's), and through the peaks of socialism's and communism's popularity (I would put that around the 1920's through the '40's), many Irish and Italians were clamoring to emigrate to the United States. And that during the peak of racial conflicts in the 50's, the numbers of Asians immigrants rose dramatically, as well as starting to see the numbers of Latin American immigrants in the 60's. It's sort of a pithy cliche, but people really did vote with their feet. How is it, then, that so many found communism to be such a positive ideal?

At 5:44 PM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops. Sorry, everyone, for such a long comment. I was just typing stream-of-consciousness and didn't realize just how long it was until I hit "Publish". My apologies to all.

At 7:15 PM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

E.M.H.: is it some come to see a severely regimented and regulated, impersonal, totalitarian society to be better? Even given the injustices of the society they currently inhabit?

Because they're in the grip of a utopian illusion. And that's a very powerful grip, as I can attest since it once held me too, and I didn't have rascism to drive me toward it -- I had just the usual adolescent rejection of my parents' society and a wannabe intellectual's ennui with "bourgeois" values. But once in that grip, you simply don't see the regimentation, and deny, downplay, or excuse the murderous violence that sustains the pretence behind the scenes. And at the same time, you indulge in massive and diversionary exaggerations of every fault and problem in capitalist societies, real or imaginary. What keeps you going is a quasi-religious hope and faith that someday, somehow, reality will approach the illusory vision.

Luckily, I myself escaped ever having to make the sort of soul-destroying personal choice that Robeson faced in this story of his relation with Feffer. My own change of mind began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It wasn't that I'd supported it as Robeson had, but for years I'd answered the obvious criticisms of that "model" society with a kind of "yes, but..." response that you continue to see among leftist supporters of Cuba. Finally, as the historical failure of socialism became impossible to ignore, and the mirage faded, I learned to answer with a simple "yes", full stop.

At 7:22 PM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was it simple vanity or was it Robeson's hardwired belief in the pure ideals of social equality that was the promise of communism?Ultimately, a failed promise.
From what I have read, Robeson was a brilliant and humane individual and therefore I would like to think it was the latter.

At 7:59 AM, July 22, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

To a certain extent, the machinations of communism were kept secret by necessity and by the lack of technology and communication needed to expose such doings. There was no real-time communication in Stalin's time, no bloggers and satellites and instant messaging, etc. The full extent of the evil of that system was not realized by many people.

At 9:51 AM, July 22, 2005, Blogger cakreiz said...

It's easy to understand how is personal reaction to racism drove him and ultimately blinded him to the vacuous promises of communism. I'm always intrigues by apologists, who never seem able to criticize the evils of their allies. Mainline Islam is experiencing its version of this right now.

At 6:33 PM, July 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the responses, everyone.

Brad, sir:

"We fail to re-examine our worldview with the same scrutiny and regularity that we apply to criticisms of those with whom we disagree. And particularly in our youth, we look at such grand schemes as the machinations of total society in an uncomplex, abstract way (the idealized future that Larry mentions, which was particularly potent in the post-60’s West)."

Yeah, I guess you're right. I'd like to think I examine my own beliefs with a high level of scrutiny, but that is admittely a hard thing to do. Everybody has a personal level of vanity, whether we'd like to admit it or not, and that often prevents us from really putting ourselves under the microscope. The closest I come to putting beliefs to the test are when I debate with liberal friends, and for a variety of reasons we not only try to keep the conversations as clinical as possible, we also normally don't take those debates too far. None of us really dig talking politics for entertainment. But at any rate, back on topic. It *is* really hard to examine yourself. There's no question about that. But on the other hand, seeing something for what it is... well, before this thread, I used to think it couldn't be that hard, but I'm starting to change my mind. I guess in the case of sympathizers seeing communism for what it really was could involve a level of self-examination that is uncomfortable. It's hard for me to imagine, but you and others are telling me outright that's what happened, so I can't deny it (plus, I've also read Horowitz's Radical Son, and he's saying the same thing). I guess I'm lucky (I can't attribute this belief of mine to any intelligence :) ), but even from childhood, even when I didn't have anywhere near a full grasp on the philosophies behind Socialism, Leninism, Marxism, and Communism, I've never seen communist governments as anything but wrongs done to humanity, and that's even in the grips of the general societal malaise and the continuing rise of the "America is bad" attitude back in the late 70's. Maybe it's the conditioning from those close to me that led me to this, but I've always been in a personal environment (not talking general societal environment here, but personal i.e. friends and family) where we believed that, as bad as things were, things were far, far worse in other places. For example: My mother early in my life talked about the Payatas garbage dump in Manila, and said she always cried when she saw the people living there; it was the factor motivating her to agree with my late father in coming to the U.S.. People really did live in a garbage dump, and not in small numbers either (Google "Payatas" with "Manila" (otherwise you'll get irrelevant links); Goverment believes something like **80,000** people live there). At any rate, looking back, I realize the message she was trying to give me was "Hey! At least in this country, you don't have whole families living in garbage dumps."

So I guess my "conditioning" while growing up could have led to no other attitude than the one I have now.

Larry, sir:
"But once in that grip (of a utopian illusion), you simply don't see the regimentation, and deny, downplay, or excuse the murderous violence that sustains the pretence behind the scenes."

I guess that plays into Brad's point above, as well as mine. I confess, it's just been so hard for me to grasp that others can honestly fool themselves to such a degree, and I guess it's due to the notion I had growing up that the depredations of communist goverments were not all that hard to see, and were the natural result of their existence to boot. When I was younger (preteen and teenaged), I had this opinion that those apologizing, or outright endorsing communism were not self-deluded about the negatives of those societies, but actually knew full well how bad they were, and were that much worse for endorsing the system anyway. I thought it was so apparent as to be natural law! But, as I said before, due to both you and Brad above, plus others like David Horowitz, I'm beginning to see otherwise, and it's a startling revelation. It shockingly adds depth to the depravity of Stalin's (I think) statement about "Useful fools" and makes it twice as bad. It tells me that there were those who full well understood the problems and the contradictions and continued with communism anyway, thus destroying so many lives, and damaging so many more. But it also tells me that there were many like you and Brad who, for reasons that may have been superficial and a result of sheltered adolescence but were nonetheless honest, truly believed there was a better way for society to evolve in. And ended up being simple victims of the knowledgeables, the ones who couldn't fail to know the negatives (oh, what an understated term!) of communist society.

Okay, applying the brakes. Once again, stream of consciousness... someone feed me ritalin, I can't stop... Sorry for the long post again. I had to get this off my chest. I'm afraid I'm gonna blow poor Neo-Neocon's blog quota through the roof!


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