Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Paul Robeson Tribute

Video: Tribute To Paul Robeson, Mumia Abu-Jamal


Video: Paul Robeson - Ol' Man River (Showboat - 1936) J.Kern O. Hammerstein II

Paul Robeson Honored On U.S. Postage Stamp

Paul Leroy Robeson was the U.S. working class’ greatest voice. One critic described his baritone as “the finest musical instrument wrought by Nature in our time." His outspoken activism against racism and imperialism made him one of the most beloved heroes of the international working class. His support of socialism, close relations with the Communist Party, USA, and friendship with the Soviet Union also earned him the enmity of the U.S. ruling class.

During the anti-Communist witch-hunts spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Paul Robeson became a target for repression. He went from being arguably the most famous person in the world, to being erased from the history books. Now, after a six-year grassroots campaign, the United States Post Office is issuing a commemorative stamp in his honor. The stamp is the twenty-seventh to be issued in the Black Heritage series, which has also included Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The stamp will be issued in 2004, in time for Black History Month. Robeson is perhaps the first U.S. communist to be so honored.

The campaign to have a Paul Robeson stamp issued began in 1997, one year before the centennial of his birth. The Chicago-based Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee started a petition, which they sent to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee. Unfortunately, despite the 90,000 signatures and massive public support, the committee rejected the stamp. By the time they agreed to issue the stamp, the Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee had collected nearly 250,000 signatures.

However, the campaign’s success is not limited to the stamp’s approval. The work that went into the campaign also did much to educate the American people about Robeson’s life. Mark Rogovin, of the Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee, stated, “we had this idea about pushing for the stamp and we obtained contacts from all over the United States in connection with the 100th birthday celebrations…. Many thousands or even tens of thousands of signatures were gathered at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. Every day, busloads of school children would visit the museum on field trips, learn about Robeson, and sign the petition."

The importance of spreading Paul Robeson’s story is evident to anyone who knows the story. Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, NJ. His father, a preacher, escaped slavery at the age of fifteen. His mother came from a family of Quakers who were involved in the movement to abolish slavery.

A Renaissance man in every sense of the word, Paul Robeson excelled in each of the many fields in which he participated. He was only the third African-American to attend New Jersey’s Rutgers University, where he received a four-year academic scholarship. Despite the racism that he was forced to endure, including opponents refusing to take the field against a team that included an African-American, he excelled in both academics and athletics. He played baseball, football, basketball and track. He won fifteen varsity letters, and was named to the All-American football team twice. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919, member of both Phi Beta Kappa and the Cap & Skull Honor Society.

Robeson attended graduate school at Columbia Law School in New York City, supporting himself by playing professional football on weekends. However, the racism he encountered in his workplace made it impossible to perform his job. Instead, he turned to the performing arts. In a short time Robeson became a world-renown singer and actor. He performed in numerous films, including Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. He performed in the musical Showboat, where he first sang his trademark song “Old Man River." In later years he would adapt the lyrics, most notably adding the line “I must keep fighting until I’m dying."

The militant message Robeson brought to his art reflected his courage and his unwavering defiance in the face of oppression. He also proved his theatric abilities in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, when he became only the second black actor to portray the character Othello on stage. Robeson also spoke and wrote in twenty different languages. His singing performances included not only spirituals and songs of the American working class, but also folk songs from different cultures around the world. Many people in the U.S were for the first time exposed to Chinese, Spanish and Russian folk songs through the booming voice of Paul Robeson. Even in his performances, Robeson always took a stand for justice. He refused to perform in segregated concert halls, and made a point of keeping admission affordable for working people.

Paul Robeson is perhaps this country’s greatest example of the way in which artists have championed the cause of social justice. In a speech given in Spain where Robeson was a volunteer performer during the height of the Spanish Civil War, he asserted, “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." Robeson did not just say the words he lived them.

The ruling class of this country will never be able to atone for the grave injustices it committed against this national and international hero. However, the US Postal Service has finally taken a step in the right direction. We should use the newly issued stamp as a tool to continue to educate people on Robeson’s life, and on a part of U.S. history that the ruling class wishes to erase.

For More Information:
Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee

Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee

Brandon Slattery
is a working artist from Brooklyn, NY and a member of the National Council of the YCL.

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