All that Paul Robeson stood for had enormous impact on American and global history. The combination of his art, intellect and humanity was rarely paralleled. The cruelties visited upon him by the power of the State stands as a great blemish on the pages of American history.”
We are witnessing a growing recognition of the remarkable life and achievements of Paul Robeson, who is unquestionably one of the towering figures of the twentieth century.
There are few people whose achievements can match those of Paul Robeson.
In an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled, We are long overdue for a Paul Robeson revival, Peter Dreier writes that Paul Robeson was the most talented man of the twentieth century.
He was an internationally renowned concert and opera singer, film star and stage actor, college football star and professional athlete, writer, linguist (he sang in 25 languages), scholar, orator, lawyer, and activist in the civil rights, labor, and peace movements. In the 1930s and 1940s, Robeson was one of the best-known, and most admired, Americans in the world. Today, however, he is almost a forgotten figure. Few Americans know his name or accomplishments.
We are familiar with authoritarian governments that seek to “erase” the memory of prominent critics, but how can it happen in a democracy like the United States? Starting in the late 1940s, as the Cold War escalated, America’s political establishment began an assault on Robeson’s career and reputation because of his political activism and outspoken radicalism. He was blacklisted, his concerts and recording contracts canceled, and his passport revoked. By the mid-1950s, he had become a marginal figure — emotionally depressed, physically exhausted, and politically isolated.
He is, at best, a footnote in history textbooks, little known outside a small circle of Americans with a special interest in the history of the civil rights and left-wing movements, although somewhat better known among African Americans than white Americans.
A range of factors are at work;
- the death of his son Paul Robeson jr who had spent his life promoting and protecting his father's reputation has focused greater attention on Robeson.
- growing interest in and recognition of Robeson's achievements and legacy, including artistic events, public forums and press and media reports (here here, here, here, here).
- the publication of Jordan Goodman's new book "Paul Robeson A Watched Man", which tells of his political awakening and political engagement and his relentless persecution by the US Government.
- the publication of "Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson, Barbara Ransby's biography of Eslanda Robeson, Paul Robeson's wife.