Sunday, May 11, 2014

The rising voice of Paul Robeson

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.”
Harry Belafonte

"..while Robeson’s reputation and name recognition will gradually grow, he will remain a marginal figure, greatly admired by the relatively few Americans who understand his giant accomplishments and his remarkable courage, but otherwise eclipsed by one of the ugliest episodes in our country’s history, one of the lasting legacies of McCarthyism and the Cold War'
Peter Dreier

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.

Dreier writes:
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.
As Dreier points out, other public figures who challenged the status quo retained their reputation, but not Robeson. Dreier writes:
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.
But as Dreire and others have noted, Robeson's outstanding achievements are at last being recognized. 

A range of factors are at work;
Here in Australia Robeson is remembered for his famous 1960 visit, which is the subject of recent historical investigation (described in this article by Ann Curthoys and this piece in The Australian), recent ABC Radio programs (here) and his famous concert on the building site of the Sydney Opera House, which at the time was under construction. 

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