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Paul Robeson as singer, actor, activist, by Hans Knight (New York Times 2-1-97)
Once in a while, I turn on my stereo, close my eyes and let the voice flow over me, so dark and rich I feel I can almost touch it. Once critic once called it "the finest musical instrument wrought by Nature in our time." Another described it as "so nearly perfect as to be almost inhuman." Yet another praised the possessor of the voice as "the greatest natural basso of this generation."
The voice belonged to Paul Robeson. If the young among us have no idea who he was, They should be forgiven. Twenty-one years have passed since the preacher's son was laid to rest, worn out by a life of turbulence, triumph and tragedy. Now and then, his name crops up and his image flashes briefly on the television screen, usually during Black History Month or some other commemoration of black heroes and heroines.
If you look hard, you may find some of his recordings. But an era that's not blessed with a plethora of heroes is relegating Robeson to oblivion.
If nothing else, this seems an artistic disgrace. When he forsook a law career for the stage in the mid-1920's, he flabbergasted the critics and the public alike by the eloquence he brought to Shakespeare's Othello and O'Neill's Emperor Jones. As a concert singer, he bestrode the worlds auditoriums like a gentle, colossus, Jerome Kern composed Ol' Man River with Robeson in mind.
His fame rivaled that of Joe Louis. In India, in Africa, they celebrated his birthday. In Russia, they named a mountain after him.
In his prime, he made a lot of money, tasted the heady wine of success--tough rarely in the best hotels, which habitually refused him food and shelter--and in the prevailing view of the white world, he should have been thankful and smiling a lot.
Shockingly, Robeson declined to play the game. He had it better than most black men only because he was more gifted and therefore more marketable than most, and he knew it. Many black artists and entertainers at the time decided they could best gain the respect of their white fellow Americans simply by being good at their craft. This was not Robeson's way. He risked his career, and his life, to speak out stridently for human dignity and justice.
When Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were distant clouds on the horizon, Robeson thundered defiance at racial inequity. In return, a jittery America, shivering in the Cold War winds and fueled by the posturings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, deprived him of his right to travel abroad. His recordings vanished from the shelves. Concert halls closed their doors to him.
AS the established civil rights movements, notably the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, found him too hot to handle, he almost inevitably drifted toward the extreme left. He had lived in Russia for a year and, as the Russians lionized him,he disastrously came to regard the Soviet Union as a progressive human experiment rather than as a destroyer of freedom.
It was, pathetically, his rejection by his native land that impelled him to say of Russia, "For the first time I walked the earth in complete dignity there." The proud and passionate man with the deep, melancholy voice said some bitter things about America. Frustrated, exasperated, embittered finally, he sometimes seemed to embrace the cause of America's adversaries.
But did he? His protests that scandalized Americans in the 1930s and 1940s would hardly cause a ripple today. The same Robeson who in the 1950s was robed of his passport, blackballed by a frightened artistic establishment and shunned as a pariah ell might be no more than a slightly controversial (but coveted) guest on the talk shows today. Thus have times changed, and not least because of the courage and sacrifice Robeson, singer, actor, activist.
He surely would not have his name erased from Who's Who in America because of his political views, nor would anthologies of great blacks omit his name, nor would sports writers forget to mention that as a 6-foot 3-inch football player, Robeson was twice named All-American.
Robeson was 77 years old when he died in 1976 and much of the same press that had reviled him throughout his struggles, showered him with posthumous praise. "The magnificent voice in its prime filled the concert hall," wrote The New York Times. "It spoke in dramatic power and in passion; it spoke of gentleness and the warmth of humankind....For reasons of politics, his native country had abruptly and callously turned its back on him long ago; yet Paul Robeson, like Othello on his deathbed, could honestly say, 'I have done the state some service, and they know't.'"
A fine farewell.