Paul Robeson, the Cold War, and the Question of African-American Loyalties

Article excerpt

By the mid-1940's, much of the world knew the face and voice of Paul Robeson. Movie star, thespian, and musical soloist, the versatile Robeson possessed luminous talent, inexhaustible charm, and deep intellect. A man of seemingly inexhaustible energy, he enjoyed immense personal popularity beyond that attained by other contemporary African-American entertainment figure including heavyweight champion Joe Louis, dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and radio performer Eddie Anderson ("Rochester" on the Jack Benny Show). As the Second World War's ended, Rutgers University and Columbia Law School graduate Robeson was finishing a triumphant Broadway run as the title character in "Othello."

Most critics considered his sensitive portrayal as the lone black member of an otherwise-white cast not just a racial breakthrough but also a theatrical tour de force. Public reaction was so positive that the production became a smash hit and set a record for most performances of a Shakespearean play. After the production's original run, the company toured the United States and Canada and planned later to go abroad to entertain the troops. The man who enthralled CBS radio listeners in 1939 when they heard him sing "Ballad for Americans" with its message of patriotism and tolerance appeared to be a mighty symbol for democracy. Moreover, his life seemingly exemplified success against all obstacles. In 1945, the 47-year-old headliner received the NAACP's prestigious Spingarn Medal. To the seasoned performer-activist, conferral of the award likely seemed both a signal honor and an appropriate capstone for a career that thus far brought exceptional achievement and recognition. Among those present at the award banquet were Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt reflecting the duality of Robeson's interest in both art and politics. The NAACP recognized his distinguished on-stage achievements but also his constant effort to better the fortunes of his race through affiliation with groups and organizations dedicated to racial uplift.

Despite a frenetic schedule of public appearances, recording dates, and other commitments, Robeson energetically supported the Allied effort during the war. At concert engagements for charitable and morale purposes, he often offered blistering political commentary regarding fascism between musical selections. He regarded fascism as a system of government that was the greatest potential menace to civil liberties at home and world peace abroad. Robeson became an unwavering admirer of the Soviet Union at a time when many Americans feared communism and its influence. His support for the Soviet Union and for left-wing liberal Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's wartime vice president, for president in 1948 angered many conservatives and more than a few moderates who considered Russia an extremely dangerous foe.

Robeson's outspoken opinions and the ferocity with which he delivered them concerned federal policy makers and other members of the political establishment. Show business entertainers especially black entertainers generally did not express strong political views on stage lest they distract from the performance or jeopardize their popularity. Nevertheless, during the 1930's, Robeson maintained that the artist could not or should not exist apart from his beliefs and thereafter fervently embraced a variety of political and economic causes. Among those he favored were prolabor organizations in the United States and Europe, anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia, and groups that championed the idea that racism should be eliminated everywhere.

His constant denunciation of segregated practices in the South, praise for the Soviet Union, and charges that the new United Nations favored the traditional economic and political status quo rendered him a far less sympathetic figure in the United States in 1947 and 1948 than previously. By then, promoters in the United States began to cancel some of his concerts to protest his radicalism. …