Above Photo: American actor and singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976) performing circa 1950. GAB Archive / Redferns / Getty Images.
Historian Gerald Horne discusses how the legacy of Paul Robeson illustrates the lengths to which the American empire will go to destroy and silence its most powerful critics.
Heroic dissidents are demonized, marginalized, physically and psychologically destroyed, or assassinated by the American ruling class. Before the persecution of Julian Assange, before the FBI assassination of Fred Hampton and Malcolm X, before the murder of Martin Luther King, there was the relentless campaign to silence the activist, actor, and singer Paul Robeson. Robeson, the most internationally known and revered Black American of his day, was a socialist and a militant who stood with the crucified of the earth.
Historian Gerald Horne is author of the biography “Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary,” and is the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. In this episode of The Chris Hedges Report, he joins Chris Hedges to discuss the life of “the most blacklisted performer in America,” linking the persecution of Paul Robeson directly to the persecution of Julian Assange, held today in a high security prison in London where his mental and physical health—like Robeson’s at the end of his life—is in serious decline.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
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Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino, Dwayne GladdenPost-Production: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: Welcome to the Chris Hedges Report. When you defy the imperial capitalist American state; When you denounce the crimes done to its own people, especially the poor, immigrants, and African Americans, as well as the crimes it commits abroad; When you have a global audience in the tens of millions that admires you and respects you for your courage and integrity; When you cannot be intimidated or bought off; Then, you are targeted for destruction.
Heroic dissidents are demonized, marginalized, physically and psychologically destroyed, or assassinated by the American ruling class. Before the persecution of Julian Assange, before the FBI assassination of Fred Hampton and Malcolm X, before the murder of Martin Luther king, there was the relentless campaign to silence the activist, actor, and singer Paul Robeson. Robeson was a socialist and a militant who stood with the crucified of the earth. He was fearless, confronting then president Harry S. Truman in a face to face meeting in the White House and berating him for failing to halt the reign of terror and lynching that afflicted Blacks.
He famously filed a petition with the United Nations charging the US government with genocide against African Americans. Robeson, who had a law degree from Columbia University, was multilingual. He had a global appeal that has perhaps never been matched by another Black American, even by figures such as Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X. W.E.B. Du Bois called him, without doubt, the best known American on earth. He was a stalwart member of the radical left, an active defender of trade union movements. But he was to become, in the words of Pete Seeger, the folk singer who was also persecuted in the United States, the most blacklisted performer in America. By the end, stripped of his passport, subject to relentless character assassination, denied the ability to make a living, he would end his days in 1976 a virtual recluse in his sister’s home in Philadelphia.
His life illustrates the lengths to which the American empire will go to destroy and silence its most powerful critics. Linking the persecution of Paul Robeson directly to the persecution of Julian Assange, held today in a high security prison in London where his mental and physical health, like Robeson’s at the end of his life, is in serious decline.
Joining me to discuss the life of Paul Robeson is his biographer Gerald Horne, the Moores professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston. So in your book, you write that Robeson pioneered the struggle against Jim Crow throughout the ’30s and ’40s. It was only with Robeson’s fall that King and Malcolm could emerge as they did. The undermining of Robeson created a vacuum that these two leaders filled. I wondered if you could talk about his battle against racial segregation, racial terror, and this legacy that you highlight.
Gerald Horne: Well, the great Paul L Robeson was born in central New Jersey in 1898, passed away in Philadelphia in 1976. In between, he is an All-American football player at his alma mater, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He’s also a stalwart on the basketball court and on the baseball diamond. As you suggested from there, he moves on to Columbia University, and seemingly is en route to a comfortable life, or as comfortable as a “negro” could be under the savage ravages of Jim Crow.
But his life is diverted. His life is diverted in part because of the fact that he was friendly with another Black lawyer, speaking of William Patterson, who eventually becomes a leading Black member of the US Communist Party. And also his life is diverted by his spouse, Eslanda Robeson, who encourages him to express his artistic and cultural talent as a singer, as an actor. And he’s finding it difficult – This is in the early 1920s, or in the post World War I era, post 1918 – To pursue that kind of career in New York City where all three, Patterson and Robeson and his spouse, were living.
And so he decides to go into exile, like so many Black Americans before or since. For example, the great James Baldwin, for example, spent a good deal of his most fertile years as an artist in France and in Turkey, for example. Robeson decided to choose exile in London, where he found things a bit more comfortable than he did in New York City. And he quickly becomes a star of stage and screen, on stage as a singer and as an actor. His Othello is still considered to be the definitive performance of that Shakespearean tragedy. And as well, because of the influence of Patterson, he is encouraged and decides to move even further to the left than he had been to that point.
What I mean is that as you suggested, Robeson was multilingual and that allowed him, for example, to perform in Germany, since he was fluent in German. But he was performing in Germany at a time when fascism was rising. And this was perhaps the definitive episode in Robeson’s life. That is to say, coming face to face with the ugliness and horrors of fascism in the 1930s. He of course was fluent in Russian, and winds up educating his only son, Paul Jr., his only child, in Russia, in the Soviet Union because he wanted him to escape the pernicious nature of Jim Crow in the United States and his homeland. And another turning point comes as well in the 1930s, indeed, when he performs on the battlefield of Spain. Recall that a democratically elected government in Spain was then under siege by fascism. That is to say, the eventual victor, Francisco Franco, and his fascist supporters in Rome and Berlin, Robeson performed there.
And that too was a turning point in his life. And it’s fair to say that he would have likely resided in London indefinitely but for the coming of World War II in Europe. By the late summer of 1939. Feeling that he and his family might be trapped in a war zone, they all decamped back to the United States across the Atlantic. And this was a kind of propitious moment, because the United States was egging itself on towards entering the antifascist war. Robeson, as a result, was on the same page as his homeland and initially was lionized. He was able to perform Othello on Broadway, for example, where he was applauded heartily. Although I should mention that when performing Othello in New York, he was nervous about embracing, as a Black person, his leading lady, Desdemona in the Shakespearean play, for fear that some racist in the audience might storm the stage and slap him, for example, or worse.
But in any case, that sort of New York spring or US spring lasted until the conclusion of World War II 1945, when the political climate shifted towards anti-communism, the new Cold War, the Red Scare. Robeson was becoming a non-person as a result. He had an infamous face-to-face confrontation with the then US president Harry S. Truman, with Robeson reading the Riot Act to the US president because of Washington’s seeming inability to do anything or lift a finger with regard to the lynching of Black people, with certain Black soldiers in particular, coming home from the war and being attacked in their uniform.
One notorious case of Isaac Woodward in South Carolina has his eyes gouged out by racists, which obviously inflames the ire of Robeson. But what’s inflaming the ire of the White House is the fact that the Red Scare is underway and Robeson refuses to turn his back on his comrades in the US Communist Party, among which, as noted, is William Patterson, Ben Davis Jr., the eventual spouse of W.E.B. Du Bois, speaking of Shirley Graham Du Bois, and many others.
And so Robeson finds himself on the so-called blacklist. That is to say, he finds it difficult to perform. He finds it difficult to find a venue where his records could be sold. His income plummets from the six figures to the low four figures. He becomes a kind of non-person. The All-American Football Squad of which he was a member decades earlier at Rutgers University, his name is stripped afterwards during the Red Scare so that there were only 10 players on that All-American Football team instead of the requisite 11. And there is an attempt to drive Robeson into the ditch. In fact, there are attempts on his life, most notoriously when he gives a concert in 1949 where Pete Seeger performs, amongst others. A fundraiser for the Civil Rights Congress led by his friend William Patterson, which is raising money so that they could file that petition at the United Nations that you mentioned, charge The United States with genocide against Black people.
A mob amasses, they are baying for blood. They are apparently in league not only with neo-Nazis, but with the police authorities as well. Robeson barely escapes with his body in one piece. And that is the case for a good deal of the 1950s. That is to say, attempted marginalization, attempted isolation, being hauled before congressional committees, being interrogated and brow beaten as to whether or not he is a member of the US Communist Party. Until finally in the late 1950s, as a result of a global campaign – Where, by the way, the leaders of independent India, speaking of Prime Minister Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, play a leading role – Robeson’s passport is returned. He speedily departs the United States of America. But he tends to overdo it in terms of his travel. He travels down under to Australia, for example, and engages in solidarity with other victims of racist persecution, speaking of the Indigenous population, which are referred to as the Aboriginal population on these shores.
What happens as well is that his spouse who is also his manager, Eslanda, also kind of over does it. She passes away by 1965. Robeson by then is in a kind of decline. He returns to live in West Philadelphia with his sister, where he spends his declining years, although he is in touch with many of the strugglers and fighters in the anti-Jim Crow movement, particularly the younger strugglers and fighters and SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the shock troops of the anti-Jim Crow movement in Dixie, before passing away in 1976. Where, interestingly enough, he is celebrated in the pages of the Black Panther Party newspaper.
Chris Hedges: One of the things in your book that you highlight is that while living in London, he has a very close relationship with anti-colonial movements and many future leaders of independent countries in Africa. And that is a very important part of his education, that he was accused, I think, at one point of espousing communist or Soviet ideas. And he said, well, all of my political education came in London.
Gerald Horne: Yes, that’s true. Because London, although it may be difficult to imagine today, had a very strong left-wing movement. Not only comprised of those who had escaped colonialism, such as C.L.R. James of Trinidad and Tobago, who wrote the still worthy book The Black Jacobins about the Haitian revolution, still consulted. Or Jomo Kenyatta, the founder of independent Kenya, who was once as close to the organized left as Robeson was before deciding to make his peace with London for various reasons. But in the 1930s, as noted, he was part of the left as well.
And that’s not to mention the now forgotten stalwarts of the left in London itself. Speaking of R. Palme Dutt, D-U-T-T, for example, whose works on fascism are still worthy of consultation, or other leaders of that stripe. And so Robeson correctly suggested that it was in London that he received this fundamental education. And so perhaps instead of pinning Moscow on his lapel, as Congress sought to do, they should have pinned London on his lapel.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about his role in Othello. So he said that playing Othello gave him a more profound understanding of white supremacy and that it was his art that helped drive him to revolutionary understanding. “Performing Othello,” he said, “has taken away from me all kinds of fears, all sense of limitation. Quite simply, it has made me free.” I thought it was fascinating. I wonder if you could speak about that.
Gerald Horne: Well, of course, as you recall, Othello deals with the very striking period in the late 1500s early 1600s, that is the time when it is written by William Shakespeare. Interestingly enough, London at that time is on the verge of surpassing Catholic Spain as the leading European power, and also surpassing Protestant Holland as well, in part because opportunistic London cuts the deal with the other major European power, speaking of Ottoman Turkey, which is a leading, if not the leading Muslim power.
And so in telling this story of Othello, the Moor hailing from North Africa, a predominantly Muslim territory, in some ways, Shakespeare like Othello himself, is performing a service for the state. That is to say, he’s helping English and London audiences become more comfortable with Queen Elizabeth’s defacto alliance with Muslim powers, which is seemingly at odds with a Christian ethos, which suggested that Islam was as antagonistic to Christianity, as many people centuries later thought communism was antagonistic to capitalism.
And so Othello happens to be a character who also is done in by gossip, by the fact that Iago is whispering in his ear and driving him to the depths of despair. And I think that Robeson thought that in order to perform that character of Othello, he had to understand that character psychologically. In fact, when he was playing the role on Broadway in New York, he suggested that in order to work himself up psychologically to generate the kind of rage that audiences would find perhaps comprehensible and help them to understand what he was trying to convey as Othello, he would imagine that he was being betrayed. Of course, betrayal is a central concept of Othello, as you know. He would imagine that he was being betrayed by one of his communist colleagues, speaking of William Patterson or Ben Davis Jr., another Black leader of the Communist Party.
And so I think that that quote that you mentioned also helps to expose and reveal the fundamentals of acting, which many spectators tend to take for granted when they see someone on stage or the silver screen: trying to convey a character. But if you’re going to convey that character adequately and move the audience emotionally, it’s very important for you as the actor to understand the character emotionally and psychologically. And I think that that’s what he was driving at in that quote that you referenced.
Chris Hedges: I want to read another quote. He writes, “Every artist, every scientist must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights…. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” What was the role of the artist for him?
Gerald Horne: Well, the role of the artist was to inspire. The role of the artist was to convey eternal truths. And, given his imminence, the role of the artist was to be a fundraiser, which he did quite successfully for anti-colonial movements, for union movements. For example, he was quite close to another Black communist leader, speaking of Ferdinand Smith, a founder of the National Maritime Union, a once powerful union that had control, to a degree, over imports and exports on vessels, before he was subjected to the Red Scare and chased back to his homeland, speaking of Jamaica.
And so I think that Robeson was one of the early victims of the so-called blacklist which swept through Hollywood, which has been the subject, as you know, of many different films and plays and novels and memoirs and all the rest. And I think the fact that Hollywood was so deeply impacted by this anti-communism, by this Red Scare, betokens and bespeaks the fact of how the rulers of the United States fundamentally were afraid of artists. They were afraid of artists like Paul Robeson because the ruling elite were aware of the kind of popularity that he held, the kind of esteem in which he was held, and they were aware that he could move millions. And so it’s no accident that A, Robeson is subjected to a vicious persecution, and B, artists more broadly and more widely were treated similarly.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about that persecution. So the FBI follows Robeson’s every move. They mount an extensive and a covert campaign to destroy him, including of course, as you mentioned, his ability to make a living. I think in 1947, he’s making about $104,000 a year. In 1950, it’s fallen to $2,000. I want to speak about what they did to Robeson. And then, talk about how they used Black celebrities, figures like the great baseball player, Jackie Robinson, to attack Robeson and his supporters.
Gerald Horne: Well, as you suggested, Jackie Robinson at one time, particularly in the 1940s, was quite popular, broadly being depicted as the man who helped to break the color line. Actually breaking the color line for the second time circa 1946, of course, Major League Baseball, such as it was, was desegregated in the late 19th century before the onset of the 1890s and the rise of a very vicious Jim Crow and racism.
And so Jackie Robinson was importuned to come before the house Un-American Activities Committee and denounce Paul Robeson. This is in the wake of Paul Robeson quite famously speaking in France, casting doubt on whether Black Americans would be up for a nuclear war against the former Soviet Union. Of course, he doubted it. And that created a firestorm of protest which led to Jackie Robinson coming before the QAC to castigate him.
Of course, subsequently Jackie Robinson apologizes. But by then it’s a bit too late for that kind of apology. And interestingly enough, baseball fans might recall Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, the fastballer Don Newcombe, who went further than Jackie Robinson in denouncing Paul Robeson. And that’s the way as a Black celebrity, or as a celebrity in general, or as a US national in general, you kept your head above water. By denouncing Paul Robeson, who was thought to be, believe it or not, the “Black Stalin.” That is to say there was a devious plot to somehow have Paul Robeson be in league with domestic and global communists to somehow take over the United States of America.
I know that some of your viewers and listeners might be tittering at this point. But if so, that suggests that they do not necessarily comprehend the kind of hysteria that was sweeping from the Atlantic to the Pacific at that particular historical moment.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about… His physical, as you mentioned, and psychological health deteriorates under this constant campaign against him. And in 1961, his son finds him in the bathroom of a Moscow hotel attempting to slit his wrists. And until the death of his son, he argued that his father was a victim of the CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb’s MK Ultra program, which secretly administered synthetic hallucinogenics to dissidents, leaving many to have mental breakdowns or even commit suicide. And of course, one of the tactics was that after that hallucinogenic trauma – Which is not explained to them, they don’t know why they have it – They funnel them into electroshock therapy, which happened to Robeson. And they never really recover. And his son always argued that this was orchestrated by the CIA. And I wondered if you could address that.
Gerald Horne: Well, interestingly enough, his son, Paul Robeson Jr., writes a two volume biography of his father which is actually quite interesting, and he deals with that point. Likewise, at New York University at the Temement Library at NYU, under Paul Robeson Jr.’s name, you can find details and files that help to substantiate the point that Paul Robeson Jr. makes. Likewise, as history proceeds, new documents arise, which is one of the reasons why many historians speak to history as argument without end, because as time passes, new documents arise. As you know, there’s a 30-year rule with regard to the United States government releasing documents.
And so now we can expect documents as recent as, what, 1992 to be coming forth. And so you see in this new book, White Malice, which just came out recently, a very thick tome, the author takes advantage of some of these records to talk about Sidney Gottlieb, and actually to talk about the CIA malfeasance on the African continent, with the same kind of dirty tricks that were directed against Paul Robeson also directed against African leaders as well. Which helps to give sustenance and credibility to the charges that Paul Robeson Jr. makes.
And interestingly enough, the author of the book White Malice, who brings out this new evidence that I was just alluding to, also suggests that recent regulations and legislation with regard to files on the Kennedy assassination, which as you know takes place in 1963 – Well before the 30-year rule, now we’re talking about a 60-year rule – That documents are still emerging that are shedding light on Africa, shedding light on the US Red Scare. Interestingly enough, the current US president, for various reasons, has put a hold on coming releases of documents. I take it that hold will be lifted soon. And so we can expect to receive more documentation that no doubt will help to substantiate the charge that not only was Paul Robeson likely subjected to dirty tricks of the most malevolent variety, but many of his comrades, there are a lot of unexplained deaths in this country. As the book White Malice points out, there’s this really striking coincidence of so many people committing suicide by jumping out of skyscrapers, for example. That’s a very curious trend.
And so once again, the lesson is that historians need to keep researching. Journalists need to keep researching. Journalists and historians need to keep writing.
Chris Hedges: Well, there was a whole unit set up to terrorize Black artists like Billie Holiday and destroy their lives. And Billie Holiday is another example, perhaps, of that.
Gerald Horne: Well, certainly, and in fact, there was a recent movie that did not do very well at the box office, perhaps fortunately, that tries to depict the kind of dirty tricks that Billie Holiday was subjected to. But alas, I think that the salacious aspects tend to overcome the creativity of the screenplay writer and the director.
Chris Hedges: Great, we’re going to stop there. That was professor Gerald Horne on the great Paul Robeson. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.