Communist Party USA

  Few can excel at two high-profile careers. It’s almost unheard of to excel at four or five, so when someone can, you know they are gifted beyond measure. Paul Leroy Robeson was one such person. His immense talent, coupled with his strong support for civil rights, labor, and peace, made him a powerful figure on the Left and a target of the Right. Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in New Jersey to Maria Louisa Bustills, a member of a prominent Quaker family, and Rev. William Drew Robeson, who had escaped from slavery while in his teens. After his mother died when he was six, his family was often uprooted and subjected to deep poverty. Though Robeson was a star athlete, it was his grades that got him a scholarship into college. As a high school student, he drew the attention of the NAACP, which wrote a short article in the Crisis about his accomplishments. Robeson attended four universities and earned a law degree. Throughout his academic career, he sang and acted in musicals, was part of several clubs such as theater and debate, and still had time to play professional football for two NFL leagues. He flourished in everything he put his hand and mind to, especially with his sweetheart wife/talent agent Eslanda (“Essie”) at his side. However, this was not without its share of prejudice and racism. Robeson practiced law for a short while but left due to rampant racism in the field. Though he played football, it was touring while singing and acting that he loved. Beginning in the 1930s, Robeson refused to be disrespected and insisted he set an example for how Black men should act and be treated. He wrote an essay called “I Want to Be African” and set out to learn his roots and to apply them to his and his people’s future. He befriended British socialists and anti-capitalists. He visited the Soviet Union, where he felt “at home” and “for the first time like a full human being.” In 1935, he took a role in the film Sanders on the River, thinking it would be good for the world to see how actual Africans looked and behaved. Though it gained him worldwide fame, the stereotypical portrayal damaged his reputation. When a commissioner of British colonial Nigeria protested the film, Robeson became more conscious of the roles he took. In 1928 Robeson performed the role of “Joe” in the British production of the musical Showboat and later in the 1936 film version. He became known for a signature song, “Ol Man River,” and sang it often at concerts. Over the years he omitted the racist words and changed the lyrics from “I’m tired of living’ / And scared of dying” to the militant “I must keep fightin’ / Until I’m dyin’.” Exposure to the Spanish Civil War was a turning point for his anti-fascist views. He supported the communist and anarchist causes, assisted the Loyalist bando republicano, and aided war refugees. In London in 1937 he gave a famous anti-fascist speech where he said, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.” Robeson went to Spain to sing to soldiers in support of the short-lived International Brigade. He met the Chinese progressive activist Liu Liangmo, who taught Robeson the patriotic song “Arise!,” which Robeson would perform live and record in studio. Robeson often challenged segregationist policies. In 1940, he performed before a packed audience of 30,000 at the Hollywood Bowl. Yet only one hotel in Los Angeles would take his money, and with the caveat…

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Paul Robeson: “I must keep fightin’, until I’m dyin'”