Thursday, November 30, 2017

2006 PBS Article Excerpt About Singer, Actor, Activist Paul Robeson (with selected comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides a lengthy excerpt of a 2006 American Masters Film article about African American singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson. Selected comments from that article's discussion thread are also showcased in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical and socio-cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Paul Robeson for his life's legacy. Thanks also to St. Clair Bourne and PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) for showcasing information about Paul Robinson and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click for a closely related pancocojams post entitled "Information About The Musical "Show Boat" & The Song "Ol' Man River" (with comparisons of Paul Robeson's and William Warfield's renditions of "Ol' Man River")".

From About The Actor; American Masters Film: Paul Robeson 20th Century Renaissance Man by St. Clair Bourne
"Paul Robeson: Singer, Actor, Activist

(Apr 9, 1898 - Jan 23, 1976)

Paul Robeson was the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man. He was an exceptional athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and political activist...

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. His father had escaped slavery and become a Presbyterian minister, while his mother was from a distinguished Philadelphia family. At seventeen, he was given a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in four years and was his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. Racial strife at the firm ended Robeson’s career as a lawyer early, but he was soon to find an appreciative home for his talents.

Returning to his love of public speaking, Robeson began to find work as an actor. In the mid-1920s he played the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (1924) and “The Emperor Jones” (1925). Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, he was a widely acclaimed actor and singer. With songs such as his trademark “Ol’ Man River,” he became one of the most popular concert singers of his time. His “Othello” was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway history, running for nearly three hundred performances. It is still considered one of the great-American Shakespeare productions. While his fame grew in the United States, he became equally well-loved internationally. He spoke fifteen languages, and performed benefits throughout the world for causes of social justice...

As an actor, Robeson was one of the first black men to play serious roles in the primarily white American theater. He performed in a number of films as well, including a re-make of “The Emperor Jones” (1933) and “Song of Freedom” (1936)... At the height of his popularity, Robeson was a national symbol and a cultural leader in the war against fascism abroad and racism at home...

During the 1940s, Robeson’s black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 the persecution reached a climax when his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, states: “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.”

It was eight years before his passport was reinstated. A weary and triumphant Robeson began again to travel and give concerts in England and Australia. But the years of hardship had taken their toll. After several bouts of depression, he was admitted to a hospital in London... When Robeson returned to the United States in 1963, he was misdiagnosed several times and treated for a variety of physical and psychological problems... He retired to Philadelphia and lived in self-imposed seclusion until his death in 1976.

To this day, Paul Robeson’s many accomplishments remain obscured by the propaganda of those who tirelessly dogged him throughout his life. His role in the history of civil rights and as a spokesperson for the oppressed of other nations remains relatively unknown. In 1995, more than seventy-five years after graduating from Rutgers, his athletic achievements were finally recognized with his posthumous entry into the College Football Hall of Fame. Though a handful of movies and recordings are still available, they are a sad testament to one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century. If we are to remember Paul Robeson for anything, it should be for the courage and the dignity with which he struggled for his own personal voice and for the rights of all people."

These comments are presented in chronological order based on their publishing date, except for replies. Numbers have been assigned for referencing purposes only.

Pancocojams Editor's Note: A number of the other comments that aren't included in this compilation appear to have been written by students who were assigned to watch this television special and read this article about Paul Robinson.

"Paul Robeson, the black spiritual singer of yesteryear, was the spiritual and moral father of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika -- the versatile octogenerian singer of Assam, the northeastern state of India. When Dr. Hazarika was a student leader of Columbia University was close friend of Paul Robeson. Dr. Hazarika sings around the world in the tune of Paul Robeson...."We're on the same boat brother...."

2. Stephen b. Logan
"Reading that a person of this caliber existing amidst such horrific prejudice,oppression and ignorance makes me feel cheated. We are all robbed of what he COULD have achieved, yet , somehow, I feel more inspired. He did plenty! It's an honor to be able to share the same planet men such as this have walked. Thanks to Mr. Robeson for bothering to endure all the B.S., and insisting to achieve at least some of his potential."

3. P. Piork
"Paul Robeson was an extremely talented singer and performer.

He was also a Communist and well aware of the millions that were killed under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Yet he always supported Stalin and refused to criticise him. In fact, when people in the US wanted to petition for the release of Trotskyites who were imprisoned in the US, Roberson refused to support this movement.

Robeson described Socialists as being fascists. For him the only valid political system was Communism. I wonder how his vaunted conscience dealt with the pressure of knowing that millions, innocent millions, including people he knew, were killed by Communism."

4. Anne
"Just a quick response to K. Piork. Paul Robeson was an African American, a man who had to deal with the many contradictions of national politics. He was born and lived his life in a country that refused to acknowledge or atone for the suffering and deaths of millions of African American men and women, generations of whom were incarcerated by the American slave system, abused under Jim Crow laws, lynchings, racism, segregation, denial of their voting and citizenship rights, etc. It might be difficult to understand why Communism appealed to Robeson, but in comparison to American "Democracy," perhaps it seemed to promote an ideal of equality that the U.S. was failing to even aspire to. I just wonder if it's a little more complicated than you seem to want to make it."

5. Steve
"If racism had not stricken this great man what would he have achevied ?...Obama Status , I thought I knew his story but I did not know Graduate with 12 sports letters ,Valavictorian ,Lawyer ,Spoke 15 laungages, longest running Shakespear on Broad way....when american can make movies of gangsters (Alcapone 20 times) and not a word about this great man. if it's not logical it is usually racial"

6. Alpha man
"This article may be true, however it does not tell how he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated and because of that, this article is weak."
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. is the oldest college based historically Black Greek letter organization. This commenter may have wanted to just point out the fact that Paul Robinson was a member of that fraternity, and not to discredit the entire article.

7. Super Amanda
"Robeson did speak at Josef Stalin's funeral in 1953, so it was possible to draw a connection to Communism."

Paul Robeson never met Stalin nor did he ever live in self exile within the USSR nor did he attend or speak at his funeral! How many of you actually READ? If you found that information from David Horowitz realize that he is a liar who provides no sources and makes things up about Paul Robeson and his family. He is a lying **** Robeson wrote the eulogy for Stalin at a time when many, many celebrities and artists had hoped for the USSR as a counter balance aganist the segregationist USA and the rape of Africa, Latin America and Asia that personified the "free world." Robeson was not privy (obviously) to the hindsight that we have today about the USSR as well. Even in that era though, American Communists weren’t blindly supporting Stalin, but were demanding local rights like basic workers’ conditions and racial and sexual equality that we now take for granted (even when we fail to live up to the ideals)Rights that the US government could not have cared less about.

"His evasive refusal to denounce Stalin in his House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings is certainly a difficult piece of history for fans to accept; but it’s also not difficult to understand why Robeson would not be particularly eager to deliver these criticisms to the disgraceful HUAC to serve as handy propaganda for a country that had essentially marginalised his ability to speak and segregated him from the global community (Robeson’s FBI files can be found online). Instead, Robeson simply stated that “whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union .. I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people some day, singing for them, I will discuss it there”. (Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 12 June 1956.)"

From Kit Mcfarlane: "Paul Robeson: A Resonant Voice That Will Never Be Fully Silenced", 09 November 2010

8. The Rooskies
"Propaganda? It isn't propaganda when it's true.

‎"Through his [Stalin's] deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage." - Paul Robeson

A heritage that includes thirty million murdered Russians, Poles, and Gypsies, whose bodies lie among us, unspoken for.

Robeson was talented, but he was also an apologist for a mass murderer. That goes to character."

9. MM (2014)
"Sorry but you don't provide enough evidence for your criticism. Robeson was responding to what he saw as Stalin's efforts to address racism. He is not here to answer your criticism, but according to Wikipedia entry.."Robeson's comments of praise were made prior to Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 "Secret Speech" at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union regarding Stalin's purges. Though Robeson would continue to praise the USSR throughout his life, he would neither publicly denounce nor praise Stalin personally following Khrushchev's 1956 revelations."

10. Neville
"As far as I'm concerned the greatest singer that has ever lived. Probably the first racial equality leader of Americans, well before Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King. Something that the article doesn't state is that because of his viewpoints he was considered a Communist and struck from the year books and roll of honour at college. It is about time that he and others like him were given the credit due them."

11. Colin Stewart
"This article about Robeson on the PBS website glosses over the fact that Robeson undoubtedy was what Lenin would have described as a "useful idiot". Despite all that he achieved, it is overshadowed by the fact that he was an apologist for one of the most evil regimes in History. Robeson knew about the purges and still remained a supporter of Stalin. He also knew American emigres living in the USSR were being arrested and killed but did nothing and said nothing. He was complicit in genocide."

12. MM (2014)
"Robeson was not and did not apologize for evil. He did not speak up for Stalin after knowledge of the purges became common. It does not make him complicit in genocide because he did not speak out against it. Genocide has happened many time throughout history and still happens today yet few people speak out against it. That does not make a person complicit. Fact is Robeson was most concerned about the evil going on in this country against his own people. Blacks in America were being lynched and you ask that his primary fight be elsewhere?"

13. John Mackie
"The USA would be a better place today if it had more citizens like Paul Robeson, a truely great man. It fascinates me that America could produce a person of his talents and one that the average American would have no idea about. Yes it is easy to cherry pick his socialist opinions and actions as a negative but I think you will find that he was very consistent in his treatment of all nations and races when it came to human rights and the rights of the working man. To align him as a supporter of the attocities carried out by Stalin is a major injustice to one of the great men of the twentieth century."

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  1. Regarding comment #1 by Dr. Ankur Deka: Although Bhupen Hazarika might have learned the song from Paul Robeson, "We're in the Same Boat Brother" was written by Earl Robinson and E.Y. Harburg in 1944. For information about the song, including its authorship, lyrics, and music, see

    1. Sandor Schuman, thanks for your comment.

      Here's an excerpt from
      ..."Bhupen Hazarika did more than anyone to internationally popularize "We're in the Same Boat Brother" (which he typically sang as "We are on the same boat, brother"). In many of the related accounts, the song is incorrectly attributed to Paul Robeson. When Bhupen Hazarika was studying at Columbia University in New York City, he knew Paul Robeson and might have learned the song from him. Paul Robeson undoubtedly knew Earl Robinson, who wrote the music for the song; Robeson recorded other Robinson songs such as Ballad for Americans and Joe Hill.


      Introductory notes: The Collected Reprints from Sing Out!: The Folk Song Magazine, Volumes 7-12, 1964-1973, pp. 110-111

      Composed originally in the waning days of World War II, this song was a popular folk-style appeal for the United Nations. Leadbelly was enthusiastic about the song and sang it constantly. The composers are a distinguished team. Earl Robinson, many of whose songs have appeared in these pages, is composer of “Joe Hill,” “Ballad for Americans,” “Lonesome Train,” “House I Live In,” “Black and White,” and scores of other works. E. Y. “Yip” Harburg is best known for the libretto to “Finian's Rainbow.” He is also author of the lyrics to the songs in the film version of “Wizard of Oz,” and lyricist for that depression classic, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” Harburg and Robinson also collaborated on “Free and Equal Blues.” "