1998 marked the centennial of Paul Robeson's birth. On April 9, 1898, an eighth child was born to Maria Luisa Bustill, the Quaker abolitionist, and William Drew, the former slave who had escaped to the north, gone to college, and become a minister. Paul was brought up to value education as much as his parents did.
Paul Robeson attended Rutgers University (he was the third black student in that school's history) in New Jersey, where he was an All-American football player and excelled in other sports as well. When he graduated, he was valedictorian of his class. He enrolled in Princeton Law School and became a lawyer, but due to the racism of that time, he had trouble finding employment.
It was this inability to move forward as a lawyer which compelled Robeson to change his life's course. Thus, he began the acting and singing career by which so many people came to love and admire him.
Robeson had a natural talent for performing and an enormously deep voice. When he appeared in the Broadway musical, Showboat, he sang a song that will always be remembered by the sound of that voice. "Ol' Man River" is now considered classic Paul Robeson. He also played the title role in three different productions of Othello, both in America and England, and in movies such as Sanders of the River, King Solomon's Mines, and The Proud Valley. He was greatly admired as an entertainer.
Robeson was deeply political. He believed in justice for all people. Even before his fame was at its peak, he traveled the world performing in benefits and speaking out for worker's rights, racial equality and peace. He fought for racial justice in America, but he also devoted his time, energy and money to groups outside the American black community. For instance, he spoke out against the Nazi's persecution of the Jews (among others) in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. Along with many other Americans, he participated in the Spanish Civil war against the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
Of all his pronounced ideologies, perhaps the most controversial was his support of communism. Despite the growing fear of communism in the United States, Robeson remained steadfast to the idea of worker's rights and even to the Soviet Union, which was at that time still attempting to establish a working communist society. It was not uncommon for people suspected of sympathizing with the Soviets to be brought before a governmental panel called the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Many artists and actors were brought before this committee. This committee declared that Robeson's outspoken support of communism was unpatriotic and accused him, for instance, of trying to set up a Soviet state in the American South. The committee was powerful: It managed to take away Robeson's passport, and to coerce other black leaders into testifying against Robeson, but no one could prove any of the ridiculous accusations.
Robeson eventually recovered his passport and was able to tour and perform again for awhile. When he became ill, he left the stage and managed to live a private life for a short time.
Although he faded from public view, his work and dedication to political causes remained active. He died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia. The courage of his convictions and his strength before adversity make Paul Robeson a hero to people around the world.
Gazette, Wednesday, May 20, 1942
Gazette music critic Thomas Archer was not one to hand out accolades thoughtlessly. So when he lauded Paul Robeson for "his supremely moving ... voice," when he praised Robeson's artistry for "its deep and affecting sincerity and, strangely enough, its wonderful restraint," we can be sure the Forum was a magical place that May evening nearly 70 years ago.
It was a benefit concert for the Quebec Committee for Allied Victory, and more than 12,000 people crowded in to hear the great American singer.
They were not disappointed.
Yet Robeson, the son of a black slave, was more than a singer. He was also a lifelong crusader for the oppressed, no matter what their colour or nationality. It was a crusade that eventually cost him his career, his health, both mental and physical, and a considerable measure of his freedom.
But that lay in the future. At the time of the Forum concert his fame was undiminished. His brief talk that evening, in which he described his travels "searching for freedom" and his sympathy for the humble and downtrodden, did not paint him as a crypto-Communist as such words would a few years later.
His program included spirituals, French and Canadian folk songs, and a Jew's longing for relief from persecution. He presented "the brave chant of the Russian soldiers of today" - there was a war on, after all - and "a song of Madrid under bombardment which he changed to a tribute to London's courage." All of it was performed for free.
Archer said the timbre of Robeson's deep voice conquered the Forum's dreadful acoustics. A bass of some distinction himself, Archer had trained in his native England and then in Montreal after emigrating here in 1919. Before becoming The Gazette's first full-time music critic in 1930, he often performed as a soloist at several downtown churches.
Robeson's 1942 visit was not his first to Montreal. A decade earlier, for example, he instantly won over a full house at His Majesty's Theatre on Guy St. with what Archer at the time called his striking personality, sense of humour and velvet-like voice. Yet it is a tribute to Archer's critical detachment that he could also call one song "disappointing" and another "adequate but not particularly exciting."
If Robeson was more than a singer, he was more than a political activist, too. He spoke 15 languages, most fluently. He was a scholarship student at Rutgers University where he starred in four different sports. He worked his way through Columbia University's law school by playing professional football. At about that time, he also began acting professionally, on the stage and eventually in films.
In 1930, he made his debut in London as Shakespeare's tormented Moor, Othello. He reprised the role in New York in 1943, and to this day no production of Shakespeare has run longer on Broadway. Later, Robeson took Othello on tour, and in Montreal in September 1944 "the packed audience" in His Majesty's was left "limp but exultant" by his "truly magnificent performance."
The campaign to isolate and discredit him took its toll. His passport was restored in 1958, but an attempt to revive his singing and acting career was chequered. In 1961 he attempted suicide and was hospitalized for weeks. Depression was said to have been the trigger, but there is evidence to suggest he had been drugged by the CIA. Questionable treatment later that year in a British hospital also seems to have undermined his stability.
By 1963 he was back in the United States, retired from public life. He issued occasional statements supporting civil rights and other causes but never performed again. While progressives continued to honour his name, he was largely forgotten by the general public.
Especially since his death in 1976, however, there has been a steadily growing recognition of the worth of his astonishing career. The words on his tombstone are apt: "The artist must fight for freedom or slavery. I made my choice. I had no alternative."