LIVING TIMELINE: PAUL ROBESON Mural by Art Bloc DC on the exterior wall of 1351 U Street, NW, Washington DC, June 21, 2015, captured by Elvert Barnes Photography (Flickr)
It was reported in his New York Times obituary that Paul Robeson became a “virtual recluse” by the time of his death on January 23, 1976. He was living in his sister’s home in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, completely retired from public life. From a pinnacle of roughly $100,000 per year in the early-1940s, Robeson’s income had dwindled by the mid-1950s to a few thousand dollars, largely a consequence of his U.S. passport being revoked. Though his finances rebounded some by the 1960s, Robeson never regained the domestic celebrity status he once enjoyed.
This African American History Month we should analyze the context of Robeson’s forced marginalization, as well as the marginalization of the Communist-led left. The two are interconnected.
As Gerald Horne notes in his biography of Robeson, “you cannot fully appreciate how the Jim Crow system came to an end without an understanding of the life of Paul Robeson.” Similarly, to appreciate Robeson’s stratospheric rise and his cataclysmic fall we should view his life through the lens of his principled affinity for the Communist-led left during a time of right-wing hysteria.
As the late-1940s Red Scare ascended, the U.S. government’s repressive apparatus focused laser-like on those unwilling to acquiesce to anti-communism. Robeson not only supported and funded Communist-led organizations, such as the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the Council on African Affairs (CAA), he also challenged Western capitalist hegemony by vocally lending support to the Soviet Union, the only place where he “felt like a human being” – treasonous remarks from Washington’s vantage point.
After the 1948 indictment of the Communist Party, USA’s top leadership, Robeson became co-chair of the National Non-Partisan Committee to Defend the Rights of the Twelve Communist Leaders. By 1950, Robeson’s passport was revoked; he was surveilled incessantly. Unable to travel abroad…