Robeson Revised

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 22 1998 7:57 PM

Robeson Revised

A friend of Culturebox's--Jonathan Mahler, editorial page editor at the Jewish weekly Forward--wishes to note the following for the record:

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This year Paul Robeson would have turned 100, which makes it the year we celebrate him in conferences, film festivals, books, reissues of concert performances -- even an unsuccessful campaign to create a Paul Robeson stamp. Robeson posthumously won a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys. In November, he'll be honored at Carnegie Hall.

A typical quote from the ongoing encomium: "[W]hat made Robeson controversial was his willingness to step outside the frame which usually contains the works of artists and his status as an artist to advance a complex program of civil and human rights changes around the world and in the United States." (Jeffrey Stewart, curator of a Robeson exhibit at Rutgers, his alma mater.)

That's not all that made Robeson controversial, though, and a coalition of the far right and far left has emerged to drive that point home. From a recent cover story in Political Affairs, the journal of America's Communist Party: "As the centennial celebrations are taking place today, many are shamelessly going out of their way to distance Robeson from his Party. Unfortunately, if these lies go unanswered, Paul's legacy will be at war with the life he actually lived. We cannot allow the ruling class to praise him, in order to tear him down. We cannot allow them to turn Robeson into an ordinary liberal. The real Paul Robeson was no liberal -- he was a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, a Communist, a 20th century giant." (Jarvis Tyner, a vice chairman of the Communist Party.)

The American Spectator couldn't agree more. In its July issue, author Stephen Schwartz writes that the Robeson commemorations is the latest attempt to sell the American people a "falsified" and "upside-down" version of their history.

Whatever the real version of that history would look like, one thing we know: Robeson's commitment to communism was not good for the Jews. When Robeson visited Moscow during the anti-Jewish purges, Stalin released the Yiddish poet Itzak Feffer from a labor camp and had him cleaned up to see Robeson. As the two men sat in Robeson's bugged hotel room, Feffer gestured emphatically to Robeson and scribbled him notes in a desperate attempt to convey the fact that he and numerous other prominent Jewish cultural figures were going to be executed imminently. Robeson got the point. Still, when he returned to the United States, he continued to preach support for Stalin and denied that he had witnessed any anti-Semitism while in Moscow. Only after Robeson's death did his son finally reveal the truth.

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