So we're at 50th and Walnut, almost there, when I see a rowhouse covered in scaffolding. This is somewhat unusual in West Philly, at least past 49th street; you don't see a lot of extensive home renovations going on. I look closer, notice a sign in front, and learn that this unassuming little rowhouse in my neighborhood was the final home of Paul Robeson.
I've long loved Paul Robeson. I was into musicals as a kid, and grew up knowing the story of him re-writing the lyrics to "Ol' Man River," and listening to him sing all sorts of lovely old worker's songs. Being a precocious little leftie, I'd try hard to sing along with him to "Joe Hill," although my baritone was never a match for him. Today I still tend to sing "Joe Hill" at a rather ponderously slow tempo, thanks to that early recording. Robeson seemed just so perfect: an activist, an artist, an athlete, and fiercely committed to his unpopular politics.
That was all before I became a musicologist though, let alone writing a dissertation on music and McCarthyism. I still rather admire the man, but it is a pensive sort of admiration. He didn't end up as much of a presence in my dissertation, but for my chapter on R&B vocal groups, I spent some time going through the NAACP administrative papers kept at the Library of Congress, and being the sort of person who is easily distracted in the archives, I read through the exchange between him and his old friend Walter White, the head of the NAACP in 1949. This was the year when Robeson famously told an audience in Paris that if the United States and the Soviet Union ever went to war, African Americans would never fight. This was at the height of the new post-WWII tensions with the Soviet Union, and his remarks caused a huge furor. The House Un-American Activities Committee convened a special hearing on "Minority Groups", and quizzed a number of prominent African Americans to see if Robeson was right. Jackie Robinson was the star witness, and he and everyone else--including a letter from not-yet-President Eisenhower--declared they would gladly fight for their country, despite inequalities at home.
Ironically, I think Robeson's comments were ultimately good for Walter White's NAACP. Robeson had indeed played into the hands of segregationists who wanted to make an explicit link between civil rights and communism, but in doing so, it gave White the chance to explicitly renounce Robeson, which he did loudly and widely, while also pointing out that the sort of inequalities Robeson was reacting to were a real problem for the United States in its foreign diplomacy: how could it criticize the Soviet Union for its lack of freedom when there was widespread disenfranchisement at home?
What makes me pensive:
1. White and Robeson were old friends, and despite their political differences--the Stalinist and the Liberal--I think White really admired Robeson for standing up to his principles. Just two years later he had written to Robeson's wife Essie:
As a preface let me say that even though Paul and I have not seen eye to eye on some points—political and strategic—during recent years, I have had much more respect for him in that he has spoken out frankly about his views instead of wiggling and wobbling as so many other people do who favor Communism but take to cover when the going gets hot.
I don't envy White's position. Yes, he was trying to play both sides of the issue: although publicly he defended Robeson's right to perform and speak, he privately discouraged local NAACP chapters from inviting him to do so. But that's part of leading an organization. It's not just trying to please everyone, it's also trying to be fair to as many consituitencies as possible, and trying to do what you can to keep things going in difficult times. If White hadn't negotiated McCarthyism as adroitly as he did, would we still have had Brown v. Board of Education in 1954?
2. Anyone involved in left history runs into this, but the period after World War II was such a disheartening moment. Not the persecution at home--that sort of thing makes a good leftie feel pleasantly righteous--but the sinking feeling everyone had that perhaps they were being lead astray by the Soviet Union. It was a hardy bunch who had stayed with the Party through the demise of the popular front, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, and the beginning of the Cold War. Thousands left the party, either for a determined apoliticism or an unpleasant neo-conservatism. Those few left were the true believers, and believers are a rare thing in our country.
The end of Robeson's life was not the happiest with the ill health, the mysterious suicide attempt, the changing face of the American left. The neighborhood were he died went through some extremely rough times, and he lived to see firsthand what happened to urban African American communities after the civil rights movement; it was happening right outside his window. Today the neighborhood is having something of a "resurgence," at least as measured in terms of property values, and the city of Philadelphia regularly makes various sorts of proclamations of Paul Robeson days, Paul Robeson schools, etc. But it's a hollow sort of remembrance, and the one thing nobody seems to proclaim was his musical abilities, that lovely bass voice. What many remember today was the persecution--the denied passport, and attempted lynching by the American Legion. And so that persecution gets tucked safely away in the past, and Robeson is remembered as a simple, martyred, hero.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead,"
"I never died," says he
"I never died," says he.