Article by Mahir Ali

FOUR American folksingers are being honoured this year by the US Postal Service -- Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Josh White . All of them were associated at one time or another with People's Songs or People's Artists, progressive organisations that were directly targeted by government agencies during the period of infamy when the hysteria known as McCarthyism held the US in a vice-like grip. Yet, despite a concerted campaign that was supported by 60 members of Congress, the postal service has resisted making a similar gesture vis-a-vis Paul Robeson in the year of his birth centenary.

What is it about Robeson that continues to rile the Establishment 22 years after his demise? After all, it has been a decade since the Cold War withered away. And Robeson owed his prominence primarily to his pre-eminence as an artist -- of the stage, screen and concert hall -- rather than the controversy he inspired amid the ideological confrontation between the US and the USSR. Nor had he converted suddenly in the postwar period to the causes that earned him the lasting enmity of the authorities in his homeland; in fact, among the attributes that most irked Robeson's detractors was his consistency.

His socialist humanism and empathy of the Soviet Union were tolerated during the Popular Front period, but Robeson's insistence that fascism continued to provide the most cause for concern even after the defeat of Nazi Germany was greeted with semi-official derision accompanied by insinuations that he suffered from a deficiency in patriotic zeal. This was before the State Department branded him "the most dangerous man in the world" and took away his passport.

The proverbial last straw that unleashed a torrent of virulent abuse was Robeson's declaration at a 1949 peace conference that African-Americans would be loath to take up arms against the Soviet Union -- not least because they had far more evil demons to contend with at home: the Klu Klux Klan segregationists who were still predominant in the South, and the northerners who tolerated lynchings because, as President Harry Truman put it when Robeson led a delegation to the White House to demand action, the time was not ripe for such an initiative.

The presience of his warnings about home-grown extremism was demonstrated later that year when a frenzied mob sponsored by the KKK and assisted by the local police force succeeded in scuttling an open-air Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York. Witnesses believe that if the fascists had been able to lay their hands on the performer, he would have been lynched. Robeson was not cowed: he resolved that the concert would be held the following week -- as indeed it was, with the artist protected by a phalanx of war veterans. It was attended by 25,000 people, many of whom returned home with injuries inflicted by rocks and stones that members of the audience were bombarded with on their way home as smirking policemen stood by.

Shortly thereafter, Robeson was stripped of his passport and it became all but impossible for him to perform in his own country -- the doors of concert halls that would have been honoured to host a Robeson performance a few years previously were barred to him, if not out of conformity with the harsh ideological prerogatives of the times then through intimidation by the FBI and the Klan.

But while persecution by the State -- assisted by the media, particularly members of the Hearst chain (an editorial carried by 37 Hearst newspapers went to the extent of declaring, "It was an accident unfortunate for America that Paul Robeson was born here") -- undoubtedly impeded his artistic career in his prime, it failed to cut down the man known in Harlem as "the tallest tree in our forest". Robeson's earth-shaking bass baritone was heard in churches throughout the land; he sang to Welsh miners over the telephone and, unable to accept an invitation from Canadian workers because the US government prevented him from travelling even though all other US citizens could visit Canada without a passport, tens of thousands turned up to hear him perform at a historical concert on the US-Canadian border.

Robeson's passport was eventually returned in 1958, after he had pursued a court action to its logical conclusion, and he brought jampacked audiences at Carnegie Hall to their feet on successive nights before travelling to Britain and Europe where, despite failing health, he played the title role in Shakespeare's Othello one last time -- at Stratford-upon-Avon -- and holidayed with Nikita Krushchev in the Crimea before an extended period of rest at an East German sanitorium.

He returned to US in 1963 -- in time to savour the civil rights and subsequent Black Power movements, whose seeds he had sowed decades earlier, as well as the folk-protest revival. But ailments prevented him from participation, and he spent the final decade of his life as a virtual recluse. People from various walks of life paid tribute when Robeson died in 1976, but there was no official acknowledgement of his historic significance, let alone his tremendous courage in the face of adversity that lesser men would have found insurmountable.

But, then, Robeson had grown used to defying near-impossible odds at an early age. His academic successes (Rutgers scholarship, Phi Beta Kappa) and athletic prowess (twice member of the All-American football side, apart from basketball, baseball and track) were acquired amid pervasive racism=2E He escaped it for a while. After crossing all the preliminary hurdles, his stint as a lawyer proved short-lived: a clerk's refusal to take dictation from "a nigger" led him to conclude that conditions were inconducive to a legal career, and he veered towards the stage, winning critical acclaim -- and engaging the attention of Eugene O'Neill, who chose him to play leading roles in All God's Chillun Got Wings and, even more memorably, Emperor Jones. However, Robeson realised that his endeavour to be cast in roles that portrayed the black man with a measure of dignity was going to be an uphill struggle, and he felt he may fare better across the Atlantic, where the racial caste system was considerably subtler at the time. It was in London's West End that he appeared for the first time in Show Boat; Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II had composed Ol' Man River with Robeson in mind, and he was able to vindicate their choice with a performance that unfailingly brought the house down -- and perhaps even more so in later years when he, with Kern and Hammerstein's permission, changed the words of the song to transform it from an ode to negro indolence into a liberation hymn, from "I'm tired of livin' but afear'd of dyin'" to "I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin'".

He lived in Britain for around a decade, visiting the US occasionally for concert tours. He became the first black actor in nearly a century to be cast as Othello when he played the role on the London stage in 1930, opposite Peggy Ashcroft -- after having read virtually everything ever written by Shakespeare, perfecting his diction, and concluding that in Venice the Moor faced a range of prejudices similar to those that confronted non-whites in the US. However, even in Britain he found it difficult to make films that sufficiently upheld black dignity, and a dramatically more politicised Robeson returned home early in Popular Front years, having visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1934 at the invitation of Sergei Eisenstein, and having sung to members of the International Brigades combating fascism in Spain.

His handsome visage was, at the time, unquestionably the best known black face on the globe. During his sojourn in Britain, Robeson had befriended leaders of independence movements in Asia and Africa such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Jomo Kenyatta, and his instinctive anti-colonialism had been strengthened. (When the State Department cancelled his passport, the chief cause cited officially was his support for African liberation.) He returned to America also with an expanded repertoire: although his initial prominence as a singer was based essentially on his renditions of negro spirituals, a typical Robeson recital in the early Forties also incorporated Yiddish, African, Russian and even Chinese folksongs (he was fluent in 20 languages), as well as pieces by Beethoven and Mussorgsky. His recording of Earl Robinson's groundbreaking art song Ballad for Americans, proved unprecedentedly popular and, despite its radical underpinnings, was adopted by the Republican Party national convention in 1942 as its theme song.

As a bass baritone, Robeson's vocal range was limited ("It certainly is an honour to be working with Mr Robeson," declared Count Basie after a 1940 recording session for a song paying tribute to boxing champion Joe Louis, "but the man certainly can't sing the blues."), but within that range he was unapproachable, as well as unreproachable. "When he sings," wroted a noted English music critic in 1958, "I hear the unsullied expression of the human spirit."

That was the spirit that the McCarthyists tried to crush, only to have Robeson bellow at them, "YOU are the un-Americans!" When a congressional inquisitor asked why he did not go and live in the USSR, Robeson thundered: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stand here and have a part of it just like you."

Many years later when, shortly before his death, Harry Belafonte asked him whether it had all been worth it, he responded: "Harry, make no mistake: there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn't worth it. Although we may not have achieved all the victories we set for ourselves -- may not have achieved all the victories and all the goals we set for ourselves -- beyond the victory itself, infinitely more important, was the journey=2E"

It was an arduous journey, embarked upon in circumstances that are now difficult to understand in their entirety. It was never possible convincingly to dismiss Robeson as a communist dupe -- although the American establishment tried its best -- because he was demonstrably much too intelligent. It is easy to understand why he was attracted by certain aspects of the Soviet experiment -- and hard to believe that he was altogether unable to perceive the reality behind the Stalinist facade; even so, it must have been inconceivable for him to say anything that could have served the propaganda purposes of the American Right.

It is no coincidence that most celebrations around the world marking Robeson's 100th birthday have been organised or sponsored by trade unions. Because he stood, above all, for the rights and dignity of workingpeople of all races, and his magnificent voice was raised against discrimination -- economic, cultural, racial -- wherever he found it. He also stood head and shoulders above not only all of his detractors but also most of his contemporaries. Featuring him on a postage stamp would be a greater honour for the US Postal Service than for Robeson. It is likely that in time history will properly acknowledge the role his towering personality played in raising the consciousness of African-Americans -- reminding them of their political and economic rights as well as their cultural heritage.

But it is worth remembering that his legacy knows no borders. It was summed up inimitably by the Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda:

Because you sing
they know that the sea exists
and the sea sings.
They know that the sea
is free, wide and full of flowers
as your voice, my brother.
The sun is ours.
The earth will be ours.
Tower of the sea,
you will go on singing.