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When we think of Paul Robeson, those of us who know his work hear that bass voice professing a melody like no other voice bass ever recorded. His voice on “Ol’ Man River” is the undercurrent of that mighty river pulling the silt across its bottom and leaving the oppressed working people along its shores behind. His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” provides a new depth to the meaning of forlorn. These songs, barely political, speak to us of the despair that has been the historical situation of the African-American since the first one was sold to the European slaver and packed into the hold of a slaving ship. They also resonate with a hope that the more fortunate often find difficult to comprehend.
Unlike some of his contemporaries that also had the white man’s ear, Paul Robeson was never afraid to share his opinion about that history of oppression and its legacy. Nor was he quiet about the oppression of his fellow colonized peoples. This naturally did not endear him to the wealthy and powerful. Of course, this was not his intention, either. Born in North Carolina of a slave father who was also a freedom fighter, Robeson did not have to go far to find reasons for his beliefs. Racial apartheid and the accompanying irrationality and brutality were part of his family’s everyday life. Even after he had made it professionally, he knew that to many people he was just another black man. On top of that, he was also a Communist in an era when being such was tantamount to being a witch in the middle ages.
Freedom Archives of San Francisco, California, recently released a CD of oratory from Robeson titled Words Like Freedom. This is the latest in the Archives series of audio and video releases recognizing the freedom struggle of black Americans. Earlier releases included a collection of conversations and speeches by and about Robert Williams and a video about the police torture of several Black Panther Party members — some of whom find themselves once again on trial for the very same crimes they were tortured by police for in the 1970s (charges that were dropped in 1975).
Robeson’s stentorian voice enhances the messages of resistance and freedom on this disc. He talks about his life, slavery, the black freedom movement, and art, among other things. The longest excerpt is from his testimony in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Unlike many others that were called before this committee and failed to stand up to its intimidation, Robeson challenges the hateful men he finds himself facing and unmasks their racist line of questions with an unequivocal statement of his belief in freedom and social justice. After a contentious go-around with the chair of the committee, a Representative from Pennsylvania, Robeson was asked: “Now, what prejudice are you talking about? You were graduated from Rutgers and you were graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I remember seeing you play football at Lehigh.” Robeson responded with a joking reminder that Lehigh beat UPenn in football while he was there.
The Senator and Robeson shared a thought or two on the subject of football and then the Senator repeated his question: “What prejudice are you talking about?” Robeson responded: “Just a moment. This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up — and here is a study from Columbia University — for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason my own success has not meant what it should mean….”
Although there is no music on this cd, the orations are like music to this ear. The depth of passion one hears on Robeson’s musical recordings is equaled in these excerpts. The people that put together this CD hope to see it enter libraries and classrooms so that it can serve not only as the study of a great man who never wavered from his principles despite the temptations of wealth and the threats of his government, but also as an inspiration to those who listen to it. Words Like Freedom is historical proof that artists and performers can be successful in the capitalist culture of the US without selling their heart or their soul.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org