FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Walking the Lonely Road

by RON JACOBS

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: rjacobs3625@charter.net

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

July 26, 2017
John W. Whitehead
Policing for Profit: Jeff Sessions & Co.’s Thinly Veiled Plot to Rob Us Blind
Pete Dolack
Trump’s Re-Negotiation Proposal Will Make NAFTA Worse
George Capaccio
“Beauty of Our Weapons” in the War on Yemen
Ramzy Baroud
Fear and Trepidation in Tel Aviv: Is Israel Losing the Syrian War?
John McMurtry
Brexit Counter-Revolution Still in Motion
Ted Rall
The Democrats Are A Lost Cause
Tom Gill
Is Macron Already Faltering?
Ed Kemmick
Empty Charges Erode Trust in Montana Elections
Rev. William Alberts
Fake News? Or Fake Faith?
James Heddle
The Ethics and Politics of Nuclear Waste are Being Tested in Southern California
Binoy Kampmark
Slaying in Minneapolis: Justine Damond, Shooting Cultures and Race
Jeff Berg
Jonesing for Real Change
Jesse Jackson
The ‘Voter Fraud’ Commission Itself is Fraudulent
July 25, 2017
Paul Street
A Suggestion for Bernie: On Crimes Detectable and Not
David W. Pear
Venezuela on the Edge of Civil War
John Grant
Uruguay Tells US Drug War to Take a Hike
Charles Pierson
Like Climate Change? You’ll Love the Langevin Amendment
Linda Ford
Feminism Co-opted
Andrew Stewart
Any Regrets About Not Supporting Clinton Last Summer?
Aidan O'Brien
Painting the Irish Titanic Pink
Rob Seimetz
Attitudes Towards Pets vs Attitudes Towards the Natural World
Medea Benjamin
A Global Movement to Confront Drone Warfare
Norman Solomon
When Barbara Lee Doesn’t Speak for Me
William Hawes
What Divides America From the World (and Each Other)
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
Was the “Russian Hack” an Inside Job?
Chandra Muzaffar
The Bilateral Relationship that Matters
Binoy Kampmark
John McCain: Cancer as Combatant
July 24, 2017
Patrick Cockburn
A Shameful Silence: Where is the Outrage Over the Slaughter of Civilians in Mosul?
Robert Hunziker
Extremely Nasty Climate Wake-Up
Ron Jacobs
Dylan and Woody: Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad
Dan Glazebrook
Quantitative Easing: the Most Opaque Transfer of Wealth in History
Ellen Brown
Saving Illinois: Getting More Bang for the State’s Bucks
Richard Hardigan
The Media is Misleading the Public on the Al-Asqa Mosque Situation
Matthew Stevenson
Travels in Trump’s America: Memphis, Little Rock, Fayetteville and Bentonville
Ruth Fowler
Fire at Grenfell
Ezra Kronfeld
The Rights of Sex Workers: Where is the Movement to Legalize Prostitution
Mark Weisbrot
What Venezuela Needs: Negotiation Not Regime Change
Binoy Kampmark
From Spicy to the Mooch: A Farewell to Sean Spicer
Wim Laven
Progress Report, Donald Trump: Failing
Weekend Edition
July 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Kevin Zeese
Green Party Growing Pains; Our Own Crisis of Democracy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Red State, Blue State; Green State, Deep State
Paul Street
“Inclusive Capitalism,” Nancy Pelosi, and the Dying Planet
Anthony DiMaggio
Higher Education Fallacies: What’s Behind Rising Conservative Distrust of Learning?
Andrew Levine
Why Republicans Won’t Dump Trump Anytime Soon
Michael Colby
Ben & Jerry’s Has No Clothes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail