America rediscovers a forgotten hero

Ostracised under McCarthyism, singer and actor Paul Robeson is being celebrated once more, writes Tim Cornwell
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The Independent Online
IN 1957, the American actor and singer Paul Robeson, blacklisted in the United States for his Communist connections and barred from travel abroad, gave a concert for Welsh coal-miners and trades unionists - by telephone. In his rich baritone, Robeson sang four songs, and a Welsh choir sang two back.

The recording - the quality of which is surprisingly good - will be released later this year in the US and Britain on a CD called Freedom Train. It is part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate and recover Robeson's memory in the US, where it still suffers from the silent treatment of McCarthyism.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Robeson's birth on 9 April 1898. Amid the glamour of the Grammy awards last week, the US music industry quietly honoured the black singer, who died aged 77 in 1976, with a lifetime achievement award for his "outstanding artistry". A recent Robeson conference in New York has kicked off a series of events, exhibitions, and concerts.

Paul Robeson had a particular affinity with the Welsh miners. The Proud Valley, a 1939 propaganda film which cast him improbably as a stoker helping them to reopen their pits, was a favourite of his for its sympathetic depiction of working-men's lives.

His left-wing politics were acquired in Europe, where he sided with the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and met figures such as Noel Coward and Jawaharlal Nehru while studying and working in London. However, what is at stake now, say a small but determined band of Robeson scholars and admirers, is not just setting the record straight, but saving an extraordinary and complex black American figure from obscurity in his home country.

Anniversary projects include a multitude of World Wide Web sites, aimed particularly at US schoolteachers and their pupils. There was also an unsuccessful campaign for a commemorative stamp. "What he deserves is his rightful place in 20th-century American history," said Mark Rogovin, of the Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee in Chicago. "The thinking was that if serious, major, grass-roots education was not done around this great handle of the 100th birthday, in the next century he would be unknown."

Robeson's signature tune was "Old Man River", the song he performed in Showboat (1936) and whose lyrics he changed from a Broadway show tune ("I'm tired of livin' and feared of dyin' ") to an angry protest anthem ("I must keep fighting, until I'm dying"). But he also forged an extraordinary path as an athlete, left-wing intellectual and film and stage performer in an era of open racism.

The son of a runaway slave, he was a star college football player, despite being beaten by white members of his team, and graduated top of his class at an elite US university. His performance as Othello on Broadway and in London in 1944, the first time a black man was known to have taken the part, won top dramatic awards and helped make him a household name in America and Europe. He was said to have earned $100,000 a year.

But in the school textbooks on black history and potted biographies of African-American heroes available to US schoolchildren, Robeson is barely mentioned, if at all. At the height of the Cold War, with his angry and defiant appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his passport was revoked. His recordings were blacklisted. Many of his concerts were cancelled and on two occasions targeted by mobs. He denied being a Communist, but made no secret of his sympathies, accepting a peace prize from Stalin, whose atrocities he refused to condemn, and living for two years in Russia.

Works on Robeson, including his autobiography, became available only in "alternative" bookshops. "He is a quintessential genius of American life," said Paul Von Blum, a Los Angeles university professor who teaches courses on Robeson, to students he said were largely ignorant of his life story, "but his extraordinary accomplishments were obliterated."