A Supreme Symbol of Hope: The Life of Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson was born in 1898, the son of a pastor who had grown up in slavery. His was to be an extraordinary life, as Robeson employed his gifts as an athlete, actor, thinker, and electrifying singer. He broke ground for Black Americans, resisted the violence of White supremacy, and defied political persecution by the U.S. government. For several decades, Robeson’s charisma and deeply affecting basso profundo voice made him one of the most famous people in the world, a position he used to promote racial justice, left solidarity, and international human rights. This excerpt of text and comic panels from Ballad of an American: a Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson (Rutgers University Press, 2020) highlights one of many times when the hugely popular Robeson moved the public toward action and their better selves. In “Ballad for Americans,” a song that expressed the values of the anti-fascist Popular Front cultural movement of the 1930s, Robeson sang as the voice of the American “everyone.” His message was a compelling call for unity based on justice and equality.
Paul Robeson was not only living proof of racial equality, but something still difficult for scholars today to grasp or even define. Within the leftist world of greater New York and cities beyond, he reigned as a supreme symbol of hope. A Robeson performance at Carnegie Hall, at a lesser concert venue, or at a union hall created memories shared 60 years later by the now-elderly whose parents had taken them to the show. A YouTube clip from the film Showboat, with Robeson singing “Old Man River” against a background of Black life in the South, offers a glimpse of the Robeson charisma, as do the audio recordings of his songs. His use of African American spirituals established them as a legitimate, important part of national folklore.
The ideal of a racial egalitarianism was central to the progressive visions of a better society. Americans might not yet be ready to replace the profit system—so the thinking went—but significant numbers had chosen a dramatically improved democratic path out of a deeply racist past. The need for unity against anti-Semitism at home and abroad reinforced a particular Popular Front message and validated a Jewish-American identity in which, for tens of thousands, Robeson was larger than life.
It is nearly impossible to summon up today memories of the liberal movement as it existed in the United States during the Second World War, with its mass anti-fascist rallies held across the country, labor’s political action committee, which was crucial to reelecting FDR in 1944, and communists in positions of high if short-lived respectability. Vice President Henry Wallace, for whom Robeson would campaign vigorously in 1948 [when Wallace was the left-wing Progressive party’s presidential nominee], was until the end of the war said to be the second-most popular political figure in the nation. “Ballad for Americans,” the Robeson version, was heard on every radio, running equally (at least until 1946) with Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America.”
Excerpt from Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson by Sharon Rudahl, edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware (Rutgers University Press, 2020) appears with permission from the publisher.
Sharon Rudahl marched with Martin Luther King as a teenager and began her career as a cartoonist with anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She was one of the founders of the 1970s-era feminist Wimmen’s Comix. Rudahl has participated in scores of publications and exhibitions in dozens of countries over the last 50 years. She is best known for her graphic biography, Emma Goldman: A Dangerous Woman. Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware. Paul Buhle is a retired senior lecturer at Brown University, is the authorized biographer of Pan African giant C.L.R. James and has written or edited many books on the Left in the U.S. and the Caribbean. He has, in recent years, devoted himself to nonfiction graphic novels, including those on Emma Goldman, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Eugene V. Debs. Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and co-director of Oklahoma State University’s Center for Africana Studies. He writes widely on race and culture for The Root, Slate, and The New York Times. He has been a commentator on race and politics for Huffington Post Live, National Public Radio, and Public Radio International.