Page One

Oakland Celebrates 110th Birthday of Paul Robeson

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday April 15, 2008

In the 400 years since the first slavery ships docked on the Virginia coast, the African-American Freedom Movement has raised up a continuing series of larger-than-life leaders—Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X. But arguably the most talented of that group, but perhaps the least appreciated, remembered, or studied, is the man whose 110th birthday anniversary is being celebrated this month—Paul Robeson. 

In honor of that anniversary, the City of Oakland is hosting a month-long exhibit in the rotunda of City Hall, featuring memorabilia from the diverse aspects of Robeson’s public life. 

The exhibit was developed by the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee, which is looking for a permanent home for these artifacts. 

Included are photographs, facsimiles of album covers and theater playbills, and excerpts from Robeson speeches and letters. 

Last week, on Robeson’s April 9 birthday anniversary, the City of Oakland sponsored a two-hour reception and Robeson tribute in the rotunda, including speeches and performances by Tayo Aluko, a British actor currently touring America performing a one-man play called Call Mr. Robeson, and Vukani Mawethu, a locally based multi-racial choir specializing in South African freedom songs. 

In his speech to the gathering, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums called Robeson a “brilliant, incredible human being.” Clarence Thomas, a leader in the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said that Robeson “paved the way for people like Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, who continue to protest in spite of their celebrity.” 

The son of a minister who escaped from Southern slavery into New Jersey, Robeson began his public career in 1917 and 1918 as a football star at Rutgers College. Thirty years before Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in Major League Baseball, only 50 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, in a time when African-American athletes in white institutions were a distinct rarity, when the Ku Klux Klan marched openly down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and when Southern lynchings of black citizens were common, Robeson won All-American honors, as well as 15 varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. 

But his greatest early fame came in the area of entertainment. 

The 1920s was the tail-end of America’s minstrel show era, in which African-Americans were portrayed as lip-smacking, eye-rolling, chicken-eating buffoons. Into this era came the immensely dignified Robeson, who dominated the areas of singing and acting for the next 20 years in a combination that no other American performer has ever matched.  

He was an accomplished stage actor—the first African-American to play Shakespeare’s Othello—and appeared in 11 feature films, several of them in starring roles. At 296 performances, his 1943-44 Othello was the longest-running Shakesperian production in the history of Broadway. But it was in the area of singing that Robeson showed his greatest talents. An almost stereotypical baritone, Robeson brought negro spiritual music out of the churches and shouting halls and into the concert halls, and his rendition of the song “Ol’ Man River” in the 1920s musical Showboat—later saved for posterity in the 1936 movie—is one of the greatest single musical performances in American history. 

One of the artifacts in the Oakland City Hall exhibit shows the transition of Robeson from entertainer to Freedom Movement leader. 

Reproduced is the original Oscar Hammerstein score for “Ol’ Man River,” including the following lines: “Niggers all work on de Mississippi, niggers all work while de white folks play.” Robeson sang those words in his original 1928 Showboat performance, but later objected, refusing to include them in his recorded versions, and “niggers” was eventually changed to “darkies” and then to “colored folks.” By the time Motown’s Temptations made the song as part of their 1960s performances, race was scrubbed entirely, with the group singing “Here we all work, while the rich folks play.” 

But more important, Robeson eventually changed the African-American attitude in the song from dismissive to defiant. 

Among Hammerstein’s original words are “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail...” and the powerful closing lament “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’.” In his later performances, Robeson pointedly changed “git a little drunk” to “show a little grit,” and transformed the whole weary, dispirited passage to “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’.” 

The changes were no accident or aberration. 

Beginning in the late 1920s, Robeson became active in both the African-American freedom movement and the world labor movement, lending his presence and the power of his performance to both causes. In the midst of the Depression, fighting for progressive and radical causes drew little attention in America—there was so much of it going around—but a 1937 Robeson concert tour in the Soviet Union did. 

By 1941—in actions that prefaced the 1960s-1970s FBI “Cointelpro” program that isolated and, in some cases, eliminated African-American leaders—FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover had labeled Robeson a subversive, and had begun a campaign to discredit Robeson and remove him as an influential national and international figure. 

Ironically, Robeson was being attacked by the United States government for making friendly contact with the Soviet Union at the same time the United States government was allying itself with the Soviet Union in the war effort against Nazi Germany. 

Robeson fought back. 

In the two decades between the 1940s and the 1950s when his concerts were being canceled and he was put on the “blacklist”—the unofficial list of “radical” and “subversive” entertainers whose careers the FBI and many Congressional leaders attempted to end—Robeson turned his attention to singing almost exclusively for labor and African-American freedom causes. 

One of the photographs in the Oakland City Hall exhibit shows a 1942 singing performance to shipyard workers on the Port of Oakland docks. Robeson also gave several concerts at UC Berkeley. 

Tucked away in the Oakland City Hall exhibit is a small item, easily overlooked, which shows one of Robeson’s most important actions. The item is a reproduction of the “We Charge Genocide” petition delivered by Robeson to the United Nations in 1951, in which the United States is charged with the systematic genocide of its African-American citizens. The petition brought worldwide attention to the condition of African-Americans in a way that had not occurred since the abolitionist movement of the slavery era 100 years before, and predated by a decade the international attention to the black Cause that accompanied the civil rights movement. The editor of the pamphlet that accompanied the petition was William L. Patterson, an African-American UC Berkeley graduate whose family settled in Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area. 

The Paul Robeson exhibit in the Oakland City Hall rotunda continues through April 30.