Memories of Paul
by Douglas Turner Ward
Mine was the first generation to come to maturity after World War 11, also the first draftable to fight the Korean War…Paul Robeson would influence our lives.
I first saw and heard Paul in 1948 at a huge stadium rally in Detroit during the Progressive Party’s Presidential campaign for Henry Wallace. If memory serves, I had taken a bus from Ann Arbor where I was in the process of dropping out of the University of Michigan. If memory is faulty, I was already in the Big D after flunking out…Anyway, there is no doubt about the thrilling excitement of Paul Robeson’s presence.
Earlier as a youth growing up on New Orleans, LA, I was aware of Robeson merely as a world-famous singer, and being a dedicated athlete myself, acquainted with his legendary career as a great all-around sports star, especially his gridiron exploits which had earned him laurels as a two-time Walter Camp All American. But it wasn’t long before my peers and I were looking towards Paul as the model – antithesis grinning, dark skin movie buffoons causing us to grit out teeth while they cut the fool up on the Big Screen.
But let me interject here to counteract a current day revisionist notion afloat, that we who objected to the odious stereotypes foisted upon us were not some hincty bourgeoisfied Negroes flinching from what was perfectly acceptable to mass black taste. To the contrary, we were the sons and daughters of hard, working-class parents. Particularly, we were early-to- mid-age teens sitting in the peanut-gallery balconies of segregated movie houses, instinctively aware that the Stephin Fetchit antics served up by white folks for their own hilarity and our base defilement were truly offensive to our desire to be depicted humanely. Our spontaneous derision spurred us to hurl popcorn and spittle down from our protected aeries above onto exposed heads of whites attending below. A most memorable object of our Screen contempt and hurtful to our ears was listening to the high pitched screeching of Butterfly McQueen… “Miss Scarletting” through Gone with the Wind (1939)…Only to be topped by hoot-calls shouted at the burly black servant rescuing his mistress from drunken, carousing Negro Carpetbaggers in the same film. (Down South it was no laughing matter to witness the lynching beast aroused by scenes of lily-white besmirchment.)
More specifically, we were Second World War African-American youngsters being shaped by a juncture of history that revealed the contradictions of our un-freeness at home as our fathers, brothers and uncles were CeeBee constructing and Red Ball Express trucking, fighting and dying abroad to protect our country for freedom and democracy. In essence when attitudes, images and representations were subject to overt challenge and contestation; contrasted to our present time where illusions of immunity from harm of misrepresentation along with a ‘post-modern’ acceptability of offensive disparagement proliferate. All the while racist power structures are as much in control of our lives as ever before.
(Back then it was humorists and comedians like Pigmeat Markham, Moms Mabley, Dusty Baker and a young Red Foxx on the all-black circuit, who were truly liberating; addressing their brother/sister constituency unflinchly, never shirking the cathartic, bracing comic effects of subversive exaggeration, parody, satire, self-mockery and no-holds barred self-criticism…a much different can of peas that gratuitous self-degradation and pandering to the insistensies of majority-derived carractures.)
Following the devastating wake of the Depression, my generation was lucky to tip into teenagehood parallel to the United States’ entry into World War 11. It assured that our puberty would be supported by the stable employment of our fathers and mothers and allotment checks from our brothers and uncles. It wasn’t class status bolstering our attitudes, but economic security.
Despite all the efforts of powers-that-be to maintain the status-quo, docility was not acceptable to us. The war ended as we were graduating from high school. We were primed to be intransigent about our rights.
Our ranks swelled with the return of slightly older peers discharged in droves from the Armed Services. They were even less willing to put up with any waste matter. The Establishment, especially of the South, was determined to continue where it had left off before the war. Fresh conflict was inevitable.
We wartime beneficiaries first-in – family graduates from High School flocked into college, joined by our subsidized GI-Bill-of Rights veterans. A cadre of non- bourgeois blacks was being educationally equipped. Subsequentially, a majority may have settled into the safe niches of societal advancement, but a significant number became radicalized, both through struggle and intellectual stimulus…To the latter Paul Robeson was exemplar non-pariel.
My main goal in entering college centered primarily on athletics. Even with my knowledge of Paul Robeson’s stellar accomplishments, it was the Midwest Big Ten Conference that occupied my focus. Buddy Young at Illinois, George Taliaferro of Indiana, et al. Only UCLA where Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson had cavorted out West could compete. However the University of Michigan stood above all. As early as the mid thirties Michigan had featured a black football star and just recently had produced had produced the All-American Guard Julius Franks. It was there where I wished to excel. After a one-year detour at Wilberforce University in Ohio, I realized my dream and enrolled, determined to emulate my football predecessors. (Incidentally, it was at all-black Wilberforce where my knowledge of Paul Robeson deepened. Wilberforce, almost unknown for the time, offered courses in Negro History…in itself not so surprising since Dr. Charles Wesley, a leading historian and disciple of the great Carter Woodson, was the school’s President.)
Only 17- years old I found myself at the University of Michigan as a walk-on candidate for the freshman football squad during a season when the varsity led by black All-Americans Len Ford and Bobby Mann with Gene Derricotting as backup halfback, would go undefeated and win the National Championship. Another African-American, National Champion shot-putter Chuck——, captained the track squad.
Quickly, my stint on the freshman team revealed my terminal athletic limitations, and almost as rapidly, my naïve illusions about Michigan’s non-segregated purity in athletics were shattered. It became clear that (more accurately, only blacks with super bluechip abilities) were welcome on the football and track teams, but needed not apply for basketball team membership or possible places on other less high-profile sports squads.
Racism, evident in many other areas of campus life, combined with segregation throughout the surrounding city of Ann Arbor, heightened my disillusionment. But as my disenchantment advanced, my politization increased. My southern conditioning made me a ripe candidate for radicalization. Civil rights activism and contact with campus Marxists, outside black trade unionists and African-American left-wing political leaders from Detroit contributed to my education and enlightened me about social issues and world affairs. Before the first semester I was scrapping my athletic ambitions and becoming persuaded that that further stay in academia was useless. The advent of the Progressive Party’s presidential campaign further convinced me that my interests lay elsewheres. By the time I was hearing Robeson in Detroit, I had already decided to quit college and travel closer to the action…That meant New York.
It is hard to describe the euphoria of the Wallace-for- President Campaign compared with the pallid Third Party efforts ever after. Then, almost to the end, victory seemed possible or at least a massive showing that would entrench an Alternative Political Presence upon the American body politic forever. This expectation was rudely squelched when Truman eked out his victory over Dewey; only consolation being that Truman had been pressured by the Progressive Party threat to co-opt important elements of its civil rights platform as his own. A tactic which siphoned off support from Wallace and by election day Truman had garnered almost a unanimous vote from the African- American electorate. This vote proved decisive in a contest fought out between a wide range of candidate and philosophies, from Dexiecrats to Progressives…But this denouement lay ahead, when I arrived in Harlem that summer of ’48.
One stroll down 125th Street confirmed to me that Harlem was indeed the Capitol of black America; and I doubt if there was any other place where Paul Robeson was revered more. In addition, Harlem electorally, had an established record backing candidates of radical political pedigrees…maverick Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Communists Councilman Ben Davis, American Labor Party Vito Marcantonio and others.
Parading through Harlem streets in the Youth-for-Wallace brigades was like a great big festive holiday. Where ever Paul Robeson appeared, he was cheered wildly. Campaigning within uptown boundaries, being greeted with such ecstatic acceptance, deceived us about the depth of commitment to the Progressive Party and the size of the vote to be expected on election day in November….For me on a more personal level, as much as political engagement was exhilarating, the total panorama of Harlem life was even more transfixing to my newly-arrived eyes and invigorating to my sensuous sensibilities. Especially the music. To me, an ardent bebopper, it was paradise.
I was too young and inexperienced to anticipate the surprising revelation that pragmatism often impels the Afro-Electorate to abandon candidates they most admire in favor of those whom they rate to have a real chance of winning.
Truman’s victory shocked us back to earth.
Little did we realize that the Wallace challenge would be the peak point of Left Wing optimism for decades to come; that Reaction would pick up momentum and push progressivism more and more to the margins, making Paul an immediate target in their bullseye sight…Early in 1949 a Robeson speech in Paris had brought down the wrath of the Cold War high command. More precisely, it would provide the occasion for it cynically to craft a campaign designed to stifle Paul’s voice and damage his creditability, deflate his lofty standing among his people. However, instead of silencing or intimidating Paul, it aroused him to stronger defiance.
Apart from mainstream black leaders who were armtwisted into denouncing Paul, residents of Harlem were supportive. They saw through the cold warriors’ script. Needing help, Reaction drafted Jackie Robinson as star witness to Counter Paul and bestow legitimacy upon itself. ..For an umpteenth repeat we were treated to the sorry/sad spectacle of a compliant black seduced or pressured into doing the dirty work of established power; enlisted to subvert the views of a more uncooperative figure, slavishly parroting the orders of an officialdom proverably inimical to black interests. Usually, the credentials of such puppets rest solely on the fact that they are also black.
An added twist to Jackie Robinson vs. Paul Robeson was the pitting of great athletes from epoch against another from a different period. Only the pattern was reversed: it was the conformist youngster used to cut the radical elder down to size. So much for the notion that rebelliousness is an exclusive property of the young.
The Un-American Activities Committee’s ploy didn’t work. It played well in Peoria but flopped in Harlem. The patent transparency of such Uncle Tom ventriloquism was so obvious that it cancelled out whatever critical testimony Jackie Robinson offered against racism and left him stripped of his heroic mantel. Reactionary manipulators whose positive record of Civil Rights couldn’t fit the size of a fingerprint had hoped to piggyback upon the enormous esteem Jackie Robinson had reaped by his pioneering Major League baseball breakthrough and brilliant on-the-field achievements…But the effort failed. Harlem was furious. Despite media distortions of Paul’s Paris thesis, African- Americans agreed with its essence. Like many decades later when another great black athlete would proclaim pithily: “I don’t have nothing against them Viet Cong”, Paul’s earlier comment echoed similar sentiments. Abjuring the trappings of official jingoistic patriotism, he merely asserted the priority of one’s own fight for freedom and the determination to first and foremost achieve it at home. The gist of this is what really incensed the cold warriors.
Blacks sensed the truth intuitively. They didn’t fault Paul for distorted interpretations trumpeted by the press and even more generously, gave Jackie Robinson the benefit of the doubt. They understood his precarious vulnerability. They criticized him for allowing himself to be used, but they didn’t abandon him. He was not rejected, just regretted…Paul was just as giving as he refused to be drawn into any argument with or about Robinson.
Among youths of radical persuasions, we were not so forgiving. It took a long time to view the episode with kinder objectivity. Our mood grew angrier when the crucifixion of Paul Robeson escalated, climaxing at Peekskill.
I was not at Peekskill but assisted at a command post on 125th Street, helping out every way possible to aid Paul and those trapped with him as news filtered back from the beleaguered site. One impressible memory remains of a conference at that Harlem headquarters devoted to finding a way to dissuade the Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson from sending his henchmen up to Peekskill “to get Paul out of there…”
The anti-communist hysteria that triggered the Peekskill atrocity outraged Black America and elicited more sympathy for Paul than his persecutors could imagine. Even Ralph Bunche of United Nations’ fame was active behind-the-scenes in attempting to protect Paul that infamous night.
Peekskill, if not a conscious plot, was no accident. It was the enviable result of US cold-war strategy and its demonization of Paul. While the American Communist Party was selected as the main organization to bear the brunt of cold-war assault; no individual was pilloried more than Robeson. Yet, we marveled, the more embattled he became the more combative his response. Like a magnificent counterpuncher he returned blow for blow. Excepting those black leaders whose self-complicity wedded them to the System, admiration for Paul among the black mass majority never faltered. Even more timid souls in the community shook their heads while complimenting him with “he’s a better man than me…” Amid black youths the attitude remained more consensus pugnacious.
Before long Korea would transform the US propaganda offensive into involvement in an actual shooting war. The stakes for dissent were upped. Dissidence could get you incarcerated… Thus, my own fate.
Less than one month past my 21st birthday I was arrested and whisked away South in chains, indicted on a phony Draft charge…Now I really needed Paul in the worst way. Not literally, but to bolster my stamina and boost up my morale. Only a giant would do. Despite my youthful revolutionary bravado, I had not suffered any real personal hardship to prepare me for my sudden non-theoretical tribulations. When reality dawned, imagining how Paul managed to endure was invoked to help calm my churning apprehensions. Shortly I would even share a form of the gulag he was sentenced to experience by his passport seizure. My boundary would enclose slightly more prosaically since I wound up confined to a tri-state radius comprising the federal district crossing through Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
My two year enforced stay in New Orleans was wracked by a constant nightmarish fear that at any moment I was liable to punishment anew under hastily-passed draconian Louisiana anti-communist statutes that demanded mandatory 20- year jail sentences! I was in jeopardy by just being in the state!.. Against my will!..Through no choice of my own!
Earlier, before I had disappeared behind the Pelican curtain, Paul Robeson, through his weekly journal Freedom, had publicized my case through an interview by Lorraine Hansberry, recorded during what turned out to be my final trip to New York before magnolia exile. The article would serve as my last public statement for a long time. Until a year so ago I also was ignorant of the fact that Paul had made
a lengthy (to me) mention of my plight at a public rally back then. I came upon the quote in a published collection of his speeches. I could not have been more thrilled; or cherish a mention more.
My original contact with Paul with Paul Robeson had been mainly a few inclusions in the squadron brought together to escort and protect him during public rallies. It was only after I became friend and associate with Paul Jr. and Marilyn Robeson that I saw Paul Sr. up close socially. At their Harlem apartment on 128th Street off Convent he was just another doting grandfather playing with his newborn grandchild. In conversation he was warm, affable, unpretentious, considerate and did everything possible to put you at ease. He was almost lifesize. But the truth was fleeting. I could never shake my awe of him. To me he would always mesmerize back into monumentality. The formidability of his impression upon me refused to relieve my reticence, break down my reserve. No matter what, I was unable to relax. Part of my inhibition, of course, was traditional…we were not of the same generation, respectful deference was warranted. But most of my unease was just plain hero-paralysis. This was neither his wish or intent. In our current time of fierce self-promotion and egregious public-image inflation, it is a wonder to remember how naturally Robeson attracted worship and adulation without striving to induce it.
Paul was the embodiment of charisma before the word gained currency. In all my years since, I have never witnessed again the hold Paul held over audiences even before he was speaking…Even consummate great orators like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could never duplicate Paul’s spell-of-anticipation overran audience. It was as if the entire assemblage held its collective breath waiting in suspense for his first word. As his inhalation signaled the onset of a sound emitting, a universal relieved gasping sigh would escape from the crowd. Paul couldn’t even utter his “Well” before the house would erupt with applause…It wasn’t just the voice, in all its marvelous, splendid luster, but the promise behind the voice, the anticipation of honesty, sincerity, passion, sympathy, intelligenceand meaningful content.
In 1953 I returned to New York. A no-comment unanimous Supreme Court decision threw out my bogus 3-year jailterm Draft conviction. Freed of my two-year out-on- bail hiatus I left New Orleans a little older, warier, and more seasoned but no less determined in commitment.
Compared to my entry in ’48, New York was more somber. The Rosenbergs has just been given their final rejection by the Supreme Court and were scheduled to be electrocuted within weeks. Ironically, this judgment had been delivered along with the same batch of Court rulings, one of which had exonerated me. I had learned of my good fortune an early Sunday morning before hearing about the other decisions. My elation, shared with my overjoyed and relieved parents was shortlived upon the news about the Rosenbergs. Though conflicted I gladly would have sought an opposite resolution of our two cases. Three years in prison for me in exchange for their lives was a bargain I would have made without regret.
The Rosenberg case highlighted so many different issues relating to America’s postwar hegemony and ethos, nationally and internationally. The crusade to prevent the Rosenbergs from being sacrificed captured world attention and global support. Once more Paul was in the forefront. His voice took on greater passion and urgency as he counseled us to understand that injustice done to the Rosenbergs eclipsed all other injustices, including his own victimization.
The fight to save the Rosenbergs failed and Reaction followed up with only slightly horrific agonies. Paul’s defiance continued without cease. His efforts to maintain an artistic presence, despite a virtually complete lockout from all mainstream concert and performance venues, pioneered the search for alternative outlets of creative expressions.
It was during one such appearance of his at the Renaissance Casino in Harlem that I had a spontaneous, untutored intuition about the vacuum suffered by Paul’s exclusion from the one art form which could have given full use of his multiple gifts. Paul sang and acted an excerpt from Mussoursky’s opera Boris Goudonov. Although I was totally ignorant about and previously uninterested in opera, the stunning force, beauty and impact of his rendition, combined with the depth of his emotional interpretation convinced me that opera was indeed the perfect medium combining his multitudinous endowments for harmonious expression in a single art form. Many decades later, having been trained and experience myself in theatre, I still find no reason to change my assessment, even after learning that Paul chose voluntarily not to perform opera because of other valid artistic preferences. Without slighting his wider-ranging prolific and prodigious creative achievements, I still believe it to be the 20th Century’s loss not to have seen or heard Paul Robeson match his larger-than-life gifts with a medium that is in itself larger-than-life.
The campaign waged against Paul Robeson and the Left after World War 11 was the precursor of McCarthyism. Unfortunately, this victimization and demonization was insufficiently grasped in time. What was happening only involved the dreaded Reds. By the time the nation had awakened, the plague had spread across the board. The virus had penetrated into the citadels of establishment institutions and infected the fabric of routine American existence. Targeting the radical Left had been merely a trail run. Next, the witch- hunt sought unsuspecting victims. Fifty years later we’re still counting the toll.
Nevertheless, the ongoing tradition of dissidence and struggle sustained throughout the darkest days of the forties and fifties sedimented traces of antidotes for later use. The ‘Old Left’ which had recorded its admirable record of almost lonely resistance, despite its own grievous errors and dogmatisms, by the onset of the sixties had gone into decline, battered into submission; fatigued; ideological differences leading to fractures and uncertainties; but its intransigent legacy would transmute into other forms of protest.
Paul’s passport victory in the late fifties earned him much-delayed relief from the odiferous fumes wafting across US shores. He was able to vacate. Yet, during his absence his spirit remained, his influence continued…even when only subliminally.
It is quite predictable that America’s dissident tradition always will be suppressed, evaded and devalued by a hegemonic Establishment, totally true to its nature…but history will persist in so many embodied ways. It is always available for recuperation; always there to inspire and instruct future generations as long as we have generations to inspire.
Even though the Left of my youth and Paul’s prominence took a lethal hit, Montgomery, Alabama peered above the horizon and a host appeared behind it. Much of the vanguard resistance and combativity of Paul Robeson and those like him migrated into mass attitudes and gigantic protest activisms. Whether those who followed after him knew it not, they had picked up Paul’s banners.