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Remembering Paul Robeson, Actor, Sportsman and Leader

Among other things, Robeson transformed one of history’s most famous showtunes into a protest song

Paul Robeson, photographed by Alfredo Valente in 1940. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © The Valente Collection)
smithsonian.com

Paul Robeson had a big life.

Robeson, who died on this day in 1976 at the age of 77, got a lot done, but he’s not widely remembered today.

“Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century,” writes historian Peter Cole. “A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular — if not academic — memory.”

Before he was an actor and singer, Robeson was a gifted athlete, writes History.com. He played college football for Rutgers University, and graduated that university as valedictorian, according to author Martin Duberman. Over the next twenty years, he got a law degree from Columbia Law School and he gained international fame as an actor and a singer both onstage and on screen. Possibly his most famous role was Joe in the beloved musical Show Boat. The role and the song "Ol' Man River" were written for his bass voice, according to History.com.

But that fame came at a price. “While working within mainstream cinema, like many black actors of the period, he found himself having to make compromises and play roles that presented stereotypes and caricatures,” writes Paul Risker of the Aesthetica Short Film Festival, which recently did a Robeson retrospective. The actor even famously disowned one of the films, Sanders of the River, when he discovered that the film’s message had changed during editing and it presented a deeply racist interpretation of African history.

It also presented Robeson with opportunities to change the narrative, like “Ol’ Man River.” In that song, a black stevedore sings about how his life is like the Mississippi River: it can’t change. Its original lyrics painted an extremely negative picture of African-Americans and used pejorative words. Robeson, whose deep voice and iconic performances made his renditions of the song famous, changed the lyrics over time until it became a protest song, writes historian Shana L. Redmond.

By 1940, Duberman writes, “he was beginning to emerge as a passionate defender of the underclasses.” That meant unionists, people of color, and other oppressed persons. Robeson visited the Soviet Union, which at that time was a relatively common thing for leftists to do, and spoke out for workers around the world as well as black people.

Although many had admired Robeson, he writes, it wasn’t a good time or place to be black, high-profile and outside the status quo. By 1960, Robeson had been “branded a Soviet apologist.” He was kept under close watch by the FBI, not allowed to travel and perform abroad and barely allowed to perform in the United States. “Robeson became an outcast, very nearly a nonperson,” he writes. McCarthyism irrevocably damaged his career. That’s why we don’t remember his films as well today, writes Risker.

About 2,500 people came to Paul Robeson’s funeral, which was held at the Harlem church where his brother, Ben, was pastor, writes Yussuf J. Simmonds of the Los Angeles Sentinel.

“Some of the indignities that befell Robeson, his name and his reputation, began to be restored posthumously,” Simmonds writes. “His name, which had been retroactively removed from the roster of the 1918 college All-America football team, was fully restored to the Rutgers University sports records, and in 1995, Robeson was officially inducted into The College Football Hall of Fame.”

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