By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Paul Robeson went from international stardom to obscurity
A memorial is being unveiled in London to singer Paul Robeson, blacklisted as "un-American" in the 1950s. Tony Benn, one of the surviving links with a support group in the UK, recalls meeting his hero.
Paul Robeson was one of the world's first musical superstars, his rich, bass voice booming out of wireless sets from Detroit to Dover.
In the late 1930s, UK radio listeners, more used to warblers in dinner jackets, voted this black American their favourite singer.
And performances on Broadway and in Hollywood movies made the son of an escaped slave one of the biggest-selling names in entertainment.
But within a decade, Robeson's left-wing politics had almost erased him from public view in his own country - driven off the airwaves, blocked from performing and barred by record companies.
Such hostility did not face the singer in the UK. In commemoration of his years spent living here, a memorial is being unveiled on Wednesday at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where he studied.
Making the speech in honour of Robeson will be one of the last surviving links with the British campaign that supported the blacklisted singer - the veteran politician, Tony Benn.
1898: Born New Jersey, son of an escaped slave
Professional football player, paid his way through law school
Starred in Othello on stage and movies including Showboat, singing Old Man River
Performed for left-wing causes in US, USSR and UK
1946: Faced Un-American Activities Committee. Concerts cancelled, barred from TV, recordings banned, passport revoked
1976: After prolonged ill-health, dies in Philadelphia
"He was one of the greatest figures of the past century. He stood for everything I believed in," says Benn.
Robeson had a remarkably eclectic career. In the face of raw racial prejudice, he became a famous athlete, lawyer, Shakespearean actor, movie star and singer - and with success at every turn, he could have basked in well-heeled celebrity status.
But instead Robeson became deeply involved in left-wing politics - a path that led him into a grinding battle with the authorities suspicious of his sympathies for the Soviet Union.
This confrontation escalated to the extent that Robeson was blocked from leaving the US. Which is how he met Benn.
"You could take away his passport, but you couldn't take away his voice," says Benn.
In 1957, infuriated by the travel ban on Robeson, Benn helped to organise a protest meeting in Camden. Unable to be there in person, Robeson sang down a phone line to 1,000 supporters crammed into a hall in north London.
"It was only elementary technology, but it was Paul Robeson," says Benn.
And when Robeson's passport was returned, he came to visit Benn and his family at the Houses of Parliament - an encounter that still stands out for the 81-year-old political veteran.
"Robeson was like an electro-magnet going through a pile of iron filings. It wasn't just admiring fans, it was deep admiration... he radiated personality, a man of great commitment and strength... totally immune to the persecution he suffered."
Prompted by Benn's elderly aunt, Robeson sang Old Man River. "The whole tea room went silent, it was the most extraordinary experience."
Speaking in his west London home, surrounded by shelves spilling over with decades of his diaries, Benn is now a great repository of political memories.
He recalls canvassing as a child in the 1935 election, meeting figures such as Oswald Mosley and Mahatma Gandhi, watching London burn during the Blitz, losing his brother in World War II. "Experience is the only teacher," he says.
But the memory of Robeson still stirs him deeply. When he puts on a video of a scene from Proud Valley, a 1940s Robeson movie set in Wales, he is in tears at the story about overcoming discrimination.
Appearing on BBC TV in 1949
"I was brought up on the Bible like Paul, right and wrong is what it's about. If people are badly treated, you support them. It's easy to make speeches, but the crucial question is whose side are you on when the going gets rough."
He sees Robeson as an example of sticking to beliefs. Whether it was campaigning against lynching in the US or supporting Welsh miners, he backed the underdog.
"What really influenced him was the way his people were treated - it was what gave him his motivation, and his enormous talent gave him an opportunity to get that into the public arena."
"The establishment still distrust him, because he was a socialist and an internationalist, even in death he's still regarded in the United States as a suspect figure," says Benn.
After a five-year stay in the UK, Robeson returned home to relative obscurity and prolonged ill-health, with his reputation only gradually being rehabilitated after his death in 1976.
In terms of Robeson's relevance, Benn says it's the way that the singer connected his own experiences with his beliefs.
Challenged by the Un-American Activities Committee with the blunt question: "Why do you not stay in Russia?" Robeson answered: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Once in a very long while, you get to read about a courageous person. By telling this, Tony Benn has kept Paul Robeson's memory alive.
Ann Ninan, Noida, India
I remember my mother getting ready for a concert in the Capitol theatre Cardiff. How excited she was to be seeing this idol live in the flesh. Mum and her friend dressed to the nines in sequins and fur coats, you would have thought they were going to a premiere or royal command performance. I was only a child but knew how important it was for my mother to see Paul Robeson on that stage.
Karen Warr, Cardiff
My father, Sigmund Seifert, was Paul Robeson's lawyer in the UK. I remember that he stayed at our house in Highgate, north London, for several months. On a few occasions he sang to us after dinner in the garden. He was a wonderful man and his magic was felt by my whole family.
Roger Seifert, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Paul was one of a very few giants in America. A world giant. A man of deep convictions, of passion and total commitment. Little wonder he was hated by the establishment in the US and here. He sacrificed so much in the interests of humanity. I had the very great privilege of meeting and hearing him in Leeds when his passport was returned to him - thanks to the Welsh miners and many others here in GB. When l shook hands with him it was one of the great moments in my life. A giant in size and a giant in the history of ordinary folk.
Paul Robeson, Isabel Bailey gave a charity concert at Haverfordwest Pembs in 1935/6? His accompanist was Laurence Brown? Austin Davies and I were there.One of life's great moments.
George Lewis, Wilmslow
I was 14 years old and on a school trip. One of the events organised was a visit to the theatre in Stratford on Avon - none of us vere very keen. The performance was Othello. We left that evening totally hooked due to the wonderful performance of the man playing Othello - Paul Robeson. Still today at 61 when explaining the strength of the performance to others it brings tears. Wonderful man thank goodness people like Tony Benn keep our history alive.
Janet Pickering, Cheam, Sutton
My father introduced me to all things Robeson when I was a little girl in the late Sixties. On an old red-leather upholstered record player, long since redundant - Robeson's voice permeated our downtown terrace in Belfast over many years. I grew up with an understanding of colour prejudice, and went on to study slave narratives at university - namely, Frederick Douglass. It was always a wonder to me that as a contemporary (albeit a few generations older than me) - Paul Robeson had overcome so much to be such an inspiration, in many fields. I am delighted that the man and his work are being recognised in this way - and that his name lives on!
Colleen Goddard, Airdrie
Given his absolute reverence for Stalin and Stalinism, rehabilitating Paul Robeson isn't such an easy task - or an appropriate one. Although he was a tireless campaigner against racial segregation in the US, he remained strongly supportive of a Soviet regime which was unprecedented in its brutality - and despite his personal experiences of an underlying anti-semitism in the Soviet state. Robeson certainly deserves to be remembered, but as the flawed legend he really was.
Dex Torricke-Barton, London
I think it is unfair to judge Robeson as a 'Stalinist'. Certainly, he supported the USSR and left wing activities world wide, but he believed in the positives that socialism was (and may still) to bring, not the gulags, forced labour and the rest of the critisism we like to associate with it. Whatever people may think of his ideologies, he stood up for what he belived in, and had a talent that has rarely been equalled.
Tony Machin, Derby
Paul Robeson was an apologist for Stalinist terror, not just a supporter of what are quaintly described as "left-wing causes" in this apologia. If he deserves to be remembered for his struggle against discrimination, then he deserves to be remembered for his support for tyranny too. Tony Benn has a predictably selective memory on that count.
Anthony Jones, Leeds
Paul Robeson was the very first person in my life to awaken me to the (horrible) existence of racial prejudice when I was about 10, in the 1950s, in all white South Yorkshire (including me). He made me think and look at the world differently and I never met him. That is true greatness. I do not look at his Russian "experience" through rose coloured glasses; it was different then and he was wrong looking back at it from today but everything else he did far outweighs this aspect of his life.
Paul Brewin, Canterbury
Paul Robeson is one of my very few heroes. He was not a saint, he was a man. I am so pleased that he is being remembered here in this country. The impact that Paul Robeson had seems to have been 'airbrushed' out of the history of emancipation - particularly in America. All of us are better for the life of Paul Robeson - his personality, his sense of rightiousness and his magnificent voice. One of the true greats of the 20th century - up there with Martin Luther King, Ghandi and John Kennedy.
Ian N, Bury St Edmunds
A groundbreaking and inspirational figure, a true Renaissance man, who never lost his dignity or the courage to speak out for his beliefs. I am proud that he found comfort, acceptance and genuine admiration for his talents here in the UK.
What an odious article. Where was Paul Robeson's concern for minorities in the Soviet Union. He was happy to accept an ward in 1952 named in honour of a man who is responsible for the slaughter of several million Ukranians. (The Stalin Prize). There were many great civil rights activists who didn't serve as puppets for genocidal regimes. Let's commemorate them.
Bevan Sharma, London
Paul Robeson had lived through the dramatic changes and freedoms that had been established by revolution in Russia, while segregation and lynching were taking place in the US. To condemn him on his support for the Soviet Union based on a contemporary understanding of Stalinism is perverse. Robeson deserves far greater esteem as an icon of the twentieth century.
Eoin Lafferty, London
It is good to see that Paul Robeson is being remembered. Not only does his singing, still today, sound powerfull and moving. His courage as a person says much to us today. We should celebrate such people in this difficult times, as they have much to teach us.
Bill Waine, Coventry
Robeson was, and is, a hero. His story is fully deserving to be told. Far from being flawed, he fell in love with Russia because there he saw black people - and all people - treated equally - and able to 'walk in full human dignity' - which was not then the case in the United States. He was not aware of Stalin's brutality - the full extent of that only came out after Stalin's death. If anyone wants to attend the opening of the memorial tonight it is open to the public. It starts at 6.30 at SOAS (The School for Oriental and African Studies) near Russell Square in London. Tony Benn and Sir Willard White will be speaking. Telephone the school for details (their number is available on their website). If anyone wants to read more about Robeson, I can't recommend Martin Bauml Duberman's biography 'Paul Robeson' highly enough.
Jon Sayers, London
Paul Robeson was clearly an extraordinary, courageous man, but we shouldn't make a martyr of him just because of America's rejection of him. The US was rightly paranoid about communism, an inhuman system that was ultimately destined to fail and one which, under Stalin, had caused the deaths of millions of people. Paul Robeson was an unfortunate casualty of bigger need for the US to protect itself.
Julian Howard, London
A dose of historical perspective, from someone who almost personifies it: Tony Benn. It's the sort of thing that puts current events into a different light. Will the accepted wisdom in 20 years time put Guantanamo into the same light?
David Evans, London
I was brought up with the sound of Paul Robeson. My late father played Paul's recordings to me when I was a young child ( I'm 47 now) and told me Robeson's story. I still love the sound of his voice and now my children listen to it as well.
Jon D, Wolverhampton
Every generation has it's weirdnesses. We've had witch-burning, the Spanish inquisition, the "Un-American Activities Committee". Today's it's Guantanamo. You'd think we'd have learned better by now.
John Airey, Peterborough
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