Icons: Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson among a crowd of racially integrated shipyard workers in Oakland, California,  performing the Star Spangled Banner.

Paul Robeson among a crowd of racially integrated shipyard workers in Oakland, California, performing the Star Spangled Banner.

The name Paul Robeson may be unfamiliar to many Americans, young and old. But why is this name important? Why should this man’s name be imbedded into the public’s consciousness? There are many reasons why Paul Robeson still matters today. Principally, Robeson exemplified the “conscious” artist driven by strong convictions. He represented the cause of the people of color against racial discrimination. He was the type of artist who saw it as a personal duty and obligation to use his talents and influence to advance social causes, causes that went beyond the theatrical stage. No other statement captures the essence of his ideology and his self-imposed obligation to social change, than when he famously exclaimed, “the artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” Throughout his life, Robeson lived by this motto. No matter how viciously the American media slandered his name, or how greatly he was persecuted by the government for his socialist inclinations, he continued to fight against racism and support liberation struggles. Robeson was never dissuaded from following his personal and moral convictions, including his great admiration of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union.

Robeson was a man of many talents and accomplishments. He was an athlete, scholar, actor, and an internationally renowned singer. But above all, he dedicated his talents to serve a cause much bigger than these accomplishments. Robeson embodied many movements and many struggles dedicated to the liberation of the oppressed, be it racial, political, or economical.

Robeson was born into activism. Because of his origins, coming from African ancestry and having been born from a father who was enslaved, Robeson was politicized at birth. Robeson fought for civil rights, freedom, and equality all his life.

Today, many “celebrities,” are celebrated for their talents. Other celebrities are simply celebrated for being famous, despite not having much artistic talent or value. Contemporarily, few represent and embody the convictions that Robeson possessed. Fewer still, pursue social activism or seek to create social change through art or entertainment. None will advocate for freedom against racial, political, and economic oppression if it means comprising one’s own career. Entertainers, who contribute nothing to the causes for which Robeson stood for, and for which he was ostracized and attacked by the media and the conservative public alike, will be endorsed and promoted greatly by the media and the music/film industry. Such entertainers will be given the largest platforms, but few will utilize them to advance causes that will push for social change.

The legacy of Paul Robeson leaves behind a very important lesson to the new generation of entertainers: those who dare employ their artistic talents and influence to go against the status quo, will be silenced and erased from history. The artist whose views go against the interest of the power structure have no place in the entertainment industry. For the status quo, art must be created to serve as a distraction, not to create social and political consciousness.

But to Robeson, the artist had a more important role to play in society. For Robeson, just like for Chilean singer/songwriter and political activist Victor Jara, artists had a much higher purpose: I don’t sing just to sing/Neither for having a good voice/I sing because the guitar has reason and sense” (from Victor Jara’s “Manifesto”). Despite all the harassment, Robeson showed that a convinced and determined voice, such as the one that brought Robeson fame, cannot be silenced, much less forgotten.

By Juan Jose Vasquez

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