Last week saw the publication of two columns that showed how liberals and leftists continue to misrepresent Paul Robeson, the legendary artist and intellectual giant. First up was Simon Callow in the New York Review of Books, who replayed talking points dating to the Cold War to portray Robeson as a naive African American and willing dupe of Joseph Stalin.
Those charges stemmed from 1949, when Robeson traveled to France to attend a Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace Conference. According to this account in Smithsonian:
After singing “Joe Hill,” the famous ballad about a Swedish-born union activist falsely accused and convicted of murder and executed in Utah in 1915, Robeson addressed the audience and began speaking extemporaneously, as he often did, about the lives of black people in the United States. Robeson’s main point was that World War III was not inevitable, as many Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.
Before he took the stage, however, his speech had somehow already been transcribed and dispatched back to the United States by the Associated Press. By the following day, editorialists and politicians had branded Robeson a communist traitor for insinuating that black Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union.
Historians would later discover that Robeson had been misquoted, but the damage had been almost instantly done. It was the beginning of the end for Robeson, who would soon be declared “the Kremlin’s voice of America” by a witness at hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Baseball star Jackie Robinson was soon summoned to Washington to talk to HUAC and he also denounced Robeson, which was an especially painful blow. (Robinson later expressed regret for his remarks.) Before long Robeson’s passport was revoked and dozens of his concerts were canceled. Some in the press called for his execution and he was accused — in an uncanny parallel to today’s Russia scare — of helping the Soviet Union divide the country by merely talking about racism. (As if racism in America wouldn’t exist, then or now, if not for the work of Russian propagandists.)
Greg Godels wrote a more interesting story about Robeson in reply to Callow but it unfortunately wandered off into armchair psycho-analytical balderdash. Later in life Robeson suffered from mental illness and depression. For Callow, “Robeson’s bad faith was responsible for mental issues and ill health. It was not a medical condition, the emotional stress of racism, or the repression of his political views that explain his decline. Instead, it was the consequences of bad politics.”
This also seems to be a case of blaming the victim. Robeson’s film work was pretty spotty but he was one of the finest intellectuals and stage talents of the last century. His musical recordings are to my mind some of the best ever recorded. His open pride in being Black was prophetic and served as an antecedent of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and ’70s. He was a peer and comrade of W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois, two giants of scholarship and activism. His views may not have been perfect — whose are? — but it’s doubtful that his decline was due to “bad politics.”
So what accounts for his mental illness? I don’t doubt for a second that he was the victim of systematic FBI harassment and surveillance, which has been demonstrated by released FBI files. However, I am doubtful about the claim of his son and late biographer, Paul Robeson, Jr., that father was subjected to an MK-ULTRA dosing of hallucinogens, which helped provoke his decline.
Instead, here’s another possible explanation that hasn’t been discussed, and while admittedly speculative should be considered. Credit here goes to Paul Buhle, who is currently working on a graphic novel biography of Robeson, for suggesting this notion. It bears mentioning Robeson Junior died in 2014, just as the CTE concussion scandal in the NFL was breaking into the headlines.
Robeson was a football star at Rutgers. Playing in the 1910’s, his white teammates subjected him to brutal treatment. Indeed, his nose was broken and shoulder dislocated during try outs. It’s virtually certain that he received numerous concussions due to the attacks he suffered by his teammates and Rutgers’ opponents, especially given that players wore flimsy leather protective helmets at the time.
Isolation and illness helped make Robeson a recluse at the end of his life. Instead of blaming this on his politics or portraying him as a traitor, it’s worth focusing on the intense institutional racism of his time and his athletic history, especially given what we now know about the connection between football and brain injuries, and its relevance to the lives of Black athletes today.