Can a man endowed with genius squander it through extreme political blindness? This is a question that must be asked when assessing the legacy of the multi-talented actor, singer, and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Yet this question is often swept under the rug by those who want to lionize Robeson, while ignoring his servile devotion to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Indeed, Stalin had few more loyal devotees in America than Robeson—though you wouldn’t know it from the official narrative.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers University, and the school is pulling out all the stops to celebrate. A new “Paul Robeson Plaza” now graces the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, and a yearlong tribute is underway. There is plenty to admire. As an undergraduate, Robeson was class valedictorian and a ranked All-American football player. After graduation, he went on to Columbia University Law School, where he earned his law degree while playing football in the NFL. He then became an actor, appearing in Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and used his remarkable bass-baritone to establish himself as a popular singer. After moving to Britain in 1928, he appeared in Jerome Kern’s Showboat, stopping the show with his famous rendition of “Ol’ Man River”; later, he played the titular role in Shakespeare’s Othello on Broadway. And he did all this while both suffering from and actively fighting the scourge of American racism.
But this is not the only Paul Robeson. A full-fledged Stalinist in his time, Robeson had enough up-close experience with the Soviet Union to know better than most fellow travelers—yet he nonetheless persisted in denying and excusing the regime’s crimes. Sadly, Rutgers has chosen to downplay his radical political views, instead painting him as a victim of official Redbaiting. That does a disservice to history, rendering in hagiographic terms a man whose remarkable achievements and remarkable failures of vision deserve to be understood side by side. Robeson, like many American communists, married a sincere commitment to social justice at home with a blinkered commitment to a totalitarian regime abroad. To understand how this could happen requires a deeper look at the man in full.