January-February 2012

Still Scandalizing Paul Robeson’s Name

By Ross Altman


The sorriest chapter in the long sad history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was those black artists and athletes who denounced Paul Robeson in order to save themselves from further scrutiny, and thereby contributed to HUAC’s organized campaign to destroy America’s voice of a century and civil rights pioneer and make him a non-person in his own land. By and large they succeeded: Robeson’s books (such as his autobiography Here I Stand) were taken off the shelves; his records (such as Ballad for Americans) were nowhere to be found; his concert dates (such as Carnegie Hall) were summarily cancelled; his films (such as Show Boat) were removed from theatres. Moreover, his name was struck from the official records of the All-American football teams of 1917 and 1918. And shortly after their testimony his annual income plummeted from $104,000 in 1947 to $2,000 in 1950.

All the while, folk and blues singer and informer Josh White’s career thrived; and Dodger third baseman and informer Jackie Robinson became an American hero. They climbed to the top on the back of an artist whose shoes they were not fit to carry, let alone fill.

As Mark Twain observed, a lie can travel half way around the world before truth can put its pants on, but the dogged truth has a way of catching up.

In recent years Paul Robeson’s reputation has been redeemed and he now smiles broadly from a first class US Postage Stamp. His books, records and movies are considered classics and at least two outstanding artists in their own right have toured nationally with one-man shows based on Robeson’s life and incomparable music. Robeson posthumously has also attained that rare position of a uniquely American artist who is treasured abroad every bit as much as here at home: he is a world figure both in music and history, and most recently the subject of a major biography (one of many) by Martin Duberman.

It is therefore somewhat disconcerting to find the Cold War calumny once leveled at him behind the closed doors of Washington’s star chamber HUAC investigations now obliquely evoked and casually updated in a recently published interview with his son, Josh White, Jr.—who a half century later is still trying to justify and reinvigorate the most humiliating, opportunistic and degraded actions of his old man. Why not let them lie where they belong—on the dustbin of history?

In over ten years of writing for this publication I have never once mentioned them, or drawn attention to them, or gone out of my way to pick a fight. On the contrary I have occasionally had nice things to say about Josh White’s music—which I grew up on too, and whose records I still have and treasure. I sing a number of the songs he helped make famous, including One Meat Ball, and make sure to give him proper credit when I do. I take my scripture seriously, and not without sin myself would not cast the first stone.

But neither will I stand idly by and let Paul Robeson’s good name be sullied all over again. It is my job here to do the little I can to speak truth to power, and uphold the standards of my profession. Nobody pays me a dime to write these essays; thus there is no other reason to do them but to honor those artists who have contributed to the glory of mankind, and defend them from libel when directed their way by whomsoever seeks to profit from their misfortune.

When Pete Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC—on August 18, 1955—he suffered blacklisting and risked imprisonment for refusing to name names; when Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, John Garfield, John Henry Faulk and yes, Paul Robeson, were subpoenaed they all did the same—and they each paid a heavy price. As did my own father—who was an unfriendly witness in 1952, and about whom I wrote the song Papa Had to Start All Over.  These were America’s heroes during the McCarthy Era; not the informers and betrayers who brought the house down on their fellow artists and entertainers—and saved themselves at others’ expense.

And certainly not Josh White, who unlike Robinson didn’t even wait for a subpoena but crawled on his belly to volunteer to appear before the Committee for the specific purpose of denouncing Paul Robeson. Et tu, Brute?, as the slain Caesar said to Brutus; that was the unkindest cut of all—for Josh White was a fellow singer who had appeared before many of the same audiences as Robeson, indeed in the same play—John Henry, based on the folk legend. But don’t take my word for it; Josh White himself told Robeson, “I feel like a heel” in doing what he did.

Paul Robeson answered these accusers in the modern Salem Witch Trials with his only weapon—song. He made an old spiritual—Scandalize My Name—a modern anthem of integrity and its betrayers, without changing a word:

I met my brother the other day

I gave him my right hand

Soon as ever my back was turned

He scandalized my name

Do you call that a brother? No, no

Do you call that a brother? No, God no

Do you call that a brother? No—no

He scandalized my name.

(And the same for sister, Preacher and Deacon)

Paul Robeson singing Scandalize My Name

The core of the controversy surrounding Robeson at the time stemmed from his appearance before the Paris Peace Conference of April 1949, during which AP reported him to have said the following:

“It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”

That is not, however, what in fact he said; a direct translation from the French transcripts of the live audio is as follows: "We in America do not forget that it was the backs of white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of Blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war upon the Soviet Union. We oppose those who wish to support imperialism Germany and to establish fascism in Greece. We wish peace with Franco's Spain despite her fascism. We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People's Republics." (cited in Wikipedia)

APs provocative and deliberate misrepresentation of what Robeson had said, to the effect that African-Americans would not defend their country against an attack by the Soviet Union (our ally during WW II) made for notorious headlines during the anti-communist hysteria of post-war red scare America. HUAC jumped on it and made the denunciation of Robeson by fellow black artists a humiliating rite of passage for those who wished to avoid political trouble.

Calling himself a “dupe” and a “sucker” for the Communists, Josh White told HUAC:

“I have a great admiration for Mr. Robeson as an actor and great singer, and if what I read in the papers is true, I feel sad over the help he’s been giving to people who despise America. He has a right to his own opinions, but when he, or anybody, pretends to talk for the whole race, he’s kidding himself. His statement that the Negroes would not fight for their country, against Soviet Russia or any other enemy, is both wrong and an insult; because I stand ready to fight Russia or any enemy of America.” (Quoted from Naming Names by Victor Navasky, The Viking Press, New York, 1980)

The symbolic stoning of Robeson by Josh White, Jackie Robinson and others (including fellow actor Canada Lee) is redolent of Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery, which does in story form what Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible did on stage—create a parable for the scapegoating and victimage that had come to define Cold War politics in the age of the witch hunt. The Lottery ends with an entire New England town descending en masse on the one annually chosen victim by lottery—casting stones as a group that none would have been inclined to do individually. It is a profound portrait of group-psychosis—what Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in 1841 dubbed The Madness of Crowds. And with the complicity of many stool pigeons, Robeson was its chief victim.

Time may heal all wounds, but it doesn’t change history. More than forty years after the fact, Pete Seeger publicly forgave Burl Ives for having named names, by appearing in concert with him at Town Hall in New York. Pete was in a position to do so, not because he could afford to do so, but because he was the one who had been wronged. Forgiveness is nontransferable, as Rabbi Abraham Heschel contended in a well-known discussion initiated by Simon Weisenthal over whether Nazis should be forgiven for the Holocaust. Heschel argued that it wasn’t his place to speak for the only ones in a position to forgive—its victims, and they were all dead. He did not have the right to forgive on their behalf. In a Christian culture famous for the cleansing power of forgiveness—popularized by such advice columnists as Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby (both Jewish), such Old Testament counsel was anathema.

Heschel’s advice remains the most important lesson I have ever learned from a Rabbi.

At the time this was going down, Paul Robeson retained his dignity and displayed a tempered and measured response to those whose friendship had proved so barren. When asked to comment on Jackie Robinson’s testimony, which followed the same script as Josh White’s of September 1, 1950, Robeson had this to say: "I am not going to permit the issue to boil down to a personal feud between me and Jackie. To do that, would be to do exactly what the other group wants us to do." (quoted from Wikipedia)

Josh White was and through his recordings remains a great musician, blues guitarist and folk singer. What he failed to be was a good friend.

Here I stand.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com Ross will be singing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (observed) in Santa Monica for the 26th annual MLK Day commemoration on Monday morning, January 16, 2012, 9am. at the SGI-USA Auditorium, 525 Wilshire Blvd. (free). It is an interfaith ceremony and all are invited.


All Columns by Ross Altman