Socialist Worker

Tribute to a brave man

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1770

PAUL ROBESON was without doubt one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th century. A black American born at the beginning of the last century, Robeson was an uncompromising fighter against war and oppression. His death in 1976 went virtually unnoticed. But over the past few years new generations of activists have been inspired by his life.

Manic Street Preachers recently released a single, 'Let Robeson Sing'. Paul Robeson Jr has just published a biography about his father, and a brilliant new exhibition, 'Let Paul Robeson Sing', has just opened at the Theatre Museum in London.

I was fortunate enough to see the same exhibition in Cardiff a few months ago. It has now been adapted for a London audience. Right from the start, the exhibition in Cardiff sucked you in. It showed Robeson's personal triumph against racism and discrimination. There were photos of him graduating from Columbia University. His is the only black face in his year. Pictures of his college American football, basketball and athletics teams show the same thing.

Another section of the exhibition was dedicated to his singing and acting careers. As you walk around the exhibition a recording of Robeson singing spirituals fills the room. I got chatting to many of the pensioners viewing the exhibition. Many had fond memories of Robeson, and some were moved to tears by the emotions this powerful exhibition evokes.

'Let Paul Robeson Sing' pulls no punches. A supporter of the Communist Party, Robeson sang to frontline Spanish Republican troops fighting Franco. Passport removed After the exhibition draws you in, it suddenly becomes dark. The US authorities declared Robeson 'enemy number one'. In 1950 Robeson had his passport removed. The witch-hunts against Communists began, and racist thugs attacked Robeson's concerts.

In 1957 Robeson sang to Wales for the first time since 1949. The new technology of a transatlantic telephone triumphed over a passport ban. Thousands of people packed the theatre at Porthcawl just to hear Robeson sing down the telephone. That was the power of the man. And as soon as he did get his passport back he returned to Wales to sing at a huge miners' gala. Nevertheless, his career was by then in tatters.

The exhibition is not just of historical importance. It will make you want to redouble your efforts to stop this war and fight against the poison of racism. The last room in the Cardiff exhibition contained archive material, videos and recordings chronicling Robeson's life.

The organisers allowed you to write your comments and views about the exhibition on the walls-a novel idea which seemed to make the museum's security guards very twitchy. I can't recommend this exhibition enough. But don't take my word for it. While I was there a teacher came up to me in tears and told of one black girl who had never spoken in her class before.

After being taken round the exhibition the little girl had been transformed. She asked questions about racism, her roots and fascism today. When we looked across the room and saw her writing her comments on the wall, she wrote, 'Paul Robeson was a brave man who hated war and he liked helping people, by Mahona, aged 10.' Underneath she added, 'I came from Africa.'

'Let Paul Robeson Sing' runs until September 2002 at the Theatre Museum, Russell Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7PR.

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Sat 13 Oct 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1770
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