Paul Robeson and Media Myopia
by L. Brent Bozell III
Even though it's been more than twenty years since Paul
Robeson died, it may be at least another twenty before the media portrays him
honestly. Of late, several reports - most pegged to the Grammy he
received last month and/or the centenary of his birth next month -- have
correctly noted that he was a talented athlete, actor, and singer. As such,
the conventional thinking goes, he was an exceptionally valuable role model
for blacks during a racially turbulent time.
Except he wasn't.
The political Robeson was not merely a crusader for civil
rights and against Jim Crow, a precursor to Martin Luther King in politics as
well as to James Earl Jones in acting and Marcus Allen in sports. He was also
a fervent supporter of Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, which oppressed its entire
population - not to mention large portions of the globe -- far more
systematically and brutally than the United States ever oppressed its blacks
and other minorities. Yet in many of the recent stories, that truth about
Robeson has been played down, if not ignored altogether.
"The presentation of a lifetime achievement Grammy
Award to [Robeson] resounded with posthumous vindication," read the March
9 U.S. News and World Report. "Robeson was branded 'un-American' during
the McCarthy era after he refused to respond to allegations of Communism. [He
was] blacklisted... His career plummeted."
National Public Radio's "All Things Considered"
reverted to its old, predictably biased ways on February 26. Co-anchor Robert
Siegel remarked that Robeson "lent his time and name to many left-wing
causes: trade unions, the fight against racism and anti-Semitism... On several
occasions, the House Committee on Un-American Activities cited Robeson as a
Peter Applebome, in his February 25 New York Times piece,
romantically referred to Robeson's "flirtations" with Communism
("long-term commitment" would have been more fitting) and called him
a "pioneering human-rights advocate." To his credit, Applebome added
that Robeson "never... backed away from his support for the Soviet
Union... even in the face of Stalin's atrocities." (Acknowledging that
Robeson really did support the Soviet Union and that there really were
Stalinist atrocities puts the Times ahead of U.S. News and NPR.)
Not only national outlets were guilty. Boston Globe
columnist Derrick Z. Jackson suggested that the current flurry of Robesonmania
proves that America "can handle strong black men [only] when they are
dead." A Providence Journal-Bulletin editorial: "The tributes are
long overdue for this cultural icon." A Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch feature:
"Because [Robeson's] conscience was as large as his talent, the
actor-singer ran afoul of the conservative mainstream in the late '40s and had
almost a decade of his career stolen from him."
Quite a few reports declared that Robeson was not a member
of the Communist Party. Actually, he was. But if he hadn't been a
card-carrier, would it really matter? This is someone who very publicly
defended Stalin's purges and the Nazi-Soviet pact; stated after World War II
that "it's up to the rest of America when I shall love it... in the way
that I deeply and intensely love the Soviet Union"; wrote in the mid-'50s
about his "belief in the principles of scientific socialism (i.e.,
Marxism-Leninism)"; and described Communists as "people who have
sacrificed... for all Americans and workers, that they can live in
dignity." Robeson walked and quacked like a Communist; a Communist he
So why all the media tip-toeing around the truth? Because to
report the truth would be to reduce this man's legacy to rubble. More to the
point: It would be to acknowledge the horror of a hideous ideology actively
and passively embraced by so many in the liberal art and entertainment
communities at the time.
A February 9 Associated Press dispatch from Moscow sheds
light on the regime Robeson proudly endorsed. The AP looked into the files of
fifteen Americans who moved to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and '30s to serve
the revolution. Two died in labor camps, five went to prison, and eight were
executed. Among those in the third group was Arthur Talent, who accompanied
his mother to the USSR when he was seven and who, as a young adult, was
befriended by Robeson's wife when she and her husband visited Moscow. Talent
was shot in 1938 after "confessing" to fabricated charges that he
was a spy for Latvia.
The journalists who act as apologists for Robeson now join
him in the Useful Idiots' Club.
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