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World: Analysis From Washington -- Paul Robeson Represents A Symbol Of Forgetfulness

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - An ongoing debate in the United States over how or even whether to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, a Black American singer and left-wing political activist, underscores the difficulties all societies have with coming to terms with their pasts.

On the one hand, many revere Robeson for his remarkable career as an actor and opera singer, roles for which he posthumously received a Grammy Award last Wednesday. Students of American theater have been quick to reach for superlatives for a man who struggled against segregation to become one of the leading men on the American stage a half century ago.

But on the other, many oppose honoring Robeson because of his close ties to the Communist Party, his praise for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and his willingness to accept a Stalin Peace Prize in 1953. And those who feel this way appear to have succeeded in blocking the efforts of some to have Robeson featured on an American postage stamp.

As so often happens, each side in this debate has largely ignored the position of the other and reduced Robeson to a single image, that of a remarkable figure on the stage or that of a tool of the Soviet dictatorship.

Not only does that do a disservice to this remarkable man, who openly combined elements of both of these images, but it highlights the way in which each generation transforms the past to fit its own values and ideas.

Now that the Cold War is over, many are inclined to forget just what it meant to be an open supporter in the West of the Stalinist dictatorship. And equally many are inclined to forget that some of those who backed the Soviet Union did so either out of ignorance or desperation rather than because they were committed to all aspects of that regime.

But the current debate about Robeson is perhaps even more instructive in another way: It is taking place as both sides acknowledge against the background of a profound lack of knowledge about Robeson among most Americans under the age of 50.

Those older than that remember the man in his prime, but those younger than 50 -- and they are now in the majority -- know virtually nothing about him. One close student of Robeson said last week that his students have "never heard" of Robeson. As part of an effort to correct that problem, dozens of committees have been formed across the United States to revive interest in this leading Black American.

Such an effort is both understandable and laudable, but the overwhelming ignorance of so much of the population about Robeson almost certainly means that this effort, timed to correspond with the centenary of the singer's birth, April 9, will end by reinforcing each of the two stereotypes rather than overcoming them.

Those who believe that Robeson's flirtation with communism should be ignored are likely to say little about it; those who believe that his involvement with Stalin's regime defined who and what he was are unlikely to say anything else.

To the extent that this debate is ever joined, it will occur in relatively brief articles in the press or even briefer reports in the electronic media. And as a result, readers and listeners are likely to take sides rather than form a more complex picture, to the extent that they pay attention at all.

Thus, Robeson's name may come to be more widely known, but Robeson himself may not be more fully understood.

That such difficulties exist for Americans trying to come to terms with a figure from their recent past only calls attention to the far greater difficulties others have -- particularly those in post-communist countries -- in coming to terms with even more mixed and complicated figures in their national histories.

And these difficulties in both contexts point up the need both for more attention to the past lest forgetfulness about it guarantee that the debates about the past are not simply repeated into the future.

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