Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 3, 2020

A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm


In the aftermath of the New York Times’s Project 1619 that appeared in the August 2019 Sunday Magazine section, there have been howls of protest over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claim that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Those howls have come from both the right and the left, with Donald J. Trump and Sean Wilentz being prime examples.

Anybody with an open mind who reads Sharon Rudahl’s superlative A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American will conclude that Hannah-Jones’s statement is truthful. The degree to which racists both in and outside of government tried to “cancel” this African-American icon is shocking. Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson was an assassination victim. In his case, the murder weapon wasn’t a bullet but decades of harassment and even a possible drug attempt to make him lose his mind. It was an example of a death by a thousand cuts.

Although it is “merely” a comic book, the term that Harvey Pekar preferred to describe his own and similar works, it draws from a wealth of other books, including Martin Duberman’s highly regarded 1988 biography. However, the relationship between his life’s details and the popular form the book assumes is seamless. It is stunning to see how the minutiae of a man’s life can capture your attention. Of course, with someone like Paul Robeson, the inherent drama can overcome even the most pedestrian rendering. Suffice it to say that Rudahl has written one of the best radical comic books I have ever read.

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  1. This is a fine and heartfelt review. I often listen to Robeson sing. It often brings tears to my eyes, just as he sings in Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me”: Songs my mother taught me,

    In the days long vanished;
    Seldom from her eyelids
    Were the teardrops banished.
    Now I teach my children,
    Each melodious measure.
    Oft the tears are flowing,
    Oft they flow from my memory’s treasure

    Or, when he sings “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Not to mention “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” Plus songs sung in Welsh, German, Russian, you name it. Just one of the most remarkable human being this country has ever produced. I always loved Jackie Robinson, but I was sad to learn that he had denounced Paul Robeson. I mean, I can listen to Robeson sing “This is America to Me” and for a minute think of the country it might have been.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — December 4, 2020 @ 5:21 pm

  2. Robeson is a victim of both anti-Black racism AND anti-communism. White supremacists went to work to bury not only his legacy but even his presence. Indeed, i only learned about Robeson after Malcolm X referenced him in his autobiography and then asking elders about him. Anti-communists, some of them Black, have gone to work to bury Robeson’s legacy in an attempt to cover up the role that Black socialists have played in Black history. I am working on a project right now that covers the history of Black socialists and while i have always been aware that the heritage is deep it astonishes me how much has been covered up or overlooked. For instance, the role of Peter H. Clark (1829 – 1925). Clark was a pioneer Black socialist in the 19th Century that ran for Congress in 1878 on the Socialist Labor Party ticket prior to the hegemony of Daniel De Leon. Before that he was an abolitionist, an Underground Railroad conductor, and colleague of Fredrick Douglas. He was an important figure in the Ohio Conventions of Colored Men of the 1800s. No sectarian by any definition yet unmentioned for the longest time. To appreciate Paul Robeson will lead to an exploration of socialism and acknowledgement of a Black Radical who stood on his feet in complete dignity.

    @Michael D Yates Jackie Robinson denounced Paul Robeson, went to the lobby of Hotel Theresa and denounced Malcolm X and all “militant Negroes” for meeting with Fidel Castro, and denounced Muhammad Ali for refusing to fight against Vietnamese anti-colonial fighters. His entire story is a forced on narrative by the same people who teach us all about the glorious martyr Crispus Attucks while saying nothing about Fort Negro in Florida and the battle of Maroons against the US military. In truth, Jackie Robinson’s integration into the Major Leagues was the first step in the demise of the Black owned and operated Negro Leagues. Black children used to trade cards of Black baseball heroes while today it isn’t even considered an interesting sport at all for the most part (in our community). My grandmother used to go watch the Giants play more religiously than she went to church. She was a holdout from a bygone era.

    Comment by New Afrikan Socialist — December 5, 2020 @ 12:27 am

  3. Thanks – Nice to read about Paul Robeson, he visited Stockholm, during May 1, 1949, he was very popular in Sweden.

    Comment by citat — December 5, 2020 @ 1:14 am

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