Paul Robeson: A Resonant Voice That Will Never Be Fully Silenced

“As the film was running, the tears started to stream down his face… and then his sorrow turned to anger. “

Paul Robeson in Australia

November 9th marks 50 years since singer and political activist Paul Robeson came to Australia, sang on the building foundations of the Sydney Opera House, and swore with tears in his eyes that he’d come back and “make your government sit up and listen”.

Tucked away in the archives of the ABC (that’s the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is Paul Robeson in Australia (seemingly from the late-’70s), a documentation of Robeson’s visit to Australia in 1960 at the age of 62 during his final tour. Its superficial appeal is more or less summed up in its title: It’s Paul Robeson. And he’s in Australia. (Crikey.)

DVD: Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist

Film: Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist

Director: Kenneth MacPherson

Cast: Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Dudley Murphy

Release Date: 2007-02-13


Image: yet, with so much of the extraordinary Paul Robeson’s presence seemingly erased from the bulk of American history, this can hardly be dismissed as a mere international curiosity. In fact, it reminds us of what the makers of the 1977 documentary, Paul Robeson: The Tallest Tree in Our Forest discovered when searching for American newsreel footage of Robeson: the bulk of film material had to be sourced from outside the US. As with a similarly controversial (but not necessarily similar) figure like Noam Chomsky today, international recognition doesn’t exactly compel an enclosed homeground media to engage with potentially confrontational issues.

Of course, Chomsky’s non-presence in the media arena of his home country was famously justified in one instance by referring to his lack of ‘concision’, that being the inability to be ‘concise’ — a defense that more or less guarantees that ideas won’t be heard at all unless they already conform to well-established mainstream rhetoric.

As a result, a nation’s history can hardly be limited to its own examinations from inside its own borders. That global, but somehow immensely American, figure of Robeson is perhaps seen at his most free when he steps into the role of global citizen. No surprise, then, that in 1950 his passport was cancelled, preventing travel outside the United States.

It’s an awful insight into political power: far from seeking to get rid of him, Robeson’s detractors realised that an ordinary existence inside his own country would offer less freedom to provoke change than his existence outside of the country might. In this regard the democratic sanctity of America, if you will, offered the assurance that dissenting voices like Robeson’s would, in fact, not be heard at all.

By way of contrast, Paul Robeson in Australia‘s documentation of Robeson’s visit during his final tour (undated but produced after his death) readily embraces Robeson’s presence, with admiring interview excerpts and testimony to his patience, kindness and artistic ability (in one instance, sitting through hours of local union business before singing unaccompanied for the crowd). Robeson appears on mainstream national television, speaking and singing gently to a multi-racial group of children plonked down (seemingly rather uncomfortably) in front of him; there’s a neat moment where he almost gets “a little rock ‘n’ roll”, then interprets a line from Macbeth as a blues verse: “I will not be afraid of death or bane / death or bane / till Birnam forest comes to Dunsinane — that’s like Tommy Steele.”

Most notable of Robeson’s appearances is undoubtedly his performance at the Sydney Opera House: though unbuilt at the time, Robeson stands on the foundations, the first international singer to perform there, and belts out anthems like the emotional “Joe Hill” (another historically-neglected political icon) and his fired-up lyrically-revised version of “Ol’ Man River” for the workers on the site. No more “tired of livin’, scared of dyin'”, but instead “must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin'” — a statement made all the more fiery by its unapologetic desecration of a classic lyric.

Even in the midst of performance, political struggle never left Robeson’s mind (as noted, somewhat negatively, in the glimpse of a newspaper review of an Australian concert that flashes by on-screen), and no doubt is ever left about Robeson’s strong union affiliations and international concerns. Modern day ‘political’ celebrities of course can’t hold a candle to Robeson, who always flaunted his politics even when it was perhaps most dangerous to do so. Sadly, his memory seems only to serve as a reminder of how little room there remains in modern society for either dissent or meaningful social engagement.

In that light, Robeson is also a reminder of a time when it actually seemed possible to engage with the idea of a political alternative (whether you find the idea pleasing or not). His evasive refusal to denounce Stalin in his House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings is certainly a difficult piece of history for fans to accept; but it’s also not difficult to understand why Robeson would not be particularly eager to deliver these criticisms to the disgraceful HUAC to serve as handy propaganda for a country that had essentially marginalised his ability to speak and segregated him from the global community (Robeson’s FBI files can be found online). Instead, Robeson simply stated that “whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union .. I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people some day, singing for them, I will discuss it there”. (Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 12 June 1956.)

But real figures of political dissent now seem a long way off; it’s worth remembering that most American Communists weren’t blindly supporting Stalin, but were demanding local rights like basic workers’ conditions and racial and sexual equality that we now take for granted (even when we fail to live up to the ideals). If there’s no HUAC now, it’s not because Robeson would no longer be targeted, but because we seem to be endlessly effective at making sure that Robesons rarely emerge. As Slavoj Zizek tends to suggest, adopting the seemingly-neutral tone of modern liberal tolerance seems to be the new method for diverting any real social or political action that may carry any disruptive element. Who needs HUAC when we can police ourselves and target even moderately progressive ideas as ‘dangerously radical’?

But Robeson’s international presence doesn’t just draw our attention to the turmoil in the US; ugly fragments of Australia’s difficult past, present and future are projected onto this almost mythical visitor. While we’re initially led through concerts and union meetings, the underlying racial inequality in Australian society slowly emerges throughout the course of the documentary and Robeson’s visit. As writer Wendy Charell informs us in her narration:

“Aborigines are waiting for basic citizenship rights. Robeson will soon be made aware of these issues.”

It seems that Robeson is expected to act as the ultimate catalyst for action. Early on, he’s presented with a painting by Australian artist Albert Namatjira in a suggestion of solidarity with the Aboriginal Australian fight for freedom. Later, when visiting a union hall, he receives another. As Charell notes, “the symbolism is becoming repetitious”. It’s an easy trap to fall into. But when an actor proudly informs Robeson that “we in the actors profession are aware of the sufferings of the Aborigine people”, Robeson reportedly retorts: “there’s not much use being aware unless you do something about it”.

The film, and Robeson’s engagement with Australian Aboriginal conditions of the era, reaches its peak when Robeson is shown footage of Aboriginal conditions in the Warburton Ranges:

“First, he cried… As the film was running, the tears started to stream down his face. I remember [his wife] Eslanda handing him a handkerchief just to mop his face. And then his sorrow turned to anger, and he grabbed this black cap and threw it on the floor and trod on it. And then he turned around and asked for a cigarette… he said, ‘I’m going to come back. And I’m going to give you a hand. And we’ll go into the centre of the country, and we’ll make your government sit up and listen’… And I recall Eslanda saying [speaking softly]: ‘it’s a long time since I saw him smoke a cigarette’.”

The footage of squalid conditions, rotted skin and exposed bones, flickering silently in the midst of this carefully-paced documentary, remains shocking. All the more so given that many of Australia’s remote Aboriginal populations are still in need of the basic services and cultural rights most of us take for granted.

Robeson is not the first international agitator to visit Australia and note the racial divide in Australia. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain recounts a story he heard about an Australian man who invited local Aborigines to join him for Christmas. The next morning they were all dead, poisoned by the Christmas pudding. In a piece of biting satire, Twain stated that he couldn’t understand why the Australians considered this man to be a villain — after all, wasn’t he just doing what everyone else was doing, but providing cake at the same time? If the man made a mistake, it was merely in drawing attention to the terrible fate the “civilized man” subjects the “savage” to every day when it was his duty, as a “civilized man”, to draw attention elsewhere:

“The white man’s spirit was right, but his method was wrong. His spirit was the spirit which the civilized white has always exhibited toward the savage, but the use of poison was a departure from custom… In many countries we have taken the savage’s land from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him every day, and broken his pride, and made death his only friend, and overworked him till he dropped in his tracks; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it… I blame him for, the indiscretion of introducing a novelty which was calculated to attract attention to our civilization. There was no occasion to do that. It was his duty, and it is every loyal man’s duty to protect that heritage in every way he can; and the best way to do that is to attract attention elsewhere.”

Not that Australia is by any means the only country to be struggling with (or conveniently ignoring) huge gaps between dominant and marginalised cultures (also discussed here,

“The Minstrel Show Goes On”, on New, 25 November 2009). It’s easy to see the problems of another society in an international visitor, but all too rarely do we pay enough attention to the reflections of ourselves these visitors provide.

Angry and passionate, Robeson pledged to return to Australia. But age and poor health had caught up with him, and he retired to a life of relative seclusion. The documentary The Tallest Tree in Our Forest asks us to consider how Robeson must have felt, watching the world flow by on TV, seeing so many of the social issues he’d passionately fought for come to some kind of fruition. A glimpse of someone like Robeson in Paul Robeson in Australia reminds us how many social issues still need someone fierce to fight for them, and how few real options for social and political change now seem to be open to us.