Paul Robeson was born 112 years ago today, 9th April, and it seems fitting for me to publish this, my fourth blog in almost a year, on this day, even though I never set out to always or only write about Mr. Robeson. It is clear however that even though my first blog was inspired by what I saw as a grave injustice on me personally, that and subsequent blogs have mentioned him, so I’ll just have to admit that I am an addict. A fanatic. But better to be a Robeson fanatic than any other kind, in my view. And better to blog only occasionally and sparingly, than to contribute too much to cyber-pollution by writing thousands of meaningless words every week.
Often, a lot of beauty and meaning can be contained in the briefest of texts. Take this tribute to Robeson on the occasion of his 44th birthday by the playwright, Marc Connelly for example, “I suppose by that dreary instrument, the calendar, it can be contended that you are the contemporary of your friends. But by more important standards of time measurement, you really represent a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today.”
When I grow up, I want to be able to write like that! But I’m already four years older than Robeson was when those words were written about him, so maybe I never will. Still, I can take some satisfaction in generating beautiful words from others, such as the gentleman from Charlottesville, Virginia, who wrote after seeing my performance there, “I have wished my whole life (64 years) that I could see and hear Paul Robeson. Now I feel almost as if I have. Thank you”
That was last month, at the very end of my longest tour to date performing my play, Call Mr. Robeson: Lagos, Seattle, Vancouver BC, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Charlotte NC, Charlottesville VA. Six and a half weeks during which I introduced, or reintroduced hundreds of people aged from about 9 to about 90, to Robeson. From boys in my old secondary school in Lagos, Nigeria (at an event sponsored by the US Consulate - representing the same State Department that cancelled Robeson’s passport in 1950) to students at University of Charlotte, North Carolina (where for a week I assumed the esteemed title of “The Distinguished Artist in Residence” at the Africana Studies Department!) to a 90-odd-year-old woman who made a day trip and traveled some sixty miles on her own by ferry, bus and train from The Sunshine Coast to see the play in Vancouver. She wrote saying how much she enjoyed it, and by the way, that her mother had once accompanied Robeson on piano!
I am pleased to say that thanks to some great friends, I did manage to get quite a bit of publicity for Paul Robeson too – a TV interview and much national newspaper coverage in Lagos, a few radio interviews in Vancouver and Charlotte (on NPR too!), but the most amazing and unexpected was a TV appearance in Charlotte. I remember putting the phone down at the end of a conversation with the publicist at the Harvey B. Gantt African American Center, wondering if I had really agreed to what I thought I had just agreed to? To go and talk about Paul Robeson on FOX TV??? Was this a trap? A live on-air lynching fist thing in the morning? Would Big Paul not turn in his grave? Well, I went ahead with it, and FOX Charlotte turned out to be nothing like the FOX TV that makes progressives, liberals or socialists squirm, and as a result of that broadcast, quite a few people came to the performance at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Centre to contribute to my largest audience in America to date – just under 300.
So, now back in the UK where I dream of generating that kind of publicity, especially in the run up to the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals, I will end this essay by giving the last word to Mr. Robeson himself. Words he uttered on behalf of Spanish Republicans in London in 1937, dreaming that yesterday of a better tomorrow which we still await today. Words that have adorned his grave since he was laid to rest in New York State in 1976, in the peace denied him most of his life – in peace which hopefully was not disturbed by my Fox TV appearance:
“The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”