(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/04/13c-PaulRobeson.gif)In a ceremony befitting President Obama’s vision of a repentant postmodern America, a section of the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica has been named after a propagandist for Stalinist Russia and darling of the international left – the controversial African-American stage actor and social activist Paul Robeson.
The Embassy’s Information Resource Center that boasts housing “the definitive collection of Americana” in Jamaica is now named the “Paul Robeson Information Resource Center.” During the renaming ceremony, U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela E. Bridgewater called Robeson a patriotic American.
Her remarks surely pleased Jamaica’s left-leaning government and its many anti-American elites. They regard Robeson as a kindred spirit – a famous ideologue of the old left who blazed a trail for them: stalwart members of today’s postmodern left. In recent years, they have pushed for slave reparations from Britain, promoted a chummy relationship with Cuba, and proven problematic partners in the war on Islamic-inspired terrorism.
Ultimately, the renaming appears to be part of President Obama’s reset of America’s foreign policy – and how a postmodern America ought to interact with the world and be perceived by it.
It’s not that Robeson’s resume lacks some stellar achievements, a fact that Bridgewater – an African-American whose father was a jazz trumpeter – surely had in mind. A famous stage actor and singer in the 1920s and 30s, Robeson was an all-American athlete and class valedictorian at Rutgers University. He subsequently earned a law degree from Columbia University, and though he briefly practiced law it’s said he ended his legal career because of limited opportunities for black lawyers, and an alleged incident in which a white legal secretary refused to take dictation from him.
Many regard Robeson as a 20th Century Renaissance man. Yet like many among the morally confused left during the 1940s and 50s, Robeson embraced communism. And while most black Americans stood by their country, Robeson stood against it by serving as a high-profile propagandist for Stalinist Russia – a dangerous existential enemy of America and the West. He was controversial and polarizing. In 1949, when Robeson declared that African-Americans should refuse to take up arms against Stalinist Russia, American boxer Sugar Ray Robinson was quoted as saying that although he’d never met Robeson, he would “punch him in the mouth” if they ever met.
Like Hollywood’s outspoken leftist celebrities, Robeson traveled the world to promote his odious political views. This included high-profile trips behind the Iron Curtain, to Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, to demonstrate solidarity with Joseph Stalin and the communist cause. He spoke and sang at large rallies and gatherings – high-visibility events generating newspaper headlines and featured on Pathe’s newsreels.
Robeson fashioned himself as a man of the people. Yet when Hungarians revolted against their Soviet masters, he likened them to fascists. Referring to politically-motivated killings in Stalinist Russia, he observed: “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!”
When Stalin died in 1953, Robeson – winner of the Stalin Peace Prize a year earlier – praised him in a glowing eulogy as a great man. “One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin – the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future,” he wrote.
Many of Robeson’s fellow leftists were horrified at Stalin’s crimes in Russia and aggression abroad. They publicly condemned what was happening – even to the point of renouncing communism. But not Robeson. Appearing in 1956 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he refused to condemn Russia’s labor camps where millions perished – yet in the same breath he bitterly condemned his own country’s legacy of slavery. Robeson’s outrage was selective. He was enraged by every lynching that ever occurred in the Jim Crow South – yet he never raised his voice against millions of state-sponsored lynchings in Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. He regarded them as color-blind societies where social justice and egalitarianism prevailed.
Robeson’s outspoken political views were repugnant, a fact even acknowledged today by some leftists. “Yes, Paul Robeson Was an Unrepentant Stalinist,” declared a Robeson-bashing article in the left-wing Daily Kos. Yet U.S. Ambassador Bridgewater nevertheless praised Robeson as a great American during the embassy’s renaming ceremony that coincided with the 36th anniversary of his death on January 23, 1976, at age 77. “Paul Robeson faced many challenges throughout his life, but he remained a sterling and shining example of patriotism, pride, elegance and humility,” said Bridgewater, 64, a 32-year veteran of the foreign service.
The renaming generated much positive publicity in Jamaica, a country with a love-hate relationship with the United States. Robeson’s granddaughter Susan Robeson, a filmmaker and activist, was among more than 150 visitors on hand, including a number of students. One newspaper headline declared: “Robeson’s Shining Example Lights Up U.S. Embassy.” Now, many young Jamaicans are learning for the first time about Robeson; and no doubt they’re learning a narrative that’s popular among Jamaica’s influential leftist political circles: Paul Robeson was a black man who sought social justice for America’s oppressed blacks, and as a result he was blacklisted and persecuted by America’s racist and reactionary government. A former British colony, the island of 2.7 million is overwhelmingly of African descent.
The story behind the Robeson renaming is purely Obamaesque, and is perhaps an indication of what’s been quietly happening at U.S. Embassies around the globe. Early last year, in observance of Black History Month, the U.S. Embassy in Kingston launched an essay contest for high school students, asking them to propose a historical figure after which the the Embassy’s popular Information Resource Center should be named.
The winning essay by Kathy Smith, “The Soul of a Continent,” put forth Paul Robeson with whom Smith identified, in part, out of a sense of racial solidarity. “Robeson sung songs of equality and anti-hate, as if spurred by the soul of a continent,” Smith wrote – with her reference to “continent” being a reference to Africa. “His baritone voice told the truths of a man desperate to retain his thought-soul, his identity and African spirit.”
Smith, now a law student at the University of West Indies in Jamaica, is correct about one thing: Robeson’s rich baritone voice is indeed associated with a number of memorable American songs including “Old Man River,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Let My People Go.” Yet Robeson also is famous for singing an English-language version of the Soviet National Anthem – a powerful and heartfelt rendition that may be heard on the YouTube clip reproduced here.
The U.S. Embassy in Jamaica failed to respond to an e-mail query regarding the renaming – and who approved it. But Ambassador Bridgewater certainly had a major role in it. So did whoever in the State Department gave her a green-light – an approval no doubt reflecting President Obama’s reset of U.S. foreign policy. In this reset, America no longer defines who it is to the world. That would be arrogant. Instead, the world is allowed to decide who America’s heroes ought to be.
How times change. During the Bush years – when I was a journalist based in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, the U.S. Embassy sought to counter the island’s anti-Americanism, which went into a chest-thumping rage over Bush’s post-9⁄11 war on terrorism and invasion of Iraq. Those efforts were described in an article of mine for theWashington Times, “Answering Anti-Americanism.” Now, Ambassador Bridgewater and her State Department facilitators appear to be throwing a bone to Jamaica’s left-leaning People’s National Party and its anti-American cheerleaders: people, to be sure, who don’t represent the views of most ordinary Jamaicans.
Words and deeds matter. By honoring Paul Robeson, the U.S Embassy may be giving a boost to anti-Americanism and in turn Jamaica’s potential for Islamic-inspired terrorism by young men attracted to jihad’s anti-Western message. It’s a strange fact: Jamaica has only a tiny Muslim population; yet it has links to a unusually large number of Islamic-inspired terror outrages and plots. These include the London subway bombings; Washington’s beltway sniper shootings; and “shoe bomber” Richard Reed’s aborted attempt to blow up an American Airlines jet.
Could the anti-Western worldview propagated by Jamaica’s leftist elites be serving as an incubator for Islamic-inspired terrorism? That possibility was discussed in my personal blog in 2007 and, low and behold, the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica on February 25, 2010 issued a secret diplomatic cable: “Jamaica: Fertile Soil for Terrorism?” that was released by anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks.
Written by Deputy Chief of Mission Isiah Parnell, the cable attributed Jamaica’s potential for Islamic-inspired terrorism to the island’s large number of disaffected youths and unstable families with absent fathers. There was no mention of my main points; that Jamaica’s grievance-mongering elites may be providing a worldview from which Islamic-inspired terrorists could emerge in an overwhelming Christian culture. The cable was sent to the CIA, FBI, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security among others. Why it was classified as “secret” is perplexing. Perhaps it was to avoid embarrassing Jamaica’s government.
In 1950, the State Department declined to renew Robeson’s passport unless he signed an affidavit stating that he wasn’t a Communist Party member and was loyal citizen. Robeson refused. Rightly or wrongly, the State Department’s actions reflected the realities of the era – a dangerous cold war pitting Stalinist Russia against America and the West; a conflict in which Robeson sided with the enemy with considerable gusto. U.S. authorities decided they’d had enough of Robeson’s antics on the international stage during a perilous period of nuclear brinkmanship between America and the U.S.S.R..
Robeson sued to regain his passport and in 1956, in connection with that lawsuit, he appeared before the by-partisan House Committee of Un-American Activities. The confrontation featured some memorable exchanges between Robeson and committee members, including Robeson’s incredible assertion that the Soviet Union was a color-blind society (which was undoubtedly the case for high-profile useful idiots visiting there). Here are some excerpts from the hearing:
Mr. ROBESON: In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.
Rep. GORDON H. SCHERER : Why do you not stay in Russia?
Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.
Rep. SCHERER: You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause.
Mr. ROBESON: I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are like the Alien [and] Sedition Act, and Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.
Rep. FRANCIS E. WALTER: Now, what prejudice are you talking about? You were graduated from Rutgers and you were graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I remember seeing you play football at Lehigh.
Mr. ROBESON: We beat Lehigh.
Rep. WALTER: And we had a lot of trouble with you.
Mr. ROBESON: That is right. DeWysocki was playing in my team.
Rep. WALTER: There was no prejudice against you. Why did you not send your son to Rutgers?
Mr. ROBESON: Just a moment. This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up – and here is a study from Columbia University – for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason my own success has not meant what it should mean: I have sacrificed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for what I believe in.
STAFF DIRECTOR RICHARD ARENS: While you were in Moscow, did you make a speech lauding Stalin?
Mr. ROBESON: I do not know.
Mr. ARENS: Did you say, in effect, that Stalin was a great man, and Stalin had done much for the Russian people, for all of the nations of the world, for all working people of the earth? Did you say something to that effect about Stalin when you were in Moscow?
Mr. ROBESON: I cannot remember.
Mr. ARENS: Do you have a recollection of praising Stalin?
Mr. ROBESON: I said a lot about Soviet people, fighting for the peoples of the earth.
Mr. ARENS: Did you praise Stalin?
Mr. ROBESON: I do not remember.
Mr. ARENS: Have you recently changed your mind about Stalin?
Mr. ROBESON: Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union, and I would not argue with a representative of the people who, in building America, wasted sixty to a hundred million lives of my people, black people drawn from Africa on the plantations. You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please.
Mr. ARENS: I am glad you called our attention to that slave problem. While you were in Soviet Russia, did you ask them there to show you the slave labor camps?
Rep. WALTER: You have been so greatly interested in slaves, I should think that you would want to see that.
Mr. ROBESON: The slaves I see are still in a kind of semi-serfdom. I am interested in the place I am, and in the country that can do something about it. As far as I know, about the slave camps, they were fascist prisoners who had murdered millions of the Jewish people, and who would have wiped out millions of the Negro people, could they have gotten a hold of them. That is all I know about that.
Mr. ARENS: Tell us whether or not you have changed your opinion in the recent past about Stalin.
Mr. ROBESON: I have told you, mister, that I would not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people, and I will not discuss Stalin with you.
Mr. ARENS: You would not, of course, discuss with us the slave labor camps in Soviet Russia.
Mr. ROBESON: I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people some day, singing for them, I will discuss it there. It is their problem.
At one point, Robeson attacked the patriotism of the committee members, saying that “you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Nearly 20 years later, James Baldwin, the great African-American novelist and essayist, criticized Robeson’s moral blindness in a widely-cited essay, writing: “It is personally painful to me to realize that so gifted a man as Robeson should have been tricked by his own bitterness and by a total inability to understand the nature of political power in general, or Communist aims in particular, into missing the point of his own critique, which is worth a great deal of thought: that there are a great many ways of being un-American, some of them nearly as old as the country itself…”
This isn’t the first time Robeson’s fans succeeded in their efforts to rehabilitate him. Eight years ago, the United States Postal Service issued a Paul Robeson commemorative postage stampthat was part of its Black Heritage Series of stamps. Interestingly, Robeson was first honored with a postage stamp issued in 1982 by the German Democratic Republic (i.e. communist East Germany).
Undeniably, Robeson was a remarkable talent and intellect – yet he was ultimately a tragic figure because of the political views he chose to promote. In the end, his achievements must then be considered against the morally flawed universe that he inhabited.
Robeson’s name obviously has no place on the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica, a place that is supposed to represent America’s values and interests. Ambassador Bridgewater and whoever in Washington gave her a green-light ought to be ashamed of themselves. But don’t count on President Obama or Hillary Clinton ordering any inquiries into this matter. Undoubtedly, they can be included among the ship of fools at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica and at embassies around the world that are putting forth an Obamaesque view of America’s place in the world.
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