Paul Robeson won his own sort of Super Bowl, pentathlon event. The man was in a league of his own.
Born: Princeton, N.J., 1898.
Died: Philadelphia, Penn., 1976
B.A., Rutgers University, 1919. English major. All-American in Football, 1917, 1918. Phi Beta Kappa. Valedictorian.
J.D., Columbia University School of Law, 1923. Robeson put himself through law school by playing professional football in the American Football League (later known as the National Football League) and performing in theater.
Robeson was a performer revered around the world. His career spanned decades. He is not better known in the U.S.A. because his politics ran counter to the establishment of his time. He was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his interactions with the Soviet Union, and his belief that the U.S.S.R. surpassed the U.S.A. in that it had accepted him as a Black man. His career would be destroyed by government efforts and his accomplishments actually expunged from many records. The agitation of the McCarthy era made it difficult or impossible for some Americans to support him, or in any way to publicly show any favor toward him.
Based on information released by the Freedom of Information Act, it’s alleged that U.S. CIA operatives in the MKULTRA project drugged Robeson with LSD while he was in the Soviet Union causing a mental breakdown, and mental health issues that would debilitate him to the end of his life.
Some of those honors which were expunged would later be restored and it is worth noting that Robeson himself never identified as a Communist.
It’s clear to see by Robeson’s successes that in many ways he would be a superb role model for Black youth; those interested in the performing arts or any area of academia. And yet, here he is a man of extraordinary accomplishments, and one of the least well-known, least commonly recognized Americans. His 1950s performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello” referenced in the clip above became the longest-running Shakespearean play on Broadway, up to that time. He toured as a speaker, a singer, and an actor around the United States, and around the world. He was considered by many to be a goodwill ambassador and yet he was denigrated, his career stunted by the United States government and power brokers.
To read more about Paul Robeson, see his biography on the Robeson Foundation site as a start. Robeson’s autobiography, Here, I Stand is still in print, and available on Amazon. There is also a documentary about Robeson titled “Paul Robeson: Here, I Stand” available on DVD.
Here we are on Super Bowl Sunday, just weeks past the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s football championship, a week before the Recording Academy’s GRAMMY Awards, and it seems a perfect intersection in time for a moment’s reflection on the accomplishments of Paul Robeson.
On this sixth day of February, I exalt the memory of Paul Robeson.