Saturday, January 4, 2020


The son of a runaway slave, Paul Robeson rose to unprecedented heights: he was an All-American athlete, lawyer, activist, and performer, largely remembered now for his voice, his roles in the movies The Emperor Jones (1933) and Show Boat (1936), his 1943 performance as Othello (still the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway), and his Communist sympathies.

For a time he was the most famous and respected African American in the U.S., and probably the world. But after 1949, he was the most vilified American alive, blacklisted, spied on, and threatened by racist vigilante terror. His passport was stripped from him by the State Department because it was thought that his singing abroad (even in Canada and Hawaii) was a danger. A strong voice for labor rights, civil rights, and anti-colonialism was rather successfully contained. What happened?

In short: the Cold War. Performance Studies scholar Tony Perucci explores how Robeson was portrayed as insane. During the Cold War, the shared “critical goal” of the federal government and psychoanalytic psychiatry was “to eliminate dissent against American political order.” Because Communists (real or imagined) were said to be so good at masking their true selves, only psychoanalysis could break through outer falsehood of the “red mask.” It followed that they had to be insane to be Communists or fellow-travelers.

In short: the Cold War. Robeson was labeled a psychopath because his views on the Spanish Civil War, labor, segregation, colonialism, and other issues were considered “un-American.”

Robeson was labeled a psychopath—the word came into common use in the post-war era—because his views on the Spanish Civil War, labor, segregation, colonialism, and other issues were considered “un-American.” The immediate cause of Robeson’s downfall was what he purportedly said at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference: that black Americans shouldn’t fight against the Soviet Union. He was called a traitor in the U.S. as soon as the newspapers hit the streets. But historians have shown that the supposed quotes were flashed around the world by the AP before he actually spoke.

Robeson was definitely a supporter of the Soviet Union, which had just a few years previously been the U.S.’s ally in World War II. He had been rapturously received in Moscow in 1934 and later he praised Stalin effusively on the dictator’s death in 1953. But did that make him insane? As Perucci notes, “madness, Communism, homosexuality, theatricality, and blackness and their articulation became key elements in a semiotics of disloyalty.” Robeson had the strikes of being black, an anti-fascist left-winger, and a performer all going against him. Other African Americans were pressured to condemnhim. The NAACP shied away from him.

Robeson’s passport would not be restored until 1958, thanks to the Supreme Court. Robeson lived in the United States, largely out of the public eye, until his death in 1976. His response to a question by a HUAC Congressman in 1956 as to why he didn’t live in the USSR if he liked it so much? “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 just like you.”


  1. Another victim of Hollywood and American racism...a talented man brought down by his oppressors.

  2. I am compelled to say something- black Americans had a hard time in the old days not because Americans were racist, but the SYSTEM was set up against them. Very, very few Americans were racist, and those who were, were not popular. I am speaking from my parents, my grandparents, and my own life. Watch "Scruno" the character in the Clancy Street Boys - he had practically the starring role . To use the N-word in my generation- nobody used it, and anyone who did even in a joking manner was looked upon as lower-class, persona non grata. It's weird- because although each human being wasn't anti-Black, the laws, the system was against them. Why? it's like today- there are laws in place today we scratch our heads about, but what can we do? Well, same issue back then. Anyway- the Communist threat was a real one, not a harmless bogeyman. War was coming, and deaths, torture and suffering at the hands of Communists was very real in the first half of 20th century- don't you forget it! Fear and loathing of Communism was no "scare", it was and still is a looming threat. When McCarthy was absolved of his hysteria, when the files on Communist spying in US Govt were (finally( released in the 1990s, it was too late for the smirkers, the media hype scorn to be shamed. Many of them who acted as if it was a witch hunt were already dead, and the youth of today weren't reminded that "hey, McCarthy was not only right, but he under-estimated the spying and inside threats in his administration. Some sources: Any cursory search on the internet will give you the news on this, even Leftist Washington Post ran a piece way back in 1996:

    To put it bluntly, this was no anti-black or racist conspiracy against Robeson, but a cultural one. Americans were in the midst of a patriotic upsurge, and Communist sympathies were not to be tolerated, by anyone. There was a bit of a Russian chic going on then as well, The Mad Russian, and Russian tea rooms were popular and probably patronized by "cool" trendy pseudo-Communists. Americans were allowed to believe or practice anything they wanted even then, but to speak out in favor of Communism was very unpopular. Think of it like this- to promote Communism then was as popular as promoting Donald Trump today. Now, does that put it in perspective?
    Thanks for reading.