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Paul Robeson—The Famous Black Singer America Tried to Forget

Written by PlayBack

By Marissa Johnson

Paul Robeson or “Big Paul” as he was fondly known was a 6’3” bass-baritone. He often performed in crowded theaters and sang songs of peace, struggle, and perseverance in twenty-five languages. He was a charismatic man and an athlete despite his many affairs and his troubled marriage.

In addition to being a great singer, athlete and advocate of peace, he was intelligent and learned. His own father had been an escaped slave who put himself through college and became a minister. Big Paul followed in his footsteps, prioritizing education as the way to move forward in the world. He studied law at Columbia University.

Because of his church background, he sang Negro spirituals and wanted to bring the spirituals to popular culture. He was seemingly saying to the world that Negro spirituals were as legitimate a musical genre as any other.

However, Big Paul’s political leanings would be his downfall. He would go from beloved singer and athlete to public enemy of America. Robeson was pro-Socialist and approved of the Soviet Union, namely because it had outlawed racism. He’d lived in London for a dozen years and had also attended the same school as Stalin’s son.

His support of the Soviet Union made him a target for the FBI. They started following him for years. He even had to appear before the House Un American Activities Committee. But, the real scandal that took Robeson from packed crowds to over eighty concerts cancelled was a misquote of what people thought he’d said at a Paris peace conference. According to the quote, he supported the Soviet Union. This was un American. To make matters worse, Robeson refused to deny the comments, because, they were essentially what he believed.

So, America tried to erase him. For example, his name was removed from the list of ‘All-American’ football players. He died in 1976. It took about two decades after his death from America to feel ready to acknowledge his greatness. He received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award post-humorously and also a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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