Music

Paul Robeson: An unlikely Passover hero, waiting in the seder's wings

Robeson singing
The original caption to this 1942 photo read: "Paul Robeson, world famous Negro baritone, leading Moore Shipyard [Oakland, CA] workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, here at their lunch hour recently, after he told them: `This is a serious job---winning this war against fascists. We have to be together.' Robeson himself was a shipyard worker in World War I."

“Go Down, Moses,” a traditional African-American song, is widely sung at American Jews’ Passover seders, including my own. Although that may be a little bizarre (as is beautifully pointed out in this piece in Tablet), the song’s subject matter makes it the perfect match for the seder’s raison d’être: to tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. It also links the Biblical story to the relatively recent American historical events of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, reminding us of our responsibility to continue to fight for freedom wherever it is in short supply. 

It feels triumphant to sing “Let my people go!” at seder after a few cups of wine, I can tell you. But there’s a major buzz kill lurking in the song’s past: the troubling story of Paul Robeson, the singer who first made it popular. He was on a trajectory to be enshrined in history books as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, until he found himself on a collision course with anti-Communist witch-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Because he used his fame to advocate for the oppressed, Robeson ended up vilified and muzzled.

It is a sobering story, but one that I would argue is a perfect fit for the seder, reminding us of the harsh price of freedom, especially for those like Moses and Robeson who try to lead us there. In case you aren't up to speed on Robeson's story, let me amaze you: An extraordinary Renaissance man, Robeson rose to fame in 1915 as Rutgers University’s first African-American football player, and also graduated as its valedictorian. He went to Columbia Law School, but left legal practice due in part to racial discrimination. In the 1920s and 30s, he moved to London and turned to acting on stage and in film, gaining worldwide fame, especially for his role in "Show Boat." His Othello was the longest-running Shakespeare play in Broadway’s history, and his kiss of Desdemona during that show was the first time a black man kissed a white woman on a major American stage.

Paul Robeson, Go Down Moses


But it was his singing that reaches through the years to touch us today. With his resonant bass-baritone, he recorded many traditional African-American songs, bringing some, like “Go Down, Moses,” to a broad white audience for the first time. He felt a deep affinity for the message in many of these songs: freedom for the oppressed. Touring the planet, he spoke out unapologetically about social and political issues, and connected the struggles of African Americans to those of poor and minority people around the world. Ultimately—like many Jews at that time, it should be noted—he embraced the ideals of communism (although he never joined the Communist Party) and publicly supported the Soviet Union, where he felt there was no racial discrimination. “Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.” 

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Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway, 1943-44

The FBI began surveillance on Robeson in the 1940s as the Cold War developed. In 1949, he gave a speech at a peace conference in Paris, and a reporter quoted him as saying that black Americans would never take up arms against the Soviet Union. It was out of context, he later clarified without apology, but the damage was done. Americans turned on him; even the black American leadership distanced itself from him. His concerts were cancelled; concert halls and recording studios banned him. When he did hold a concert in a small New York State venue, concertgoers were attacked while police stood by. It was one of the largest riots in U.S. history. One friend and contemporary, Lloyd Brown, later said Robeson was “the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.” 

Robeson was called in front of McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, where he passionately defended both his patriotism and his loyalty to the Soviet Union. (The transcript is astounding.) A Moses to McCarthy’s Pharaoh, his passport was revoked for 8 years, so he couldn’t perform for his still-adoring fans abroad. Recordings of old media appearances were destroyed; his Broadway record was removed from the books; his films were banned from television. He still toured in churches and union halls, but his voice had been effectively silenced.

It was a silence that, in many ways, lasted decades after he got his passport back. Robeson began to tour again, but his career was cut short by a mental breakdown that included hallucinations and depression. His son later accused the CIA first of drugging Robeson with LSD and then later ordering extreme, disabling treatments in a psychiatric hospital. Whatever happened, Robeson was never the same again. He died in seclusion in 1976. 

It seems that Robeson is still much better known abroad than in the United States (and I’ve noticed that's the case in Vienna, Austria, where I live), but Robeson’s legacy has been largely recovered at home. He has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and his name graces many libraries, schools and cultural centers. But, like Moses, Robeson is not a hero without flaws. His unwavering support of Stalin remains problematic, since he surely knew of Stalin’s crimes. When Robeson was in Moscow in 1949, he demanded to meet with his friend, Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, who was released from jail for the occasion. According to Robeson’s son’s account, Feffer desperately informed Robeson about the imminent execution of many Russian Jews, including himself. Devastated, Robeson closed his last concert in Moscow with a direct reference to Feffer and a Yiddish rendition of the Song of Resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto.

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Portrait of Paul Robeson by American painter Betsy Graves Reyneau

But when Robeson returned to the United States, he denied having seen any problems. Nobody knows why exactly, because his attachment to his friends and his declared admiration for Jewish culture always seemed deep and sincere. Maybe he thought that he had done all he could, and that speaking out in America would hurt his friends. Maybe, as some have claimed, he feared lending support to anti-Soviet political forces, and possibly starting the war he so feared. Maybe, like many, he simply couldn’t reconcile his loyalty to communism’s ideals—the ideals that he thought would bring equality to his people and to all people around the world—and the reality of the Soviet state. Whatever his reason, it must have been a difficult decision, and one that weighed on him. Maybe we can find our way to compassion and forgiveness by remembering the seder’s teaching that the fight for freedom always comes with a high moral cost: After all, we spill drops of wine in recognition of the innocent suffering caused by the plagues. The seder also reminds us that if we demand that our heroes be perfect, we will be left with no heroes at all.

I’m no rabbi, but there’s got to be room for one more fascinating and flawed hero in the already large American Passover pantheon. In fact, I think Robeson’s been there all along, subtly making himself known when we sing “Go Down, Moses.” We can make his presence explicit by telling his story, and glean deeper understandings by contrasting it with Moses’s. After all, our ancient stories do their heaviest lifting when they help us make sense of the present. So here are some observations to start: Whereas Moses stuttered, Robeson had a voice that captivated the world. Whereas Moses was a reluctant leader, Robeson didn’t hesitate to use his fame for social good. But they both tirelessly repeated their demands for freedom. And neither got to enjoy the Promised Land: Moses died at the border, and Robeson in a country that had far from—has still far from—perfected the freedom and democracy its leaders preached.

Chag sameach. Happy Passover.

If you would like to learn more about Paul Robeson, I was moved by this radio report from Australia. It features the author of the first new biography of Robeson to come out in a long time. (I haven’t read the book yet, but the reviews are solid.)