NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2013 - Page 175

But he was to be disappointed, particularly after 1949. While China turned to communism, Stalin was carrying out nuclear tests and the world was split into two opposing sides. 1949 was also a turning point in Paul Robeson’s life. In April, while on tour in Europe, he attended the Paris World Congress of Advocates of Peace, chaired by Frédéric Joliot Curie. 22 At the Congress he became reacquainted with W. E. B. Du Bois who had moved closer to the communist movement after having broken away from the naacp. In front of 2,000 delegates from 75 countries, Robeson declared: “We in America do not forget that it is on the backs of the poor whites of Europe, on the backs of those who came from Europe to build America, and on the backs of millions of black people that the wealth of America has been acquired—and we are resolved that it shall be distributed in an equitable manner among all of our children and we don’t pay any of that hysterical stupidity about our participating in a war against anybody no matter whom. We are determined to fight for Peace. We do not wish to fight against the Soviet Union.” 23 These words were immediately relayed, and distorted by the Associated Press on the other side of the Atlantic. In the context of the Cold War, the star instantly became a traitor, condemned not only by the conservative white press, but also by some black leaders and by the naacp. While all of this was happening, Robeson was still on tour. In June of the same year he went to Moscow, as mentioned earlier, and learnt during his meeting with Itzik Feffer how Stalin was treating his Jewish friends. Times were hard on both sides of the Atlantic. When he returned to America at the end of the same month, Robeson found himself the object of verbal and physical attacks. On 27 August, in the small town of Peekskill, New York, Robeson had been invited to sing on the same stage as Pete Seeger for a left wing organization. He was prevented from reaching the stage by hundreds of demonstrators who blocked the entrance and shouted abuse at communists, Blacks and Jews. Armed with cudgels, brass knuckles and bottles, they attacked the audience. The writer and journalist Howard Fast described the violence of the attacks the audience had to deal with in order to protect the women and children who took cover on the stage. The drunk and brutal assailants claimed they were “finishing Hitler’s job”, shouting obscene slogans and calling for Robeson who they wanted to lynch. 24 The organizers had to cancel the concert and decided to schedule it, in the same town, on 4 September. More than 5,000 people were able to attend but as they left part of the crowd were violently attacked, some being seriously injured by stone throwing while the police stood idly by. The incidents in Peekskill were symptomatic of the reactionary violence and intolerance which were rife at the time and which would increase during the McCarthy era. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE He was also at the height of his political commitment. In 1937 he had founded the Council of African Affairs (caa) along with Max Yergan, W. E. B. DuBois and Alphaeus Hunton Jr. This organization brought together communists and liberals whose objective was to connect the struggles of African Americans and African independence movements in a wider resistance against fascism, capitalist exploitation and imperial oppression. Robeson was a faithful supporter of the ussr which he extolled unflinchingly. But faced with fascism there was a general trend towards unity, towards patriotic songs, unison, and wide coalitions. The Nazi-Soviet Pact may have briefly broken this union in August 1939, but the German invasion of the ussr in June 1941 brought its various elements back together again. Robeson performed to huge audiences in order to support the war effort and the struggle against Hitler, encouraging black workers to join trade unions and contribute to a dual victory against external and internal fascism. He thus became the voice for an idealized, egalitarian and multiracial America which he, along with others, hoped would emerge from tormented times. On 25 November 1945, Robeson argued to the Central Conference of American Rabbis that such a future was both desirable and possible since, “The Soviet Union stands today as a concrete demonstration that it is possible to abolish completely, and in a very short time, long-established habits of discrimination and oppression based upon differences of race, creed, color and nationality.” 21 (Robeson’s emphasis). 173 PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION, LC-USW33- 054944-ZC [P&P] From hero to exile 003-Main-Content.indd 173 9/13/13 1:08 AM