NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2013 - Page 177

In the ussr the situation was quite the opposite: Robeson was at the peak of his popularity: since he could no longer travel outside the United States, people listened to his recorded performances. The Soviet press celebrated “the great soul and pure heart” of a hero. He was portrayed in painting and sculpture, poems were written in his honor, a mountain peak in Kirghizstan was even named after him and a bronze bust placed at the summit! 38 He had become the black icon of social realism and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. Robeson himself during this period paid tribute to the “Beloved Comrade” in perfect accordance with the Stalin Cult. 39 Demonized in America, Robeson was lionized in the Soviet Union but also cynically exploited since his official popularity as a representative of colored people coincided with Stalinist condemnation of jazz, repression of all “cosmopolitan” cultural influences, and a virulent campaign of anti-Semitism. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Whatever he might say, or do, Robeson was henceforth swimming against the tide of opinion and the left wing which he represented was isolated, even among the black population from whom a new generation and new forms of struggle for civil rights began to emerge. Despite a few famous supporters, such as Albert Einstein or Charlie Chaplin, 36 the situation became psychologically difficult and ideologically suffocating. Demoralized by adversity and relative inactivity, Robeson threw himself into the study of ethnomusicology, seeking obstinately, even obsessively, to find a common base for the traditional musics of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Convinced that he had found this base in the pentatonic scale, Robeson thus attempted to promote an original and non-Western form of music. 37 At the same time, this argument seemed to provide a form of erudite legitimacy for the diversity of his repertoire which required no such justification. Robeson’s search for an early, universal and pre-cultural tonal structure is also an indication of the influence of primitivism which was prevalent at the time. This reduced the diversity of sounds down to the modulation of an original theme. In other words, to borrow Edouard Glissant’s formulation, it viewed the creativity of relationships as stemming from a single root. It also corresponded perfectly with the naturalist and scientistic vision adopted in the Soviet Union. 175 Furthermore, history seemed elsewhere to be repeating itself in dramatic fashion. With the establishment of apartheid in South Africa in 1948, the parallel between Malan 33 and Hitler, or between the South African and Nazi regimes, was frequently drawn in declarations by Paul Robeson and other militants, notably in the Council of African Affairs’ (caa) campaigns to support the struggles by African and Native Americans. During a meeting in London on 25 March 1949, for example, Robeson declared: “The picture South Africa presents today recalls the Germany of the years before the war. The pogroms against the Jews in those years led inevitably and inexorably to the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen. Can that be the intention of the present rulers of South Africa? Are they preparing by their present acts to commit finally the act of genocide?” 34 Three weeks later, the 18 April, TIME magazine announced that the main South African radio station had banned any broadcasting of Paul Robeson recordings. 35 At the time people were still shocked by this news. Yet shortly afterwards the United States would itself begin a process of internal bans. BRN-FALL-