Singing new forms of escape: Paul Robeson's afterlife in a U.S. prison
Saturday, 19 September 2020 22:18

Singing new forms of escape: Paul Robeson's afterlife in a U.S. prison

Published in Music

Shana L. Redmond writes about Paul Robeson’s afterlife in a U.S. Prison

“I have begun to undertake the task of trying to establish a Paul Robeson month here at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” wrote Bil Brown-El. An incarcerated person in the medium security prison in rural Illinois, USA, Brown-El addressed his June 1977 letter to Tony Gittens, director of the Electric Playhouse in Washington D.C. Brown-El was aware of the film festivals held by Gittens in his hometown and hoped that, with the proper setting of his conditions, his humble request would be met favorably. He continued,

 From the very outset I would like to say that this have never been accomplished before here at the institution. There are very limited programs dealing with our people here at Marion, as well as very few films dealing with our people, black people, very few—education[al] or other. It would be [a] joy to see this project; a Paul Robeson month get off to a good start.

Beyond the need for more cultural opportunities at the prison for Black people, Brown-El argues that the answer to the question of why pursue this course is “very simple”: “Paul Robeson is one of America’s greatest men.” His use of the present verb tense, alongside his earlier frustration with those who “are ignorant to just who Paul Robeson is/was,” highlights that Paul had not left the world nor these precarious men, even a year and a half after his death.

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Marion penitentiary, Illinois

Prison may seem a surprising location in which to find the great singer, actor, and radical Paul Robeson (1898-1976) but he knew something of those people and conditions. Though never incarcerated himself, Robeson was the son of a formerly enslaved man who secured his freedom through escape from a North Carolina plantation. He also lived through eight years (1950-58) of detention in the United States when his passport was revoked due to his political labors and global solidarities. He spoke in support of the incarcerated Scottsboro Boys in 1935 and the Trenton Six in 1949, as well as his comrade Ben Davis, whose membership and activism in the Communist Party, USA was used to convict and imprison him under the Smith Act in that same year.

Economic dispossession and political repression

Robeson was passionately and vocally opposed to the conditions of economic dispossession and political repression that produce imprisonment within Black communities, all the while forwarding alternatives to that violence. And though it would be inaccurate to label Robeson an anti-prison activist, his commitments are aligned with the urgent calls from contemporary Black U.S. communities and organizers for prison abolition, which abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as change that is “deliberately everything-ist” in its design and impact. It is then not a surprise that imprisoned people would seek Robeson out as Brown-El did, especially in the 1970s when incarceration in the U.S. was rapidly becoming the way to contain and disappear poverty and Black insurgency.

Though the proposed program at Marion Penitentiary was less spectacular and significantly less resourced than that which occurred in universities and museums all over the world, it was no less researched. Brown-El began his time with Robeson well before his communication with Gittens. While in solitary confinement at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he read “Paul Robeson: Farewell to a Fighter,” by Carlyle Douglas, a writer for Ebony magazine who covered Robeson’s 1976 memorial at Mother A.M.E. Church where his older brother Ben had pastored for more than twenty years. In it, Douglas describes the “knots of sombre people” who braved a rainy Harlem day to honour Robeson. Amongst the strangers and members of multiple former vanguards (“the old Harlem Writers Guild, the Old Left…”) were

ideologues whose visions he had shared and supported, there were people whose personal resolve had been strengthened by the example of his steel-hard integrity, and people who loved him because he sang of them and to them with a voice unmatched in its combination of technical mastery and natural beauty.

The Negro spirituals and world folk songs that define Robeson’s career were inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people or more, and include his famed “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” which declares in verse two that “freedom shall be mine.” His unwavering belief in ultimate justice undoubtedly encouraged many to brave the weather and crowds in order to pay their last respects. Descriptions of the memorial were bookends to Robeson’s life, which Douglas covered in broad, yet thoughtful, strokes.

Like any good story, the highs and lows are dramatic and the lessons profound. Brown-El wrote to Douglas that since its reading he had “become conscious of self.” He went on to read Robeson’s Here I Stand (1958), which he later described as a book that fundamentally changed him: “after reading it, re-reading, and still reading it I realized that I have become addicted to Robeson-ism.” From this conversion developed a month-long program in honor of Robeson and an opportunity for Brown-El and his fellow men to continue responding to the world beyond their walls. 

The “five[-]part affair” that Brown-El describes to Gittens, which was sponsored by The Black Culture Society (BCS) at Marion, included panels as well as guest speakers from Southern Illinois University, and culminated in a screening of Robeson’s 1933 breakout film, The Emperor Jones. Originally a play by Eugene O’Neill in which Robeson also starred, the film adapts the story of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter convicted of murder who escapes imprisonment and ultimately finds himself on a fictitious Caribbean island where, through coercion and quick-wittedness, he becomes the leader of the local people.

Like the other examples of Depression-era Black performance studied by Stephanie Batiste, The Emperor Jones “shows that black culture also contained an aggressive current of desire for power.” The real-life evidence of this desire for power is precisely what drew scholar Michele Stephens’s attention to Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey, who she juxtaposes with the original O’Neill play.

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Proclaiming himself the provisional President of Africa in 1920, Garvey, like Jones, used decorative opulence and pomp and circumstance to stabilize the legitimacy of his reign as leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and, by extension, the wider Black world. Both men would, however, fall victim to the “true tragedy” of the Negro emperor, which included a failure to use his power to sustain meaningful collectivity beyond the nation and, according to Stephens,

[e]ven more dangerously, his transnationalism spoke most powerfully to a specific segment of the black American population, the group least likely to find social acceptance and the rights of full citizenship in American and, therefore, the group least interested in their cultural Americanization, the black working poor.

The choice of The Emperor Jones as a capstone event for the BCS Paul Robeson Month comes into sharper focus within this context. Seeing a Black man successfully flee, capture and seize his freedom, must have been compelling for those at Marion, yet it is precisely the group that Stephens mentions here who Brown-El envisioned as he planned the screening. They were not simply caged men; they were the Black and working poor, the most shunned and despised of society, the least likely to access their full citizenship rights, and, therefore, those critically attuned to the contradictory national logics exposed by Black performance, which, Batiste argues, “shows African Americans coming to terms with a nation that had both betrayed them and from its foundational creed continually held out the glimmer of a promise of inclusion.” Brutus Jones modeled this condition, perhaps most especially in the fit of madness into which he descends at the film’s end that is catalyzed both by his lifetime of dispossession and his struggle to achieve what he was told could be his.

Disappearing Black citizens into prisons

Though ending with a cautionary note for Black men to not aspire too far above their given social station, the narrative of The Emperor Jones was, like so much of Robeson’s early film portrayals, offset by the life lived by its star. By the time of the film’s viewing at Marion the story of Paul’s life had been told with a clarity that undoubtedly brought nuance to this portrayal and invited further consideration of his unique role in a nation that was, at this very moment, escalating the disappearance of its Black citizens into carceral dungeons. Over the last few months of 1977, Brown-El used his personal interest in and research of Robeson to launch efforts to advance the musician’s name as well as other struggles for social justice.

The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson

As a part of Paul Robeson Month, the BCS developed a “Black Awareness Quiz.” Composed of eight questions in multiple-choice style, it asked the reader to answer, for example, “Which noted American became a target of McCarthyism?” and “Which man was honored with the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually for the highest achievement of an American Negro?” The answer to each question was, of course, Paul Robeson, making for a game that was, by question three or four, very predictable but successful nonetheless in its effort to increase knowledge of the month’s namesake. This quick snapshot of both his persecution and his victories began to develop a shared investment in Robeson’s preservation and protection amongst the BCS and their audiences.

Brown-El took advantage of the critical mass that he created through his programming and curatorial work by using it to join in the outrage over the Philip Dean Hayes play Paul Robeson, which premiered in September 1977. Organizing against the play was widespread yet its reach into a federal prison opens up an underdeveloped and undisclosed avenue for solidarity. In the December “petition in support of the actions of the Washington, D.C. Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson (from Marion),” more than twenty signatories announced their alliance with the celebrities and intellectuals, including Paul Robeson Jr. and writer James Baldwin, who organized the national boycott of the play. The Marion signatories wrote,

This petition is addressed to all people who are concerned with the deplorable assault, “the pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson” by the farcical play entitled “Paul Robeson” which pretends to depict the life of this heroic giant as it really was. In essence, this unwholesome manure of a play, actually reduces Mount Kilmanjaro [sic] (Paul Robeson) to an insignificant molehill. We, the petitioners, protest.

This is a fantastic document that is not simply additive to the international campaign against the play but revelatory in its own right. Beyond this opening, it goes on to paraphrase Lenin and expose the play as “bourgeois propaganda”, used in service of the long historical practice of making Black revolutionaries small. From these insights and reading practices, we know that these men are dynamically and proactively engaged with events beyond the penitentiary—not simply large-scale national or international events but those that intimately impact the communities in which they continue to love and labour. We know that even though they’ve not seen the play, they’ve read and heard enough about it to have an opinion on its failures and to know that they are joining a collective with the power to adjust current conditions. We know that these men, “the petitioners,” are self-possessed enough to protest and they do it from the prison in the name of Paul Robeson.

In his letter of appreciation to Paul Robeson, Jr., Brown-El outlines his labours for the elder Robeson, including the petition, the film screening, and an additional event on December 1, which he planned to repeat in February 1978. Paul was quickly becoming a recurring presence at Marion—a member of their community and one that they would vigorously defend. Brown-El commits to Paul, Jr. that, “I shall propagate the Great Paul Robeson whenever, however, and wherever I can as there was none greater, there is none greater and there shall be none greater than he…”

The persistence of Robeson’s attendance and influence was made possible not only by the gravity and significance of his labours during his lifetime but also due to the impressions that they would make, even if temporary, at places like Marion Penitentiary. He remained with those vulnerable men and remains with us still, singing and charting new forms of possibility and escape.

Shana L. Redmond is the author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson (Duke UP, January 2020) and Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014).

A weapon in the class struggle: American artists and the Communist Party
Saturday, 19 September 2020 22:18

A weapon in the class struggle: American artists and the Communist Party

Published in Visual Arts

Jane Kallir focuses on the relationship of 1930s American artists to the Communist Party. 

In the 1930s, the Great Depression’s far-reaching economic impact lent credence to the Marxist belief that capitalism was doomed. Membership in the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA) swelled, and artists became increasingly politicized. The near total collapse of the art market fostered interest in alternative modes of patronage. Recognizing that, even in good times, the elitist art establishment showers its favours on a mere handful of creators, artists cultivated new audiences and a broader relationship with society at large. At the heart of this quest were issues that bedevil artists to this day. Whom does art serve? By whom and by what standards should it be judged? For a brief period, artists tried to conjure an art world beyond the reach of the capitalist marketplace.

A weapon in the class struggle

From the outset, the Communist Party, both in America and abroad, viewed art as “a weapon in the class struggle,” but the specifics of its aesthetic program were subject to vagaries of interpretation and the shifting priorities of the Soviet leadership. In addition to using art for propaganda purposes, Communists hoped to develop a distinctive workers’ art, free of “bourgeois decadence” and the conflicts engendered by capitalism. In the U.S., these efforts were initially driven by the Party’s culture magazine, New Masses, and its offshoot, the John Reed Club. Founded in 1929 and named after a cofounder of the CPUSA, the John Reed Club aimed to unite “cultural workers” in furtherance of the “international revolutionary labour movement.” Responding to “a crisis in art as deep, if not as obvious, as the economic crisis,” Club members would wrest control of culture from the elite and re-establish it on a sounder social footing.

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Demonstration by the John Reed Club

In keeping with the directives of the Communist International (Comintern) , the John Reed Club initially disdained any sort of association with the bourgeoisie. But after Hitler came to power in 1933, Stalin adopted a more expansive tone designed to enlist the support of Western democracies in fighting fascism. The new Party line, dubbed the Popular Front, was announced at the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress in August 1935. At around the same time, a representative of the CPUSA’s Central Committee advised the John Reed Club (of which there were by now about thirty chapters) to broaden its reach by bringing “intellectuals into closer contact with the working class.”

Over the course of the spring and summer of 1935, leaders of the John Reed Club’s New York branch met repeatedly at the ACA Galleries to discuss forming a more inclusive artists’ association. Stuart Davis was appointed executive secretary; Hugo Gellert, Louis Lozowick, Ben Shahn and Lynd Ward were also among those who helped craft the new organization’s agenda. Its goals included improving ties between artists and the general public, encouraging government patronage, support of expressive freedom and opposition to war and fascism. An initial “Call for Artists” was published in New Masses in October 1935, and in February 1936, the American Artists’ Congress held its first public meeting in New York City.

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American Artists' Congress by Stuart Davis, 1936

The American Artists’ Congress was one of many Communist “front” organizations (a concept derived from the term Popular Front) that proliferated in the 1930s and thereafter. Although artists such as Gellert, William Gropper, Lozowick and Raphael Soyer had early ties to the Communist Party, a front organization by definition aimed to attract less radical associates. Party discipline could be harsh, and membership required frequent meetings as well as participation in seemingly endless pickets and demonstrations. Many artists therefore preferred to remain “fellow travelers,” rather than join up.

Abstraction vs. realism

In the interest of preserving “collective solidarity,” the Artists’ Congress refused to take sides in the stylistic debates then roiling the art world. Abstraction, comprehensible neither to the proletariat nor to most Americans, was a problem for both hard-line Communists and conservatives. Soviet critics considered modernism a bourgeois affectation, and right-wingers considered it un-American. There was also a general sense that abstraction, associated with prewar French Cubism, had had its moment, and that the exigencies of the present demanded a return to realism. Stylistically, the gritty work of the social realists and the idealized landscapes painted by the more reactionary Regionalists were quite similar.

Nonetheless, many artists on the left were partial to modernism. Lozowick incorporated Cubist elements in his depictions of the urban scene and was taken to task by New Masses for being “arty.” George Grosz, a member of the German Communist Party who had begun teaching at the Art Students League shortly before Hitler’s election and wisely decided to stay on in New York, was a significant influence. The exaggeration and emotional intensity of Expressionism shaped Gropper’s scathing caricatures, as well as the graphic language of Ward’s wordless novels and the painterly pathos of Philip Evergood and Jack Levine. Stuart Davis was at pains to reconcile Marxist ideology with his personal allegiance to abstraction. “In its internal form and its external relation to reality,” he hoped, “modern art could stimulate radical change in the political and economic structure of America.”

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Abstraction by Stuart Davis, 1937

Davis’s commitment to social justice was expressed primarily in written polemics and organizational activities. The latter in fact usurped so much time that his artistic output declined noticeably in the 1930s. Other politically oriented artists expressed their convictions more directly in paintings, drawings and prints. Gropper and Lozowick (a Ukrainian immigrant) visited the Soviet Union and returned with visions of a dawning workers’ paradise, which artists compared to what New Masses termed “hell on the Hudson.” The inequities of the capitalist system—the brutal suppression of striking laborers, the lynching of African Americans, the unjust execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti—were explored in searing detail. Hortatory posters and cartoons spelled out the issues. Images of heroic workers, bloated fat cats and corrupt politicians viscerally illustrated the divide between labour and capital, while the privations of the Depression were another common subject.

The Artists’ Union is formed

If the Depression-era art world remained divided on matters of style, content and ideology, there was relative unanimity regarding the artists’ economic plight. Artists insisted they be accorded the same benefits as other unemployed workers. In 1933, members of the John Reed Club organized the Unemployed Artists’ Group and issued a manifesto demanding that the government “eliminate once and for all the unfortunate dependence of American artists upon the caprice of private patronage.” In 1934, the Roosevelt administration established the Public Works of Art Project, the first of several New Deal programs designed to aid artists. The Unemployed Artists’ Group subsequently changed its name to the Artists’ Union, which throughout the 1930s represented artists in occasionally violent negotiations with their government employers.

The need to remedy capitalism’s failings created common ground between the U.S. government and the radical left. “New Deal” was a gambling metaphor, derived from a political cartoon illustrating a poker game among a “crooked politician,” “big biz” and a “speculator.” Roosevelt believed the Depression had been caused by excessive speculation, and that a sound economy rests on productive labor and earned wages. By this reckoning, artists in a market economy are speculators in their own work, hoping for windfall profits that may or may not materialize. “The number who attempt to become artists have no discernable ratio to the demand for art,” explained Forbes Watson, an advisor to the Public Works of Art Project. Paying artists a steady wage would transform them from gamblers into honest professionals. “It may sound dull and bourgeois to remove the artist from the high plane of romantic finances…down to the lower work-a-day plane,” Watson averred. “On the contrary, knowing what is going to happen to him materially [frees] his imagination.”

Implicit in all the arts programs established by the Roosevelt administration was the belief that art is integral to a functioning democratic society and therefore an appropriate target for government intervention. Holger Cahill, who ran the WPA’s Federal Art Project, heralded a welcome return to the “tradition of art patronage which existed during the Renaissance and Middle Ages.” Cahill, Watson and their government colleagues recognized not only that the capitalist art market had failed, but that it fostered an unhealthy distance between artists and the general public. Artists would be reintegrated into the social fabric through the government’s employment initiatives, and public appreciation of art would be furthered through local arts centers and other educational programs. Bringing the artist “into…closer touch with his community,” Watson said, would “result in a…deeper interpretation of American life in art.” Art should be judged by its “serviceability to the community.” Davis concurred. “Art values,” he said, “are social values.” By mutual agreement, artists of the left and their WPA sponsors favored accessible art forms such as murals and prints over easel painting.

The tide turns

The radicalization of the American art world was not without its critics, nor was Roosevelt’s New Deal uncontroversial. The conservative Art Digest, which favored Regionalism, branded the American Artists’ Congress a “potential tool of the Communist Party.” In 1938, Martin Dies, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, began attacking the WPA for suspected Communist infiltration. Roosevelt’s progressive allies suffered a significant defeat in the mid-term elections that same year, and support for the government’s art programs subsequently diminished. In 1940, as the nation began preparing for war, Cahill suggested that the Federal Arts Project redirect its energies to decorating military bases and designing propaganda posters. The Arts Project limped on in this mode until 1943, when it was shut down along with the rest of the WPA.

Many of the issues that united left-wing artists during the Depression ceased to be of relevance after World War II. The demise of the government’s prewar patronage programs returned control of artistic production to the capitalist marketplace. Under these circumstances, it seemed ridiculous for artists to identify with other manual laborers, and easel painting once again took precedence over more accessible forms like murals. Most devastating to the American left was the government’s aggressive hunt for alleged Communists, which escalated with the Cold War. Artists who had perhaps drifted into, and then out of, the Communist Party, who had been loosely affiliated sympathizers or just members of the broadly inclusive American Artists’ Congress were all suspect.

The mainstream museums that had supported left-wing artists in the 1930s and ‘40s quietly dropped them from their programs. The Museum of Modern Art was accused of kowtowing to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist demagoguery by shifting its focus almost exclusively to non-objective art.

Postwar formalism entailed a pronounced contempt for the democratization processes that had previously preoccupied the art world. Greenberg wrote off the masses as “more or less indifferent to culture.” Bypassing the art establishment, Shahn, Baskin and more recently Sue Coe engaged a broad public directly through prints, books and illustrations, but it didn’t matter, because that public didn’t matter. And yet, as Coe makes clear in her vast body of work, the inequities produced by unrestrained capitalism are as socially destructive today as they were in the 1930s. The problems of poverty, unemployment, political corruption and racism remain unsolved. What most Americans, including nominal Communists and fellow travellers, wanted during the Depression is what most Americans still want and need: the fulfillment of the democratic promise, equality of opportunity and justice for all.