Mainstream media as Iago to our collective Othello
Friday, 23 February 2024 10:21

Mainstream media as Iago to our collective Othello

Tayo Aluko writes about the mysterious case of a misidentified(?) Robeson portrait. Image above: Paul Robeson as Othello

Once, many years ago, while touring the US, I happened to be listening to an NPR radio programme about Paul Robeson, with his son Paul Robeson, Jr., as the special guest. It started with a recording of Ol' Man River, Robeson's signature song. As it was playing, I couldn't help feeling that it didn't sound like the great man, but expected to be proved wrong. The presenter said, "That was Paul Robeson singing Ol' Man River," and introduced Paul Jr., who immediately retorted with, "That was NOT my father." I could feel the presenter's embarrassment, and expect a producer got chastised for that grave error.

I fear a number of people are in for similar embarrassment soon, for it has been reported in The Guardian, no less, that a long-lost portrait of Robeson has been rediscovered and will be going on display from May 14 at an exhibition of works by the painter Glyn Philpot at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester this month.

Once again, I am prepared to be proved wrong, but I am quite sure that the portrait to be displayed is NOT that of Paul Robeson. The only similarity between the portrait's model and Robeson himself is the colour of their skin. That's all. It makes me wonder how such established institutions can be so mistaken, and why nobody else that I know of appears to be challenging the claim.

The portrait is said to have been painted in 1930 while Robeson was playing Othello opposite Peggy Ashcroft at the Savoy Theatre, so we can use one of many pictures from that production, and compare it with the model in the portrait. This is what the gallery director apparently did, but where he saw a likeness, I see only differences. Start with the hairline. Robeson's recedes away from the front in a very much more pronounced way than in the portrait. Robeson sports a goatee (he always did for this role), while the model grows hair on his jaw, not quite joining with the sideburn. Robeson's moustache isn't as luxurious as that of the model. Then, there's the nose. Robeson's is flatter, wider, and tips downwards, unlike that of the model.

The fact that the model's clothing is different from that of Robeson's Othello could potentially be explained away by the possibility that he might have sat for the portrait in rehearsal costume, but how does one account for the anonymous title given the portrait when it was sold in 1944?  Robeson had burst into public consciousness when he played a highly acclaimed Joe in Showboat at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1928. He became a regular in concert halls all over the UK thereafter, and a much sought-after celebrity. And yet, his portrait is sold with the title "Head of a Negro?" Highly unlikely.

But the Guardian says it is Robeson, so it must be, right? I beg to differ, and would say that this appears to be a case of people wanting so badly to believe something to be true, that they ignore all evidence to the contrary. If I am right, this would be another case of a journalist and editors accepting information from a source and reproducing it without doing their own checks. The Guardian won't be alone in this, and indeed all of mainstream media, the BBC included, are accused by many of being complicit in peddling untruths fed to it by the global elite to such an extent that they are complicit in creating many of the world's ills.

We saw it in Robeson's time, when in 1949, he made a speech in Paris in which he questioned why African Americans would fight against the Soviet Union (America's ally until the end of WWII, and the place where he first felt the absence of racism), when they were second-class citizens in their own country. The press first distorted the speech to make it sound deliberately unpatriotic, and then whipped up anti-Black, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist sentiment to such an extent that by the time Robeson returned to his country, he had turned from being the most popular and successful artist to the most hated. This culminated in the infamous Peekskill Riots of August and September 1949: an episode from which he was lucky to emerge alive. The following year, his passport was cancelled, and it would be another eight years before he was able to tour again. His health, his career and his reputation never fully recovered after that.

Remarkably, for one who was probably the most famous American of his day, Robeson is almost a forgotten figure today. It is therefore always a welcome sight when his name and story pop up, even if it is to use him (erroneously in my view) to promote an art exhibition.

Undermining Jeremy Corbyn

Another person who fell spectacularly from grace, thanks partly to mainstream media, is Jeremy Corbyn. What is interesting in his case is how selectively he is either ignored or remembered since his demise. Most of the time, it is as though he never existed, and you won't hear or read about him in the papers or in the news, even from people in the Labour Party he once led. Forgotten is the fact that under him, the Party became the largest political party in Europe. Forgotten, that when a snap General Election was called by Theresa May in 2017, Corbyn's Labour came barely 2000 votes short of victory. Forgotten, that following that powerful showing, people within the Party itself set about undermining him in collusion with the media and other Establishment figures to such an extent that by the time of the 2019 election, so much of the public had been turned against him and the Party that they badly lost the election.

It has also been forgotten that a report commissioned by the Party (never officially published but leaked) has documented the Party officials' and MPs' machinations. A further report commissioned into the leaking of that first report has, strangely, been repeatedly delayed. In the meantime, it has been acknowledged in a single programme on the BBC that there was never any evidence of anti-Semitism by Corbyn himself; and for an authoritative summary of why the allegations of anti-Semitism were either manufactured or grossly exaggerated, one has to go to the blog of a lone campaigner, Simon Maginn, to see how and why #ItWasAScam.

And when Labour, under its new, particularly uncharismatic and apparently unprincipled leader, Keir Starmer, performed poorly (and even worse than under his predecessor) in the recent Council elections, many current MPs and pundits have resurrected Jeremy Corbyn's name for the sole purpose of blaming him for the defeat of 2019 that they themselves had engineered! The haemorrhaging of members and funds from the Party since his departure seem not to trouble them as they prepare for the 2024 General Elections.

There are many more examples of politicians and elites using the media to persuade us to do or accept things that are palpably bad for us, others and/or the planet, whether through misinformation, obfuscation or suppression: the Iraq War; the Afghan War; Palestine; Yemen; the last US President and Julian Assange being just a few examples.

This indeed recalls Shakespeare's Othello, in which our tragic hero is persuaded by the constant whispering deceit of Iago into succumbing to "the green-eyed monster," and murdering his innocent young wife. While being nowhere near as serious or consequential a case of misinformation as many, this error by the Guardian in accepting (if I am right) the misidentification of Head of A Negro as Paul Robeson is another reason for us to "beware of the mainstream media."

Art as a weapon to defend the oppressed
Friday, 23 February 2024 10:21

Art as a weapon to defend the oppressed

Published in Music

Tayo Aluko gives us the background to his one man show about Paul Robeson.

I remember singing Deep River in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool at a beautiful multi-faith service and concert many years ago. The word I would use for the occasion was simply, “beautiful.” We were celebrating Liverpool’s diversity in all forms. People from all over the world sharing music, culture, food, faith and shared humanity, enjoying the “brotherhood of man.” And then the bishop came onto the microphone to say, “I’m sorry to say that we have just heard that the United States has just started bombing Afghanistan.”

It may be difficult to remember now that the reason given then was that the Taliban were believed to have been responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. That was 2001. Thousands of wasted lives and trillions of wasted dollars later, Afghanistan is still a mess, and her people are still seeking peace and safety around the globe. Since then, we have had Iraq, we have had Egypt, and we have had Syria.

I was preparing to go down to London to promote two plays in which that song features, and the lyrics came back to me on the train: “Deep River / my home is over Jordan / Oh, Deep River, Lord / I want to cross over into camp ground” Those words were put together hundreds of years ago by enslaved Africans in America, at a time when they dreamed of a life free from bondage, where their toil would be for nourishment of themselves and their own families, and not “De massa” who traded them like cattle, and worked them literally to death.

I had encountered the song many years before I was introduced to one of the people who popularised it in modern times – Paul Robeson – whose own father had indeed been born into slavery in North Carolina. I was introduced to him because someone heard me singing another spiritual – My Lord, What A Morning – and told me I reminded her of him. The music that had been created by his ancestors had linked me to this most amazing man. And what a morning to recall the introduction, because I woke up to the news that the US had just dropped a salvo of Tomahawks on Syria. I was on my way down to the Trades Union Congress Black Members’ Conference in London, to promote my play, and I found that there were many delegates there who hadn’t heard of Robeson. This didn’t surprise me, because even though as an artist he was one of the most famous Americans of his day, his story has been swept under the carpet in a process that started even before he died some 41 years ago. His problem was that he didn’t confine his activities to pure entertainment. This is an example of the kind of thing he used to say:

A day or two ago, the British Foreign Minister said, and I quote, “If we do not want to have total war, we must have total peace”. For once, I agree with him. But Mr. Bevin must be totally blind if he cannot see that the absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

That was part of a speech he made in Madison Square Garden in 1946, at a rally in which he was supporting the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party – a complete outsider who was then resoundingly beaten. Today’s equivalent would be Beyoncé backing Jill Stein, the leader of the Green Party in the US, about whom most Americans have never even heard, since the media so determinedly and effectively sidelines real progressives.

Still, Robeson was prepared to risk his livelihood by taking that stance, because he knew that his country’s and indeed the world’s future was at stake, and that nothing on offer from the two main parties remotely came close to addressing the real issues, and particularly the shameful history of imperialism which politicians deliberately forget to explain to their populations – that is if they were aware of that history in the first place themselves.

In the twenty two years since I first encountered Paul Robeson, I have been determined to share his story with as many people as I can, and in the last ten, have been privileged to do so to small audiences as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as New Zealand. This has been in the form of a one-man play, to audiences ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred – hardly the numbers that will cause a world revolution any time soon. The fact however remains, that one woman, thanks to one song created hundreds of years ago by people in bondage, mentioned one name to me, and that sparked a major change in one life – mine. Through the medium of art, this story, encompassing much of world history, continues to be shared around the world, and who knows how many other lives are changed in the process.

One acknowledges that changing the system we find ourselves in is like turning round the proverbial supertanker: it happens incredibly slowly. Still, to take the metaphor further, even the largest supertanker can be sunk if it develops enough tiny leaks. And the tools with which such leaks can be made are the ones that artists use – words and music included. That is the reason people like Robeson were considered as particularly dangerous, because in his hands, and through his voice, these tools were especially effective. He it was who described his art as his weapon in defence of his people and all oppressed people of the world.

Some of the dreams his ancestors dreamed have come true, wholly or partially. They bequeathed their art to us to continue to use as weapons in today’s battles. Today’s struggles can sometimes seem easier in comparison to yesterday’s, and thanks to people like Robeson to link us to those ancestors, we are reminded that we indeed have powerful weapons at our disposal – weapons that are more awesome than those our leaders unleash with devastating consequences. That we are not just hoping and praying, but re-energising and re-arming ourselves and others, when we sing words like:

Oh don’t you want to go / to dat gospel feast? / Dat promised land / where all is peace....