The strong, humanist glow of Paul Robeson, the legendary Black actor, singer, athlete, intellectual and civil rights activist, will grace the U.S. Postal service’s Black Heritage stamp series come January.
“It will serve as a centerpiece for Black History Month celebrations throughout the nation,” says postal service spokesman Roy Betts.
Robeson’s simultaneous contributions to American culture and civil rights awareness are practically unequaled by any of his peers. His death during the turbulent civil strife of the 1960s was fitting in that he risked career and status during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to get civil liberty protections for African Americans codified into law. It was as if the old lion had passed the baton to the next generation.
During the communist-baiting American political landscape of the 1950s, as epitomized by the demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who hauled scores of Americans before Senate hearings to testify on their affiliations with Communism, Robeson’s passport was yanked and he was forbidden to travel abroad because of speeches he gave at Black churches and concert halls.
His ultra-deep bass voice was acclaimed worldwide, and when heard today on a recording of “Deep River,” still chills. His classic album, “Ballad for Americans,” contains the title song introduced on CBS Radio in the mid-1940s when World War II was at its height. It spoke of the contribution of all Americans — Black, Red, White, Yellow, Brown — in making this country a very special place to live.
For efforts such as this, along with speaking out against such things as the economically discriminating poll tax practiced against Blacks in the South to keep them from voting, Robeson was labeled a Communist (which he wasn’t) and persecuted by politicians and bigots. A riot ensued when his sold-out concert in Peekskill, N.Y., in the late 1940s, was disrupted by Robeson-haters.
He made several films, both in Hollywood and in England. He hated all of them, and eventually stopped making them. “They wanted me to play a certain type of passive Negro, and I refused,” he was quoted as saying. He, like his fire-brand political soul mate singer-actress Ethel Waters, would even change the lyrics of songs. His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” substituted the word “men” for “darkies.” Among his films, the British-made “Emperor Jones” shows him at his acting best, while Hollywood’s “Showboat” released in 1934 shows him as robust in both voice and body. He scored a Broadway success in the 1940s with his long-running interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
Orson Welles and several drama critics who saw Robeson’s performance have been quoted as saying it has never been equaled.
Later in the year after the issuance of the Robeson stamp, the postal service will release a commemorative Sickle Cell stamp to heighten awareness of the disease that singles out African Americans. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people have sickle cell disease, while more than 2 million have sickle cell trait by carrying one copy of the gene in their body.