Margaret Burroughs

 I am thinking of Paul Robeson now and I am thinking of myself. I am thinking that had it not been for Paul Robeson, for what he is, for what he believed, for what he stood and fought for, for what he sacrificed for, that I, myself, might not be, to a great degree, what I am, how I am, stand, fight for or hold the beliefs that I hold today. Perhaps I might not be imbued with certain ideals which are tremendously important to me. I am filled with gratitude as I think of how Paul Robeson, this so humane human, this beautiful man, this splendid son of the African peoples, this great American inspired me and certainly countless untold others like me. For years, Paul Robeson has been my barometer, a system of checks and balances to measure how much my life, our lives, have been involved with concern for people and the liberation of our own black people, or oppressed peoples all over the world.

I am thinking back to the time when I was seventeen. That is when my love affair with Paul Robeson began. And now I am remembering appreciatively my favorite Uncle Louis who presented me with a ticket to hear Paul Robeson in concert at Orchestra Hall, Chicago, Illinois. As an impressionable teenager, whose horizons were circumscribed by the black belt, as it was called in those days, I was magically entranced by the artistry, the dignity, the lucidity and the genius of the man. On that occasion, Paul Robeson meteorically ascended and became a star in my sky, a position which he occupies today, and ever will.

I remember how, after the concert, the audience was invited to attend a reception in honor of the singer and his family. It was to be at the Appomattox Club on Grand Boulevard, later South Parkway Avenue, now Dr Martin Luther King Drive. I took the number three bus and got off at 35th Street. I wanted to get a close look at this magnificent black artist. I remember how frightened and insignificant I felt surrounded by so many elegant and prominent people, both black and white. I was jostled along in the receiving line where I got a chance not only to shake Paul’s hand but also those of his wife, Eslanda, his son Pauli, about eight years of age at that time and his mother-in-law, Mrs Goode. Paul shook my hand, me, an insignificant, awed and frightened black daughter of a worker with just as much warmth, sincerity and interest as he did the furred and sequined fancily dressed dowagers of the black bourgeoisie. Then Paul spoke of his travels in faraway lands and how much he learned from other peoples and their cultures. Throughout it all, he exuded love and respect for people, especially the common people.

From that moment on I was and am, until now, as I have said, transformed by the Robeson magic. As a high school student, I began to read everything I could find about my idol. I collected his records and made it my business to be present whenever he was scheduled to appear in Chicago. Via the news, I followed his travels to distant lands. In fact, my first knowledge of the existence of socialism was gleaned from reading reports of Paul Robeson’s travels in the USSR.

Whenever faced by grave and serious decisions, I would ask myself: what would Paul RObeson do or decide in this case ? What would Paul Robesonthink of this ? What side of this question would Paul Robeson take ? Whatever I concluded Paul would do, is what I did. Indirectly, his guidance and direction sustained me through the thirties and forties and steeled me to come unscathed through the inquisitions of the fifties.

I am now remembering how during the early fifties, those years of seeming incipient fascism, I was, as many others, questioned concerning my beliefs. I was called down before a Committee of the Chicago Schools and interrogated and pillories concerning my views, especially political. A key question was, “What do you think of Paul Robeson ?”. I answered, “Mr Robeson is a great artist. I am proud that I belong to the same race of people as he.” The inquisitors continued, “Dont you know he is supposed to be a communist sympathizer ? Why he even sent his son to school in Russia.” “I dont know what Mr RObeson’s sympathies are”, I said, “all I know is that he is a great man and a great artist and I guess he has the right to send his son to school wherever he wishes.” The intimidation of tha Committee or their veiled threats of separating me from my means of livelihood did not cause me to repudiate Paul Robeson. Now, almost twenty years later my appreciation of the contribution of this great man, not only to American life and culture, but to the life and culture of the world, has not diminished one iota.

I am remembering the humility and humanity of the man. When Paul played “Othello” in Chicago, along with some other admirers, I was invited to have dinner with him at his hotel. I remember how nervous and frightened I was as we went up in the elevator. I could hardly believe that I would be in the close presence of the great Paul Robeson. And to sit down and have dinner with him to boot ! As soon as we stepped from the elevator, the great man put me at ease when he said, “Come right on in and make yourself at home.”

Now, I am remembering that many people today date the fight against institutionalized racism from the early sixties. I am wondering if such militant protests and demonstrations would ever have surfaced, if it had not been for the groundwork previously laid at great personal sacrifice by a Paul Robeson. At a time when many of today’s most militant militants were in swaddling clothes, Paul Robeson ripped the cover off and exposed the racist establishment for what it was, is. And that establishment wreaked its vengeance upon him by pulling down a curtain of silence and vilification. That is why two generations of black and white youth too, are not aware of Paul Robeson, surely the tallest tree in the forest. 

On Paul’s last several visits to Chicago when he sang and spoke to predominantly working people, safe in the heart of the black communities, I had the honor of being a sort of Girl Friday to him. The last time I heard him sing before his retirement was at Mandel Hall. with me at this concert was a very special guest, my seventy-five year old Uncle Louis, who gifted me with my first Paul Robeson concert ticket twenty years before, the one which transformed my life and so many others.