Paul Robeson:
The Museum and the Midrash.


Until Friday, August 14, I considered Paul Robeson (1898-1976)--the great singer, actor and political activist---the prime example why artists should stay out of politics. Generally, artists are naive. They don’t know what they are talking about. They are manipulated by the people with agendas. Robeson moved left when the country moved right. His career was destroyed by McCarthyism and the Cold War.

Then I visited the Paul Robeson House at 4951 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Robeson lived there in his declining years with his sister after the death of his wife. The house, actually a museum in the making, is the project of neighborhood civic and cultural groups and staffed by loving senior citizens. It is here that I learned about the Man and the Midrash.

In the Jewish world, Midrash are the stories around the Biblical texts. You might call Midrash the film left on the cutting room floor---the film that did not make it into the movie. In a secular sense, the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree would be Midrash. The story may not be accurate, but the Midrash speaks to Washington’s integrity.

The Robeson House was short on history. There were panels with photos and text from a national tour. The panels were excellent, but there were no audios of his singing or videos of his movies. However, history can be dry. I got Midrash, rich and loving, told by staff who believed in his greatness.

Robeson and his wife came from distinguished lineage. The Philadelphia neighborhood of Bustleton was named after his white Quaker ancestors.

His black ancestor, Cyrus Bustill, bought his freedom out of slavery. He was a baker. He lived a block and a half down Arch Street from Betsy Ross. He sent bread to Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.

Robeson’s father escaped from slavery, went to Lincoln University, and became a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey.

Growing up, Robeson studied hard, excelling in almost all white schools, winning scholarships, and starring in athletics. Racism blocked his career in law. He directed his brilliance to singing and acting. He was a star on the world stage.


In England, Robeson had his political awakening. He learned about imperialism, fascism, Pan Africanism, and got a new understanding of American racism. Robeson became an international celebrity supporting causes on the left.

He visited Spain during the Civil War to entertain Loyalist (Republican) troops. His voice carried over the battle lines, and both sides stopped fighting during his concert.

During the Cold War, he spoke favorably about the Soviet Union, According to the guide, Robeson spoke privately against Soviet repression. However, publicly he did not dissent. He saw the Soviet Union as a balance against imperialism.

As the Cold War progressed, Robeson’s career and his health declined.
He lost his passport. The guide said that the FBI offered to restore his passport if Robeson would agree only to entertain abroad without speaking about politics.
Robeson declined.

The guide said that the CIA had secretly poisoned Robeson with an early form of LSD, thereby causing the depression he suffered in later years. There had been no history of depression in Robeson’s family.

When Martin Luther King hit his zenith, Robeson declined to join the civil rights struggle as a celebrity. By that time, Robeson’s voice and health had declined. If he could not be the real Robeson, he did not want to be seen publicly endorsing the cause.

Whether history or Midrash, the stories gave me a sense of Robeson as a world class entertainer and a towering but tragic activist.

The guide said that Robeson was not naive. He knew exactly what he was doing politically and he accepted the risks.

I will not comment on Robeson’s politics. His tragedy and his courage are the story. The Midrash made the museum.