Stamp of Approval?
Word on the street has it that the person who told us that hindsight is 20/20 vision was blind in one eye his damn self. And that explains why in 2004 it's increasingly difficult to recognize the difference between this country's history and its alibis.
Here history is a mass market of collectible heroes who are bereft of moral conflict and flaws, the dead equivalent of pop stars: American idol, 1776. Time was when there was restricted access to this kind of embalmed celebrity, but in recent years we've become way more democratic with our half-truths. Case in point: on Public Enemy's 1989 incendiary "Fight the Power," the rage prophet Chuck D rhymed:
"I'm black and I'm proud, I'm ready, I'm hype 'cause I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps."
But since that song first hit the airwaves, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and, most recently, Paul Robeson have appeared as part of the Post Office's Black History stamp series (Robeson's is the 27th issue in the series to date). On one level, this belated recognition of African American history is an indicator of how hard black people have fought to force the United States to recognize our centrality to the national storyline -- and how successful we've been. After centuries of whitelisting, black American historical figures have finally begun to emerge in the public consciousness.
Viewed from another angle, though, issuance of postage stamps is curiously ironic, given the relationship the US government has had with black dissenters and the current assault on civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism. It is no coincidence that so many black leaders in the 20th century have, at one point or another, found themselves behind bars. Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King were arrested -- and Hamer beaten viciously -- for having the audacity to demand that the United States obey its own Constitution. Marcus Garvey was arrested for mail fraud and deported after his Universal Negro Improvement Association began demanding an end to colonialism in Africa.
The list of those harassed or placed under federal surveillance is even longer: James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Bayard Rustin, Adam Clayton Powell and Roy Wilkins, among many others. Langston Hughes was not arrested, but was hauled before Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee and coerced into admitting that his early poems were unpatriotic and should be censored. Mary McLeod Bethune was accused of being a communist sympathizer for advocating equal rights. W.E.B. Du Bois was placed on trial at age 83 for allegedly violating the McCarran Act -- a piece of McCarthy-era legislation that made it illegal to work on behalf of a foreign government without registering with the State Department. (Du Bois' advocacy of peace amid growing threats of nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had been construed as near treason.) The accumulated weight of this history raises a question of whether belated recognition marks progress or an attempt to gloss over the undemocratic history of the Unites States -- to provide a racial alibi for America at large.
That Paul Robeson is being honored with a stamp in the current era of repression and political paranoia is the height of historical irony. The catalogue of Robeson's achievements is incredible, but his demise, amid allegations of being a communist in the 1950s, is almost a metaphor for the experience of black heroes who have been enstamped by the US Postal Service. Robeson was born in 1898 to parents who were both former slaves. His mother died in a fire when he was six years old. His father served as minister at a number of churches in New Jersey (being pushed out of at least one post due to racial factors) and settled in as the pastor of St. Luke A.M.E.-Zion church in Westfield. Paul Robeson entered Rutgers College in 1915 as only the third black student to be accepted by the school. He went on to earn 15 letters in sports during his time there, joined in the debate team and graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1919. He went on to Columbia University Law School, graduated in 1922 and practiced law briefly before becoming disillusioned with the racism practiced by New York law firms. He decided to embark upon a career as an actor and vocalist.
After landing theatrical roles in "Shuffle Along," "Black Boy" and "The Emperor Jones," he appeared in a 1930 production of Shakespeare's "Othello," eventually being recognized as the definitive enactor of the tragic Moor. Robeson had graduated to film in 1924 and starred in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul, but abandoned the genre because of the limited roles available to black actors. He traveled extensively, visiting Africa in the 1930s and becoming friends with a number of African students, including the Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta, who were actively fighting against European colonialism. He would eventually learn to speak over a half-dozen languages. Radicalized by his exposure to African struggles, Robeson began to articulate an increasingly critical perspective about racism and American politics. By the beginning of World War II, he was widely acclaimed as a vocalist, actor, athlete and intellectual. Paul Robeson was possibly the best known American artist in the world.
By 1949, however, the Cold War had begun to heat up and the lines between dissent and treason were deliberately blurred. Robeson's comments at a 1949 peace conference were deliberately misinterpreted to say that African Americans would never fight in a war against the Soviet Union. The denunciations came with fury and swiftness: Walter White, Jackie Robinson and Mary McLeod Bethune lined up to distance themselves from him. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, where he refused to state whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party. Robeson, though he had a number of friends who were Communists and had himself visited the Soviet Union more than once, had never been a member of the Communist Party. His issue with the McCarthy inquisition was a moral one: he objected to any form of political expression being criminalized and saw McCarthy as a greater threat to the Constitution than Communism was. Asked by a committee member why he didn't simply move permanently to the Soviet Union, Robeson famously replied: "Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?"
There would be consequences for this kind of democratic audacity. Robeson was refused permission to perform in venues across the country and his passport was revoked, making it impossible for him to tour abroad. His alma mater, Rutgers University, omitted his name from its list of football greats and all but dismissed his significance as an alumnus of the institution. A planned concert in Peekskill, New York, devolved into a riot when local residents began throwing bricks through the car windows of Robeson's entourage. Within a decade, the most famous black person in the world had quite simply disappeared.
Robeson could have ended his internal exile by simply stating that he was not a Communist, but to do so ran counter to his deep belief in intellectual freedom. He fell into financial ruin. The accumulated strains -- along with his discovery of the horrors of Stalin's tyranny in the USSR -- took their toll; he suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that it was illegal to deny a passport to a citizen on the basis of political beliefs and Robeson was allowed to travel abroad later that year. He performed internationally, but never came close to his former prominence. He died in 1976, a legend who had been quietly forgotten.
With a sitting President who tells the world, "you are either with us or against us," endorses secret military tribunals, and condones eavesdropping on confidential discussions between a person and his or her attorney, it's almost impossible to ask whether the Robeson stamp is tribute or hypocrisy. These days, presidents visit Martin Luther King's tomb -- before appointing former segregationists to the federal bench. And a defamed icon is given accolades a half-century after his life was ruined by an overzealous government that had declared Communism its primary threat and told him that he was either with us or against us. With history as an alibi, you can't expect anyone to plead guilty.
William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse.