At a ceremony last week, the United States Embassy in Jamaica named its Information Resource Center for the African American singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson.
Ironically, 52 years ago, the State Department revoked Robeson’s passport because of his outspoken opposition to U.S. Cold War policies abroad and Jim Crow racism at home, his activism on behalf of labor and civil rights, and his association with the Communist Party USA. The action was a blow aimed at Robeson’s international role as a performer and advocate for peace and the common interests of working people throughout the world. After an eight-year struggle, and the waning of the McCarthy witch-hunt era, the State Department restored his passport in 1958.
The idea of naming the information center for Robeson did not originate with the State Department. The embassy in Jamaica says it was the result of an essay contest among Jamaican high school students to name the center, in observance of Black History Month. “The aim of this competition was to have the IRC named after the historical figure selected in the winning essay,” the embassy says on its website. “The legendary Paul Robeson was the character highlighted in the winning essay.” The essay, titled “The Soul of a Continent,” was written by high school student Kathy Smith, who is now a first-year law student at the University of the West Indies.
It would be interesting to know what discussion take place among State Department officials on the matter, but evidently the Robeson naming – so unthinkable five decades ago – got a green light from Washington.
The Jan. 23 embassy ceremony in Kingston, Jamaica, was timed to coincide with Robeson’s death 36 years ago.
Robeson’s granddaughter Susan Robeson, a documentary filmmaker and chair of the Paul Robeson Foundation, unveiled a plaque at the entrance to the information center commemorating her grandfather.
She recalled Paul Robeson’s campaign against racism in the U.S. and friendship with the Soviet Union that resulted in him being banned from performing and travelling abroad, the Jamaica Observer reported.
She also noted the warm reception her grandfather received during his 1948 visit to Jamaica, where 80,000 gathered to hear him sing and “embraced him as a man of the people.”
“There were five basic principles that guided his life,” Susan Robeson said. “Strive for excellence, be the best you can possibly be through hard work and discipline, aim for perfection instead of just being as good as or better than someone else; success without advancing the interest of our people as a whole was worthless; the pursuit of knowledge is a quest that never ends; have the courage of your conviction and be willing to make sacrifices to do the right thing; And when life gets tough, step into it, not away from it.”
U.S. Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater said Robeson used culture as a tool and platform to fight injustice, the Observer reported.
“Paul Robeson faced many challenges throughout his life, but he remained a sterling and shining example of patriotism, pride, elegance and humility,” Bridgewater said.
In 2003, after a six-year grassroots petition campaign, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating Robeson’s life.
People’s World file photo.