In a ceremony befitting President Obama’s vision of a repentant postmodern America, a section of the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica has been named after a propagandist for Stalinist Russia and darling of the international left – the controversial African-American stage actor and social activist Paul Robeson.
The Embassy’s Information Resource Center that boasts housing “the definitive collection of Americana” in Jamaica is now named the “Paul Robeson Information Resource Center.” During the renaming ceremony, U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela E. Bridgewater called Robeson a patriotic American.
Her remarks surely pleased Jamaica’s left-leaning government and its many anti-American elites. They regard Robeson as a kindred spirit — a famous ideologue of the old left who blazed a trail for them: stalwart members of today’s postmodern left. In recent years, they have pushed for slave reparations from Britain, promoted a chummy relationship with Cuba, and proven problematic partners in the war on Islamic-inspired terrorism.
Ultimately, the renaming appears to be part of President Obama’s reset of America’s foreign policy – and how a postmodern America ought to interact with the world and be perceived by it.
It’s not that Robeson’s resume lacks some stellar achievements, a fact that Bridgewater – an African-American whose father was a jazz trumpeter – surely had in mind. A famous stage actor and singer in the 1920s and 30s, Robeson was an all-American athlete and class valedictorian at Rutgers University. He subsequently earned a law degree from Columbia University, and though he briefly practiced law it’s said he ended his legal career because of limited opportunities for black lawyers, and an alleged incident in which a white legal secretary refused to take dictation from him.
Many regard Robeson as a 20th Century Renaissance man. Yet like many among the morally confused left during the 1940s and 50s, Robeson embraced communism. And while most black Americans stood by their country, Robeson stood against it by serving as a high-profile propagandist for Stalinist Russia — a dangerous existential enemy of America and the West. He was controversial and polarizing. In 1949, when Robeson declared that African-Americans should refuse to take up arms against Stalinist Russia, American boxer Sugar Ray Robinson was quoted as saying that although he’d never met Robeson, he would “punch him in the mouth” if they ever met.
Like Hollywood’s outspoken leftist celebrities, Robeson traveled the world to promote his odious political views. This included high-profile trips behind the Iron Curtain, to Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, to demonstrate solidarity with Joseph Stalin and the communist cause. He spoke and sang at large rallies and gatherings – high-visibility events generating newspaper headlines and featured on Pathe’s newsreels.
Robeson fashioned himself as a man of the people. Yet when Hungarians revolted against their Soviet masters, he likened them to fascists. Referring to politically-motivated killings in Stalinist Russia, he observed: “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!”
When Stalin died in 1953, Robeson – winner of the Stalin Peace Prize a year earlier – praised him in a glowing eulogy as a great man. “One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin – the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future,” he wrote.
Many of Robeson’s fellow leftists were horrified at Stalin’s crimes in Russia and aggression abroad. They publicly condemned what was happening — even to the point of renouncing communism. But not Robeson. Appearing in 1956 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he refused to condemn Russia’s labor camps where millions perished – yet in the same breath he bitterly condemned his own country’s legacy of slavery. Robeson’s outrage was selective. He was enraged by every lynching that ever occurred in the Jim Crow South – yet he never raised his voice against millions of state-sponsored lynchings in Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. He regarded them as color-blind societies where social justice and egalitarianism prevailed.
Robeson’s outspoken political views were repugnant, a fact even acknowledged today by some leftists. “Yes, Paul Robeson Was an Unrepentant Stalinist,” declared a Robeson-bashing article in the left-wing Daily Kos. Yet U.S. Ambassador Bridgewater nevertheless praised Robeson as a great American during the embassy’s renaming ceremony that coincided with the 36th anniversary of his death on January 23, 1976, at age 77. “Paul Robeson faced many challenges throughout his life, but he remained a sterling and shining example of patriotism, pride, elegance and humility,” said Bridgewater, 64, a 32-year veteran of the foreign service.
The renaming generated much positive publicity in Jamaica, a country with a love-hate relationship with the United States. Robeson’s granddaughter Susan Robeson, a filmmaker and activist, was among more than 150 visitors on hand, including a number of students. One newspaper headline declared: “Robeson’s Shining Example Lights Up U.S. Embassy.” Now, many young Jamaicans are learning for the first time about Robeson; and no doubt they’re learning a narrative that’s popular among Jamaica’s influential leftist political circles: Paul Robeson was a black man who sought social justice for America’s oppressed blacks, and as a result he was blacklisted and persecuted by America’s racist and reactionary government. A former British colony, the island of 2.7 million is overwhelmingly of African descent.
The story behind the Robeson renaming is purely Obamaesque, and is perhaps an indication of what’s been quietly happening at U.S. Embassies around the globe. Early last year, in observance of Black History Month, the U.S. Embassy in Kingston launched an essay contest for high school students, asking them to propose a historical figure after which the the Embassy’s popular Information Resource Center should be named.
The winning essay by Kathy Smith, “The Soul of a Continent,” put forth Paul Robeson with whom Smith identified, in part, out of a sense of racial solidarity. “Robeson sung songs of equality and anti-hate, as if spurred by the soul of a continent,” Smith wrote – with her reference to “continent” being a reference to Africa. “His baritone voice told the truths of a man desperate to retain his thought-soul, his identity and African spirit.”
Smith, now a law student at the University of West Indies in Jamaica, is correct about one thing: Robeson’s rich baritone voice is indeed associated with a number of memorable American songs including “Old Man River,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Let My People Go.” Yet Robeson also is famous for singing an English-language version of the Soviet National Anthem – a powerful and heartfelt rendition that may be heard on the YouTube clip reproduced here.
The U.S. Embassy in Jamaica failed to respond to an e-mail query regarding the renaming — and who approved it. But Ambassador Bridgewater certainly had a major role in it. So did whoever in the State Department gave her a green-light – an approval no doubt reflecting President Obama’s reset of U.S. foreign policy. In this reset, America no longer defines who it is to the world. That would be arrogant. Instead, the world is allowed to decide who America’s heroes ought to be.
How times change. During the Bush years – when I was a journalist based in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, the U.S. Embassy sought to counter the island’s anti-Americanism, which went into a chest-thumping rage over Bush’s post-9/11 war on terrorism and invasion of Iraq. Those efforts were described in an article of mine for theWashington Times, “Answering Anti-Americanism.” Now, Ambassador Bridgewater and her State Department facilitators appear to be throwing a bone to Jamaica’s left-leaning People’s National Party and its anti-American cheerleaders: people, to be sure, who don’t represent the views of most ordinary Jamaicans.
Words and deeds matter. By honoring Paul Robeson, the U.S Embassy may be giving a boost to anti-Americanism and in turn Jamaica’s potential for Islamic-inspired terrorism by young men attracted to jihad’s anti-Western message. It’s a strange fact: Jamaica has only a tiny Muslim population; yet it has links to a unusually large number of Islamic-inspired terror outrages and plots. These include the London subway bombings; Washington’s beltway sniper shootings; and “shoe bomber” Richard Reed’s aborted attempt to blow up an American Airlines jet.
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