Posts Tagged ‘Moscow’

The Paul Robeson Mural

As I was riding along the U Street corridor during this bike ride, I looked down an alley next to the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute, located at 1351 U Street (MAP), and caught a glimpse of a mural that necessitated turning around and going back to get a closer look.  The mural is entitled “Living Time Line: Paul Robeson,” and is the work of lead muralists Cory L. Stowers and Andrew Katz, their artist conclave known as ART BLOC (comprised of Eric B. Ricks, Maria Miller, Serena Z, Ernesto Zelaya, Jaa), and made possible with the permission of the building owner, and funding from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

The mural depicts the life of Paul Robeson, who became famous as an American bass baritone concert artist and a stage and film actor known for productions like “The Emperor Jones” and “Othello.”  But in addition to his cultural accomplishments, he was also equally famous for his political activism.  An example of a 20th-century Renaissance man, his talents made him revered during his time, but his radical political beliefs and activism all but erased him from popular history.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five children born to Maria Louisa Bustill, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family, and William Drew Robeson, an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister.  After his mother, who was nearly blind, died in a fire when he was only six years old, his father moved the family, eventually landing in Somerville, New Jersey, where he grew up.  After high school, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University, where he won 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track, before graduating as the valedictorian of the class of 1919.  He then went on to from Columbia University School of Law.  While attending law school he sang and acted in off-campus productions, and also played football for the National Football League.  It was also while at Columbia Law School that he met and married his wife, Eslanda Cordoza Goode.  He graduated from Columbia with an LL.B. in 1923.

After completing his education Robeson took a job with a law firm.  But he resigned when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.  It was at this pivotal time that he left the practice of law, and decided to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture.  This decision would define the rest of his life.

After leaving the practice of law, Robeson began his career as an actor and a singer.  It was a career that would take him around the world during the 1930’s.  In London, he earned international acclaim for his lead acting role in “Othello,” for which he won the Donaldson Award for Best Acting Performance, and performed in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, “Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”  And he used his deep baritone voice to sing black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time.  He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa, and became known as a citizen of the world, equally comfortable with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, Helsinki and Harlem.

But it was during these travels that he learned racism was not as virulent in Europe as it was back in the United States.  Back at home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him, theaters in New York would only seat blacks in the upper balconies, and his performances were often surrounded with threats or outright harassment.  It was a lesson that profoundly affected him and never left him.

During the 1940’s, Robeson continued to perform and to speak out against racism.  He was a champion of working people and organized labor. He spoke and performed at strikes and rallies, conferences, and labor festivals worldwide.  And as a passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It was during this time, when dissent was scarcely tolerated in the U.S., that Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism.  Because of his outspokenness in supporting civil rights causes and pro-Soviet policies, he was investigated by the FBI, and later accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a communist.  The accusation caused his income to plummet and nearly ended his career.  The attempt to silence him, however, did not succeed.

In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport when he would not recant his public activism and advocacy, leading to an eight-year battle to have it reinstated so he could travel again.  His passport was eventually restored as a result of the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles.  During those intervening years, Robeson moved to Harlem and published a periodical entitled “Freedom,” which was critical of United States policies.  He also studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for world peace, published his autobiography entitled “Here I Stand,” and sang at Carnegie Hall.  Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1960.  In ill health, he retired from public life in 1963.  Robeson died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

The Robeson mural concept stems from the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute’s efforts to introduce Paul Robeson to the current generation and re-introduce him to previous generations through the Paul Robeson “Here I Stand” Award galas at the nearby Lincoln Theatre.  The two-story mural features two large portraits of Robeson at opposite ends of the building’s dark grey wall, which bookend smaller depictions of him at different stages of his life.  One of many quotes attributed to Robeson, “I make no distinction between my work as an artist and my life as a human being,” is also prominently featured in the mural.

Much like the mural, this blog post is just a short introduction to the fascinating career, activism and life of Paul Robeson.  I suggest you go down and see the mural it for yourself, if you haven’t already.  And then for a more thorough understanding of the vastness of his thoughts and experiences, read Robeson’s autobiography, entitled “Here I Stand.”

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Other Paul Robeson quotes:

  • “We must join with the tens of millions all over the world who see in peace our most sacred responsibility.”
  • “As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.”
  • “I do not hesitate one second to state clearly and unmistakably: I belong to the American resistance movement which fights against American imperialism, just as the resistance movement fought against Hitler.”
  • “Yes, peace can and must be won, to save the world from the terrible destruction of World War III.”
  • “Four hundred million in India, and millions everywhere, have told you, precisely, that the colored people are not going to die for anybody: they are going to die for their independence.”
  • “In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being.”

 

AleksandrPushkinStatue01

Statue of Aleksandr Pushkin

While on a bike ride on the campus of George Washington University I came across a statue of the Russian poet and author, Aleksandr Pushkin. This made me wonder whether or not there are any statues of American literary figures in Russia. Later, when I was trying to find out information about the statue from my ride, I got the answer to my question. The statue of Aleksandr Pushkin was a gift from the government of Moscow to the city of D.C. as part of a cultural exchange between the two cities. In return, a statue of American poet Walt Whitman was erected in Moscow.

Located at the corner of 22nd Street and H Street (MAP), in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, ground was broken for the statue on June 6, 1999, the 200th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth. The statue was completed over the forthcoming year, and dedicated on September 20, 2000. It depicts the author in front of a column on which stands the winged horse Pegasus, symbolically representing poetry and creative inspiration. The Pushkin statue is thought to be the first monument in the United States which commemorates a Russian literary figure.

Aleksander Sergeyevich Pushkin was born into Russian nobility on June 6, 1799, in Moscow. He published his first poem at the age of fifteen. And by the time he finished school as part of the first graduating class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum near Saint Petersburg, his talent was already widely recognized within Russian literary circles. After completing school, Pushkin became committed to social reform and emerged as a spokesman for literary radicals. This angered the government, and led to his transfer from the capital.

After five years in exile, he was granted permission to personally petition Tsar Nicholas I for his release, which was granted. However, some of his writings were subsequently found in the possession of radicals after the Decembrist Uprising in Saint Petersburg, and Pushkin quickly found himself under the strict control of government censors, and was again unable to travel or publish at will.  But it was during this time that Pushkin wrote some of his now most famous works.

Pushkin eventually was able to regain favor with the Tsarist government. However, many including Pushkin speculated that it was because of his marriage to the young Nataliya Nikolaevna Goncharova, who he had met when he was almost 30 and she was only 16 years old.  Natalya had many admirers, among them the Tsar himself.  Natalya accepted Pushkin’s marriage proposal only after she received assurances that the government had no intentions to persecute the poet.  And later, when the Tsar gave Pushkin a court title, the poet became enraged, feeling that the Tsar intended to humiliate him by giving him the lowest court title solely so that his wife could properly attend court balls and events.

By 1837, Pushkin was faced with scandalous rumors that his wife had embarked on a love affair.  In response, the poet challenged Natalya’s alleged lover, her brother in-law Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès, to a duel. Notoriously touchy about his honor, Pushkin fought as many as twenty-nine duels during his lifetime. The one with d’Anthès would be his last.  Although the other man was injured, Pushkin was shot through the spleen and died two days later, on February 10, 1837.

Although he was only 37 years old at the time of his death, Pushkin was somewhat prolific in his writing, particularly in comparison to more recent writers. He wrote narrative poems, verse novels, dramas, prose, and fairy tales in verse. And his writing is so complex that works which originally comprised only about a hundred pages would require two full volumes of material to translate and fully render its meaning in English.  Because of this difficulty in translation, Pushkin’s verse remains largely unknown to English readers. However, in his native Russia he is considered by many to be their greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.

I doubt I will ever ride to Moscow State University in Russia to see the statue of Walt Whitman, which was unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October of 1999. Perhaps I will be able to read more about it someday from a Russian blogger.  But there are places here in D.C. associated with Walt Whitman, who was a resident of the city for ten years.  I plan to ride to some of those places in the future.