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Paul Robeson, as shown in this file photo, was the greatest football player of his time, a renowned entertainer and a scholar. But he is best known for being what he really was not -- a communist. (AP)
Paul Robeson, as shown in this file photo, was the greatest football player of his time, a renowned entertainer and a scholar. But he is best known for being what he really was not -- a communist. (AP)

Marcus Gee

Honouring Robeson overlooks his sympathizing with Stalin Add to ...

Today at City Hall Mayor David Miller is to help unveil a poster of the great African-American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson. The city says the poster is the first in a series "recognizing the global humanitarian efforts of individuals in the areas of equality, justice and diversity."

Fair enough, you might say. Toronto is a diverse city that is searching for role models. Robeson spoke out courageously about the oppression of blacks in the United States. But the city's display on Robeson completely glosses over the other side of his controversial career: his enthusiastic lifelong support for Soviet Communism.

Robeson, who died in 1976 at the age of 77, is a fascinating and in many ways admirable figure. The son of a onetime slave turned preacher, he became an all-American football player then won a degree from Columbia Law School. With his commanding presence and resonant voice, he gravitated to the theatre and the movies, playing Shakespeare's Othello on the London stage and becoming famous world over for his role as Joe in the musical Show Boat. His rendition of Ol' Man River is still moving to watch today.

But after a visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1934, he became captivated by the Soviet experiment. He accepted the Stalin Peace Prize from Moscow. He defended the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. He made excuses for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He praised the paper promises in the Soviet Constitution to punish racial discrimination and respect ethnic minorities. He chose to overlook the mass deportation and murder of minority groups that Stalin suspected of treason.

When challenged about Soviet anti-Semitism, he said that he "met Jewish people all over the place" in Russia and "I heard no word about it." When Moscow executed a group of "counter-revolutionary assassins" - its label for political opponents - he said that "they ought to destroy anybody who seeks to harm that great country."

Decades after other fellow travellers had seen the light about Soviet totalitarianism - long after George Orwell's Animal Farm or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon - Robeson remained a true believer. There is no record of him ever saying a bad word about the Soviet Union, no acknowledgment of the millions who died in the purges and the Gulag or suffered under the Kremlin's boot in Eastern Europe.

The city's presentation on Robeson in the City Hall rotunda ignores all of this, admitting only that "Robeson was perceived as being too pro-Soviet" and that "Paul Robeson's socially conscious approach would often be mistaken for communist tendencies." The worshipful photo display, titled "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," concludes that "Paul Robeson continues to represent strength, beauty and peace."

Coming just a few months after a similar City Hall display praised the glories of Fidel Castro's Cuba - not a word about persecution of homosexuals, dissidents and Christians - the Robeson presentation sends an unfortunate message to the thousands of refugees from Communism who live in Toronto, whether they are Russians, Hungarians, Czechs, Chinese or Vietnamese.

The presentation was put together by Ken Jeffers, the access and diversity manager at the parks and recreation division. A native of Trinidad who once campaigned in the U.S. civil-rights movement, he says that after the racism Robeson experienced at home, it is no surprise that he felt welcomed by the Soviet Union or that he was angry at the U.S. government, which took away his passport in the 1950s and had the FBI and the CIA spy on him.

As for Robeson "being a so-called Communist," Mr. Jeffers says, "I think Toronto needs to understand the spirit of this man rather than saying how terrible he was or what he didn't do."

But if the city is going to tell Torontonians about Robeson, shouldn't it present the bad along with the good? Isn't it better to draw a rounded picture and let people decide whether his virtues outweigh his sins?

Robeson was so enamoured with the Soviet Union that he shut his eyes to its faults. Let's not do the same to his.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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