Activist and scholar Norman Finkelstein on the great black American singer Paul Robeson...
In the 1960s everyone was listening to rock and psychedelic music. I sat at home, alone, listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers.
In the early 1970s I discovered Paul Robeson. He exerted a huge influence on me in my youth.
Most people nowadays have never heard of Robeson. He was an African-American renaissance man: extraordinary athlete, scholar, linguist, actor.
He was also a Communist, committed to the Soviet Union.
During the McCarthy era, he famously said that "I will not retreat one thousandth part of one inch," which became my credo in life.
Ultimately, Robeson's pro-Soviet beliefs destroyed his professional career and, once the truth about Stalinism came out (like many others, he was quite naive), my impression is that it destroyed him internally.
Robeson was best known for his rendering of folk music from around the world, first and foremost, African-American spirituals. Initially I enjoyed listening to Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and the more lively spirituals, but over time I came to appreciate the slower, drawn out ones. They expressed the deepest yearnings of an oppressed people, with which I could identify. His renderings of Russian and Yiddish melodies also resonated.
It's an era that's past, probably for the better, so no one reading this can possibly understand the sentiments his music awakened in me.
But the music, the person -- the willingness to make sacrifices for an ideal and for a cause (however mistaken) -- moved me in my youth and gave me a sense of purpose, as well as of solace in moments of setback and defeat.
After I was denied tenure I started listening to Robeson again.
"Nobody knows the troubles I've seen,/Nobody knows my sorrows."
"Were you there,/ When they crucified my Lord?"
"Go down Moses,/Way down in Egypt's land,/And let my people go!"
"Some come crippled,/Some come lame,/Some come walking in Jesus name,/Bear the burden,/In the heat of the day."
I still keep a picture of Robeson pinned to the wall above my desk.
Norman Finkelstein is one of the world's foremost scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict. You can read a recent NLP review of his latest book 'Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End' here.
Previously in the rebel music series: