August 18, 2019 | 83° F

VACCHIANO: Paul Robeson’s history should be sufficiently evaluated

Opinions Column: Tory Time


If one thing were true in this world, it’s that Rutgers loves Paul Robeson: He’s featured on Rutgers' promotional posters across campus, there's a cultural center named after him and last semester they even revealed plans to have a memorial in honor of him across from Old Queens. While getting off the bus at the Student Activities Center, it’s impossible to miss the giant “Revolutionary for 250 Years” advertisement hanging on Hardenbergh Hall, featuring an image of Robeson. 

Indeed, Robeson was an accomplished graduate of Rutgers. He was active on campus as one of the first African-American students at Rutgers, was a member of Cap and Skull, graduated with honors in 1919 and went on to become a famous stage actor and civil rights advocate. His career was cut short when he was targeted by McCarthy, and then his life took tragic turns, as he spent the remainder of his life in seclusion until he died in 1976. For a long time, his contributions to society had gone unnoticed. Rutgers’ focus on Robeson is presumably a way to reverse that, but the problem is that there is no discussion of that narrative of his legacy.

Paul Robeson was also a sympathizer of the Soviet Union, one of the most oppressive regimes to exist in human history. According to Martin B. Duberman’s biography, Robeson firmly denied that any persecution had existed in the Soviet Union at the time in an attempt to protect the country’s reputation. According to the Black Book of Communism, the communist regime of the Soviet Union killed 20 million people — at least twice as many people as those who had died in the Holocaust. If we were to go with a rough estimate of 2.8 million people, the Soviet death count is also more than seven times greater than every American who had died in a war since 1775. The Soviet Union did, indeed, persecute its people. Robeson knew this but kept his endorsement.

There’s a few problems with exonerating Robeson without any discussion of his legacy. First, it is extremely hypocritical, because Rutgers seems very open about holding discussion groups about Milo Yiannopoulos’s visit or forums about Condoleezza Rice’s commencement invitation, but having a debate about a leftist figure is somehow not a priority. Rutgers also has a very famous alumnus who gets no attention from the University: Milton Friedman, who was one of the most influential economists of all time. Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976 and is tied with John Maynard Keynes as the most influential economist of the 20th century. As far as history goes, Friedman is put below only Adam Smith and Karl Marx in terms of fame and influence. One would think that Rutgers would name a school after him, or at least a building.

Perhaps it’s because Friedman was a controversial figure. He was an advisor to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whose mere names provoke unfathomable hatred to the average left-leaning college student. Friedman’s visit to Chile during dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule to endorse free-market ideas was also heavily criticized because of the oppressive nature of Pinochet’s right-wing regime.

Friedman and Robeson are both remarkably similar men. Both went to Rutgers and were active and brilliant students, both are well-known (although Friedman more so) and accomplished a great deal and both neglected to denounce their unfortunate semi-connections with dictators. Friedman defended himself by saying that his lectures on free-market capitalism would undermine Pinochet’s regime. Friedman also never explicitly endorsed Pinochet. Robeson supported the Soviet Union because he felt the country did not have the same institutional racism as the United States had at that time. After stepping onto Soviet soil, Robeson said, "Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity." But the 20 million people who were killed by the Soviet regime weren’t allowed human dignity.

There ought to be more discussion and evaluation about Paul Robeson’s legacy at Rutgers, instead of blindly asserting that he was a perfect man who deserves the face of the “Revolutionary for 250 Years” campaign because he also happened to stand for diversity. Indeed, Robeson made many valuable artistic achievements as an actor and a civil rights advocate. But his endorsement of Stalinism is really something that Rutgers ought address before it presumably shuns other graduates for also being associated with dictators. How is Robeson a “global humanitarian” when he endorsed a regime that killed millions of people? This is a question that should be answered.

Andrea Vacchiano is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore double-majoring in history and political science. Her column, "Tory Time," runs on alternate Fridays.

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Andrea Vacchiano

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