May 1, 2016: In conjunction with Open Plan: Steve McQueen, Steve McQueen and Dr. Cornel West discuss the career and legacy of legendary singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson. This event occurred on May Day, a traditional springtime festival and international day honoring workers. May 1, 2016 is also the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Whitney’s new building.
SM: Well, thank you for coming. I just want to pass on the fact that Harry obviously isn’t here today, and we are all thinking of him, and I just want to start the discussion. Everyone’s very happy to have Dr. Cornel West, and the whole idea of May Day, the first of May, Workers’ Day. I remember as a kid, and my father, who worked for London Transport, he was a builder, and that was a very big day in our house because, you know, the political aspects of Workers’ Day, and, of course, we had a national holiday on that day, but Mrs. Margaret Thatcher moved that day. She could actually do that; she could move the holiday so there wasn’t a Workers’ Day, there wasn’t a May Day anymore. That’s in the story. So I suppose what I wanted to start of with – can we get the first image, please, of Mr. Robeson. So I first found out – I want to ask you after I, how you first found out about Paul, because I first found out about Paul Robeson through a neighbor of mine, called Milton. And in my area of London, West London, I was living in Shepherd’s Bush, which is in a city, but then we moved out into the suburbs, and I think that was a big reason why I’m sitting here now. The (inaudible) sub is called Ealing, and in this neighborhood there was a lot of West Indian people living, and Milton came from Grenada, which is obviously where my parents came from, so there were a few of us scattered around. And he used to mail things in my mailbox, you know, articles about, you know, whatever political aspects of the world was going on. He always used to mail it in my letterbox. And one day he mailed me a pamphlet on Paul Robeson, and it was “Miners celebrate Paul Robeson’s Birthday Anniversary.” And I thought, Welsh miners celebrating this black American guy, who’s that? And I had no idea, and that was my introduction to Paul Robeson through these Welsh miners. I just wondered how did you first have that connection yourself?
CW: Yeah, well I first want to say it’s just a blessing to be on the stage with such a towering artist, Steve McQueen. (applause). No, it’s very true, very true, and I want to thank my dear sister, Donna, one of the finest curators in the country for facilitating this. (applause) And we do want to accent the spirit of our dear brother, Harry Belafonte, because like Steve McQueen he stands in a tradition of free artists who are willing to tell the truth and the condition of truth, and not only to allow suffering to speak but stay in contact with the humanity of those that you are depicting, and that’s a challenge, not just for Hollywood, but a host of artists across the board. And so when I actually got the chance to become acquainted with Paul Robeson, it was in the Breakfast Program of the Black Panther Party. I was teaching in Jamaica Plain. I was then a student in Cambridge, and we had educational time for young people. And in 1950 we had We Charge Genocide, William Patterson, going to the United Nations, putting the United States on trial for the violation of the human rights of black people. And that’s very important because it would be just fourteen years later when Martin Luther King, Jr. would call Malcolm X, and Malcolm X called for the same thing, and Martin Luther King, Jr. said, I will join you, Malcolm. That’s June ’64. I will join you Malcolm and do exactly the same thing that Paul Robeson, Du Bois, William Patterson and others attempted to do. So I said to myself, hmm, I got to know more about Paul, and then I discovered I had actually seen him in films, but I didn’t know, you know, as a young teenager that he was such a great, a powerful and courageous artist. So he blew my mind. He blew my mind. And then after that, of course, I just went to the library. I read Here I Stand, oohh, Paul Robeson, yes indeed, indeed. And I read some biographical material, and I wanted to know, where did he come from, who was this Paul Leroy Robeson, the baby son of William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Robeson. His father was pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton. He was born in Princeton, 78 Witherspoon Street. He had been pushed out by Princeton University and other elites because he was too free a black preacher. And he ended up for awhile, as you know, he had a little buggy taking the Princeton students around having been the major black spokesman in Princeton, but he later on joined the AME Zion Church in tradition, and went on to become a magnificent pastor. And his mother died when he was six years old, so he didn’t know her that well, and his father would die when he’s seventeen. But his brother would end up pastor of Mother Bethel AME Zion Church in Harlem, on 35th Street, oh no, it’s a little bit further up actually, near City College. And so it turns out that there was this rich tradition in his family, in his family. His father went to Lincoln University, born a slave, 12 Years a Slave, born a slave. He ends up at Lincoln University, powerful pastor.
SM: So, on that note, this image behind us of Paul Robeson, fifty-six years ago today, it’s a pretty powerful image. I mean, it’s in Glasgow, you know, Queen’s Park, I’ve been there, you know, thousands of people. I think what, for me, what was so important about Paul when I was growing up, learning about him, was the fact that it was all about, I think, the whole idea of travel. When you’re an African American man who goes outside of America, and then he finds out, he discovers a bigger world, and a perspective on himself. It’s almost like the telescope has turned, and now he is the thing which is being looked at in perspective on the world, where it was the other way around when he was in the United States. Malcolm did the same, James Baldwin did the same, jazz musicians did the same, and it was about having a world perspective in order to find out what was going on back in the yard, but also what was going on in the world and how they changed, how that really sort of impacted them. And, you know, we have authors now going off and living in other countries because they want to have a bigger perspective. I was always surprised, I was also shocked in a way that how many people don’t have passports in this country, and how many people do not travel to have more of a global aspect to who you are and live your position in the world. Because it’s not, it’s like looking at your feet, when you catch me looking around you. I don’t know if you have any ideas about that.
CW: That’s, those are powerful points, though, very much so. It’s very interesting, in a certain sense Jack Johnson – one of the great symbols (?) – we were just talking about Prince. I was just at Sunset Boulevard, we had a tribute to Prince and all the musicians from Revolution and New Power Generation, all of those who worked with him. And Prince would always talk about Jack Johnson; that was his favorite figure.
SM: Wow, I didn’t know that.
CW: Ralph Ellison, Trading Twelves, with Albert Murray. Jack Johnson’s hero. And, of course, Miles Davis made an album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson. What was it about Jack Johnson globally, on the international stage? The only space of fairness in white supremacist America was a boxing ring where if you had fair rules, and under those fair rules, he’s knocking vanilla brothers out. So what does that mean? It’s an acknowledgment of black humanity; it’s acknowledgment of black excellence; it’s acknowledgement of black mastery, of craft, of art. And when he first knocked a white brother out, there were riots all across the nation, including right here in New York City on the subway. Front page: “Black man knocks out white man under conditions of fairness.” That’s subversive just at a symbolic level, so that’s Paul Robeson who becomes the most famous Negro in the whole world in the Thirties and Forties.
SM: I would say there was a moment when he was the most famous person in the world.
CW: Famous person in the world? Oh, man, that’s interesting, that’s interesting, my brother, that’s interesting.
SM: Let me pull that back in. Allow me, allow me. No, what I mean, I mean, you know, Paul sung – I don’t mean actually, languages he actually spoke in– but he sung in eleven languages. He was in China, he was in Russia, he was on a front in Spain, in Paris. I mean to be intimate, to be intimate – and what do I mean by intimate – because you’re singing a population’s language, you’re breaking their heart with your voice. You have to, I mean, and people knew him. I’m just saying, at a certain point – well, maybe a bit of a boast, but not too much of a boast I don’t think – at a certain point, he was one of the most famous people in the world.
CW: In the world.
SM: In fact, kill me, that’s a fact.
CW: No, you’ve got a strong case, you make a strong case. I mean given the fact that, you know, most of the people in the world were Chinese. Whoever was the leading Chinese singer could have been world famous, you know, in terms of the numbers, you know what I mean.
SM: Bingo. I told you, I told you.
CW: But it is true. I mean, I was thinking of FDR, I mean usually the heads of the empire, those elites at the top become highly visible all around the world for a variety of different reasons. But when it comes to that intimate connection – I love when you talk about that, that’s true – because when he’s singing, both the language that he grew up in, English, and then saying to 20 some other languages he knew, he’s making soul connections with people that FDR was not making.
SM: No, exactly, and I think, you know, when you think of, you know, black America, when you think of translating, when you think of reach, you think of musicians, and that pierces any barrier, any kind of moat, any kind of armor, it pierces it. And that humanity, that love, that versatility, that ability to do that is so far reaching, but now you have to bring your body there as well as your voice. That’s what I mean by Paul, excuse me, and Malcolm and so forth. Because when they were outside, I mean there’s a favorite quote about Paul Robeson, that Paul became African when he went to London because he was meeting so many international people there. He put himself into that sort of position, as an African, not necessarily as a Negro.
CW: That’s exactly right, meeting the African leaders who would move into powerful positions on the continent and so forth.
SM: Yeah, they went to school there.
CW: I think you make a powerful point. And there’s a sense in which the art and the music had already gone international, and he was actually going as one of the representatives of it because the Blues had already gone, the Spirituals had already gone. The Jubilee Singers have gone to Europe and created an economic foundation for Fisk University way back in the 1860s and 1870s, and Mr. Europe himself taking this band all around Europe itself. Europe, James Europe, he was a black –
SM: I was about to ask you who James Europe is, was.
CW: He was a black band conductor. He got there before – did I get that right, James Europe? I got that right. I want to make sure I got that right, though. I just got off the plane, so you –
SM: Hey, isn’t your arm tired holding that camera phone? We’ll give you the tape, we’ll give you the tape. You can watch us, right, so –
CW: He’s taking a picture, oh that was, you got stuck on that thing.
SM: No, he’s filming. We’ll give you a tape, we’ll give them a tape.
CW: I see, no, but James Europe had already traveled with black musicians all over Europe, and that’s before Fletcher Henderson and other, Duke, Count, Billy Eckstine and the other great ones.
SM: So this quote is –
CW: Oh, yeah, look at that.
SM: — on Paul Robeson’s grave, and I just think this is such a powerful, I mean to have that on your tombstone I think is just pretty amazing. And in relationship to, again, I’m going to throw – I think we have to be in the present, into the now as always – and I think in relationship to unfortunate Prince’s death, I think it’s interesting what we were talking about beforehand. I think it’s very, a very powerful statement. I think for the last twenty or more years that’s what Prince was talking about, about etonomy (?), and writing “Slave” on his face. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that as far as freedom is concerned, as far as art, and what Paul represented in a way, in a way that how you could bring, use your art in a way to sort of – how would I say – use your art as a way to start a debate in order to sort of create and such.
CW: Absolutely, I mean in some ways it goes back to Plato, excluding most of the poets from the Republic. That’s one of the greatest tributes to art and history of Western literature because anytime you’re excluding poets that means they have tremendous power. If you dismiss them, they’re just trivial entities, but if you exclude them it’s powerful. Well, black music, black art, has always been something that the powers that be have to keep close control over because it provides a foretaste of freedom for an un-free people. Artists in that sense are the vanguard of the species. I mean Shelley himself says in the great revolutionary pamphlet A Defence of Poetry. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He’s not talking about versifiers; he’s talking about all those who have the courage to use their imagination and empathy to conceive of an alternate world, vis-à-vis the world in place. So art has that utopian possibility and power of allowing us to image alternatives to the present. Every status quo does not want people to imagine alternatives to the present. 12 Years a Slave was about what? The humanity of a black people whose humanity had been thoroughly called into question, and if you’re living in a dehumanized condition, and you conceive yourself as human, you have an alternative vision. You can make your life a work of art, you can produce an artifact, you can produce some art object. And in that sense then, I think that the great musicians, who not only create beautiful, beautiful sounds and beautiful portraits and so forth, but then take a stand politically. That’s a difficult thing. Why? Because the cost that you are going to pay is going to hit you so hard. When Prince put that “Slave” on there in 1993, took it off 2000. Well, he used to talk about the cause, but granted he did that after he’d made some money so that was a good move. But the cost that he had to pay.
SM: I mean, I always thought, and obviously I’m speaking about – I always thought, and I mean I was speaking about it before – after Katrina, I was waiting for a situation like Live Aid to happen. You know, you’ve got all these black artists, and the like, to come together and do a concert for that cause. I think that would have been amazing. I mean, and everyone at that point in time, you know, (inaudible) but come to do a concert, to do some kind of presentation in that same way, to be visible and visual in the world, and to bring back attention to that spot, and to sort of create revenue would have been tremendous. People would have though, you know, people would have felt seen and respected. It’s like when you see the homeless person in the street and you like ignore him, but when you actually do acknowledge him, you know, give them money, you say, all right man, he realizes that he or she is alive, I am here, I am present, I am alive. It’s when you ignore; I just thought that could have been such a, I don’t understand. It’s like, it was like mass (?) to me. How come that didn’t happen was incredible. We spoke about that.
CW: Well, I think part of it is, of course, in the last forty years there’s been such a shift from a we consciousness to an I consciousness. It’s about me, me, me. It’s about careerism, it’s about cronyism, it’s about nepotism, and it’s about making money. So that you have to have a we consciousness to even conceive of coming together, going against the grain of individual career to empower a larger community including the community of artists. And that’s what a highly commodified, commercialized, marketized culture is all about. It’s reinforces rapacious individualism, narrow careerism. And at the essence of careerism is what? Conformity. This brother was a nonconformist. At the essence of careerism is what? Complacency. He was courageous. And in the end, dominant forms of careerism, when it comes to having to make a serious choice, is cowardice. He was the opposite. He was not a coward. Du Bois wasn’t either. Alice Childress wasn’t either. Lorraine Hansberry wasn’t either. Charles White wasn’t either. Harry Belafonte wasn’t either, at that time, in the same way this brother represents that legacy today.
SM: Well, don’t know about that.
CW: But in a certain sense, it’s harder for , it’s harder for you because you’re out there by yourself more.
SM: I’m pretty vain.
CW: What other artists are coming around and –
SM: I mean, I suppose what I was saying is that if everyone came together, then –
CW: Yes, you have some power.
CW: That’s true.
SM: I mean, if everyone just comes together, then, you know, that’s it, those are the rules, you know. There’s not if, but, or maybes. You’re going to pass through us, and that’s it.
CW: But how many artists defended Prince?
SM: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
CW: About the number of black people in the National Hockey League. He was out there all by himself.
SM: He was out on his own, he was out on his own. Everyone was thinking he’s made, what is this, and slavery, and how he put “Slavery” on his face, it’s outrageous. And now everyone, look what’s happening now, he was twenty years ahead of time. Everyone is like, oh, you know, we can’t put it on Apple or whatever, title, whatever debate’s going on. It’s fascinating. Anyway, moving on, swiftly.
CW: No, but maybe this issue of artists is a fascinating one. I think, for example, the greatest entertainer in the American empire today is Beyoncé. She’s got control of her body, she’s got control of her money, but she’s no Aretha.
SM: Tell us why.
CW: Why? And the reason is, is because –
SM: I know why.
CW: — and this is connected to Robeson, you see. The reason is because Aretha is a soul stir as opposed to a body stimulator. That she comes from the depths of her soul in the dark corners of her heart. The genius that she has at mastering her craft is there, but each performance she brings her big soul and heart and puts it on the table for us to partake, to constitute a communion, and a community. Whereas these days, in the culture of superficial spectacle, you have titillation and stimulation with bodily gyration – I ain’t got nothing against that, you know. I mean, I’m looking like everybody else, you know what I mean. I’m a Christian but not a Puritan, you know, but I’m also coming to have my soul stirred the way Sam Cooke and Johnnie Taylor and Lou Rawls come out of Soul Stirrers, the way Luther did, the way –
SM: Well, can’t you have both? I mean, Prince, you talk about titillation and sex and God and everything else, I mean gyration –
SM: — pumping and humping and, you know, jiving and funking. I mean, you know, I quite like that, I quite like both. I mean, it touches me.
CW: Ah, the love sexy going on is something else –
SM: I mean, I love Aretha, don’t get me wrong, I love Aretha, but I like both.
CW: Well, it is true, but then at the same time, though, Prince was singing The Cross.
SM: Yes, yes, true.
CW: Prince will sing Mother’s Child.
SM: “Black day, stormy night.” Come on. “No love, no hope in sight.” OK. Oh, Prince, we love you, we love you.
CW: No, but that’s real. I mean, Prince, but he’s like Marvin Gaye in that sense. He’s got sexuality, he’s got spirituality so intertwined together. So it’s Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On. Why? Because they’re being true to themselves. When you’re a free person, let alone a free black man or a free black woman, then all of, you have got to do things that cut so radically against the grain including your own community, including your community, and that’s what Paul Robeson had to do. You see, when you read the vicious attacks on the brother, by the Walter Whites and Roy Wilkins and the Carl Rowans and others are vilifying, demonizing (inaudible), since when has he made any contribution to the struggle. He’s been only concerned about his career. You say, quit lying, you petty-bourgeois Negroes. You all are so maladjusted to a status quo and a Cold War liberalism. They’re critical of Cold War liberalism, they’re concerned about a critique of the empire, and they’re concerned about critiques of poverty. And Martin Luther King, Jr. would have the same kind of response when he made the shift in ’65, ’6, and ’7, and that’s why when he died, 72 percent of Americans disapproved of him; 55 percent of black people disapproved of him. He couldn’t go to churches. He couldn’t go to certain black context (?) because he was extension of Hanoi given his critique of the American imperial subjugation and war in Vietnam, you see. But that’s the same tradition, same tradition, and yet now, of course, now that the worms got him, everybody’s in love with him. That’s how it is, that’s how it is. Black courage.
SM: And what’s so interesting also about Paul was this fearlessness. I mean, I think, you know, I mean my goodness, I mean, you know, what, this surveillance, which he knew, which was being undertaken by the FBI –
CW: Their (inaudible) is powerful, we saw that, we saw that.
SM: And it’s just the fact that he, I mean there was that time – I think it was ’59 – where, you know, he was in Russia, and there was an attempted suicide because of the pressure –
CW: That’s right, Moscow, yeah.
SM: Yeah, absolutely, and one doesn’t know exactly what actually occurred at that moment. They got to that moment of a sort of surveillance and persisting sort of, putting things that falls into the press, and etcetera. That kind of hounding, you know, drove him to ill health. And I suppose, I understand an artist doesn’t want to go there. (inaudible) doesn’t want to sort of, he just wants a simple life, I get it, I understand it, and I appreciate it. It’s just what are you willing to give up, what are you willing to do. It’s a tricky thing, it’s a tricky thing. I mean, you know, I’m superficial like the next guy, and it’s like how do you pursue a certain kind of way of working or thinking in order to create that sort of, can sustain your place as a human being. That’s what I want to be, a human being. How do you do that? I ask myself that question. I sometimes just throw myself off the cliff because I don’t want to, I don’t even look how I’m going to land because it’s, for me, it’s a point where I have to, I have to. And sometimes I just throw myself off, and I don’t know where I’m going to land. I think it’s important in some ways to do that just because – yes, you might get hurt and all the kind of stuff – but you have to maintain yourself as a human being as well as an artist. It’s imperative.
CW: That’s great. That’s very, very –
SM: So I leave my shoes behind. I love my shoes –
CW: But that’s where, that’s where family and friends and community plays a crucial role, you see, there’s no Paul Robeson without Essie, his wife.
SM: Oh, no, she’s amazing.
CW: Oh my god, unbelievable, heroic, sacrificial, and of course their relationship wasn’t a pure and pristine one. Why? Because no relationship is pure and pristine. They shot through it all kind of mess and joy, and at the same time truth-telling, but without her I don’t think Paul could have made it. Same is true without Ben, his brother. Same is true without Helen and Sam Rosen, close partners, it’s important.
SM: I think he was extraordinarily because, I mean –
CW: Harry Belafonte, too, supported –
SM: Yeah, he was extremely lucky. And, you know, it was a situation, again it wasn’t a perfect relationship. It was an open relationship to a certain extent, and I think also the fact that – that’s another conversation, I feel, because it gets to a point where, you know, it’s desire, it’s sex, it’s all kinds of things, but at the same time there’s a certain sense of union, of partnership, which I think is obviously he was extraordinarily to have his wife.
CW: But I do think that anybody who has the audacity to be an artist has to be on intimate terms with the despair. You know, Goethe himself, a great artist, that “He [or she] who has never despaired has no need to have lived.” And Goethe knew what he was talking about because he had suicidal tendencies (inaudible) young brother and moved into his own neoclassical Weimar stage. Meaning what? Anybody who looks candidly, honestly, unflinchingly at the world in which we live has good grounds for suicide proclivities, if you have a sensitivity to suffering. The question is can you fortify yourself in such a way that you can transform your sensitivity into a truth-telling in which the despair is an integral element but it doesn’t have the last word. So that hope and despair – that’s different than optimism; we’re not talking about American optimism, that’s Disneyland talk. But hope and despair, so when the Blues itself, no optimism in the Blues, no pessimism in the Blues, they’re prisoners of hope because they’re wrestling with catastrophe. They’re wrestling with despair, and I think this is true for any artist who wants to make the kind of move. I mean, in my own black church tradition, we call it “stepping out on nothing and landing on something.” Meaning that you have to push yourself to the edge of life’s abyss, and the abyss is there staring you in the face. Whatcha gonna do about it? Here comes the tradition, here comes courage, here comes community, here comes struggle, lo and behold, something comes forward – a sound, a story, a narrative, a poem, or a life tied to a movement. Then you get change and transformation, and then of course three steps forward, two steps back. Back and forth, back and forth. I mean the last ten years of Brother Paul Robeson’s life, 4951 Walnut Street, his sister Marian’s in Philadelphia. He’s going to 31 Grace Court in Brooklyn Heights visiting Du Bois, both of them under FBI surveillance and Paul’s under house arrest. That’s serious. The two greatest, at least black male freedom fighters, in their own ways, and with their own blinds and limitations, under hours arrest. Malcolm, Martin, same thing, Fannie Lou, same thing. That is the cause, and it’s a, I think it’s a worthy cause, but very few people are willing to actually take it up, especially these days.
SM: Can we press fast forward a tape here, in a way, in time travel —
CW: Yeah, oh, I’m sorry.
SM: No, no, no, back from what you just talked about until now. To Baltimore, to, you know, President Obama, you know, the situation. I mean there’s all kinds, I mean this has been an amazing, I mean this presidency has been amazing at years, in a way, and what has happened in that time. And I have been just, I mean, again, I feel that – OK, just take upon his administration as far as art is concerned. I feel that, at a certain time, I think certain artists had felt they had the authority to make work that they wanted to make because there was this black president. I really do believe that. I think, I mean, for myself, absolutely, there was an authority that I could do this. And I think, the reason why, I think the only reason, some reasons why this film was made was because Obama was in office. I don’t think it would have been made very easily outside of his office. And, of course, there’s been many other artistic sort of endeavors done in the last sort of, in his administration, but also the whole impact of Baltimore, the sort of the ripple effect and so forth in what you’re talking about. Could you talk a little bit about that?
CW: Yeah, I think that there’s no doubt that there was going to be a number of consequences, both positive and negative, of something as historically unprecedented, as a black man, and black family in a White House built primarily by enslaved Africans. And so one of the positive effects certainly is a certain kind of straighten one’s back up, a certain kind of self confidence, a certain opening in white power structures so that they’re much more sensitive to peoples of color but especially black folk, given the fact that they’re seeing a brilliant, charismatic black man almost every day on television. So at the symbolic level, that can never be denied, and I think in many ways that’s going to be one of his grand contributions. Now, when it comes to substance, that’s something else. When it comes to substance, that’s something else. I mean, you got every 28 hours a black or brown person shot by police and security guard for nine years, and that one policeman going to jail as result of the federal pressure. See that’s a keep sweating (?) moment, something ain’t just right. There’s no translation of that black power into protecting these vulnerable ones in the way in which the White House protected Wall Street executive. You see, when Brother Barack met with Wall Street executives in March of 2009 and said, “I stand between you and the pitchforks. I am with you, I will protect you.” He’s been true to his word; not one of them going to jail, all kind of crimes committed on Wall Street, across the board. All they got to do is just pay money and never acknowledge that they did anything. Well, that to me is criminal, given, in addition to the crime they committed. But Jamal and Leticia get caught, gone, gone. Police shout, well we’re going to have a federal investigation. What kind of results flow from federal investigation? Hardly anything because our media is so market driven, the cycles are so quick. It’s over, it’s over. On to the next thing, on to the next Trump, Twitter, or whatever it is, however will respond. So in that sense, you’ve got the symbolic power of the president heading the empire, but substantially black child poverty rate up, wealth inequality up, black wealth 58 percent of what it was. So that’s suffering on the ground, but it’s hidden and conceal in the cultural spectacle, in image. It’s all about what kind of image you project, what kind of spectacle you can have a person be distracted by as opposed to focusing on the things that matter. I can imagine, if Paul Robeson came back today, Lord have mercy, and looked around, what would he see. He would see all of these highly-skilled, polished professionals who are gaining access to unprecedented opportunities but tend to not raise their voices given the fact that one out of two black children under six are living in extreme poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s a crime against humanity. Where are the voices? No, they’re well adjusted to injustice. They’re concerned with their material toys and success. Paul Robeson said, “Take your success. I want to be great.” And to be a great man is the focus on the weak and vulnerable even if you had to pay a cost. To give up your popularity for integrity. That’s Robeson, that’s Du Bois, that’s Alice Childress, that’s Lorraine Hansberry.
SM: Can you keep both?
CW: I think that you can keep both, absolutely, because Paul Robeson still had money even when they took his passport and deprived him of his livelihood, but that probably had a lot to do with Essie, too, though. They worked that out together, they worked that out together. But I want you to be both successful and continue to do what you do. You use your success to be truth-teller and a witness bear, and that’s very important. But success itself is fetishized in our market driven societies.
SM: So what do you see as success as such? As any artist, or any kind of situation, or someone in the public eye? What do you see as success as such? It’s a strange odd, I mean it’s very odd, but –
CW: No, success is material toys, trophy spouse, living large in some vanilla suburbs, high visibility, and think your sheer success is a substantial contribution to the struggle for freedom. So that’s the confusion of the Gravy Train with the Freedom Train. You can have all the black faces in high places, as I just noted – we’ve got a black president, black attorney general, and you’ve got a black Homeland Security cabinet member – and yet folks are still catching hell. Decrepit schools, jobs with a living wage not available, indecent housing, and then trigger happy police, and it continues on and on and on. And Paul Robeson would say, wait a minute, we need to have a critique of capitalism, a critique of empire, a critique of patriarchy, a critique of homophobia, a critique of anti-Arab, anti-Jewish, anti-Palestinian sensibility, and try to use our success to put a spotlight on it. And he did that in Spain, he did that in the 1960s –
CW: — he was there with Martin in 1957, as you know. He wasn’t that well known. This was the first march on, the earlier march on Washington. Paul showed up there on his own, showed up there on his own, wasn’t asked at all. It’s like Curtis Mayfield showing up with Civil Rights rallies with his guitar, and his agents said, that’s the last thing you want to do, Curtis, your career is over. You wrote We’re a Winner, that’s never going to be played on the radio. It wasn’t. Curtis didn’t care. He showed up anyway. John Coltrane sat on the second row when Malcolm X spoke at the Militant Socialist Forum. They said, Trane, you are losing your mind, you’re associated with Malcolm X, My Favorite Things is going to be your last record. Trane said, hey, I’m a free black man, I’m showing up, I might show up with my horn, I want to see what Malcolm got to say. And they put the microphone to his face and what did Trane say – “What do you think about Malcolm? – “Very impressive, very impressive.” And see, something like that takes courage because they’ll cut you off in a second, in a minute, but he went on to be true to himself, and he’s not the only one. Mary Lou Williams, another great –
SM: It’s been interesting, again, I had it in my head of what’s going on before you said Curtis Mayfield, before you talk about musicians. I mean, I think that album – was it ’71, please –
CW: April 1971.
SM: — was such a tremendous, I mean, of course, I was only three, in fact, no I was two – I remember it very well.
CW: I think you were just two. You were born in ’69, right.
SM: — ’69, two even.
CW: You were just two years old.
SM: I’m not doing myself any good here with my, anyway, I look younger than I am – moving on. No, that was such, I mean that album, I mean, again, it’s interesting, isn’t it, how one goes back in time to sort of get references to, you know, what things would happen. But I remember listening to that album for the first time. In fact, I listened to it for the first time when I was, yeah, 16, and it was such an impactful album even then. So how was it, I mean, as in somehow who’s almost like a Paul Robeson, you know, breaking free of the shackles and such of Motown and doing what he wanted to do. Because the first, I mean, I think it was What’s Going On was the first tune – he didn’t have the album yet – and Berry Gordy was very much against it.
CW: Very much against it, very much against it. But Berry Gordy did cave in and (inaudible), that’s true, that’s very true.
SM: I mean, that kind of resistance at first, and of course not lacking in courage, but he wanted to sort of go for. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that album because, for me, I mean you’re such a wonderful speaker about that kind of sort of oral sort of –
CW: But I think, like Paul Robeson, they were sensitive to the emerging forces of resistance in their particular historical moment. I mean there’s no Robeson without the Black Freedom Movement escalating in the Thirties, in the Forties, for example, when he called for the crusade against lynching, within 13 months you had fifty-six black people who were killed. They had a lynching in Monroe, Georgia. You had major, major attacks on black folk in Tennessee and so forth. So that they were sensitive to what was going on in the larger community. Same was true with Marvin Gaye. By ’71, what’s happening, it’s 1971. Good God, and since 1955 you’ve got 16 years of intense social motion and social movement. Malcolm’s dead in ’65, Lorraine’s dead in ’65, Martin’s dead in ’68. He’s writing it in the Seventies, and then of course his brother is just coming back from Vietnam – that’s the second song on the album, What’s Happening Brother – he’s sensitive to what’s going on, and he’s being true to himself, and by being true to himself it means he’s just not reflecting. A great artist is always a thermostat, not a thermometer.
SM: It’s true.
CW: A great artist has got to shape the climate of opinion, not just register it the way a thermometer does. Most artists these days are really not just thermometers, but they’re copying copies, they’re simulacra. Whereas Paul, he’s original. Marvin’s original. Aretha’s original.
SM: I mean, what’s interesting to me of what you just said, I mean, it also gives me goose-pimples when I think of Paul sort of, you know, his passport being taken away, and him saying in front of ten thousand or more people on the border of the United States and Canada, in front of the workers. He couldn’t be defeated. And the art, you know, that’s why piercing the armor and breaching barriers in order to, because he, the intimacy of that music brought you more closer to him. And, you know, for example, I mean, again, he’s singing on the Spanish Front, in the Spanish Civil War. The most amazing thing for me, about Paul, was when they took his passport and him singing to people. There was a concert hall in London – I think it was, when was it – I think it was after the war. It was just after the war, it could be ’46, ’47, and there was a concert for Paul, saying “Let Paul Sing.” OK, it could be in ’50, I can’t remember the exact date – “Let Paul Sing.” But it was the most weirdest concert in the world because Paul wasn’t present. It was a sold-out audience, over a thousand people in the auditorium. He was singing in the United States, but it was one of the first times there was – you know, the cable that they sort of trailed over the Atlantic – it was coming down the microphone, and it was sold out. And there was this microphone on the stage, empty stage, and of course they didn’t know what it was going to sound like. Everyone’s like, oh my god, it’s going to be terrible, whatever, and then there was – [makes tap tap tap sound on microphone] Hello, is Paul there, hello Paul – and it was crystal clear. And everyone was clapping when they heard him, and he was singing – I don’t know where in the States – he was singing in his house to this packed audience in London, and the concert was called “Let Paul Sing.” It was amazing. Could you imagine, I mean it gives me goose-pimples now, you know, that art can actually pierce armor, you know, there’s no barrier. So, you know, yes, of course, they’re going to stop artists or try to stop artists. And it’s just, it’s one of those things where I just feel that what’s necessary now, I feel, is – and, of course, what Prince, wrote this song about Baltimore, whatever – but the possibilities of what can actually happen through visual order work, in any kind of work. It’s just amazing. Sorry, that always gives me goose-pimples.
CW: That’s a powerful, powerful story.
SM: And that connection with Europe, the connection to the outside is very important. I mean, just like, I’m British, you know, I’m born in Ealing, West London, and I’ve been coming here – most of my family are from the United States – but there’s the situation where one has to travel, one has to see the world, one has to understand what’s going on in Paris, what’s going on in Belgium, what’s going on in London, Amsterdam, etcetera, to understand what you are in the context of the world, not just in those places, but everywhere else, Middle East, so forth and whatnot. It’s very important.
CW: Absolutely. Our dear friend, Paul Gilroy, talks about this in terms of the interplay between our roots and routes. So that the roots that you have allow you to dig deep in your particularity, to get in contact with both your humanity and the humanity of others so that the routes that you take have substance and have real content, because you can end up with a homogenous universalism where at the top that’s not rooted in anything and you end up with just market driven culture, which is oftentimes just noise rather than song. But at the same time, if you dig deep enough, because he was digging deep in his roots, he was singing the spirituals, he’s singing black music, and then he’s connecting it with other people’s roots so that that human connection is made, but it’s a human connection that is empowering so that other people can take seriously what’s on his grave tomb, you see. Who’s willing to stand, (inaudible) his book, Here I Stand. Not in a self-righteous way. I think Paul Robeson was wrong on Uncle Joe, when he talked about Stalin. Stalin’s a gangster, he’s a thug. I know that, I grew up with gangsters and thugs. I got gangster (inaudible) myself. He’s a gangster. But he saw Stalin as an option that was supporting de-colonization in Africa and other parts of the world, so he ended up having his allegiances, that oftentimes in his public language, we know privately he was saying something else. So then, in that sense, you say wait a minute. Well, what is this Uncle Joe business? I want to be consistent across the board. You’re tied to the wretched of the earth, they’ve got wretched of the earth in Russia and the Soviet Empire, too. And the same is true across the board, but most importantly he was willing to do something that was so unpopular that he got vilified, and then you had to really defend him given the vicious vilification of J. Edgar Hoover who had done the same thing to Marcus Garvey, same thing to Malcolm, same thing to Martin.
SM: Well, the thing about gangsters or such – I’ve met my fair share of dodgy people – is that they’re so seductive, they’re great, they seduce you, they say, oh, and of course that’s what happened with Paul, but at a certain point he found out what was actually going on, but there was a very strange situation. You find out what exactly is going on, but to go back to the United States and say that means that, of course, you were wrong but also it cuts the foundation from your feet. So what do you do? And it was, you know, it was a very unfortunate peril for him.
SM And, you know, all that work he was doing, because there was something which was very righteous about what he was doing, but promoting as such or supporting a situation which he, it was very difficult. How do you do that? I mean, again, I sympathize. I mean, in hindsight, oh, he should have done this, he should have done, but at that time, in the height of Jim Crow, it’s very difficult. And, you know, what he said, I mean, what he said in Paris in 19 –
CW: Oh, yeah, 1949.
SM: Could we get the ’49 image on, please, it’s the next one, maybe it’s the next one, or the next one after, we can go back to these. Yeah, I mean, this is –
CW: Look at that fire, look at that fire in his eye, my God, my God.
SM: Can you talk a little bit about then –
CW: Oh, yes, this is one of the turning points because he was there in Paris where he engaged in a critique of the American Empire, and especially at that time you are not supposed to in any way engage in a critique of the U.S. Government outside especially of the Territory of the U.S. Government. Then he was lied on because there was a reference to Hitler, and they said somehow that – he didn’t say that – but every major newspaper put that out, that he was comparing the United States to Hitler and Nazism and so forth. And that after that, my God, the cancellations, the vilification, and of course the State Department and the Department of Justice targeting him in very, very vicious ways, not just taking his passport but ensuring that he could not economically survive based on any kind of access to a job here.
SM: I think also in that statement, there was, again, it’s how it was reported, but there was a situation, I think, what was reported, what Paul said, was taking the United States to the International Criminal Court for the crimes happening in the South and the Jim Crow situation. And it’s kind of interesting because that was parallel, that was kind of similar to a situation, of course, what happened with Malcolm. He stated the same thing, and that’s what he wanted to do, he wanted to (inaudible) in the United States, and I think that was a huge turning point. When things get international, same thing with Martin Luther King. When it’s local, it’s OK, but when it gets to a situation of global questioning of whatever, you know, again for the United States for these people, that’s when things got serious. I mean, that’s when the Vietnam War (inaudible) no more, Martin Luther King, and that’s when it gets serious, that’s when things start, people’s air (?) start breaking up. It’s not just a local affair, it’s a global affair. I think that’s, yeah, that’s serious. I mean that’s pretty problematic.
CW: Absolutely. But Paul Robeson, I think, early in life, was taught that to be a force for good in a consistent way might result in you dying, and he was willing to die. He experienced it with his father already early in his life, and he experienced it with experiences at Rutgers where he was the only black student and only third black student in the history of Rutgers. Valedictorian, was about thirteen different sports with letters, Phi Beta Kappa junior year, then goes to Columbia Law. Goes to Wall Street for awhile, but a white secretary refuses to take dictation from a Negro so he leaves and moved to Provincetown and meets an Irish genius named Eugene O’Neill who embraces him. Eugene O’Neill was a serious anti-racist Irish brother. Not just brought him into the plays, All’s God Chillun Got Wings, and some of the others –
SM: How do you think that Paul’s father was, I mean, again –
CW: The Emperor Jones.
SM: — right, Paul’s father was an influence because, of course, he was a preacher. I mean, I want to ask (inaudible) about I mean religion in all three of these, you know, you think about Malcolm, you think about Martin Luther King, you think about Paul, I mean, and all the in between. I mean, religion has been such a, you know, again, I mean of course when Paul said he was an atheist, again, maybe obviously the influences of socialism and whatnot, whatever. But how do you think that played a part on who he was and others?
CW: It was fundamental. I mean, he used to give sermons in place of his father at the AME Zion Church after he was kicked out of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton. He went to Somerville in New Jersey. He lived with his father, one on one, because his brothers and sisters had left, his mother had died. It was one on one, you see, and they had conversations. He would give speeches and sermons to his father, with his father as the audience. It was that kind of intimacy, that kind of equipping himself and preparing himself, and his father was profoundly religious. Now, in the end, he would certainly become agnostic and atheistic as a result of his own excursions and secular thought, and Marx and Freud and so forth. But the spirituality, back to the roots, because see roots is not just a matter of having cognitive commitments to religious claims. You can be thoroughly agnostic and in love with Aretha, but there ain’t no Aretha without the black church. And all she does is just pick up the microphone and start singing, and you’re going to hear the tradition of the black church music. James Baldwin was like that, agnostic. He said, I can’t write without Bessie Smith. Now, of course, Baldwin comes out of the black church. He said he had to leave the church in order to preach the gospel, which his often the case given the narrowness of the churches. But those roots are there, those deep spiritual cultural roots, and they remain there for Paul Robeson. And, of course, during his time in which he was under house arrest, one of the few places that would allow him to speak publicly was his brother’s church, Mother Bethel AME Zion Church up in Harlem. It was one of the few places. He’s an Alpha brother, I’m an Alpha, Martin Luther King’s Alpha, Donny Hathaway’s an Alpha, Du Bois is an Alpha. Even Alpha brother oftentimes pulled away – too controversial. And his best friend, W. E. B. Du Bois, kicked out in 1948 of the NAACP – he’s a cofounder of the NAACP – same thing, pushed back, isolated, marginalized, but sustained by a spirit, and sustained by a cultural expression but both of them agnostics in terms of their religion.
SM: So we’ve got a situation also now with a movement, a groundswell, an organic movement which I think is really beautiful. Black Lives Matter. So it’s such a beautiful thing. It came about through people wanting to get together to do something, and that anytime something like that happens, it’s not just, you know, it’s organized in a way that it happened through the ground, through the soil, up to people, in a way that people are coming together and talking and discussing and organizing themselves. I mean, do you have any contact with the people involved in that, and can you discuss them in relationship to Paul?
CW: Oh, absolutely. In fact, we’re having a big meeting in Chicago with all the major young leaders, not just Black Lives Matter’s hashtag – there’s a difference between the hashtag of Black Lives Matter, and the motion on the ground, trying to become a movement. The corporate media likes to appropriate certain individuals at the hashtag level, incorporate them quickly, but on the ground – the ones who went to jail, the ones who are still organizing, sacrificing, and so forth – that is very important. But keep this in mind, because it’s not solely political. It’s very much like a slave insurrection, like Gabriel Prosser’s slave insurrection that began with the funeral of a slave child, and Gabriel said, I can’t take this no more. That wasn’t just political. There’s a level of disrespect that certain folk reach a point they can no longer tolerate. And when Michael Brown, Jr.’s body was on that street for four-and-a-half hours with the dog urinating on it, and the mother and father standing there and couldn’t gain access to it, it wasn’t political resistance. You can only disrespect us so much. We’ve got to do something. That’s what was happening. That’s deeply spiritual and cultural. And you’ve got folk with a variety of different ideologies; no, we’re not going put up with this. This is too much. And you got folks straightening their backs up and standing based on those words, the gravesite, especially the younger generation because the younger generation has been told over and over again, be like the successful ones at the top. The system works, all you got to do is work hard. And they said, that’s a lie, we refuse to believe that.
SM: We’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something.
CW: We’ve got to do something, and they just do it by voting for the next black mayor and governor, but what did (inaudible) say, I voted for a black president twice and still got shot, and that’s just symbolic. There are structures here, there are system there that need to be contested, and of course that’s just the beginning of the conversation. More and more young folk, not just black folk, but you had a of white brothers and sisters, brown brothers and sisters, red and yellow, but younger ones. I mean, it’s the Bernie Sanders’ crowd. It’s the young ones on fire.
SM: Yeah, Emperor Jones, Emperor Jones.
CW: Is Eugene O’Neill there yet?
SM: No, no. So, this example, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something. I mean, sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes, to do something in the situation of not having the power or the resources or the facility to actually bring something about in a sphere where you can reach people because you don’t have the power, you don’t have the infrastructure to do that, or your denied that because of your ideas or because of what you want to do. And that is a huge issue – how one can get ownership and control, more to sort of produce what they want to produce, because often things are shut down because of certain ideas that people want to do are not seen or deemed as, or seen deemed or seen as political or deemed and perceived as something which is not – how can I say – wanted, to be quite direct. And I think that control is the key, but one has to have that, but it’s very difficult. Look at the studios, look at the cable companies, the television companies, the record companies.
CW: And how did you work that out with your magnificent artistic film. I mean, you’ve got Hollywood, which there’s not a black person in Hollywood who can green-light a film.
CW: You’ve got one in Atlanta who can green-light, but he’s in the Madea thing; we pray for him. And he’s talented, he’s a talented brother, but he’s not part of the Hollywood system, right, and he’s not known for telling political truths. He’s talented, and I give him his talent. I love Brother Tyler Perry in many ways. He’s come from a very difficult situation and so on, but we have to be very honest and candid, very honest and candid. You know, he’s no Steve McQueen. I said that, not you. I don’t want to get you in trouble because we love Tyler, but we’ve got to tell the truth about the Negro, too, and he ain’t going to be doing Madea when he’s seventy years old; he’s going to have to grow up sooner or later and deal with some of the other issues and so on, you see. But how did you pull it off?
SM: Oh, good question. I’m, a little dose of naiveté, which goes a long way, and also a large spoonful of, well, I’m going to get it made, we’re going to do this. Oh, yeah, I never thought for a second it would not get made. I didn’t. And a lot of people say, oh, really, I don’t know, do you know what I mean, people were (inaudible). I was like, oh really, I’ve done, up until now in my life I did everything I’ve wanted to do. Up until now I’ve done everything I wanted to do other than Codes of Conduct, which was shut down by HBO. I’ve done everything, and that was a realization to me, in a way, of, oh, people can stop me doing what I want to do. I was surprised. So I’ve been spoiled in a way, but that’s the norm. I haven’t been spoiled, I’ve been living a normal life. So I’ve just realized that people can stop you from doing what you want to do, they can shut it down. And that is kind of, that’s kind of –
CW: You had some powerful voices saying no right in front of your face, though, right?
SM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So it was interesting, it’s interesting that because, you know, it would be great to sort of work with someone who has – well it would be great to work with a black studio head; it would be great to work with someone who has the money or who can facilitate things, which actually can bring in revenue and actually get produced and made because sometimes you’re dealing with people who don’t really understand what you’re trying to do because they’re not living what I live, and therefore it’s difficult for them. But, you know, you can explain it, and you can translate it, and but at the end of the day, you know, they want a certain thing from you as a possibly a black artist. They have a certain idea of understanding what black is, and that’s the kind of black they want to see. And, you know, listen, I made a movie about a hunger strike in Northern Ireland, you know, no one can make that movie. I made a movie about a sex addict; no one can make that movie. I made a movie about slavery; trust me, no one’s made that movie. So when I went into doing sort of Codes of Conduct, it was for me the same thing, oh, we looked at it in a certain way but let’s get it made and see what happens, and it stopped, so it’s interesting how that can happen, and I don’t want that to ever happen to me again. It’s like, how dare they, but it’s their money so they can do what they want.
CW: But that self-respect and self-confidence, where did that self-confidence and self-respect come from?
SM: It’s the norm, isn’t it?
CW: No, not at all.
SM: I don’t know, I have no idea, but that’s a good question.
CW: Self-respecting folk, self-confident folk. No way. That’s a grand spiritual achievement to believe in yourself in the face of the most powerful forces in your industry saying this film will never be made, and you not only make the film but won an Academy Award, you think that’s normal? Oh Lord.
SM: No, I don’t want to think about it, no, I do think it’s normal, and it should be, I do think it’s normal because I don’t want to make people think, my goodness, it’s such a mountain, it’s Mount Everest, how can I ever possible, you can do it. Just basically get on with it, write your story, get, you know, you have to think like that otherwise you’re going to scare yourself from doing it, and it’s that simple. If you have a good story, or if you have a great story, and you can get stuff together and write a great script, and try to get it done and actually make a great film, then that’s it. I’m sorry, it’s as simple as that, it has to be as simple as that; otherwise you’re going to be looking all the time, scaring yourself. No, it’s simple, it has to be, I know it sounds very naïve in that way, but that’s how I got it made so take from it. It’s that simple. You got it, do it, end of story, do it. You know, what did you say before, we got to do something –
CW: We’ve got to do –
SM: What was it, I don’t remember, help me, people. Listen, what did he say? We’ve got to do something, yeah, that was it. We’ve got to do something, so do it. Don’t think of something as unreachable or oh my goodness, just do it. I’m sorry, but it’s that simple. I mean, yes, you might not get there, or you might get there, but if you put things in your path, which is your thinking about it is so difficult. It’s like going to the gym, you know. Oh, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, but when you’re doing it, you’re doing it. Do it. I might get sponsored by Nike or something.
CW: I don’t know if that gym analogy works for –
SM: I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound so trivial, but it is that way.
CW: In your own skin, it’s a matter of just doing it because you’ve got this tremendous self-confidence with the skill, vision, determination, fortitude, the wind at your back from your parents, your tradition, your historical consciousness. A lot of people don’t have that.
SM: Yes, but I can’t allow that to cripple me.
CW: Yes, I agree.
SM: If you think like that, it will only cripple you. And you have to have the situation where you clear the page, clear the desk, and just do it. You know, you know it’s great material, you know you’ve got something on, and you have to just at the end of the day physically get things together to do it. Not to think about it, because if you think about it, just do it. And unfortunately I feel that it’s that simple. Not so you’ll get it done, but don’t make it into some kind of, you know, Mount Everest. Just bloody do it.
CW: No, that’s real, that’s real. Can we have voices from the audience?
__: (inaudible) audience Q and A, we have some —
CW: Absolutely, absolutely, you have been so kind to allow us to go on like this. Yes, my dear sister.
__: I just wanted to share some thoughts I had while you were speaking. You mentioned that moment when you can make a change and immediately came to mind that moment when Jay Z had that boondoggle with Barneys. And you said there’s a lot of voices saying conform, conform here, we need you to conform, and he kind of did at that moment, I thought. I mean, we all live that together pretty much, but the other thing was early on you said that this media wants us to be alone, and the whole community of we doesn’t exist anymore. And recently, there’s a show that kind of makes people want to be together. It’s called Game of Thrones. I know it’s just a media show, but HBO shut down the possibility of that. It is kind of striking. They made the lawyers issue letters to bars that were letting people gather just to watch a TV show, and I thought, wow, that’s so amazing. They want us to be alone so desperately so they can market to us individually and control us that they won’t even let us gather, and it’s so rare that there’s a show that people actually want to watch together, and it’s like a real moment for everybody to join up in a communal way, and, boom, they shut it down. It was shocking to me. What do you think about that?
CW: No, I mean, I’m unacquainted with that, but it makes a lot of sense. I mean, marketers want constituencies and they want consumers, whereas freedom fighters want citizens and they want communities. There’s a qualitative difference. Freedom fighters want organizing and mobilizing, and that’s not the same as Internets, a connection. Internets can be used for community, but it can be used for a whole lot of other things too. But we do live in a moment in which the animistic individualism and the careerism is so dominant and so pervasive that you have to cut radically against the grain. I mean communities require integrity, honest, and decency. Markets are about cupidity, mendacity oftentimes, false advertising, not all the time, but often the case. And in the end it’s about trying to get us to conform to the next new and novel product produced for profit, for profit. Very different ways of being in the world. We live the tension.
__: Cornell, I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about your thoughts on the work upstairs because I was very interested in the fact that specifically that piece is about the file that the FBI put together on Robeson because of his association with communism or what people, like people assumed he was a communist, and the time he spent in the Soviet Union. So could you talk a little bit about your response to that specifically in Robeson’s history?
CW: Yeah, one is that the, any person who musters the courage to tell the truth about America in regard to white supremacy will be subject to targeting by the repressive apparatus. FBI here, CIA outside. Especially if you’re trying to organize and mobilize. So what I saw upstairs was not just the fact that they were trying to connect him to the Soviet Union, but that he was trying to awaken black, white, red, yellow, all colors together, to bring a critique and a movement that would fundamentally transform the states. And the fact that they could try to link him to the Soviet Union and the Communist Party and so forth was for them motivation to squelching it, because they did the same thing to Martin Luther King, Jr. And they had signs about Martin Luther King, Jr. all throughout the South – Martin Luther King, Jr., communist coon. Now Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship to communism was about the same as my relationship to, you know, Eskimo feudalism, and I ain’t got nothing against the Eskimos, but that’s not something I think about, you see. So that it’s these lies, that’s where mendacity comes in to hide and conceal their own criminality. And, yet, it’s very real, because again as I saw we never want to view any one of these figures as isolated individuals. They’re part of a traditional struggle. There’s Claudia Jones, very close to Paul Robeson. She died within the same six weeks as Malcolm X, as Lorraine Hansberry, as Nat King Cole. We lost all four within six weeks. Robeson gave one of the eulogies for Lorraine Hansberry. It was a powerful eulogy. Malcolm and Paul Robeson at the same funeral. Malcolm asked to be introduced to Paul Robeson. Robeson said, I love Malcolm X, even though I’m an atheist so I’m not too much into the Islamic sensibilities. But he said, no, this is not the moment, I’m too overcome. Malcolm, of course, was assassinated in a matter of weeks so they never go a chance to meet. So that repression is very, very real, and it will always be the case, but the crucial thing to keep in mind is there’s no such thing as white supremacy without resistance of some form; no such thing as male supremacy without resistance; there’s no such thing as capitalism without resistance of some form. It’s that resistance that we keep –
SM: Can we talk about fear?
CW: Yes, yes.
SM: I mean, are you ever afraid? I think that, I think that’s the thing. There’s this word, this reality of fear. Fear of what, I don’t know. People are afraid of, I don’t know, obviously the powers that be, losing money, popularity. Fear of attacks. Fear. I think that’s huge in this room and the situation.
CW: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Paul Robeson is one of the great examples of a deniggerized black person, because every black person in America is niggerized, told they’re less beautiful and less intelligent and less moral and told that you ought to be intimidated and scared and fearful if you speak the truth because you’ll be crushed like a cockroach, symbolically or literally. So you just keep these people full of fear, you don’t have to worry about a transformation of your status quo. And it is the Gabriel Prossers and Nat Turners and the Marcus Garveys, we could go on and on, and the musicians. They say, no, we’ve got to deniggerize these niggerized people. This is different than Larry Wilmore calling the president an n-word, which happened last night at the White House Correspondents’. You heard about that?
SM: No, what happened?
CW: Yeah, Larry Wilmore, at the very end, he talked about, and Mr. President, I want you to know that you “My Nigga.” Right on national TV, all around the world. They got a big controversy about it, blah, blah, blah. No, no, no, that’s a distraction. A niggerized person is somebody’s who’s afraid to talk about how the vicious legacy of white supremacy is wounding people. It’s not some kind of frivolous dialogue for mainstream media. He was deniggerized because he had fear. He worked through the fear and it made him courageous and fearless and brave to tell the truth knowing he could die. Malcolm was a deniggerized Muslim. Martin was a deniggerized Christian. Donny Hathaway was a deniggerized, we don’t know what Donny Hathaway believed, but he could sing. But you had to have the freedom, but you’ve got to work through the fear, and this is part of the problem. I mean, part of the problem these days in terms of our professional class, we’ve got a lot of black people who’ve got a lot of money, a lot of status, and some of them have got a lot of power, but they’re still scared, so they’re just niggerized professionals. They’re still scared. They won’t tell the truth on the job, they won’t be in solidarity when it’s time to struggle. Look at all the hip-hop artists who talk bad in the studio, but when it comes to Ferguson, how many of them are down there?
SM: Yeah, exactly, that’s what I said right at the beginning about sort of a Band Aid situation with Katrina. I mean, wouldn’t that have been a great –
CW: Absolutely. We go to a lot of these artists. I thought you was one of the biggest baddest muthahuckas to come down the pike. Man, are you scared of going in the street? Well, I had a talk with my agent, and my agent told me – please. Then you tell them about Curtis, then you tell them about Nina Simone, then you tell them about other artists whose agent told them to do so-and-so, and they stood up. Not in the spirit of self-righteousness – of course, we’re wrestling with fear – and people talk about death threats, living under death threats, talking about they gonna mess with your momma. That’s serious stuff, that’s very serious. But then the question, what is the one thing that breaks the back of fear? It’s love, it’s love. The reason why everybody in this room would take a bullet for their momma – I’m just being normative at this point in a generalizing way – the reason why anybody would take a bullet for your momma is because you love her. Now, you ain’t gonna take a bullet for me and Steve, you don’t know us well enough. We appreciate it, we understand that – even though. for this brother. I’d take a bullet at least in my arm, maybe not the heart yet because he revels (?) in the younger generation of my tradition. That’s the tradition I’ve been willing to die for, passing it on to him and the others who come along, because it was passed on to me, and they were willing to inject me with a love that breaks the back of fear. Robeson had that kind of love in him.
__: Can we take one more question?
SM: This lady’s been very –
CW: Yeah, she’s been –
__: Listen, I want to thank you so much for talking about fear and what it can do to you. And my question is that today I learned more about Paul Robeson and what he did and how he stood up than I did from the display in which surveillance and what the government is doing and has done to innocent people, that is front and center. So my question for you, Steve, is you show on both screens the surveillance, and you hear the redacted passages and that sort of thing. But did you consider having the other screen show some of the miraculous, courageous things in the year that, you know, in 1920 and so on when Paul Robeson was living?
SM: No, I didn’t. What I was interested in is those documents. I was interested in just what they were. For me, those documents were like sheets of music, and I wanted to play the music, like we have, you know, sometimes we get things obviously on the paper which is, you know, numbers, roman numerals, crossed out, redacted. So every description which was on that piece of paper, that musical, that sheet of music I wanted, as well as the fact which is written, I wanted to have that sort of analytical description of what was going on. It was very important for me, very important to sort of have it as it is. Those are the facts, that’s what happened, that’s what was being read on sort of, that’s what was being sort of looked at. It’s almost like Braille. Every bump, every fold, every crease, every word, I wanted it to be vocalized. It was very important and sort of hear the music of the piece. So, you know, one could, you could talk about whatever happened here, whatever happened there. I’m interested in what happens in the room with this piece, and how it sort of translates, how it sort of gets into one’s sort of veins, into, you know, because when you first get in there, maybe there’s people milling around and whatnot, and you sit down, and obviously you’re tuning your ear, almost like a radio dial, and you get, you’re hooked in, and then you’re in this flow of sound, audio, audio of what happened, as well as seeing things which pass, you’re reading sentences, and maybe a phrase, and so it’s this whole idea of end credits because often, if I gave you the Paul Robeson, I mean the audio, what we have right now, when I first presented it, it was eleven hours of audio; right now we have twenty hours of audio. When we finish it, it will be seventy-two hours of audio. That’s how lengthy the documents are. And whole idea of having the sort of audio is that you’re never going to catch all of it, but to have an impression, verbally and visually, was what I was about. To show you the magnitude, the weight, and the scale and the size of this man’s, crime which was committed against him. It’s important.
CW: It’s also true, though, that he’s in the process of making a powerful, powerful film about the brother. He’s one of the few in the world who could do that. Once that hits, it’s like BCAD in terms of Robeson being known around the world. Now if we jump back to the Thirties and Forties, he’s the most famous man –
SM: In the world.
CW: — in the world. Exactly, I’m learning a lot of things up here. But in terms of answering your question, that fully fleshified courage, vision, being victimized but refusing to be solely a victim, resisting but still in the end having to deal with some very powerful forces because, again, the last ten years of his life cannot be overlooked. People reach a point where they can only take so much. And when his wife died, and when his friends died, he was betrayed by his close partners, the black middleclass pulls the rug from under him, the government’s trying to crush him and so forth, he’s still standing with dignity, but he’s not as strong as he was in the Thirties and the Forties. He’s got some white, Jewish communists standing with him; he’s got some black communists; he’s got some artists. Who was on that list when they had (inaudible) – it must have been about, I think it was about 1963 – very few, how many scholars went with him, very few. Coltrane’s on there, Olatunji’s on there, serious, courageous ones are on there. So that the abandonment is very real, but he’s still standing tall with grace and dignity until the end. But when we get that full-fledged filmic representation – 12 Years a Slave.
SM: And he sacrificed. I mean, he spoke to Martin Luther King, and he said, Dr. Martin Luther King, listen, you don’t need to have anything, I’ll take the heat for you – he took a bullet for him – I’ll take the heat, so now you’re to go. I’ll drag them off this way while you go that way.
CW: That’s exactly right.
SM: Anyway, I think we should wrap up now, but also I just wanted to say that it’s my first time that I’ve met Cornel, Dr. Cornel West –
CW: Brother West, Brother West, Brother West, Brother West —
SM: I apologize, but I am just so honored to have you on stage, and thank you, sir, and you are a true artist, sir. You are a true artist. Thank you so, so, so, so much. Thank you very much.
CW: Thank you, thank you. Steve McQueen, Steve McQueen. That as wonderful, brother, magnificent. Steve McQueen.