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Steve McQueen’s Paul Robeson Exhibit at the Whitney

A new exhibit about Paul Robeson, a performer and civil rights activist, opens today at the Whitney. The exhibit was designed by Academy-Award winning filmmaker Steve McQueen. Gilda Di Carli has the story. 

// AMBI: Confidential informant Seattle


Of no reliability revealed that Mr. Hoff was at a Communist meeting in Seattle in 1947..


In an open space, there’s a giant screen. A screen that spans more than 17 feet high and 15 ft wide. And scrolling down- an endless stream of images. These are the redacted pages from an FBI file kept on Paul Robeson–whom the US government in 1950s had deemed a communist.

Michael Yannone, a Social Studies Teacher from Ridgewood, New Jersey brought his class.


Right after the kids had told me they thought they were in a horror movie..And I

said it was a horror movie for Paul Robeson.


Through the 1940s and 50s, Robeson captured the hearts of Americans.

//ROBESON’S SINGING: There’s an old man down in Mississippi, there’s an old man I don’t want to be.


Paul Robeson was viewed at one time as the tallest tree in our forest.


That’s George Horne, Chair of the History Department at Ohio University, who wrote a biography on Robeson.

Robeson was a renowned bass singer, a Shakespearean actor, a star football player and a lawyer. But he was too outspoken for the FBI.


The lesson you can glean from the life of Paul Robeson is one struggle.


A  struggle for civil rights at a time of Segregation. And in 1949, as the Cold War was intensifying Robeson openly questioned why Black Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism. He had sympathized with the Soviet Union and the FBI was tracking his every move. Donna Desalvo, main curator of the exhibition said it was a useless pursuit.  


There is no reason to have done all of this. And the fact that thousands of pages are compiled on this one individual over the course of practically his whole entire adult life. I think what it reinforces is that there’s nothing there.


And still, the allegations of communist sympathies almost ended Robeson’s career. He had more than 80 concerts canceled. He was nearly attacked by a mob in Peekskill, N.Y. He had his passport confiscated. And all the while, he was being watched. But, De salvo, says…


What Robeson is to be remembered for are his extraordinary accomplishments.

Di Carli

And it’s true. In spite of the tenacity of the FBI campaign against him, Robeson didn’t stop campaigning for civil rights and equality.

The Whitney’s new exhibit on this American icon will be up until May 14.

Gilda Di Carli, Columbia Radio News.


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