January 23, 2019


The Real Stain on Angela Davis' Legacy Is Her Support for Tyranny (CATHY YOUNG,  JANUARY 23, 2019 , The Bulwark)

The statute of limitations does not apply only to white public figures in America. The great artist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was not only a Communist with Soviet ties but an outright Stalin apologist. In a particularly infamous episode, he publicly denied the persecution of Soviet Jews during Stalin's "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign after a 1949 trip to Moscow--even though his friend Itzhak Feffer, a poet who was later executed, discreetly told him the truth during his visit and pleaded for help. Robeson's Communist sympathies cost him dearly in his lifetime, destroying his once-stellar career during the Cold War. Yet today, he has been recognized with many honors, from a U.S. Post Office stamp to a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame to several high schools and community or campus centers named after him (including the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at my own alma mater, New Jersey's Rutgers University, of which he was also an alumnus).

Should these honors be denied because of Robeson's terribly flawed politics? I don't believe so. For one, Robeson was a true giant of both black American culture and American culture, period. He was also a complicated and tragic figure, held hostage by his conviction that discrediting Communism would hurt the struggle for black empowerment in the United States at a time when racism was openly institutionalized in large parts of the country. Robeson's relationship with the Soviet regime illustrates his moral conflicts: Despite his public stance in the West, he tried to make a statement against anti-Semitism on his 1949 Soviet trip by speaking in tribute to Soviet Jews and singing a wartime resistance song in Yiddish during his nationally broadcast concert in Moscow. Later, he reportedly became persona non grata in the USSR after privately confronting Khrushchev about anti-Jewish discrimination.

The contrast to Davis, who reached adulthood in an America that offered vastly more opportunities for black political participation, is stark. There is no indication that she ever showed any concern about the human rights situation in the Soviet bloc--not only on behalf of "pro-capitalist" dissidents, but even on behalf of, say, the Russian feminists who were jailed or forced to emigrate after launching an underground publication challenging the Soviet propaganda myth of full gender equality in the USSR, or the gays brutally persecuted for their sexuality in the Soviet Union and Cuba. (In 1973, Soviet Georgian film director Sergei Parajanov was tried for "homosexual relations" and sentenced to five years in labor camps; several Western communists, including French writer Louis Aragon, interceded with the Kremlin and probably helped secure the director's early release. Davis, who had very real influence with the Soviet regime at the time, said nothing.) Nor has she shown any regret or remorse since.

It's also unclear just what it is that Davis accomplished for the black community. Despite being dubbed a "civil rights icon," her only involvement in the civil rights movement of the Martin Luther King era happened when she was a teenage high school student; she spent most of the early 1960s studying in Europe with radical mentors like Herbert Marcuse, then threw herself into work for the Communist Party long past the time when it played an actual role in the fight for black equality. She was also involved with the Black Panthers, a violent radical group whose primary victims were fellow African-Americans such as Sam Napier, the distribution manager of the party newspaper, killed with unspeakable brutality by a rival Panther faction, and 19-year-old Alex Rackley, tortured and murdered on mistaken suspicion of being an FBI informant. A 1969 speech Davis gave at a Black Panther rally in Oakland, California included words of solidarity for the "brothers and sisters in Connecticut"--the men and women awaiting trial for Rackley's horrific murder.

While Davis was active on the far-left fringes of black politics in the 1970s and 1980s, her most notable role at the time was being the vice-presidential candidate of the Communist Party, a Soviet-funded outfit supremely irrelevant to the interests of African-Americans. It is notable, too, that while some black American Communists such as Josephine Wyatt left the party in the 1980s after its leader Gus Hall pursued a deliberate course of de-emphasizing the "black national question," Davis remained loyal.

Posted by at January 23, 2019 3:59 AM