The Minstrel Show Goes On


It is 49 years this month since singer and activist Paul Robeson came to Australia, sang on the building foundations of the Sydney Opera House, and swore with tears in his eyes that he’d come back and "make your government sit up and listen".

Tucked away in the ABC archives is Paul Robeson in Australia, a documentary about the 62-year-old Robeson’s visit in 1960. It serves as a reminder that it’s nothing new for high-profile international visitors to Australia to be faced with an archaic cultural racism and a mainstream public in denial. Whether high-profile celebrities, UN inspectors or no-profile asylum-seekers branded as potential terrorists, "visitors" are expected to keep their mouths shut and their ideas uniform in our parochial little corner of the world. After all, wasn’t a key part of the "Hey, Hey It’s Blackface" fallout a tangible uneasiness when Australian mediocrity was paraded in front of the world?

The marginalisation of international criticism in mainstream Australian media has been historically very effective. Who needs McCarthy-type hearings when the media landscape reduces alternative voices into "us and them" scandals designed to stoke the reactionary fire of ordinary Australia. The wretched and blinkered demonisation of asylum seekers looks likely to be served up yet again in the lead up to the next election.

Looking back on Robeson’s visit in 1960 reveals how much further we’ve fallen into uniformity since then. When he arrived, Robeson was already a radical figure, far more so than any of those pesky celebrity activists we bicker about today.

Although controversial, Robeson’s presence was readily embraced by sections of the local media, and Paul Robeson in Australia is testimony to his patience, kindness and artistic ability. In one instance, he sits through hours of local union business before singing unaccompanied for the crowd. Robeson appears on mainstream national television, speaking and singing gently to a multi-racial group of children plonked down in front of him.

Most notable, however, is Robeson’s performance on the foundations of the Sydney Opera House. The singer belts out anthems like the emotional "Joe Hill" and his fired-up lyrically revised version of "Ol’ Man River" for the workers on the site. No more "tired of livin’, scared of dyin’", but instead "must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’" — the statement is all the more fiery in its unapologetic desecration of a classic.

Even when performing, political struggle never left Robeson’s mind and his strong union affiliations and international concerns are never in doubt. Modern day "political" celebrities can’t hold a candle to Robeson, who flaunted his politics even when it was dangerous to do so.

Paul Robeson in Australia doesn’t just draw our attention to contemporary turmoil in the US. Ugly fragments of Australia’s difficult past, present and future are projected both willingly and accidentally onto this almost mythical visitor. While we’re initially led through concerts and union meetings, the underlying racial inequality in Australian society slowly emerges throughout the course of the documentary and Robeson’s visit. As writer Wendy Charell informs us in her narration: "Aborigines are waiting for basic citizenship rights — Robeson will soon be made aware of these issues".

It seems that for many, Robeson, a great international figure, was expected to act as a catalyst for Australian action. Early on, Robeson is presented with a painting by Australian artist Albert Namatjira in a suggestion of solidarity with Indigenous Australia’s fight for freedom. Later, when visiting a union hall, he receives another. As Charell notes, "the symbolism is becoming repetitious." It’s an easy trap to fall into. But when an actor proudly informs Robeson that "we in the actor’s profession are aware of the sufferings of the Aborigine people," Robeson retorts: "there’s not much use being aware unless you do something about it."

During his trip to Australia, Robeson was asked to appear on a minstrel show. As the request is explained to a shocked Robeson, his interlocutor tells him that this Australian minstrel show is not intended to "denigrate" or "make fun of" black Americans. That such institutions rarely have overtly or demonstrably racist motives, but perpetuate damaging images and social values with the best of intentions and all in the name of "fun", is ignored. (However, given an opportunity to speak of peace among all people to a group of children, Robeson agrees.)

Robeson’s engagement with the conditions in which Indigenous Australia lived reaches its peak when he is shown footage of community life in the Warburton Ranges.

The voiceover goes like this: "First, he cried … As the film was running, the tears started to stream down his face. I remember [his wife]Eslanda handing him a handkerchief just to mop his face. And then his sorrow turned to anger, and he grabbed this black cap and threw it on the floor and trod on it. And then he turned around and asked for a cigarette … he said, ‘I’m going to come back. And I’m going to give you a hand. And we’ll go into the centre of the country, and we’ll make your government sit up and listen’ … And I recall Eslanda saying [speaking softly]: ‘it’s a long time since I saw him smoke a cigarette’."

The footage of squalid conditions, rotted skin and exposed bones, flickering silently in the midst of this carefully paced documentary, is still shocking — and all the more so given that many of Australia’s remote Aboriginal populations are still in need of the basic services most of us take for granted. Perhaps we wouldn’t see the same images today. But we wouldn’t be surprised if we did. In many cases, today’s images wouldn’t be far off.

Angry and passionate, Robeson pledged to return to Australia but age and poor health caught up with him and he retired to a life of relative seclusion. Robeson was not, however, the first international agitator to visit Australia and note the racial divide in Australia.

Mark Twain visited Australia in 1896, and, in Following the Equator, recounts a story he heard of an Australian man who invited local Aboriginal people to join him for Christmas. The next morning they were all dead, poisoned by the Christmas pudding. In a piece of biting satire, Twain states that he can’t understand why other Australians considered this man to be a villain:

"The white man’s spirit was right, but his method was wrong. It was better, kinder, swifter, and much more humane than a number of the methods which have been sanctified by custom, but … its unusual nature makes it stand out and attract an amount of attention which it is not entitled to".

In other words, wasn’t he just doing what the rest of Australia was doing, but providing cake at the same time? Some of Twain’s most bitter satire was inspired by his visit to our shores, a dubious national distinction.

"He is almost the only pioneering representative of civilization in history who has risen above the prejudices of his caste and his heredity and tried to introduce the element of mercy into the superior race’s dealings with the savage. His name is lost, and it is a pity; for it deserves to be handed down to posterity with homage and reverence".

Obviously, Robeson has also not been the last visitor to cast a disapproving international eye over our internal divides. Recently the UN special rapporteur on indigenous rights reported "entrenched" racism in Australian culture. And even Harry Connick Jr copped an unholy backlash for being politely and diplomatically unimpressed with an archaic blackface performance on mainstream-mediocre television. Twain was a genius, Robeson a titan, and both were ignored: what chance do Harry and the UN have?

It’s easy to see the problems of another society in an international visitor, but too rarely do we pay enough attention to the reflections of ourselves these visitors provide. Unprepared for the international stage, we retreat into parochialism.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.