April 17, 2023
Paul Robeson is an undisputed American icon, and in particular an African-American icon. He was one of the first — if not the first — Black men to cross over as a major star with name recognition among white audiences, and his work in the theater, in films and as an activist paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
That's why it is gut-wrenching to watch a young man casually destroy a famous Robeson mural on U Street in Washington, D.C., with silver spray paint as if it were possible to erase Robeson's legacy. It is the kind of thing people do violently, as when extremist Muslims blew up the Buddhas in Afghanistan.
Attempted cultural erasure is not murder, but it symbolizes genocide, and is a threat.
One week after the 125th anniversary of Robeson's birth, at least part of his famous Living Timeline: Paul Robeson mural in D.C. was painted over while onlookers demanded to know why the perpetrator was doing it. All they got in response was an unbothered smirk.
"I make no separation between my work as an artist, and my work as a human being." — Paul Robeson
Was the white or white-looking man in disguise? Some suggest his cap, hair and mustache could be concealing his identity, which might help explain why he felt secure being filmed destroying an important piece of street art. Or is he just a feckless hipster who enjoys defacing the work of others, absent any talent of his own?
I am hopeful this little troll is caught and punished, and by that I mean I hope it is an act that follows him for many years. I'm not sure what can be done when a person defaces public art, but while it would have been satisfying to watch him get the shit kicked out of him, that, too, would have been wrong.
But I hope this turd doesn't get away with this without repercussions.