In 1952, having been barred from crossing into Canada by the US government, the internationally renowned singer and activist Paul Robeson staged a concert directly on the border, performing to tens of thousands of people from both nations. Robeson’s voice transgressed national boundaries where his body could not, and in doing so he enacted a prefigurative moment of the border’s dissolution. This paper considers the possibility of border abolition through an engagement with Robeson’s political artistry and his diverse modes of media activism. Recent border scholarship has reoriented its study of the border as a strictly material site, approaching it instead as a system of interrelated social processes that work to determine people’s legal and social status. Thus, rather than looking at the Canada–US border as something fixed in space and time, its historical formation can be seen as a contingent process, one with a multitude of related effects on other political and social histories, including resistance to settler-colonialism and the abolition of the slave trade. With his concerts at the border, Robeson produced a phenomenological experience of border crossing for his transnational audience, leaving us with a powerful precedent from which we can now imagine borders otherwise.
Performing Abolition: Paul Robeson in the Canadian Borderlands
Gabriel Saloman Mindel is an interdisciplinary artist, musician, and scholar whose research combines the study of sound and theories of power, particularly the use of noise to extend beyond the limits of the body in struggles for space and political autonomy. For two decades he has been exhibiting and curating artwork, performing improvised music, and composing for dance and film. His writing has been published in Sounding Out! and The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, as well as numerous arts publications. Mindel received an MFA from Simon Fraser University School for the Contemporary Arts, and he is currently a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Gabriel Saloman Mindel; Performing Abolition: Paul Robeson in the Canadian Borderlands. Resonance 1 September 2021; 2 (3): 411–426. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/res.2021.2.3.411
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