Paul Robeson Was One of the Greatest Figures of the 20th Century

Paul Robeson’s artistic achievements have stood the test of time. So has his commitment to socialist internationalism and the struggle against racism and colonialism wherever it emerges.

Paul Robeson in 1938. (Yousuf Karsh / National Archives of Canada)

Who is Paul Robeson, the man? He had just about as good a mind, body, will, and voice — all in one person — as functioned in the first half of the twentieth century. Honored throughout the world as an outstanding drama, film, and concert performer, Robeson transferred this artistic prestige to that of a political spokesman on behalf of those seeking to gain and to retain freedom. His friendship with, and active support of, Third World freedom fighters Azikiwe, Kenyatta, Nehru, and Nkrumah attest to this. To the United States State Department, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the renters of major US concert halls, the National Football Hall of Fame, and numerous Rutgers alumni, his political utterances brought infamy and, from some, cries of disloyalty.

So, while there is a Mount Paul Robeson in the USSR, a Paul Robeson Archives in the German Democratic Republic, and an International Stalin Peace Prize in Robeson’s possession, his own government would not even permit him a passport to go abroad to practice his profession; entrepreneurs denied him the privilege of singing in the Carnegie Halls of America for eight long years. His failure to continue supporting a political-economic system whose military efforts against fascism he had actively backed during World War II by recruiting, by publicly justifying, and by entertaining troops at military installations and workers at defense plants, was interpreted by some as treasonable.

Robeson was in the vanguard of significant developments related to black intellectual and political assertion. He was an intellectual forerunner in scholarly publications on African culture and linguistics in the 1930s. His warning to President Truman in 1946 — that unless the US government began to protect black Americans from lynchings, blacks would take the necessary steps of self-defense — preceded the teachings of Malcolm X, Robert Williams, the Deacons for Justice, and the Black Panthers. Robeson had a concrete liberation program. His proposed tactics of using two mass-based organizations — the churches and the labor unions — was an important contribution to black political thought.

Robeson grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of the minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. At age sixty (in his very important political statement Here I Stand) Paul Robeson was to reminisce about his father, about the important role of his father, in young Paul’s search for identity: “As I went out into life, one thing loomed above all else. I was my father’s son, a Negro in America. That was the challenge.”

As C. L. R. James has put it, “Paul Robeson was a great political figure. He took part in a struggle which was bigger than himself. And he never buckled down under brute force, racist pressures, or an imperialist campaign to discredit him, which was a big and an unprecedented sacrifice for humanity.”

Robeson’s Internationalism

From the early 1930s, Robeson developed and advocated two major political commitments — African liberation and anti-imperialism. The American establishment garnered its forces to persecute him on both, often confusing its population about which was more threatening.

Robeson linked the liberation struggle of his people in America with the same struggle of his people in Africa. He threw himself into African efforts at identity, positive images, and freedom in several ways: (1) through his studies, interviews, speeches, and writings on African linguistics and culture; (2) through his films; (3) through direct individual aid to African and other Third World nationalists in the United Kingdom; and (4) organizationally through the Council on African Affairs in the United States.

In 1937, Robeson cofounded the Council of African Affairs, which he was to serve actively as chairman, to aid the national-liberation struggles. The organization was politically smeared into oblivion in 1955 as a result of conflicts with the American government. According to Adelaide Hill and Martin Kilson, in Apropos of Africa, the council was “the first organization of Negro Americans actively to involve Africans in the United States within an institution whose specific purpose was to influence government policy toward Africa.” It was at its 1944 conference, over which Robeson presided, that a young student from Ghana, Francis Nwi-Kofì Nkrumah [who would later go on to become Kwame Nkrumah], participated, as a representative of the African Students Association; the conference was aimed at drafting a program for Africa’s postwar liberation and advancement. The council’s program was sixfold:

1. To give concrete help to the struggle of the African masses.
2. To disseminate accurate information concerning Africa and its people; in that, to wake up Americans to what is happening in Africa, the one continent where undisguised colonial slavery is still practiced.
3. To influence the adoption of governmental policies designed to promote their advancement and freedom and preserve international peace.
4. To smash the iron curtain of secrecy and double talk surrounding the schemes for intensified imperialist exploitation of Africa and its people.
5. To prevent American loans and guns from being used to crush the freedom struggle of Africans and other subjected peoples.
6. To strengthen the alliance of progressive Americans, black and white, with the peoples of Africa and other lands in the common struggle for world peace and freedom.

Through mass rallies, conferences, workshops, cables, declarations, press releases and advertisements, financial and food aid to famines in Africa, hosting nationalist leaders and delegations, and meetings with major members of the US Government and of the UN Secretariat and delegations, Robeson and the council contributed to the cause of African freedom.

Significant was Robeson’s declaration in a 1946 meeting with President Truman. In response to the president’s assertion that the United States and Britain were the last refuges of freedom in the world, Robeson replied, “the British Empire is one of the greatest enslavers of human beings.” Because of Robeson’s international prestige and popularity, the British press and at least one top member of its government, the colonial secretary, expressed sharp opposition to this.

Robeson and the Soviets

With his linking the struggle for black liberation in the United States with the worldwide struggle of oppressed peoples, Robeson identified American imperialism as the main enemy of liberation efforts. That is the context in which he said that he did not see how black Americans would want to fight against the Soviet Union on behalf of their oppressors, including Senator Eastland (Miss.).

How did Robeson respond to Marxism-Leninism generally and to the USSR specifically? Only the Soviet Union was seen as militarily strong enough to be able to challenge US imperialism and Western colonialism in international forums and elsewhere. Robeson’s political evolution to socialism took several steps. From experiencing racial exploitation in the United States, he began to see class exploitation on the Liverpool docks and in the Welsh coal mines. After personally experiencing a near-lynching at the Friedrichstrasse railway station in Hitler’s Germany, Robeson was deeply moved by his warm reception in the Soviet Union, both from the political and artistic elites and from the general population. The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whom he had gone to the USSR to see to discuss a movie about Toussaint L’Ouverture and Henri Christophe, welcomed him at the Moscow train station. People were to greet him warmly wherever he went. Those personal experiences and observations were to aid his attraction to the country; Robeson was to remark that for the first time in his life he felt like a man.

It is alleged, but not substantiated, that during World War II, only two photos were allowed in Soviet government offices: Joseph Stalin’s and Robeson’s. He later became a confidant of the next head of Soviet government and party, Nikita Khrushchev, even before any American president was to meet Chairman Khrushchev — occasionally relaxing at Khrushchev’s dacha on the Black Sea. Robeson was optimistic of a major role which he saw the USSR playing in a racist world:

Russia is the father of experiment. The Russians will save the white world from complete destruction. The black and yellow man will rise up to avenge themselves. They will show that men are equal, that difference in color does not make men the enemies of one another.

His exposure to Marxist thinkers and readings in London, his positive experiences and treatment throughout the USSR, and his observations of cultural and economic evolution in Central Asia were to aid his subsequent identification with scientific socialism.

Domestic Political Persecution

A major illustration shows the responses of the United States political system to Robeson during the period between 1950 and 1958 — a period during which, as the New Statesman and Nation put it, “he was sentenced to unemployment in a country he could not leave.” His encounter with the notorious House Committee on American Activities — which with the State Department was leading the government’s efforts to silence Robeson — deserves our attention.

Robeson had answered a subpoena to appear on June 12, 1956, before HUAC with the impression that such an appearance might help him retrieve the passport that the United States State Department had confiscated. Instead, the committee turned the hearing into a personal attack on Robeson. Inquisitors attempted to discredit him by labeling him a Communist subversive, loyal to a foreign power. Robeson was denied his request to face and to examine his accusers, as well as to read a prepared statement. Invoking the Fifth Amendment over thirty times, Robeson refused to aid and abet the national witch hunt of senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon and their Lower House colleagues.

From the Committee’s printed record, a verbatim excerpt of an exchange between Brother Robeson and inquisitor Francis Walter, committee chairman, speaks for itself:

Chairman: You are speaking to the chairman of this committee.
Robeson: Mr. Walter?
Chairman: Yes.
Robeson: The Pennsylvania Walter?
Chairman: That is right.
Robeson: Representative of the steelworkers?
Chairman: That is right.
Robeson: Of the coal mining workers and not United States Steel, by any chance? A great patriot.
Chairman: That is right.
Robeson: You are the author of all of the bills that are going to keep all kinds of decent people out of the country?
Chairman: No, only your kind.
Robeson: Colored people like myself, from the West Indies and all kinds, and just the Teutonic Anglo-Saxon stock that you would let come in.
Chairman: We are trying to make it easier to get rid of your kind, too.
Robeson: You do not want any colored people to come in?
Chairman: Proceed

And proceed Robeson did — he proceeded to challenge uncompromisingly the political, economic, and cultural foundations of American racism.

Paul Robeson Jr summarizes the interaction between his father and establishment institutions — political, communications, cultural, and economic:

My father survived an unprecedented onslaught. He took all they had to throw at him, came out the other end triumphant, unbowed — his famous comment was, “I shall not retreat one thousandth part of an inch.” . . . He never took a word back, and he retired unbowed and undefeated.

To separate Robeson, the artist from Robeson, the man, or, for that matter, from Robeson, the political man, is not possible.

Art as Activism

Robeson’s view of the artist as activist came early. He gave as a reason for leaving a potentially lucrative career as a Wall Street lawyer the argument that he could reach more people in a single evening as an artist than he could reach in several years practicing law. John Henrik Clarke describes Robeson, the artist-activist: “He was the forerunner of the artist who saw that his art extended beyond the stage and had to be involved with the life of the people.”

The culture of his own people was his window to the culture of other peoples of the world. He saw the interrelationship among them and, thus, he came to study the cultures of the common people — their folk art, folk music, and folk literature. His refusal to sing to Jim Crow audiences in the South occurred two generations ago and began a trend that was to lead to civil rights activities in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.

As Anatal Schlosser has pointed out, “It was through singing that he best came to realize both personal and political ambitions. . . . It was not his speeches but his songs that spoke for his politics.” Robeson’s political beliefs were manifested in his concert presentations; he became interested in the kinship of folk music generally and introduced folk songs of all nations on his programs. And as fascism expanded in Europe in the 1930s, Robeson contributed his art to anti-fascist causes, while maintaining his regular concert schedule. The effect of his growing militant position in regular recitals became evident in his interpretation of spirituals and the changing of lyrics of other music to give them greater political meaning. In England, gallery-seat prices were reduced in order to admit more of the people he believed really wanted to hear him.

Of Paul Robeson’s numerous successes on the stage, his was the definitive Othello in the modern theater. Setting an all-time record of 296 performances for a Shakespearean play on Broadway, Othello in 1944 won for Robeson highest praise. His roles on the stage had symbolic political significance. He performed superbly to satisfy his audience but also transmitted to that same audience a political message which would eventually help to intensify political freedom as well as social equality.

In film, as Thomas Cripps has pointed out, Robeson’s role should be viewed essentially as that of a man who fought successfully to help destroy the distorted myths about blacks projected by the Hollywood film industry. In the formative years of Robeson’s movie career, certain roles were forced upon him. The thinking of Hollywood in those days, as it very well may be today, was anti-black in every respect, especially the thought of assigning meaningful roles to black actors. Robeson became the victim of his trade. Beginning with Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Robeson made eleven feature films, mostly in England, between 1924 and 1944, along with three significant political documentaries, for which he did the voice-over narrations.

Robeson’s film experiences were intertwined with his political life in several ways. His negative experiences with American and British film producers and directors in the highly competitive film industry inevitably were to help shape his evolving views of the capitalist economic system. Overt racism prevailed through all layers of the industry, including the intentional distortion of images, patterns of discrimination in employment, and the distribution of films. Even as a famous interpretive artist he was not immune to racism in film, in concert, in theater. Regarding images, Robeson was to remark: “Hollywood can only visualize the plantation type of Negro — the Negro of ‘Poor Old Joe’ and ‘Swanee Ribber.’”

His film Song of Freedom (1937), about a successful black singer who, after discovering his aristocratic African origins, returns to take over leadership, received Robeson’s praise: “I believe this is the first film to give a true picture of many aspects of the life of a coloured man in the West. Hitherto . . . he has been caricatured as a comedy character. This film shows him as a real man.” The film has two significant autobiographical items. One is the profoundly personal identification with, and interest in, the history, aspirations, and culture of the African motherland. A second is the abdication by a successful artist of a lucrative career and fame on behalf of a cause in which he believes and which he sees as paramount. Kwame Nkrumah — who had worked closely with Robeson in Britain — selected the film for viewing at his Convention People’s Party’s second anniversary celebration in 1950 and was later to offer Robeson a visiting professorship of drama and music at the University in independent Ghana, a post which Robeson’s health would not permit his accepting.

Finally, involvement in film led to Robeson’s first trip to the USSR, in 1936, to meet with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. Although initially made to discuss making a film on the Haitian military and anti-slavery leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, the voyage was to have profound political impact on the thirty-eight-year-old Robeson, and to influence his thinking and behavior about political, economic, and social phenomena for the rest of his public life.

Despite his international fame in the concert halls, in the theater, and on the screen, it is significant that this artist-activist never allowed his personal success to explain away what happened to his people. The essence of Robeson’s political evolution can be seen in his changing the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River.” Early in his artistic career, Robeson was to sing it as written:

You get a little drunk and you lands in jail,
I gets weary and sick of tryin’
I’m scared of livin’ and feared of dyin’

His later message to the world’s oppressed, with whom he identified, and to the oppressor, for whom he had scorn, is summed up by the significant changes:

You show a little grit and you’ll land in jail.
I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’

He dared assert his manhood and that of his people. That is how the beleaguered Robeson responded to racism, whether it be in the classroom, on the football field, in the political arena, on the stage, in the concert hall, or on the screen.