Paul Robeson, who died forty years ago this year, was a towering athlete, singer and actor, both literally and figuratively. But above all, he was a phenomenal intellect and scholar, a polymath who spoke twelve languages fluently and developed a piercing critique of white supremacy, colonialism, Western culture and capitalism. As such, he was a trailblazer for the Black Power movement, prefiguring many of the ideas that would go on to be articulated so powerfully by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Born April 9th 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Leroy Robeson had initially intended to be a lawyer. Earning a scholarship for his outstanding footballing abilities, he studied law – but his first day on a planned work placement at the solicitor’s office went badly. “The partners were furious”, he told a Jamaican newspaper in 1935, “’What is a negro doing here?’ The American typist refused to take down my dictation. I left the place, and not only the place but the profession, for we Negroes cannot get the necessary experience at the Bar.” Getting a job as a waiter, he began acting in amateur performances, and was noticed by a talent scout for his remarkable singing voice – after which, he says, “I started a new life: that of an artist.” He soon became a much sought-after Hollywood and stage actor and world-renowned singer, his name becoming synonymous with his trademark hit Ole Man River, and delivering what remains for many critics the definitive performance of Othello. At the height of his career, according to his biographer Philip S Foner, Robeson was “better known internationally than nearly all Americans aside from Franklin D. Roosevelt”, grossing an income of $150,000 per year, one of the highest paid Americans in the entertainment industry.
Yet, his experience in that industry quickly disillusioned him. As his fame grew, he told an interviewer in 1938, he found himself “more and more dissatisfied with the stories I played in. Certain elements in a story would attract me and I would agree to play in it. But by the time producers and distributors had got through with it, the story was usually very different, and so were my feelings about it.” He told another interviewer that year that “I am convinced that the great American and English companies are controlled by big capital, especially by the steel trust, and they will never let me do a picture as I want…The big producers insist on presenting a caricature image of the Black, a ridiculous image, that amuses the white bourgeoisie, and I am not interested in playing their game.”
At that point, Robeson made a conscious decision to quit Hollywood until it moved beyond stereotypical portrayals of African Americans as what he called “plantation hallelujah shouters”. Four years later, he returned to Hollywood for a movie called “Tales of Manhattan”, which he believed had done just that. But, he later explained, “in the end, it turned out to be the same old thing – the Negro solving his problem by singing his way to glory. This is very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro child-like and innocent and is in the old plantation tradition. But Hollywood says you can’t make the Negro in any other role because it won’t be box office in the South. The South wants its Negroes in the old style”.
Robeson also saw that it was not only the characters he played, but his own life story, that was being used to sell the idea that black people’s problems could be solved by ‘singing their way to glory’.
In particular, he grew frustrated with the way in which ‘success stories’ such as his own were being held up to add credence to the fraudulent claim that race prejudice no longer existed in the USA. As he put it, “the rulers of this land – keeping the millions of our people in near serfdom and poverty: exposing us to terror and gross inhumanity – always point to the permitted achievements of a few of us in justification. For myself, I got tired of serving as an excuse for these cruelties to my people. I felt that I and they no longer possessed simple human dignity. So I stopped… I refuse to let my personal success, as part of a fraction of one per cent of the Negro people, to explain away the injustices to fourteen million of my people.”
Instead, Robeson began to search in earnest for roles that would give dignity to his people, rather than perpetuate white prejudices about them, and began to join and form cultural groups dedicated to this end. Such work was, he believed, vital to combat the psychological legacy of slavery and racial discrimination which, he wrote in 1934, “have left an indelible mark on the negro’s soul”. But the path to salvation, he emphasised repeatedly, would not come through what he called ‘aping whites’, but rather through rediscovering and embracing the African culture which had been so belittled and despised by Europeans. The African American, he wrote, “suffers from an inferiority complex which finds its compensation in a desire to imitate the white man and his ways; but I am convinced that in this direction there is neither fulfilment nor peace for the negro…the very impulse which drives them to copy those with the desired status, is killing what is of most value – the personality which makes them unique”. Instead, Robeson immersed himself in the study of African culture, and sought to bring it to the attention of a wider audience: “In my music, my plays, my films I want to carry always this central idea: to be African”. To this end, he declared in 1934, he hoped to help develop “a movement to inspire confidence in the Negro in the value of his own past and future”. He founded a theatre company which he regarded as “the first step on this road. Through it we aim to win world recognition for negro productions and so help the negro back to self-respect” including “some purely African plays – plays which may hold in them the seed of a new dramatic form, since they consist of a perfect welding of drama, music and ballet as has never been achieved on the Western stage”. He had many ideas for films as well – “the part of the Negro in American history – the epic part – can be depicted adequately only on the screen” he insisted – and sought, for example, to make a dramatization of the life and death of a black commander of the Lincoln battalions who fought in the Spanish civil war. Unfortunately, however, and as he had predicted, financiers were not forthcoming.
One of Robeson’s first moves was an attempt to gain recognition for those existing elements of African American culture most clearly influenced by Africa. Despite the best efforts of European slavemasters, the diaspora’s roots remained evident in its folk songs; but even black people themselves, Robeson found, were prone to belittle precisely this aspect of their culture. So, for his farewell US concert in 1931 before relocating to Europe for several years, Robeson rejected calls to ‘prove himself’ by embracing opera and other European traditions, and Instead, fronting a choir of 700, gave a concert consisting entirely of Negro spirituals. “I prefer a programme entirely made up of spirituals”, he explained, “because I know that therein lies our sound and enduring contribution. I know that in the concession to the music of other peoples in our Negro programmes, magnificent and masterly though they may be, lies the eventual obliteration of their own folk music, the musical idioms of our race.” Unfortunately, white audiences did not necessarily appreciate them as Robeson had intended: “There is little audience in England and America for the things I feel like singing or playing,” he lamented in 1934: ”They want Negro religious songs from which they take, not the suffering, but the comfort of the resignation they express – not heeding that the song’s cry for heaven is only a reflex from the Negro’s having suffered hell on earth”. But, of course, it was not for their sake that Robeson was performing: “It is my first concern”, he wrote, “to dispel this regrettable and abysmal ignorance of the value of its own heritage in the negro race itself”. And by the end of the decade, at least, he considered his work in this field a success: “If there is one thing I am proud of”, he would explain to the Sunday Worker on his return to America in 1939, “it is that I have been able to do something, along with others, toward giving this Negro American folk music its rightful place in the world”. Indeed, Robeson was clear that, whilst on the one hand white society belittled African culture and its American offshoots, it was nevertheless perfectly happy to appropriate it: “It is not as imitation Europeans, but as Africans, that we have a value” Robeson said, adding that “in a popular form, Negro music, launched by white men – not Negroes – has swept the world”.
Robeson’s identification with Africa, innocuous and natural as it may seem, was profoundly disturbing for white elites at the time, and already set him apart from many of his contemporaries in the struggle against racism, who emphasised their American identity in order to shore up their patriotism and appear as less of a ‘threat’. This tendency was to grow particularly marked after the war; as Von Eschen has noted: “As the Cold War escalated, the affirmation by many Black American leaders that ‘Negroes are Americans’ left no room for the claim of commonality with Africans and other oppressed peoples”.
Yet, for Robeson, this commonality was front and centre of his evolving political thought. As he threw himself into his studies of African culture, the political ramifications of his growing African consciousness became ever more apparent. As he noted later, in relation to his absorption in the study of African languages in London: “There was a logic to this cultural struggle, and the powers-that-be recognized it before I did. The British intelligence came one day to caution me about the political meanings of my activities. For the question loomed of itself: if African culture was what I insisted it was, what happens then to the claim that it would take 1000 years for Africans to be capable of self-rule?”
Robeson soon became an ardent, passionate and eloquent support of the struggles for African liberation, and became a regular at the West African Students’ Union in London, where came to know future independence leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Kenyatta. In 1937, he became a founder member and chairman of the Council on African Affairs, a position he used to ceaselessly campaign against the brutalities of colonial rule on the continent. For, as he later wrote, “The African and American Negro problem is not purely racial. These cultures must be freed, formulated, and developed, and this cannot be done without a change in the present system. The Negro cannot develop this culture until he is free”.
It was precisely this deep concern for the renaissance of African culture that led also to Robeson’s lifelong devotion to the Soviet Union. As he explains: “It was an African who directed my interest in Africa to something he had noted in the Soviet Union. On a visit to that country he had traveled East and had seen the Yakuts, a people who had been classed as a “backwards race” by the Tsars. He had been struck by the resemblance between the tribal life of the Yakuts and his own people of East Africa…I saw for myself when I visited the Soviet union how the Yakuts and the Uzbeks and all the other formerly oppressed nations were leaping ahead from tribalism to modern industrial economy, from illiteracy to the heights of knowledge. Their ancient cultures blossoming in new and greater splendor. Their young men and women mastering the sciences and arts. A thousand years? No, less than 30! So through Africa I found the Soviet Union – a beacon, a tried and tested way for whole nations, peoples, continents to revive the mother-roots of culture, to flower in freedom.”
Robeson had made the intellectual journey from pride in cultural heritage, to political liberation, to socialism. Needless to say, this did not go down well in Washington – especially in the Cold War climate following the Second World War. Following his speech at the Paris Peace conference in 1949 – in which he declared that “it is inconceivable that American Negroes would fight with those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which, in a generation, has raised them to a position of equality” – his career took a nosedive. Declassified documents show that the State Department went to great lengths to bury him, planting defamatory articles in black journals, pressuring foreign governments to cancel planned celebrations of his life or honorary positions he had been offered, and much else besides. His passport was revoked, and theatres, recording studios and concert halls all closed their doors to him. Unable to work, his income plummeted to $3000 per year, foreshadowing the harassment of black activists that would become institutionalised under the FBI’s COINTELPRO programme in the 1960s.
In the decades immediately following World War Two, a deal was effectively operational between the US government and the mainstream black leadership of the country; in the words of Sohail Daulatzai, “In exchange for legislation on education, interstate transportation, voting rights, and other measures, the Civil Rights establishment approved an aggressive US foreign policy in the name of anti-communism, including US covert interventions and wars in Africa and Asia”. For Robeson, however this was not only unacceptable, but utterly self-defeating; as he put it: “the misrepresentation of the African and the distorted picture of the American Negro still so prevalent in our American culture, stemming as they do from the same basic cause of economic exploitation, can NOT be attacked or rooted out separately. Each myth is propped up by the other; both must be destroyed. When that happens, the true worth of the Negro – whether in Africa or in the Americas – and his place in the mainstream of world culture will be properly understood. When that happens, no one will dare to speak of white supremacy or Negro inferiority… united support for our brothers’ struggle in Africa is an integral part of our task in achieving freedom for all Americans”. As Malcolm X would quarter of a century later (and Marcus Garvey had a quarter of a century before), Robeson saw the struggle against white supremacy as a global one, and the struggles of African Americans for dignity and freedom at home inseparable from the anti-colonial independence struggle in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was in fact this commitment to the anti-colonial struggle, even more than his support for the Soviet Union, that led to him being stripped of his passport in 1950; according to a piece he penned in 1955, the State Department lawyers argued that “in view of the applicant’s frank admission that he has been fighting for the freedom of the colonial people of Africa…the diplomatic embarrassment that could arise from the presence abroad of such as political meddler (sic!) travelling under the protection of an American passport, is easily imaginable.”
Again, like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, Robeson pressed for the internationalisation of the fight against racism in the US through a concerted campaign at the United Nations. In 1951, he was co-signatory to a Civil Rights Congress petition presented to the UN entitled ‘We Charge Genocide’, using extensive documentation to demonstrate that the USA was guilty of genocide against its own African American population. The petition clearly prefigured Malcolm’s presentation to the Organisation of African Unity congress in Cairo in 1963, which laid bare the state-sanctioned violent racism prevalent in the US, and led to the adoption by the OAU of a resolution condemning the “continuing manifestations of racial bigotry and racial oppression against Negro citizens in the United States of America” (a resolution Malcolm saw as such a success that it may well have triggered the US government decision to assassinate him).
Following the foundation of the Council on African Affairs to advocate for African liberation, Robeson also set up a newspaper, Freedom, in which he had a regular column, specifically to make the case for the inseparability of the freedom struggle at home, and the great anti-colonial movements that were beginning to shake imperialism to its foundations abroad. Robeson was scathing in his opposition not only to the Korean War – which he rightly called a genocide – but also to those African American leaders, such as NAACP leader Walter White and Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell who apparently believed that their support for this war would buy them establishment respectability. “If Mr Powell and Mr White are so terribly anxious to prove their patriotism,” he asked his readers in 1951, “why don’t they rush over to Korea and take the place of Lt Gilbert and his other co fighters who face white supremacy frame-ups in a jim-crow army?”, referring to the spate of death sentences that had been dished out to black troops serving in the US army at racist US court martials in Korea.
As a strong advocate of unity between all the oppressed nations of the world, Robeson was deeply disappointed that he was unable to attend the founding conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 due to his travel ban. He did, however, use his column in Freedom to send a warm message to the assembled delegates: “How I should have loved to be at Bandung!,” he wrote, “It is my profound conviction that the very fact of the convening of the Conference of Asian and African nations at Bandung, Indonesia, in itself will be recorded as an historic turning point in all world affairs. A new vista of human advancement in all spheres of life has been opened by this assembly.”
Robeson’s politics clearly foreshadowed both the internationalism and the militancy of later figures such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. Panther leader Huey P. Newton later defined power as “the ability to define phenomena and make them act in a desired manner.” Following the Second World War, the US government sought to define the ‘good Negro’ as one who supports, or at least acquiesces in, US imperialism abroad. Robeson, of course, by refusing to be defined in this way, had put himself outside the category of ‘government-approved Negro’. By the time of his death in 1976, however, this category had become more a badge of shame than one of respectability – thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of those such as Robeson.