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

Who is Paul Robeson, the person? He had nearly nearly as good a thoughts, physique, will, and voice — multi function individual — as functioned within the first half of the 20th century. Honored all through the world as an impressive drama, movie, and live performance performer, Robeson transferred this creative status to that of a political spokesman on behalf of these looking for to achieve and to retain freedom. His friendship with, and lively help 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 main US live performance halls, the National Football Hall of Fame, and quite a few Rutgers alumni, his political utterances introduced infamy and, from some, cries of disloyalty.

So, whereas there’s a Mount Paul Robeson within the USSR, a Paul Robeson Archives within the German Democratic Republic, and an International Stalin Peace Prize in Robeson’s possession, his personal authorities wouldn’t even allow him a passport to go overseas to observe his occupation; entrepreneurs denied him the privilege of singing within the Carnegie Halls of America for eight lengthy years. His failure to proceed supporting a political-economic system whose army efforts towards fascism he had actively backed throughout World War II by recruiting, by publicly justifying, and by entertaining troops at army installations and employees at protection vegetation, was interpreted by some as treasonable.

Robeson was within the vanguard of serious developments associated to black mental and political assertion. He was an mental forerunner in scholarly publications on African tradition and linguistics within the Nineteen Thirties. His warning to President Truman in 1946 — that until the US authorities started to guard black Americans from lynchings, blacks would take the required 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 techniques of utilizing two mass-based organizations — the church buildings and the labor unions — was an essential 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 essential political assertion Here I Stand) Paul Robeson was to reminisce about his father, concerning the essential position of his father, in younger Paul’s seek for id: “As I went out into life, one factor loomed above all else. I used to be my father’s son, a Negro in America. That was the problem.”

As C. L. R. James has put it, “Paul Robeson was an incredible political determine. He took half in a battle which was greater than himself. And he by no means buckled down beneath brute drive, racist pressures, or an imperialist marketing campaign to discredit him, which was a giant and an unprecedented sacrifice for humanity.”

From the early Nineteen Thirties, Robeson developed and advocated two main political commitments — African liberation and anti-imperialism. The American institution garnered its forces to persecute him on each, typically complicated its inhabitants about which was extra threatening.

Robeson linked the liberation battle of his individuals in America with the identical battle of his individuals in Africa. He threw himself into African efforts at id, optimistic photographs, and freedom in a number of methods: (1) via his research, interviews, speeches, and writings on African linguistics and tradition; (2) via his movies; (3) via direct particular person support to African and different Third World nationalists within the United Kingdom; and (4) organizationally via the Council on African Affairs within the United States.

In 1937, Robeson cofounded the Council of African Affairs, which he was to serve actively as chairman, to assist the national-liberation struggles. The group was politically smeared into oblivion in 1955 on account of conflicts with the American authorities. According to Adelaide Hill and Martin Kilson, in Apropos of Africa, the council was “the primary group of Negro Americans actively to contain Africans within the United States inside an establishment whose particular goal was to affect authorities coverage towards Africa.” It was at its 1944 convention, over which Robeson presided, {that a} younger scholar from Ghana, Francis Nwi-Kofì Nkrumah [who would later go on to become Kwame Nkrumah], participated, as a consultant of the African Students Association; the convention was aimed toward drafting a program for Africa’s postwar liberation and development. The council’s program was sixfold:

1. To give concrete assist to the battle of the African plenty.
2. To disseminate correct info regarding Africa and its individuals; in that, to get up Americans to what’s occurring in Africa, the one continent the place undisguised colonial slavery continues to be practiced.
3. To affect the adoption of governmental insurance policies designed to advertise their development and freedom and protect worldwide peace.
4. To smash the iron curtain of secrecy and double speak surrounding the schemes for intensified imperialist exploitation of Africa and its individuals.
5. To forestall American loans and weapons from getting used to crush the liberty battle of Africans and different subjected peoples.
6. To strengthen the alliance of progressive Americans, black and white, with the peoples of Africa and different lands within the widespread battle for world peace and freedom.

Through mass rallies, conferences, workshops, cables, declarations, press releases and commercials, monetary and meals support to famines in Africa, internet hosting nationalist leaders and delegations, and conferences with main members of the US Government and of the UN Secretariat and delegations, Robeson and the council contributed to the reason for African freedom.

Significant was Robeson’s declaration in a 1946 assembly with President Truman. In response to the president’s assertion that the United States and Britain had been the final refuges of freedom on the earth, Robeson replied, “the British Empire is without doubt one of the biggest enslavers of human beings.” Because of Robeson’s worldwide status and recognition, the British press and a minimum of one prime member of its authorities, the colonial secretary, expressed sharp opposition to this.

With his linking the battle for black liberation within the United States with the worldwide battle of oppressed peoples, Robeson recognized American imperialism as the primary enemy of liberation efforts. That is the context by which he mentioned that he didn’t see how black Americans would need to combat towards the Soviet Union on behalf of their oppressors, together with Senator Eastland (Miss.).

How did Robeson reply to Marxism-Leninism typically and to the USSR particularly? Only the Soviet Union was seen as militarily sturdy sufficient to have the ability to problem US imperialism and Western colonialism in worldwide boards and elsewhere. Robeson’s political evolution to socialism took a number of steps. From experiencing racial exploitation within the United States, he started to see class exploitation on the Liverpool docks and within the Welsh coal mines. After personally experiencing a near-lynching on the Friedrichstrasse railway station in Hitler’s Germany, Robeson was deeply moved by his heat reception within the Soviet Union, each from the political and creative elites and from the final inhabitants. The nice Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whom he had gone to the USSR to see to debate a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture and Henri Christophe, welcomed him on the Moscow practice station. People had been to greet him warmly wherever he went. Those private experiences and observations had been to assist his attraction to the nation; Robeson was to comment that for the primary time in his life he felt like a person.

It is alleged, however not substantiated, that in World War II, solely two pictures had been allowed in Soviet authorities places of work: Joseph Stalin’s and Robeson’s. He later turned a confidant of the following head of Soviet authorities and social gathering, Nikita Khrushchev, even earlier than any American president was to fulfill Chairman Khrushchev — often enjoyable at Khrushchev’s dacha on the Black Sea. Robeson was optimistic of a significant position which he noticed the USSR taking part in in a racist world:

Russia is the daddy of experiment. The Russians will save the white world from full destruction. The black and yellow man will rise as much as avenge themselves. They will show that males are equal, that distinction in coloration doesn’t make males the enemies of each other.

His publicity to Marxist thinkers and readings in London, his optimistic experiences and therapy all through the USSR, and his observations of cultural and financial evolution in Central Asia had been to assist his subsequent identification with scientific socialism.

A significant illustration exhibits the responses of the United States political system to Robeson throughout the interval between 1950 and 1958 — a interval throughout which, because the New Statesman and Nation put it, “he was sentenced to unemployment in a rustic he couldn’t depart.” His encounter with the infamous House Committee on American Activities — which with the State Department was main the federal government’s efforts to silence Robeson — deserves our consideration.

Robeson had answered a subpoena to seem on June 12, 1956, earlier than HUAC with the impression that such an look may assist him retrieve the passport that the United States State Department had confiscated. Instead, the committee turned the listening to into a private assault on Robeson. Inquisitors tried to discredit him by labeling him a Communist subversive, loyal to a international energy. Robeson was denied his request to face and to look at his accusers, in addition to to learn a ready assertion. Invoking the Fifth Amendment over thirty occasions, Robeson refused to assist and abet the nationwide witch hunt of senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon and their Lower House colleagues.

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

Chairman: You are chatting with the chairman of this committee.
Robeson: Mr. Walter?
Chairman: Yes.
Robeson: The Pennsylvania Walter?
Chairman: That is correct.
Robeson: Representative of the steelworkers?
Chairman: That is correct.
Robeson: Of the coal mining employees and never United States Steel, by any probability? A terrific patriot.
Chairman: That is correct.
Robeson: You are the creator of all the payments which might be going to maintain all types of first rate individuals in another country?
Chairman: No, solely your sort.
Robeson: Colored individuals like myself, from the West Indies and all types, and simply the Teutonic Anglo-Saxon inventory that you’d let are available in.
Chairman: We are attempting to make it simpler to do away with your sort, too.
Robeson: You don’t want any coloured individuals to return in?
Chairman: Proceed

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

Paul Robeson Jr summarizes the interplay between his father and institution establishments — political, communications, cultural, and financial:

My father survived an unprecedented onslaught. He took all they needed to throw at him, got here out the opposite finish triumphant, unbowed — his well-known remark was, “I shall not retreat one thousandth a part of an inch.” . . . He by no means took a phrase again, and he retired unbowed and undefeated.

To separate Robeson, the artist from Robeson, the person, or, for that matter, from Robeson, the political man, just isn’t attainable.

Robeson’s view of the artist as activist got here early. He gave as a purpose for leaving a doubtlessly profitable profession as a Wall Street lawyer the argument that he may attain extra individuals in a single night as an artist than he may attain in a number of years training legislation. John Henrik Clarke describes Robeson, the artist-activist: “He was the forerunner of the artist who noticed that his artwork prolonged past the stage and needed to be concerned with the lifetime of the individuals.”

The tradition of his personal individuals was his window to the tradition of different peoples of the world. He noticed the interrelationship amongst them and, thus, he got here to review the cultures of the widespread individuals — their people artwork, people music, and people literature. His refusal to sing to Jim Crow audiences within the South occurred two generations in the past and started a pattern that was to result in civil rights actions within the South within the Fifties and Sixties.

As Anatal Schlosser has identified, “It was via singing that he finest got here to appreciate each private and political ambitions. . . . It was not his speeches however his songs that spoke for his politics.” Robeson’s political opinions had been manifested in his live performance displays; he took an interest within the kinship of folks music typically and launched people songs of all nations on his applications. And as fascism expanded in Europe within the Nineteen Thirties, Robeson contributed his artwork to anti-fascist causes, whereas sustaining his common live performance schedule. The impact of his rising militant place in common recitals turned evident in his interpretation of spirituals and the altering of lyrics of different music to offer them higher political that means. In England, gallery-seat costs had been decreased in an effort to admit extra of the individuals he believed actually needed to listen to him.

Of Paul Robeson’s quite a few successes on the stage, his was the definitive Othello within the trendy theater. Setting an all-time document of 296 performances for a Shakespearean play on Broadway, Othello in 1944 received for Robeson highest reward. His roles on the stage had symbolic political significance. He carried out beautifully to fulfill his viewers but in addition transmitted to that very same viewers a political message which might finally assist to accentuate political freedom in addition to social equality.

In movie, as Thomas Cripps has identified, Robeson’s position must be considered primarily as that of a person who fought efficiently to assist destroy the distorted myths about blacks projected by the Hollywood movie business. In the youth of Robeson’s film profession, sure roles had been pressured upon him. The pondering of Hollywood in these days, because it very effectively could also be at the moment, was anti-black in each respect, particularly the considered assigning significant roles to black actors. Robeson turned the sufferer of his commerce. Beginning with Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Robeson made eleven function movies, largely in England, between 1924 and 1944, together with three vital political documentaries, for which he did the voice-over narrations.

Robeson’s movie experiences had been intertwined along with his political life in a number of methods. His unfavorable experiences with American and British movie producers and administrators within the extremely aggressive movie business inevitably had been to assist form his evolving views of the capitalist financial system. Overt racism prevailed via all layers of the business, together with the intentional distortion of photographs, patterns of discrimination in employment, and the distribution of movies. Even as a well-known interpretive artist he was not proof against racism in movie, in live performance, in theater. Regarding photographs, Robeson was to comment: “Hollywood can solely visualize the plantation kind of Negro — the Negro of ‘Poor Old Joe’ and ‘Swanee Ribber.’”

His movie Song of Freedom (1937), a couple of profitable black singer who, after discovering his aristocratic African origins, returns to take over management, acquired Robeson’s reward: “I consider that is the primary movie to offer a real image of many points of the lifetime of a colored man within the West. Hitherto . . . he has been caricatured as a comedy character. This movie exhibits him as an actual man.” The movie has two vital autobiographical objects. One is the profoundly private identification with, and curiosity in, the historical past, aspirations, and tradition of the African motherland. A second is the abdication by a profitable artist of a profitable profession and fame on behalf of a trigger by which he believes and which he sees as paramount. Kwame Nkrumah — who had labored carefully with Robeson in Britain — chosen the movie for viewing at his Convention People’s Party’s second anniversary celebration in 1950 and was later to supply Robeson a visiting professorship of drama and music on the University in impartial Ghana, a submit which Robeson’s well being wouldn’t allow his accepting.

Finally, involvement in movie led to Robeson’s first journey to the USSR, in 1936, to fulfill with the good Soviet movie director Sergei Eisenstein. Although initially made to debate making a movie on the Haitian army and anti-slavery chief Toussaint L’Ouverture, the voyage was to have profound political affect on the thirty-eight-year-old Robeson, and to affect his pondering and habits about political, financial, and social phenomena for the remainder of his public life.

Despite his worldwide fame within the live performance halls, within the theater, and on the display, it’s vital that this artist-activist by no means allowed his private success to elucidate away what occurred to his individuals. The essence of Robeson’s political evolution will be seen in his altering the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River.” Early in his creative profession, Robeson was to sing it as written:

You get a bit of drunk and also you lands in jail,
I will get weary and sick of tryin’
I’m terrified of livin’ and feared of dyin’

His later message to the world’s oppressed, with whom he recognized, and to the oppressor, for whom he had scorn, is summed up by the numerous modifications:

You show a bit of grit and also you’ll land in jail.
I need to hold fightin’ till I’m dyin’

He dared assert his manhood and that of his individuals. That is how the beleaguered Robeson responded to racism, whether or not it’s within the classroom, on the soccer subject, within the political area, on the stage, within the live performance corridor, or on the display.

This article was first printed in www.jacobinmag.com

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