we changed the game
paul robeson (1898-1976)
Paul Robeson was an extraordinary and versatile individual, world famous during his lifetime, but he has been deliberately erased from U.S. history for speaking the truth about conditions both domestic and abroad – his opposition to racism, fascism and colonialism and his support for civil and human rights, democracy, national liberation, socialism and the day-to-day resistance of working people of all lands to oppression, knowing that his fame would allow these messages to be more widely heard.
He was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father, William Drew Robeson, had escaped slavery, worked his way to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and later to the pulpit. He instilled in Paul and all his children a strong sense of self worth.
On a scholarship, Robeson enrolled in Rutgers University in 1915, the third Black to attend in the college’s history. He was the first Black man to make the football team – twice picked for All American team – and sang in the Glee Club, but he couldn’t go on the road with them. He was an outstanding student, graduating from Rutgers University Phi Beta Kappa, the only Black in the school.
In 1921, while at Columbia Law School, he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, herself a brilliant student, one of the first African-American analytical chemists, who went on to become a distinguished writer, activist and anthropologist. After graduation, a white law firm hired Paul, but he realized that he would never get past the color barrier there. When a secretary refused to take dictation, saying, “I don’t take dictation from niggers,” he left the legal profession.
His wife encouraged him to seek a career in the theatre, where he became a celebrated stage, screen, radio and concert hall figure; together they shared a lifelong political commitment. His politics developed to include a deep respect for and alliance with working people in the U.S. and all over the world. He said that all men are brothers because of their music.
The great African American historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke, a close friend of Robeson, sums it up this way: “Paul Robeson was indeed more than an artist, activist and freedom fighter. The dimensions of his talent made him our Renaissance man. He was the first American artist, Black or White, to realize that the role of the artist extends far beyond the stage and the concert hall. Early in his life he became conscious of the plight of his people, stubbornly surviving in a racist society. This was his window on the world. From this vantage point he saw how the plight of his people related to the rest of humanity. He realized that the artist had the power, and the responsibility, to change the society in which he lived. He learned that art and culture are weapons in a people’s struggle to exist with dignity and in peace. Life offered him many options and he never chose the easiest one. For most of his life, he was a man walking against the wind.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, he was the third most popular radio artist. He performed around the world, becoming a star in British film in the 1930s. He met many Caribbean and African students in London, including Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta. In fact, he said that it was in London where he discovered Africa.
While he was in London, in 1928, there was a mine disaster in Wales. The mine owner’s first concern was for the pit ponies, not the miners, as they had to pay for the pit ponies, but the miners were free. When the miners went on strike and were then locked out of the mine, they marched to London to draw attention to the desperate conditions they and their families were in. Paul joined the demonstration, discovering the link between the working class and people of color. In 1939, he starred in “The Proud Valley,” which told the story of the plight of the Welsh. It was the only film he made where he accomplished what he set out to do – describe the reality of the miners’ lives.
His other films were not so rewarding. Robeson stands for Black manhood, in a time when the only roles open to Blacks were as buffoons or subservient. The film industry reflected the thinking of the day and that was in support of colonialism and racism. He wanted to alter the perception of Black people in the cinema, with little success. Though he was promised on many occasions, that a film would reflect Africans in a positive light, it would end up supporting colonial thinking.
In 1934, he went to Moscow for the first time to talk to the famous Russian director Sergei Eisenstein about a film on the Haitian Revolution. He said it was the first place he was treated as a full human being, as a man. He pointed to Article 123 of the Russian Constitution that proclaims complete equality of all people in the Soviet Union and racism as an offense. He saw the Soviet Union as an experiment in socialism. It was the first country to join the fight against fascism in Spain.
The anti-fascist struggle of the Spanish Civil War had a profound effect on him, as did his experiences in the Soviet Union, adding to his growing understanding of the common plight of workers around the world and the “one-ness” of humanity.
Robeson traveled to Spain in 1938 and sang there, on a hilltop, for the International Brigades fighting against fascism. It was in the context of Spain that he uttered one of his most famous proclamations: “The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
Robeson summarizes the essence of his commitment, explaining that his politics developed to include a deep respect for and alliance with working people in the U.S. and all over the world. “What would my father say to me, if he were alive? He would say, ‘It’s hard, son, but don’t forget that I was born in slavery, and that your people were not able to do anything as free people for a long, long while. But they struggled, they fought, they made up their songs, and they struggled ahead. A Harriet Tubman, a Sojourner Truth, a Frederick Douglass, helped by a Henry Lloyd Garrison and by a John Brown, and I escaped by the underground, and so you stand your ground. You may have to stand a little longer, you know. Just keep your courage and keep your heart.’”
In the 1940s, Paul Robeson was the most well known Black man in the U.S. When he was supporting the troops and the sale of war bonds, white America chose to ignore his outspokenness. He was their “model Negro.” In 1946, a year after the end of World War II, there were 41 known lynchings in the U.S. That year, he led a delegation of the American Crusade to End Lynching to see then-President Truman to demand anti-lynching legislation and Truman said not now.
In St. Louis, Missouri, he took his first direct act in the U.S. that contributed to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when he refused to perform before an all-white audience. Clarke writes: “He was the first American artist to refuse to sing before a segregated audience. He spoke out against lynching, segregated theatres and eating places a generation before the beginning of what is referred to as the Black Revolution.”
He was a strong proponent of principled African-American unity and active organizing for freedom and human rights. With William Patterson, he brought the historic “We Charge Genocide” document to the United Nations, calling the attention of the world body to his people’s oppression. Robeson wrote, “Many times I stood on the very soil on which my father was a slave, where some of my cousins were sharecroppers and unemployed tobacco workers. I reflected upon the wealth bled from my near relatives alone, and of the very basic wealth of all this America beaten out of millions of Negro people, enslaved, freed, newly enslaved until this very day.”
Paul Robeson had a strong influence on the dawning of the civil rights and Black Liberation movements. He spoke for unity against segregation and for racial justice across economic lines and other divides. He highlighted the role of radical Black churches and proposed the use of more militant strategies. And white America felt betrayed and lashed out. The rabid anti-Communists mounted a campaign against Robeson. In 1950, his passport was revoked. Several years later, Robeson refused to sign an affidavit stating that he was not a Communist and initiated an unsuccessful lawsuit. He said the Communist Party was a legal party in the U.S. and it was no one’s business if he was a member.
He was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), supposedly convened to get information on his passport suit. Robeson refused to answer questions concerning his political activities and lectured bigoted committee members about African-American history and civil rights. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s right to travel could not be taken away without due process and Robeson’ passport was returned.
Many African-American witnesses were subpoenaed to testify at the HUAC hearings in the 1950s and were asked to denounce Paul Robeson in order to obtain future employment, which they did.
Robeson said, “Because I speak for unity of all peoples, for peace, for the complete equality of my people, I am called un-American.”
In 1958, when the anti-Communist frenzy was winding down, he was again hailed as a great performer, singing to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. With his passport restored, he was welcomed internationally for his anti-colonialist position.
He saw Russia and the People’s Republic of China as countries that would help other countries free themselves, as the hope against colonialism. He said the main enemy to humankind was the right wing of the United States.
Paul Robeson: Editorial drawing by renowned Black artist Charles Henry Alston, 1943
In 1961, he planned to travel to the countries listed on his passport as places he could not go – Cuba, Albania and “the Communist controlled portions of China, Korea, Viet-Nam.” The CIA and FBI found out about his plans and wanted to stop him. It is believed that he was given a CIA-developed drug that makes people paranoid. He attempted suicide but was taken to the hospital in time. He went to London for treatment, where he was given 54 electric shocks. Friends got him out of the hospital, but he was never the same.
Upon returning to the U.S., he continued to speak out for peace, understanding and friendship with all peoples of the world but refused many public appearances. He died in 1976, never having bowed to the pressures laid on him.
written by Candy Gonzalez