Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Polymath of Revolution: Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson is more often than not remembered by mainstream white culture as the deep, melancholic voice of American musicals, though sometimes in roles that ultimately pandered to white stereotypes of black people. But there was much, much more to this remarkable radical whose life straddled so many of the defining struggles of the 20th century.

He was born in 1898 in New Jersey to a mixed race mother and a black father who had been born a slave before escaping and eventually becoming a pastor. In spite of facing a barrage of racism in his early years, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College where he excelled at sport and played in the National Football League. At the same time, he studied and qualified in law from Columbia Law School, but on graduation, he was faced with patronising racial barriers to progressing in the profession. Encouraged by his new wife Essie, who supported him financially, he switched instead to theatre in Harlem where he soon worked with a range of radical bohemian artists. His performances were widely praised, but the subjects of many of the productions he appeared in challenged prevailing norms about race and society, and led to death threats.

This didn't stop him and he was soon singing as well, presenting concerts of slave spirituals, arguing against the prevalent trend among middle class blacks to eschew their history and culture. Later, while working in theatre in London, he enrolled in courses at the School of Oriental and African Studies to understand African languages and dialects more deeply. Yet as he appeared in more films, he soon encountered racial stereotyping - and appalling treatment where what directors like Alexander Korba assured him were roles taking a more progressive slant on race were twisted round on the editor's floor. This soon sharpened and heightened his political awareness and thirst for social change.

While keen to foster African Americans' pride in their culture and identity, he also deeply believed in the universality of all humanity and through this was drawn to communism. In 1929 in London he encountered striking miners who had marched from Wales and learned of their poverty. He raised funds and travelled to the Valleys with food for their families and supported trade union activists. Later, he met socialist thinkers like H G Wells and this inspired him on his return to the USA to hold concerts to fund raise for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. A couple of years later he became Chair of the Council on African Affairs, a left-wing body advocating for black rights in the USA and against imperialism and colonialism globally. Although tolerated during the war because of the alliance with the USSR, it was listed by the FBI as a subversive organisation in 1946.

He visted the Soviet Union in 1948 (although as with many on the Left at the time he was largely uncritical of Stalinism), worked for Progressive Party US Presidential candidate Henry A Wallace in the same year and supported the American Communist Party, all of which led to him being blacklisted during the McCarthy repression. Along with other CAA leaders, he was charged with subversion in 1953 and denied a passport for five years, seriously damaging his international career as well as cutting his domestic earnings. Surviving this, however, he staged a moderate come back in concerts in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

After the lynching of four black men by a white mob in 1946, Robeson had secured a meeting with President Truman to petition for action to protect black people. However, when he warned the President that failure to stop lynchings would lead to a violent backlash from African Americans, Truman had angrily terminated the meeting. This did not stop Robeson from continuing to campaign, but it was to be another 15 years before the rise of the civil rights movement was to see any real progress. Robeson was for a while active in the movement but ill health compelled him to retire from public view. He died in 1976.

Paul Robeson was a deeply intellectual, multi-faceted man, a true polymath but one even now frequently relegated to a stereotype by white dominated culture.  It is an insipid, patronising and even self-defeating racism in so many ways similar to the "genteel" racial barriers that he had encountered during his brief foray into the legal profession. That he nevertheless held to a politics which, while celebrating cultural difference, fostered the underpinning unity of humankind is consequently all the more impressive.

Here is a full length film biography of Paul Robeson and, below that, his rendition (in a rare English version) of the Soviet National Anthem.

1 comment:

  1. Paul Robeson's son was a speaker at the celebrations at our exhibition 100 Years of Womens Banners at Northern College in the 1980s, He told us how when his father was singing and speaking at a large rally in the states there were snipers on the hillsides but trade unionists with their bodies formed a protective circle around his father.