l Salaam Comrade Robeson

Vijay Prashad
Assistant Professor of International Studies
Trinity College



Acknowledgements to Elisabeth Armstrong and Johnny Williams for leads and for interpretation.

Paul Robeson, 1931

The Sun is ours. The earth will be ours.

Tower of the sea, you will go on singing.

Pablo Neruda, "Ode to Paul Robeson."

1957 was a poor year for the ambitions of US imperialism in South Asia. In March, the Communist Party of India won the Kerala elections and took power on 5 April (or, according to the CIA, they "established a significant beachhead in Kerala"); on 2 October, the USSR launched Sputnik I and appeared to be ahead in the "space race"; the late 1955 visit of Khrushchev and Bulganin to India compounded fears that India was to "go Communist" (Nehru had not yet illegally deposed the CPI government in Kerala; that took place on 31 July 1959). India’s nonaligned foreign policy and its principled stand in the UN with regard to the US in Korea raised the ire of the theorists of "containment" who dominated the US establishment. In this context, US President Eisenhower called his closest advisors to the White House on 12 November 1957. One of his aides offered those present the following, a standard US view of India at the time: "Aid to India will be a very hard proposition to sell because their behavior has been very offensive on the Communist issue, and because they have gone out of their way to insult us on many occasions." Not four months later, the Indian government validated these remarks on the occasion of the birth anniversary of an admirable man, Paul Robeson.

On 9 April 1958, Robeson was to turn 60. In these six decades, this man of African and other ancestry, made a name for himself as an American football player, as a fine singer of Opera and of slave spirituals, as a capable actor (notably in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones) and finally, as a bold speaker for the cause that he championed with a passion, the fight for social justice. This latter activity earned him disapprobation from his government and from too many of his fellow US citizens who capitulated to the terror of McCarthyism. From the early 1940s until the end of his life (1976), Robeson was harassed by the US government and its political police, the Federal Bureau of Investigations [FBI], that erroneously considered Robeson to be a member of the Communist Party [CPUSA] from January 1941 onwards. FBI agents followed Robeson, tapped his phones, read his mail, intimidated his friends and attempted to destroy his career. On the last score, the US State Department denied Robeson his passport from 1951 to 1958; he refused to sign an anticommunist oath and he used this denial as a means to campaign for the release of the CPUSA leaders held as political prisoners under the Smith Act.

The US government made every attempt to malign Robeson in the media. In 1950, a US official in Accra proposed that a black public figure write an article that "must detail Robeson’s spiritual alienation from his country and from the bulk of his people." Such an article would reduce the immense importance of Robeson and communism for the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. Like any fighter for justice, Robeson was alienated, but not from the masses of the people. He was alienated from the power elite and the dominant classes. After the anti-Robeson riots fomented by "American stormtroopers" in Peekskill in August 1949, Robeson declared that he was a loyal American: "I will be loyal to the America of the true traditions; to the America of the abolitionists, of Harriet Tubman, of Thaddeus Stevens, of those who fought for my people’s freedom, not of those who tried to enslave them. And I will have no loyalty to the Forrestals, to the Harrimans, to the Wall Streeters..." He was loyal, in other words, to the class culture of the working people and not to the state that ruled at the behest of the dominant classes.

This admirable man, hounded by the country who denied him even a passport, was to turn 60 on 9 April 1958. In India, Nehru released a statement asking for widespread celebration of the occasion "not only because Paul Robeson is one of the greatest artists of our generation, but also because he has represented and suffered for a cause which should be dear to all of us -- the cause of human dignity." US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, US Consul General Turner and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles attempted to stop the celebrations (incidentally, Bunker was later US Emissary in Indonesia during the 1965 CIA-inspired coup in Indonesia and US Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1967-73). Turner approached Chief Justice M. C. Chagla, president of the All-India Paul Robeson Celebration committee, and asked him to cancel the event since "Americans would certainly interpret [the] celebration as Communist-inspired and even anti-American and that many would regard [it] as evidence that India was going Communist." The US attempt to muzzle Robeson was not news to Nehru, who was advised in 1947 not to say things in the UN that might upset the US. "If I went to America," Nehru wrote on 18 January 1947, "I have no doubt that I will meet prominent African leaders, notably Mr. Paul Robeson who is not only a personal friend but a person of world reputation." As a point of principle, Nehru noted, "what is more important is whether what we did was right or wrong apart from its reaction on certain Americans of position." A decade later (1958), this principle held and the Indian press and All-India Radio offered a suitable, if curtailed, tribute for Robeson.

The battle over the legacy of Paul Robeson continues in this his birth centenary. The Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee of the US Post Office decided on 9 December 1997 not to approve a Paul Robeson stamp (despite a petition with almost one lakh signatures); instead of Robeson, the Committee elected to anoint US stamps (as yet, public property) with images owned by the Walt Disney Corporation and Warner Brothers. The Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration has organized some events for this year, but the celebrations do not as yet measure up to the man. One hopes that progressives in India will remember the man this year, just as in 1958, not only as part of the anti-imperialist struggle, but also in favour of the struggle for black liberation in the US. The black liberation movement, parenthetically, will receive a boost between 19 and 21 June of this year at the founding convention of the Black Radical Congress in Chicago, Illinois. The Congress’ emergence truly honors the heritage of Robeson, who spent much energy on a previous incarnation, the Civil Rights Congress (founded in the Spring of 1946 whose Executive Secretary was Robeson’s close friend, the CPUSA leader William L. Patterson). One way to honor Robeson is to remember his fight, the main lines of which will be delineated in this brief essay.

I. Race Rebels

Last year, the noted singer Harry Belafonte recalled a visit to Robeson at the end of his life. Was the struggle against the current worth it, Belafonte asked. "Harry, make no mistake," Robeson said, "there is no aspect of what I have done that wasn’t worth it. Although we may not have achieved all the victories we set for ourselves, beyond the victory itself, infinitely more important, was the journey." But what was the journey? The son of a slave who became a preacher, Robeson was deeply committed to the freedom of US blacks from the bondage of racist capitalism. At the Civil Rights Congress of 1949, Robeson declared that "I am a radical. I am going to stay one until my people are free to walk the earth." In his early years, Robeson attempted to win dignity for US blacks through his success in the theatre and in the arts. He believed that his individual accomplishments would turn the hearts of a white supremacist culture. When this was not so, he turned to the black masses for succor and for the struggle. Whereas he expected that slavery broke the heart of the black masses, he found them "as courageous, and possessors of a profound and instinctive dignity, a race that has come through in trials unbroken, a race of such magnificence of spirit that there exists no power on earth that could crush them." Part of his cultural politics included the maintenance and development of the integrity of black cultural traditions.

Robeson was in good company here, for he was surrounded by eminent black intellectuals who fought to consolidate a heritage and a tradition from which to build the future. The heritage, following Leroi Jones, went in three directions. First, some people sought to remember the past to appeal to white America for respect and for a share in its privilege. In that camp, one might add Dr. Carter C. Woodson, who founded The Journal of Negro History and established Negro History Week during the second week of February 1926 (the forerunner of today’s Black History Month each February in the US) as well as the indomitable Alain Locke, who drew together poets and pontificators into The New Negro (1925), a collection of work that signaled the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. These writers tried to capture the image of the black poor, but, as LeRoi Jones rightly notes, they often did little more than exoticize them. Robeson, in his early years, fits into this category. Second, still within the black middle-class, people such as W. E. B. Dubois rejected the plea for privilege and made a demand for equality. These radicals denounced "assimilation," demanded a reassessment of the cultural worth of black people and produced avenues for cultural growth for the community itself. Third, in the world of the poor blacks, lived the throaty blues of Bessie Smith and the political poetry of Langston Hughes (whose identification with the masses was forged through work as a seaman). In this world, "assimilation" into white culture was not on the cards and this enabled the elaboration of a cultural heritage into a form of nationalism (its separatist form was taken by Marcus Garvey who called for a quixotic repatriation to Africa). The novelist Richard Wright in the 1930s, like Robeson, lived in the midst of the second and third traditions. Wright was drawn to the culture of the masses, "unwritten and unrecognized," rather than to the types of cultural artifacts produced for the black bourgeoisie, "parasitic and mannered." To his fellow artists, Wright asked the following, "Shall Negro writing be for the Negro masses, moulding the lives and consciousness of those masses towards new goals, or shall it continue begging the question of the Negroes’ humanity?" The demand for political engagement goes without saying (or indeed, it is the moral imperative of the artist).

Since Robeson did not create art (he was a performer of art created by others), he drew his inspiration from the black masses at the same time as he sang in front of white audiences not to gain personal privilege, but to demand equality. For this reason, one finds his repertoire filled with the spirituals of the masses, once relegated to the fields, but now brought to the proscenium stage to herald the culture of the oppressed. Robeson was neither a black separatist nor anti-white. He believed that the social circumstances of black people in the US produced a distinct set of cultural forms that must not be lost in the onrush of liberation. To fight for equality did not mean to decimate the cultural icons and grammars produced over centuries of struggle. He believed in innovation and development, but not at the cost of cultural extermination. This position is ably summarized by Habib Tanvir who argued for a cultural policy in India that would "strive for a modern and dynamic culture, one achieved through deliberate growth, one that would be universal in appeal and indigenous in form." The universal contradictions of capitalism and the internationalist mood of socialism revoked the adequacy of those cultural chauvinists who belabored concepts such as "authenticity" and "indigenousness." In 1935, Robeson argued against those who wanted Africans to serve "as some quaint survival of more primitive times." He looked forward to the creation of self-respect among black people, a prerequisite to the renewal of the dynamics of black culture. Robeson, like many others who have thought hard on the issue of culture and "authenticity," acknowledged that there is no cheap formula to resolve the dialectic of the universal and the particular (a similar struggle was waged by the Progressive Writers’ Association in India in the 1930s). It might be important to remember that it is just in this juncture that many forms of nationalism of the oppressed turned to cultural chauvinism, in the United States via the Nation of Islam movement (founded by Fard Muhammad and Elijah Mohammed in Detroit, 1931) and in India via the assertion of the RSS (Golwalkar, in his 1939 tract, understood culture in the following bigoted way: "Hindustan, the Hindu race with its Hindu religion, Hindu Culture and Hindu Language -- the natural family of Sanskrit and her offsprings -- complete the Nation concept").

Robeson’s nuanced idea of culture was far removed from fascist poetics and even further from the meek "indigenist" responses to the politics of fascism. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the need to foster a sense of pride within the black nationality as well as to organize people to fight against the special oppression of black people. Throughout his life (despite the many twists and turns in his strategies for freedom), Robeson was committed to the view that liberation for working people in the US was premised upon black liberation (a view made clear by Marx in 1867, "Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded"). For that reason, he embraced the fight against white supremacy, pioneered the Civil Rights Congress and co-authored the historic 1952 document We Charge Genocide which prosaically described the conditions of the fifteen million black Americans. "Out of the inhuman Black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease." Black, as a result, "suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government." In a newspaper article at the time, Robeson argued that the US was committed to a policy of cultural and economic genocide against black Americans (with the tactic of lynching as the basic mode of keeping the rebellious in line). "I stood in Dachau in 1945," he wrote, "and saw the ashes and bones of departed victims. I might have seen the ashes of some of my brothers in Groveland, Florida, just the other day -- or in Martinsville a few months back." Passed by the UN on 9 December 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was written in the shadow of the Nazi-engineered Holocaust, but its implications exceeded its cause. Article 2 of the Convention defined genocide in terms of certain acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." These "acts" included murder of members of a group, serious physical or mental harassment of members of a group, deliberate infliction of actions "calculated to bring about [the group’s] physical destruction in whole or in part," imposition of measures designed to prevent births within the group and finally, forcible transfer of the group’s children to another group. By all accounts, the white supremacist US state enacted genocide against black citizens. The Civil Rights Congress, therefore, used the UN declaration and put faith in its power. Robeson, however, knew by 1951 that the UN was trapped by US corporate interests, notably in the way it acted towards the liberation movements in the colonized world. "Far from representing the hopes and aspirations of the greater portion of mankind," Robeson noted of the UN, "[it] just remains what it has tended recently to become -- the parroting whisper of powerful American corporate interests which many officials in positions of public trust happen to represent." Despite this view, the tactical value of the UN was recognized both by Robeson and by the radical leaders of black liberation.

II. The Many Fronts Against Fascism

The UN Convention on genocide was written with the Nazi terror in mind, but for many around the world, fascism was hardly the preserve of the Nazis. Many observers found aspects of fascism in European imperialism in Asia and Africa, Japanese imperialism in the Pacific Rim and white supremacy in the US. Indian nationalists in the 1930s, encountered the structural effects of fascism in India quite clearly. "We saw the ugly face of Fascism in our country earlier than the writers of the European countries," wrote Mulk Raj Anand, "for it was British imperialism which perfected the method of the concentration camp, torture and bombing for police purposes which Hitler and Mussolini have used so effectively later on...the struggle of the peoples of the world against imperialism, its twin brother Fascism, its old aunt Feudalism, and all the other aunts who refused to let the new shoots of life from bursting into the future." In his autobiography, Nehru noted the political similarities between fascism and imperialism (if only in a superficial and untheoretical way). "They were twin brothers," he wrote, "with this variation, that imperialism functioned abroad in colonies and dependencies while fascism and Nazi-ism functioned in the same way in the home country also. If freedom was to be established in the world, not only fascism and Nazi-ism had to go, but imperialism had to be completely liquidated." The advantage of this connection was in the tenor of internationalism it produced. Along those lines, Nehru wrote that "the Indian people recognise that the trial of Spain is equally theirs and that the frontiers of their own struggle are in Spain and China."

Beyond the anti-fascists, the fascists themselves recognized the global dimensions of their struggle. In a polemical moment on 30 January 1941, Hitler noted that "the idea of concentration camps was born in British brains." A year later, he noted that "concentration camps were not invented in Germany. They are British inventions. It was the intention of the British overlords, by such means, gradually to break the spirit of other peoples, to crush their national resistance until they willingly accepted the British yoke." Hitler refers to the camps set up by the British in the Boer War (1899-1902). We might also point to the organized genocide of Amerindians in the US notably through the late 19th century lebensraumpolitik (politics of living space) that exterminated the Amerindians at such massacres as Wounded Knee or by expulsion to inhospitable terrain where they died slowly; or indeed, to the February 1942 interment of US citizens of Japanese origin in concentration camps. Langston Hughes, at the Second International Writers’ Congress in Paris (1937), declared that "we Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action. We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us." Jim Crow segregation, forced labour, lynching, humiliation and dehumanization of blacks -- these were the emblems of US fascism and they found their representatives in the Ku Klux Klan and in the regional gatherings of nativists and white supremacist militias. The emergence of European fascism and of anti-fascism showed people such as Robeson that the treatment of blacks in the US South was only the American version of that political ideology.

In 1933, Robeson offered the proceeds from a special performance of Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings to Jewish refugees from the fascist terror of Germany. The next year, Robeson noted that Nazism was "the most retrograde step the world has seen for centuries." The 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia (long seen by many US blacks as the font of black culture) galvanized many US blacks to the anti-fascist struggle and revealed the global nature of the threat. To Spain, then, went any number of people from the colonized world, including Paul Robeson (on a tour with Eslanda Robeson in 1938) and Langston Hughes. In the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the US section of the International Brigades) came a number of black troops who, for the first time, experienced international and anti-racist solidarity. For them, Spain was the front line of the fight against all forms of fascism. Walter Garland, one such fighter, declared that "we can’t forget for one minute that the oppression of the Negro is nothing more than a very concrete form, the clearest expression of fascism....In other words, we saw in Spain...those who chain us in America to cotton fields and brooms." Another told the CPUSA newspaper that while "Hitler uses bombs to destroy the people of Spain; Our Dixie Hitlers use rope." As Madrid stood in danger of the fascist army, Robeson made the following declaration:

"The history of this era is characterized by the degradation of my people. Despoiled by their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country save one [USSR}, denied equal protection of the law, and deprived of their rightful place in the respect of their fellows. Not through blind faith or coercion, but conscious of my course, I take my place with you. I stand with you in unalterable support of the government of Spain, duly and regularly chosen by its lawful sons and daughters....May you rally to the side of Republican Spain every black man in the British Empire....For the liberation of Spain from oppression of fascist reactionaries is not a private matter of the Spaniards, but the common cause of all advanced and progressive humanity."

Robeson’s anti-imperialism was not bound by any continent, for in September 1943 he joined his Council of African Affairs in a New York City rally for the liberation of India and in June 1950, he denounced the arms merchants and the US state who sold arms to "French imperialists to use against brave Vietnamese patriots." Robeson’s politics was governed by the principle that freedom is indivisible, so internationalism must therefore be the watchword of any progressive struggle. With the defeat of the Spanish Republic, the anti-fascist struggle found its new front in China and Robeson learned Mandarin and began to sing revolutionary Chinese songs in his concerts. The folk singer was now an emblem in the anti-fascist, anti-imperialist struggle.

III. The Communist Question

For all that, Robeson once said, "I am only a folk singer." And some people want to remember him just for that. But, does even "that" merit the adverb "just." The form of the song, for Robeson, was integrally related to its content. He sang mainly slave spirituals and folk songs, since these are the songs of the people. Slave songs, for instance, "reflected a spiritual force, a people’s faith in itself and a faith in its great calling; they reflected the wrath and protest against the enslavers and the aspiration of freedom and happiness. These songs are striking in the noble beauty of their melodies, in the expressiveness and resourcefulness of their intonations, in the startling variety of their rhythms, in the sonority of their harmonies, and in the unusual distinctiveness and poetical nature of their forms." He did not stop with songs of the US (although his version of the working-class anthem "Joe Hill" is tremendously moving), for his songs "come from the lips of the people of other continents who suffer and struggle to make equality a reality." After he learnt Russian (in six months!), Robeson began to sing Russian folk songs, for many of them, he said, "seem to have come from Negro peasant life and vice versa." That he sang Russian and Chinese folk songs in the 1950s was enough to heat -up the agents sent to track his movements. His repertoire grew naturally with his many interests and it made him an astute commentator on the problem of art in the age of fascism.

In the context of fascism, Robeson felt that art could not be left to the wiles of the individual temperament. Certain people, he felt, had not the luxury to live as individuals, so artists must not take that privilege to its immodest extreme. On 24 July 1937, he offered a stirring cry for the committed artist:

"Every artist, every scientist, every writer must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers....The battle front is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.....The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

Too many people approach the question of art and politics in a binary fashion. There is no real "art for art’s sake" or a pure "art in the service of politics." All art is fashioned by political commitments and by social visions. Some artists claim to be apolitical, but that stance of detachment is itself a framework enabled by the bourgeois separation of Art from human life. In 1929, the dramatist Erwin Piscator (in the founding document of the Proletarian Theatre in Berlin) wrote that "the Theater was no longer to work solely on the spectator’s emotions, no longer speculate only on his emotional readiness -- it addressed itself fully and consciously to his reason. Not just improvement, inspiration, and rapture was it to convey, but enlightenment, knowledge, and perception." Art, then, is not simply produced for spectatorship, but also to reveal viscerally the structures of the world (an idea repeated in earnest in the life and work of Safdar Hashmi). "Art is one of the means we have to get our unrealizables realized vividly and ‘imaginarily’ by others," wrote Sartre in 1940. "I take this opportunity to note that unrealizables are not at all of the same nature as imaginaries: they are real, they are everywhere -- but out of reach." The artist must reveal the abstract structures of domination that fetter us.

Committed artists in the US of the 1940s-50s found themselves under attack as communists. A politicized artist, however, is not the same as an artist who works under the guidance of a political party. Robeson, a political person, was on the fringe of the communist movement and he was deeply committed to the Soviet Union. "If Communism means pointing out to the people that their lives are dominated by a handful," he said in 1947, "I guess I’m a Communist." The CPUSA, from its early years, was militant in its stand against racism. The Comintern’s 1928 document on the "Negro Question" strengthened the will of militant blacks to see the CPUSA as a part of the progressive black community. Robeson was not only close to the party, but particularly to its senior black leaders such as William Patterson and Ben Davis, Jr. When the government arrested, tried and sentenced many of these communists under the Smith Act, Robeson was on hand to defend them in the public arena. Robeson’s attitude to communism was in diametrical opposition to that of people such as Aimé Césaire who left the French Communist Party in 1956 with the hope that "Marxism and Communism should serve Black people, not that Black people should serve Marxism and Communism." The opposition set-up between Marxism and Black liberation was incomprehensible to Robeson who once quipped that "the Communists use the Negro and we only wish more people would want to use us this way." More bold than Paul Robeson was his wife Eslanda who moved rapidly towards the Left and left an indelible impression on the McCarthyites. Brought in front of McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities commission in 1949, she did not flinch. "I don’t know anybody that is dedicated to overthrowing the government by force and violence," she said, "the only force and violence I know is what I have experienced and seen in this country, and it has not been by communists."

Robeson’s well-known relations with the communist movement did not endear him to the world-wide anti-communist movement of the 1950s. There is an apocryphal story that relates to the UN delegate from India, P. Chakravarty who was also the permanent secretary of the Congress Party. Robeson planned to visit India in late 1958. At this time, Chakravarty sent a message to Christian Herter at the US Department of State expressing apprehension about this trip. Robeson’s visit, he felt in the words of Herter, would "do great damage among the darker Indians if [he] gets away with the kind of propaganda he wants, allowing the already powerful Communist Party in India to attract still more converts." Chakravarty’s "dark Indians" perhaps refers to dalits and other oppressed castes (given the erroneous notion that skin colour represents caste identity). The Congress’ fears with regard to Communist influence amongst the oppressed castes may be seen in the crackdown on sanitation workers’ unions as well as in concerted propaganda against communists conducted by the Congress in the neighbourhoods of the oppressed castes. In 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India and travelled the country as a guest of Nehru. Although King’s vision was decidedly socialist, unlike Robeson, he was more prone to stay within the lanes of the Gandhian movement (a bent that led him to express admiration for Vinoba Bhave and the Bhoodan movement). If Robeson had travelled to India, he would indeed have spoken in favour of the communist movement and (if he arrived after 1959), he would certainly have criticized Nehru for the dismissal of the Kerala government. In 1949, when Nehru was in the US, Robeson refused to see him because, as his biographer puts it, "Robeson felt that Nehru had been responsible for the large number of deaths among the Communists." Those who want to remember the man as an apolitical artist will have a hard time doing so with this sort of record before them.

Of course, much that Robeson hoped for did not come to pass. In the US, the hand of Reaction is long and fierce. Black liberation is on the agenda on the streets, so too is the workers’ movement. With the founding of the Black Radical Congress in June 1998 and with the emergence of a radical AFL-CIO, one hopes that the dreams of people such as Robeson will not perish in this century. W. E. B. Dubois, renaissance scholar and member of the CPUSA at the end of his life, once said that "the only thing wrong with Robeson is his having too great faith in human beings." There is nothing wrong with "great faith" as long as there is a realistic analysis of the forces at hand. At times, Robeson underestimated the vise of inertia and habit in our lives and visions. For those who hope in the socialist tradition, such "great faith" is perhaps the only thing that keeps the struggle alive. With regard to Robeson, we might want to say to him just what the astounding jazz musician Charlie Parker said to him in 1951: "I just wanted to shake your hand. You’re a great man."


For more information see the Paul Robeson Centennial Page.

Vijay Prashad
Assistant Professor of International Studies
Trinity College
Hartford, CT. 06106-3100
Telephone: 860-297-2518
Fax: (860) 297-5358

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