Paul Robeson: A Giant Among Giants

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

The life and struggles of the late Paul Robeson, towering giant among giants and preeminent citizen of the U.S. and the world, has left an indel­ible mark on the cause of progressive humankind.

Best son of the Black people and unbending champion of the freedom of the peoples, Robeson unstintingly outpoured his superb artistry in sing­ing and acting and his revolutionary humanism to his fellow beings across America and across the world in the cause of the equality of the peoples, human dignity and peace.

Under the impact of the freedom spirit instilled by his father, an escaped slave, and the stern discipline he imposed, young Paul was imbued with a deep hatred of the national and racial oppression of his people and an unquenchable desire for their complete freedom.

In the course of this struggle Robeson discovered the indissoluble link between the freedom struggle of Black Americans and the revolutionary proletarian struggle for socialism and the national liberation movement of the people against imperialism. Thus he rose to the heights of proletarian internationalism.

Central to the shaping of the proletarian revolutionary thought and practice of Robeson were the achievements of the Soviet Union in uproot­ing Great Russian chauvinism, eliminating national and racial enmity between the numerous nations, nationalities and peoples formerly oppressed by Czarism and in carrying out in practice the Leninist theory of the non-capitalist path of development for nations freed from the clutches of imperialism.

Tracing the path he trod to discovery of the Soviet Union via the dis­covery of Africa and the decisive influence of the experiences of the Soviet Union on the evolution of his political views, Robeson in his short but celebrated work Here I Stand observes:

London was the center of the British Empire and there I “dis­covered” Africa ... I came to consider that I was an African ...

It was an African who directed my interest in Africa to some­thing he had observed 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 “backward race” by the Czars. He had been struck by the resemblance between the tribal life of the Yakuts and his own people of East Africa ...

Well, I went to see for myself and on my first visit to the Soviet Union in 1934 I saw 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 blooming in new and greater richness. Their young men and women mastering the sciences and arts. A thousand years? No. Less than twenty! ...

I came to believe that the experiences of the many peoples and races in the Soviet Union-a vast country which embraces one sixth of the earth’s surface-would be of great value for other peoples of the East in catching up with the modern world.

On his many concert tours in Europe, Asia and the U.S. he became aware of the urgent need for unity of all anti-fascist forces. Thus he became an early antifascist.

At a London rally in support of the Spanish Republic in the late 1930’s, Robeson observed:

Every artist, every scientist, must decide NOW (Robeson’s emphasis) where he stands. He has no alternative.

There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction, in cer­tain countries, of the greatest of man’s literary heritage, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged.

He went to Spain to join some 3,200 members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of volunteers, and sang songs that lifted the Brigade’s fighting spirit.

Robeson identified closely with the workers of Britain, the miners, the dockyard workers, the shipyard workers and other sections of the working people. He up-lifted their spirit of struggle with his songs. He joined their picket lines.

As a true internationalist, he studied the art of the peoples of many countries. He sought out the class content of the art of these countries and sang the songs which fired the will for freedom of the working masses and the oppressed peoples. He became fluent in more than two dozen lan­guages and dialects including Chinese and Swahili.

As Robeson’s career unfolded, his deep resentment of Black oppres­sion led him early to oppose racist, stereotyped portrayals of Blacks on the stage and screen.

“So I made a decision,” he wrote. “If the Hollywood and Broadway producers did not choose to offer me worthy roles to play, then I would choose not to accept any other kind of offer.”

His strong voice ringing out for freedom is still echoing throughout the world. In face of persecution by the white monopolist ruling class of our country, Robeson in a 1938 broadcast declared: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

At an open-air concert in 1949 in Peekskill, N.Y., Robeson was attacked by a lynch mob. He was saved by the alertness of a cordon of Black and white workers. He was a victim of both racism and anti-Com- munist hysteria. His struggles on behalf of Black freedom and human dig­nity aroused the bitter hatred of white supremacists and McCarthyites.

Early in 1947, he announced that he was giving up his formal concert career so he could bring his art to the masses. “They can have their con­certs,” he said. “I’ll go back to their cities to sing for the people whom I love-the Negro and white workers whose freedom will ensure my freedom.”

In 1948, when the National Board of the Communist Party, USA, was being tried under the infamous Smith Act on phony charges of conspiracy to advocate overthrow of the government by force and violence, Robeson in all his dignity testified that he knew each of the defendants in the dock and that they were his friends.

In 1950, Robeson’s passport was canceled and for eight years, until mass pressure enabled him to regain his passport, he was unable to go abroad and continue in his role as an artist of the international antico­lonial movement.

At home, his bookings were canceled and he was denied public facili­ties. Strenuous efforts were made to wipe out his achievements and erase him from the memory of the people. But these repressive actions in no way daunted Robeson, he continued to sing for the masses he so dearly loved in churches, in labor halls, and in open-air concerts.

On his 75th birthday, a large meeting in Carnegie Hall paid tribute to Robeson. Robeson was already too ill to attend the meeting in person, but in a message to the meeting, he said, “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the world-wide cause of humanity, for free­dom, peace and brotherhood. Together with the partisans of peace-the peoples of the socialist countries and the progressive elements in all other countries-rejoice that the movement for peaceful coexistence has made important gains and that the advocates of cold war and ‘containment’ have had to retreat.”

Robeson is gone but his legacy remains. His marching songs are death­less. They will echo in the hearts of humanity through the ages.

From: Political Affairs, 1976