From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Paul Robeson inspired a generation with his fine voice and acting ability. But Robeson was also a determined and dedicated political activist. Here Harold Wilson takes a look at his life, art and involvement in class politics
Days before his highly acclaimed performance as Othello on Broadway in October 1943, Paul Robeson remained unapologetic about the political twist he was about to bring to this Shakespearean tragedy: ‘I feel that my work has a farther reach than its artistic appeal. I consider it a social weapon.’
He went on to tell a black newspaper reporter, ‘not simply for art’s sake do I try to excel in Othello but more to prove the capacity of the people from whom I’ve sprung and all of such peoples, of whatever colour, erroneously regarded as backward.’
The stormy 1930s had made a lasting impression on the stage performer. Robeson was a ‘fellow traveller’, a sympathiser of the Communist Party throughout his life. He was a larger than life figure, born in 1898 the son of a runaway slave in Princeton, New Jersey, the so called ‘most northerly outpost of the Confederacy.’ He was something of a child prodigy with talents that eventually won him a place at Rutgers University, which prior to his arrival had barred its doors to blacks. After graduating he studied law at Columbia University. To support himself he played professional football at the weekends before turning to the theatre.
Eugene O’Neill, one of America’s foremost playwrights, cast Robeson in two plays which helped establish his reputation even before he appeared in his two most famous roles in Showboat and Othello. To the white establishment Robeson was a rarity – a polished, cultured black man. To many he epitomized the American dream that everybody could make it, regardless of race.
Robeson himself largely accepted such a view early on in his life. He was heavily influenced by the Harlem ‘Renaissance’ movement of writers and artists which argued for the advancement of blacks through individual achievement, not through collective action. As Robeson told a reporter in 1924:
‘I can do no better than my work and develop myself to the best of my ability ... If I do become a first rate actor, it will do more toward giving my people a slant on the so called negro problem than any amount of propaganda and argument.’
And again the following year:
‘The stories my dad used to tell me [about slavery] are vivid in my memory; but those bad times are over. What we need to do is to go forward. There is still too much wild talk about the colour question; some of it wounds me deeply, but I don’t let myself get morbid about it. I conserve my energies for my work as an actor. I realise that art can bridge the gap between the white and the black races.’
His big breakthrough came in 1928 when asked to sing the part of Joe in the London production of Showboat which had been a smash hit in New York. Despite being confined to one song, Ole Man River, Robeson stole the show with ‘high voltage’ applause greeting his moving vocals.
Not everyone was pleased. The black owned Amsterdam News, based in New York, was enraged that Robeson could happily sing ‘nigger’ in front of white audiences. He was criticised for accepting the role of Joe, another example of the ‘lazy, good natured, lolling darkey stereotype that exists more in white men’s fancy than in reality’, as the Amsterdam News argued.
But the political climate was about to change and the lyrics to the musical with it. Ole Man River would soon turn from a song of lament to a song of political protest.
As a result of Showboat his reputation soared and with it plenty of private engagements – private functions thrown by Lord Beaverbrook, a concert at Drury Lane, a command performance for the Prince of Wales with the king of Spain as guest of honour. Crime writer Edgar Wallace expressed interest in writing a film script for Robeson to star in and said he would personally invest $30,000.
Robeson was keen to make a film, but wanted one which would ‘interpret fully the spirit of the negro race’. His wish was fulfilled in 1934 when he embarked for Moscow to meet Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein to shoot a film about the Haitian revolutionary and leader of a slave rebellion Toussaint L’Ouverture. His stop over in Berlin, now in Nazi hands, was a nightmare. He and journalist Marie Steton, who was accompanying him on the trip, were confronted by stormtroopers and continuously harassed during their stay.
His reception in Russia was completely different. He was given star treatment with a luxury hotel room overlooking Red Square and he was greeted by Eisenstein and top cultural officials. Robeson and his wife were completely overwhelmed by Russia, writing home about the ‘thousands of well stocked shops ... Everyone well fed and warmly dressed. Books everywhere, outrageously cheap and everybody reads.’
Robeson was convinced that the Russians had solved the nationality question by granting self determination to all nations within its boundaries. The contrasting experiences of Germany and the Soviet Union made a lasting impression on him.
During the 1930s the American Communist Party had made massive steps in combating racism. In Robeson’s adopted Harlem, black membership of the CP topped 1000 by the end of 1937. Black intellectuals were particularly receptive to the Communist call. As the Jamaican writer living in Harlem, Claude McKay, put it, ‘most negro intellectuals were directly or indirectly hypnotized by the propaganda of the popular front [against fascism].’ The CP actively courted Harlem’s creative intelligentsia with the result that significant numbers of writers, artists, actors and musicians identified themselves with the left.
When civil war in Spain broke out in 1936, Robeson exhorted blacks everywhere to fight for democracy there ‘against a new slavery’. His efforts culminated in a mass rally in London’s Albert Hall in 1936 in aid of Basque refugee children. Paul Robeson had now evolved fully from an artist with a conscience to an artist committed to political action. He told reporters that ‘something inside had turned’. Time spent in commercial films and in the ‘decadent’ West End theatre was now over. His next performance would be for the workers’ theatre, Unity. Expounding on this he stated, ‘joining Unity Theatre means identifying myself with the working class. And it gives me the chance to act in plays that say something that I want to say about things that must be emphasised.’
In the emotionally charged atmosphere of a London concert the lyrics of Ole Man River changed from ‘I’m scared of living and scared of dying’ to ‘I must keep fighting until I’m dying’. The hall erupted.
Robeson went on to visit Spain to sing for Republican troops at the front. Loudspeakers were hoisted and shooting stopped as both sides listened.
Robeson’s politics were uncritical of the Stalinism which dominated the left at the time. Throughout the Second World War he reflected every change in Russian policy. So in 1940, when Stalin’s line was against the war, he appeared at mass meetings sponsored by the Committee to Defend America by Keeping Out of the War. As late as March 1941, Robeson told reporters that he was against aid to Britain because he believed mobilisation was primarily aimed at saving the Empire. But when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union three months later, the war for Robeson became a struggle against fascism.
The postwar settlement troubled him deeply as black soldiers returned to their old life of discrimination. A tour of the US in 1945 exposed Robeson fully to life for the average black.
FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover fattened his dossier on Robeson as anti-Communist fervour began to rise in the late 1940s. Agents started to cancel his bookings, and his records disappeared from the shops.
At a peace conference in Paris in 1949 Robeson told delegates that blacks would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union. There was outcry back in the US, whipped up by the media. The black establishment quickly moved to disassociate themselves from Robeson’s remarks. The Amsterdam News dismissed Robeson as ‘plain screwy’.
At an open air concert at Peekskill in New York state, where Robeson and left wing folk singers were appearing, concert goers were attacked. When Robeson repeated his Paris speech the following year in America the State Department issued a ‘stop’ notice to all ports to prevent him leaving the US. In 1952 his passport was withheld and he was forbidden to travel abroad. The House Committee on Un-American Activities ordered Robeson to appear over his alleged membership of the Communist Party.
Isolated, then broken, it was the end for Robeson. He had to wait eight years before his passport was returned. Heavily depressed after a tour of Australia and New Zealand he lived out the last years of his life, on anti-depressants and brutal ECT treatments, and suffered a suicide attempt. He died in 1976.
Robeson, along with a generation of blacks caught up in the whirlwind events of the 1930s, saw the battle against racism as indivisible from the battle against capitalism. He was always scarred with Stalinist politics. But we should remember him as a singer, an artist and a tireless class warrior.
Last updated: 2 March 2017