Paul Robeson — a moral giant in his time and a shining inspiration in ours
There are times in history (though all too few) when an individual dares stand in opposition to the prevailing tide of orthodoxy and received truth, and in return is visited with the kind of social anathematisation and obloquy consistent with public persecution at the hands of society’s self-appointed moral, cultural and political guardians.
Such an individual was Paul Robeson, who died at age 77 on 23 January 1976, and who still today looms imperious as the epitome of unshakeable principle, fidelity and defiance of a status quo mired in hypocrisy and nourished by injustice. In his case, in the process, he succeeded in breaking free of the limitations imposed by a purely racial and national consciousness, embracing a politics rooted in the universal struggles and plight of the working class of all lands and all races, wherever capitalism and its works midwifed into existence racism, gross inequality, brutal conditions and, in periods of crisis, fascism.
Not only did his refusal to buckle during one of the most censorious and neuralgic periods in US history — the years of McCarthyism and the anti-Communist witch hunts — place Robeson on a higher moral plane than most who went before and have come after, the manner in which he was willing to sacrifice a lucrative career in showbusiness and the worldwide acclaim it brought from the rich and connected, arguably elevates the man to the status of a martyr for free speech, free association, peace and racial and economic justice.
During Robeson’s appearance before the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) in Washington on 12 June 1956, the following exchange took place:
CHAIRMAN: ‘There was no [racial] prejudice against you. Why did you not sent your son to Rutgers?’
ROBESON: ‘This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely, the fact that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up — and here is a study from Colombia University — for $700 a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason, my own success has not meant what it should mean. I have sacrificed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for what I believe in.’
This short exchange provides scintillating insight into the factors responsible for shaping Robeson’s worldview, his sense of self and profound understanding of the disjuncture between the national myths that sustained the ‘idea’ of America — liberty, freedom and opportunity — and the acute racial, economic, and social injustice that constituted the ‘reality’.
Just imagine the feeling, growing up with the knowledge that your father, your own flesh and blood from whose seed you were spawned, had been a slave; reduced to human chattel to be treated, mistreated, bought and sold at the whim of another. Imagine the wounding sense of grievance at the knowledge that such a grotesque state of affairs existed in a country that proclaims itself the home of the brave and land of the free, and which prides itself on being a castle of democracy and liberty. Just, for a moment, imagine.
Do so and you cannot fail to arrive at the beginning of understanding relating to the elemental drive for something approximating to justice not only for his own people in America, but the oppressed everywhere, one that consumed Robeson throughout his conscious life.
The old union mantra of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ was Paul Robeson’s credo, delineating what began as a racial consciousness and before being augmented by a class and political consciousness to forge an unbreakable trinity that imbued his life with a purpose that was exponentially greater than self.
Here he is in 1949, laying it all out: ‘My father was of slave origin. He reached as honorable a position as a Negro could under these circumstances, but soon after I was born he lost his church and poverty was my beginning. Relatives from my father’s North Carolina family took me in, a motherless orphan, while my father went to new fields to begin again in a corner grocery store. I slept four in a bed, ate the nourishing greens and cornbread. I was and am forever thankful to my honest, intelligent, courageous, generous aunts, uncles and cousins, not long divorced from the cotton and tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina.’
There exists wonderful footage of Paul Robeson singing to Scottish miners in 1949. He looks completely at ease in the company of these hard-faed workers, as do they in his. Here among them was not a visiting dignitary, arriving in their midst in a spirit of paternalism, but a man who stood with them in solidarity.
In his epic novel Docherty, following the struggles of a family in the fictional mining town of Graithnock in Ayrshire, Scotland at the turn of the last century, author William McIlvanney has the novel’s eponymous hero Tam Docherty declare during a debate with his wayward middle son Angus, “In any country in the world, who are the only folk that ken whit it’s like tae live in that country? The folk at the bottom. The rest can a’ kid themselves on. They can afford to have fancy ideas. We canny, son. We lose the one idea o’ who we are , we’re dead. We’re one another. Tae survive, we’ll respect one another. When the time comes, we’ll a’ move forward together, or not at all.”
Robeson was a man whose values and outlook were forged on the basis of this very sentiment. It is why wherever workers were congregated anywhere in the world, this proud black African-American was at home, whether it be in America, Australia, South Wales, Scotland or Russia. In a 1949 interview, he talked about his struggle to unite working people across the world just as the Cold War was about to forge national amnesia in America and the West when it came to the Grand Alliance between Britain, the US and the Soviet Union that had succeeded in defeating fascism just four years earlier.
Robeson: ‘I toured England in peace meeting for British-Soviet friendship, did a series of meetings on the issues of freedom for the peoples of Africa and the West Indies, and on the question of the right of colored seamen and colored technicians to get jobs in a land for which they had risked their lives. Ten thousand people turned out to a meeting in Liverpool on this latter issue.’
Continues: ‘I stood at the coal pits in Scotland and saw miners contribute their earnings $1,500 to $2,000 for the benefit of African workers…My role was in no sense personal. I represented to these people Progressive America, fighting for peace and freedom, and I bring back to you their love and affection, their promise of their strength to aid us, and their gratefulness for our struggles here.’
Robeson’s unapologetic solidarity with the peoples of the Soviet Union in a time of fanatical anti-Communism in America guaranteed that the forces of hell would be unleashed against him. Yet like the proverbial Daniel in the lion’s den, not for a minute, despite the career suicide his stance earned, did he flinch or budge.
Again, from 1949: ‘For the progressive peoples of America the memory of the hero-cities Stalingrad, Leningrad, Odessa, and Sevastopol is sacred. Sacred are the names of the defenders of Moscow. We remember them and we will never forget them.’
Robeson’s affection for the Soviet Union, outlined above, was rooted in his reverence and appreciation of the indispensable the Soviet people played in defeating fascism in Europe. For him, this world-historical struggle was of seminal importance not only to the peoples of Europe but also Africa and throughout the Southern Hemisphere, given the ideological, political and material support provided to the multiple national liberation struggles against Western colonialism by the Soviets in the pre and postwar period.
The McCarthyite era after the war, wherein after Roosevelt’s death his successor Harry S Truman signed into law the National Security Act, establishing a permanent war economy and vast intelligence apparatus — configured to meet the new demands of the Cold War against Moscow — Robeson viewed as a betrayal of the heroic struggle against fascism.
In his own words: ‘The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.’
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