Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a giant of a man, not just physically but by virtue of his many talents as a professional athlete, lawyer, singer, actor, and political activist. By rights, he should be much better known than he is in the US. One should find his name on public buildings and monuments but his political activism, his steadfast support of socialism and the working class, his anti-imperialism, and his relentless denunciations of American racism made him a pariah to the ruling elites in the US who tried their best to derail his career and ruin his life and they partially succeeded.
In Howard Bryant’s excellent book The Heritage that deals with black athletes and politics that I reviewed here, he described Robeson’s testimony in 1956 to the House Un-American Activities Committee that hauled him up before Congress and tried to berate him. But he was defiant in his testimony.
It was Robeson’s commitment to black people, both in the United States and around the world, combined with his popularity in Russia and his belief in anti-capitalist economic systems that drew the suspicion of the committee.
“The reason I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa,” he told the committee. “I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country, and they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today.”
The committee asked if he was Communist. Robeson invoked his Fifth Amendment rights six times.
Robeson addressed the committee with the recklessness of the condemned. He was, as the kids like to say today, out of fucks to give. He laughed at them, these nine white men who had already’ made up their minds that he was the enemy of the state. They told him his appearance was not a laughing matter. “It is a laughing matter to me,” Robeson said. “This is complete nonsense.” They were disdainful of him (“The witness talks very loud when he makes a speech, but when he invokes the Fifth Amendment I cannot hear him.”), and he was disdainful back (“I invoked the Fifth Amendment very loudly. You know I am an actor, and I have medals for diction.”). The chairman was Francis E. Walter, the Pennsylvania Democrat. “You,” Robeson said, “are the author of the bills that are going to keep all kinds of decent people out of the country.”
“No,” Walter responded. “Only your kind.”
Robeson told the committee that while visiting the Soviet Union, he had never faced the type of discrimination he faced in Mississippi, or the type of hostility he now faced from them. The Ohio Republican Gordon Scherer, known for his racism, for being a committee pit bull, threw the old America, love it or leave it saw at Robeson, the line so many whites would use over the years to treat black American citizenship as a charity unearned, which they could revoke easily, and at their leisure. “Why,” Scherer asked, “do you not stay in Russia?”
“Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you,” he responded. “And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?”
The combat ended with Walter abruptly adjourning the hearing (“I’ve endured all of this that I can.”), but not before Robeson told the committee, “You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” (p. x, xi)
You can listen to portions of Robeson’s testimony. He clearly was not intimidated and his voice dripped with disdain for the people trying to bully him.
Robeson had his passport revoked in 1950 because of his denunciations of racism in the US and his praise for the lack of prejudice he encountered in the Soviet Union, because the government did not want him to go abroad, where he was famous, and talk about American racism and imperialism. He was denounced by political leaders and as a result local bodies denied him venues to perform. His passport was returned after the US Supreme Court ruled in another case in 1958 that the government cannot withhold a passport without due process of law. After he got his passport back, Robeson performed outside the US. My parents were fortunate enough to attend one of his concerts in London and were simply blown away by experiencing live his magnificent bass-baritone voice.
While I thought I knew much abut his life and career, a recent article by Gao Yunxiang revealed to me that he also was widely admired in China, right up to this day, and gives a fascinating account of how Robeson was influential in globalizing what was to become the future national anthem of China.
Several times in recent years, Chinese broadcasters have aired shows that feature Paul Robeson (1898-1976), one of the most popular African American singers and actors of his era and a well-known civil rights activist. China National Radio and various channels of the widely influential China Central TV showcased Robeson on programmes in 2009, 2012 and 2021 narrating China’s resistance to foreign military aggressions. This is a remarkable amount of coverage in Chinese media for an American who died decades ago. Though not widely known in the United States, the relationship between Robeson and China continues to resonate in China today. It’s part of the history that connects Black internationalism with the experiences of Chinese and Chinese American people. Robeson was one of the most important figures in an alliance between Maoist China and politically radical African Americans.
Throughout the 1950s, the PRC promoted Robeson as a heroic revolutionary model to inspire the socialist citizens of China. Robeson shared this high standing with a few other foreigners, including the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie; the Vietnamese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh; the legendary Canadian doctor Norman Bethune; and Lu Xun, the father of China’s modern literature. Robeson was the only Black person accorded such a high honour, and this fact revolutionised the image of Black people in China and became a milestone in Sino-African relations.
As the PRC contested Soviet dominance of world communism and aspired to leadership of the Third World that bound the destinies of China with former agricultural colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Robeson’s giant global stature bridged China’s alliance with Africa. Yet, following the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, PRC state media and publishers fell silent on Robeson. His 70th birthday in 1968 slipped by without notice in China, although his previous birthdays were celebrated as state events. Robeson’s position advocating peaceful coexistence for countries with different systems, highly applauded by the PRC during the Korean War, now fell on the wrong side of tensions between the Soviet Union and China.
In 1976, with the end of the radical Maoist years, Robeson remerged as a hero, and he remains popular in China today. Even as China moves from communism to fullscale capitalism, Robeson retains a special place in the nation’s heart.
Robeson should be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, but it will be a long time before any president will have the guts to do so because it would be a confession of how shamefully he was treated in his lifetime
Here is a documentary on his life titled Paul Robeson: Here I Stand
Even though our lives overlapped by about 15 years, I never heard of Robeson until after his death. I am fortunate that I live not too far from a restored movie palace that exclusively shows pre-1960 films, so I have heard Robeson sing Ol’ Man River in the 1936 version of Showboat a few times. Magnificent.
I have heard snippets about his civil rights work from watching various PBS shows on the subject, but I am still grossly ignorant of his life. Because the channels of mass info distribution are still almost entirely controlled by old white men, one has to put effort into learning anything valid about any other types of people. I am focused mostly on WEB duBois and Ida B. Wells currently, but Robeson is definitely on my list.
BTW, for anyone interested in an overview of racism against Blacks in the USA, I highly recommend The 1619 Project.
Ah yes. Robeson 1952 border concert remembered. He did have some problems with the US Gov’t.
Mano Singham says
Part of why Robeson is not so well known is that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, rather than embracing him as a fighter of Black rights, distanced themselves from him because of his socialist views. Even Jackie Robinson testified against him at the HUAC hearings. The movement’s leaders were wary of being labeled as Communists, even though the left was their ally. Robeson was unapologetically of the left.
Robeson should really be up there with Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, and others.
Paul Robeson was the first artist to perform at (though not in) the Sydney Opera House. It was the first of the lunchtime performances for the construction workers.