Remembering Paul Robeson

A Mascot of People’s Liberation

Harsh Thakor

April 9, 2023 marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, one of the outstanding Revolutionary or Marxist personalities of the 20th century. He was not only an outstanding US scholar, athlete, lawyer, actor and singer but, most importantly, a relentless battler for the rights of all who championed the spirit of liberation, for his own people and for the peoples of the world. Very few artists transcended barriers of revolutionary courage to confront fascism, as Robeson, whose creative contribution among Black artists is almost unparalleled.

Robeson became the first African American to play William Shakespeare’s Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, in the Theatre Guild production in New York in 1943. Robeson said, “What provoked Othello was the destruction of himself as a human being, of his human dignity. I related that dignity to my whole people in what Othello calls ‘his honour, his dignity.'”

When he first visited the Soviet Union., Robeson was greatly impressed with Russia at that time as he discovered no colour bar there. He eulogised the political system of the Soviet Union stating he never witnessed such scale of egalitarianism, his lifetime.. He went to Spain and was out among the Loyalist fighting men and played his part in sharpening the anti-fascist struggle by giving concerts.”

Robeson was a committed anti-fascist, travelling to Spain during the Civil War to show solidarity with the anti-Franco resistance. He quickly found good company with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade composed of travellers from around the world who flocked to the region to fight fascism. This experience left him “filled with admiration and love” for this coalition of anti-fascists hailing dozens of countries around the world. When pressed by the HUAC on his possible ties to communists, he was resolute in his position: “wherever I have been in the world, Scandinavia, England, and many places, the first to die in the struggle against Fascism were the Communists and I laid many wreaths upon graves of Communists.”

Paul was an internationalist and a prominent figure in the working-class movement singing wherever workers were fighting for their rights.

Robeson analysed integral relationship between Black liberation in the United States and movements for liberation in Africa. His polemics on racism in the world-system was illustrated when he asked “can we oppose white supremacy in South Carolina and not oppose the same system in South Africa?” He followed up with the assertion that “the colonial peoples—the coloured peopled of the world—were going to be free and equal no matter whose ‘best interests’ obstruct them.” Robeson offered a blistering critique of the ideological underpinnings of colonial-capitalism, whereby politicians endorsed their quest for global hegemony under the banner of it being in the ‘best interest’ to ‘take it slow’ in the march towards Black liberation.

After World War II the anti-communist witch hunt began that targeted Robeson and many others. To this persecution he responded, “Nobody is scaring me.” Quoting his father he said, “Never compromise your principles no matter what, never take low.”

A month after Joseph Stalin died in 1953 Robeson wrote a letter entitled To You Beloved Comrade.

He wrote, “Colonial peoples today look to the Soviet Socialist Republics. They see how under the great Stalin millions like themselves have found a new life. They see formerly semi-colonial Eastern European nations building new People’s Democracies, based upon the people’s power with the people shaping their own destinies. So much of this progress stems from the magnificent leadership, theoretical and practical, given by their friend Joseph Stalin.

Chinese adoration for Robeson “derives most of all from his role in globalising the future national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.” Introduced to it in November 1940, for Robeson, its lyrics “expressed the determination of the world’s oppressed, in their struggle for liberation.”

Robeson’s connections to the struggles and aspirations of the Chinese people can be traced to at least 1935, when he met in London with Mei Lanfang, considered the father of modern Peking Opera, who was returning from three weeks of successful appearances in the Soviet Union.

On October 1 1949, when Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Robeson sang the national anthem on the streets of Harlem and cabled his congratulations to the Chinese leader. Despite being a victim of grave targeting, he unflinchingly stood firm when Chinese forces entered the Korean War. Mutual support between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would, he insisted, be the “great truth” in their shared journey to freedom.

Many important personalities in India expressed their admiration with Robeson. Bhupen Hazarika who had based his famous songs ‘Bistirna Parore’ and ‘Ganga Behti Ho Kyun’ on Old Man River. The mathematician and historian D D Kosambi “revered Paul Robeson’s songs”. The Telegu writer Chalam once wrote that his daughter compared Sri Sri’s writing with Robeson’s music.

It was Bengal,. Hemanga Biswas, a member of Indian People’s Theatre Association, himself remembered for imbibing folk traditions and fighting for peace, would perform the song “Negro Bhai Amar Paul Robeson” along with his troupe.

This song, composed and written by Kamal Sarkar, was based on a translation by Subhash Mukhopadhyaya of Nazim Hikmet’s poem written in 1949 to his “Negro Brother” Paul Robeson. “They don’t let us sing our songs” for “they are afraid” is the call of both the original poem and the song.

Very hard to visualise a Robeson to re-emerge in today’s world, with waves of globalisation and neo-fascism blowing at their strongest, and hardly any Marxist alternative.

Back to Home Page

Vol 56, No. 8, Aug 20 - 26, 2023