In Memory of Paul Robeson, Beleaguered Leader, 1898-1976
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PAUL ROBESON!
To celebrate his 122nd birthday on the 9th of April, The BlackQuaker Project commemorates and recognizes the lifetime of achievements, humanism, and revolutionary activism of Paul Leroy Robeson. Robeson was a Quaker by blood on his mother's side and a lifetime seeker-activist whose work in a segregated, white-supremacist, United States of America predated by decades the Civil-Rights and Black-Power movements. He remains the most important individual of historical and personal significance to Hal Weaver in his life and work, outside of his own family.
Born in 1898, Robeson distinguished himself early in life with a remarkable undergraduate career at Rutgers University. Graduating in 1919, he left behind an unparalleled legacy as a 2-year, Phi Beta Kappa member, Class Valedictorian, Four-Letter Athlete, and winner of every university oratorical contest in which he was eligible to compete. In comparison to his white collegiate peers, Robeson rejected the financial security of prestigious firms on Wall Street after a white secretary refused to type for him. Instead, he pursued a career on the stage, as well as starring in 12 films, performing at countless concert halls throughout the world, and releasing numerous world famous records.
Robeson was a pioneering Pan-Africanist who recognized the urgent need for African Americans, Africans, and the Caribbean to establish ties of solidarity in their shared struggle against US and European imperialism. Using his influence and prestige as a preeminent artist, scholar, and public figure, Robeson devoted all aspects of his life to the Pan-African struggle. In his work as an academic, he conducted rigorous research and study of African linguistics and culture, believing it to be paramount to combatting the effects of the United States’ social and psychological degradation of African American identity and pride. As a prolific artist of stage, screen, concert, and recordings, he pushed the creative boundaries of the arts to reflect his beliefs and identity as a proud Black man; his starring turns in Song of Freedom and Proud Valley being among the works of which he was most proud and satisfied. He held enduring friendships with numerous emerging anti-colonial activists of his time, such as renowned African and Asian leaders Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyata, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Jawaharlal Nehru, all of whom Robeson hosted at his UK residence and gave financial support during their early years as revolutionaries for national independence. Even further, he co-founded the Council of African Affairs in 1937 serving as its chairman. The organization was one of the first US-based groups to bridge the gap created by centuries of diaspora and integrate both Africans and African Americans under one social body committed to anti-colonial work. Among members of the Council were a young Harry Belafonte and Lorraine Hansberry, to whom Robeson became a political mentor during their rising careers as artists. Under his leadership, the Council organized mass rallies and demonstrations, provided financial and food aid to those suffering from famine in Africa, and hosted nationalist leaders and delegations. This work lasted for almost two decades until the Council of African Affairs was dissolved due to a vicious smear campaign led by the US government.
Parallel to Robeson’s identity as a Pan-Africanist was his development as a Socialist. Robeson was profoundly affected by his experiences in the USSR. First arriving in Moscow in fall 1934, Robeson was welcomed by renowned Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, his host, and was moved by the warm and ecstatic reception he received from artists, political officials, and everyday citizens. Personally, he wrote that for the first time in his life he could walk in full human dignity. In his landmark political statement, Here I Stand, Robeson asserted that the success of the USSR as an anti-capitalist political and economic system could serve as a model for Black revolutionary movements around the world seeking self determination. Furthermore, Robeson recognized that aid from the global powers of the USSR and China, which stood apart from US and Colonial Europe in their anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism, could be valuable to Black liberation efforts throughout the world.
For his work and views as an anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist, Robeson was persecuted by the US Establishment, who barred him from concert halls, exorcised his name from awards and academic records at Rutgers University and elsewhere, refused to sell his records, and perpetuated misinformation and disinformation about his life, even going so far as to revoke his passport for 8 years at the height of his artistic career (1950-58). While Robeson himself was never defeated or demoralized in his life, the Establishment campaign rendered him virtually unknown to many new generations of Blacks. As a matter of fact, no student in the first Afro-American Studies course at Rutgers in fall 1970 had ever heard of Robeson. Professor Weaver, the new, founding Head of Africana Studies at the time, worked with many others to restore Robeson’s name to its rightful place in world history. For over 50 years, Prof. Weaver has worked to increase the visibility and recognition of Robeson in national and international consciousness, so that new generations of African Americans know his story and the profound contributions he made towards Black and human liberation.
Bibliographical Sources Used:
Paul Robeson: Identity, Political Economy, and Communications. YouTube. United States: Rutgers University, 1972. https://www.youtube.com/watchv=LmOein76VbQ&feature=emb_title.
Written by Dr. Harold D. Weaver and available for viewing at www.theblackquakerproject.org The Proud Valley. DVD. United Kingdom: Ealing Studios, 1940. Robeson, Paul Leroy and Lloyd L. Brown. Here I Stand. New York: Othello Associates, 1958.
Song of Freedom. DVD. United Kingdom : Hammer Productions, 1937.
Weaver, Harold D. “Paul Robeson and Film: Racism and Anti-Racism in Communications.” Negro History Bulletin, Winter , 37, no. 1 (January 1974): 204–6. Weaver, Harold D. “Paul Robeson and The Pan-African World.” Présence Africaine 107, no. 3 (1978): 217–22. https://doi.org/10.3917/presa.107.0217. Weaver, Harold D. “Paul Robeson: Beleaguered Leader.” The Black Scholar 5, no. 4 (1973): 24–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.1973.11461383.
Additional Readings on Paul Robeson Recommended by Doctor Weaver: Brown, Lloyd L. The Young Paul Robeson: On My Journey Now. Westview, Boulder 1998. Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. London: New Press, 2005.
Horne, Gerald. Paul Robeson: the Artist As Revolutionary. London: Pluto Press, 2016. Robeson, Paul. Jr. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Robeson, Paul. Jr. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: an Artist's Journey, 1898-1939. New York: Wiley, 2001.