On April 28, Philadelphia will honor Paul Robeson in all of his radiance and I am knee-deep in his music and speeches. I was lucky to have come across the proceedings of a special meeting of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid on April 10, 1979, wherein many comrades of Robeson offered tributes to his life and the legendary contributions he made to humanity in politics, sports, law, literature, history, music, and folklore. These loving reports of his prodigious talent, immense generosity, and boundless faith in humankind inspired me to compose my own tribute to this great revolutionary.
Robeson brought light and life to the twentieth century. He dreamt of the grandest future for the dark nations of the world and compelled humanity to act with honor, courage, and grace. Art, he averred, was a weapon of love, for he could never separate his progress as an artist from his capacity to love and grow as a human being. It is often said that he is a “Renaissance” man, but we must be more specific: he strove to will into being a renaissance of black civilization in America and throughout the world. It is for this reason that he pushed himself to surpass the bar in virtually every dimension of human achievement: he excelled in law, literature, athletics, theater, folklore, linguistics, and many other subjects. He also knew more than twenty languages. Above all, Robeson saw himself as a son and defender of African peoples and their civilizations throughout the world. He cultivated the highest moral standard for Communists and humanity, in general. During the Second World War, he stood with the Soviet Union against fascism, like Du Bois. He valiantly struggled for the freedom of the people of Africa through his role in the Council for African Affairs with W.E.B Du Bois. He championed the Chinese people’s movement for a people’s republic and he praised the Indian masses in their dignified opposition to white rule. As Rikhi Jaipal, the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations said during a commemoration of Paul Robeson’s eightieth birthday, organized by the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid:
Paul Robeson entered our consciousness at an early age, during the years before the Second World War, when Asians were struggling to regain their nationhood from Western imperialism. We remember him as a great American, great in every sense, in body and soul larger than life. It is not only the things that he stood for, but the manner in which he said and sang about them that compelled the attention of the world… This interrelationship between him and the peoples fighting for freedom everywhere was bound in the same web of history, human suffering and human aspiration. Inevitably, he became a part, and indeed a symbol, of the world movement for freedom and liberation. His songs were the purest expressions of the essence of humanity. Like the rest of us, he too was a victim of the white man’s law and the white man’s world. But not for long, because the victims of yesterday have now become the children of destiny of today and tomorrow.
There is in every country a separate third world of suffering and sacrifice, of struggle and liberation, and Paul Robeson belonged to that third world. For us of the third world today. his life is a shining symbol of the collective human effort to break down the barriers that have held back the coloured people for centuries. Paul Robeson wanted very much to go to the Bandung Conference in 1955, but he was denied a passport and so he sent a message of greetings. In it he stressed the urgent necessity of preventing another world war and the common duty to humanity of the peoples of Asia and Africa to support disarmament and to save mankind and civilization from wholesale destruction. He said ‘ Discussion and mutual respect are the first ingredients for the development of peace among nations and an end should be put to the policy of force and the threat of nuclear war.’ He fully supported the principles of Bandung and proclaimed that he took his stand on the Bandung platform.
He brought to life the rich musical, spiritual, and literary traditions of black folk in America. He tirelessly believed in the capacity of the human spirit to overcome great adversity and prevail in freedom’s glory. He was also a profoundly gifted actor, that most complicated of arts. Theater plays a crucial role in human civilization. Playing a role is a way of imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself, and traversing the dialectic of the self’s relation to humanity. The actor stands as synechdoche of a people, encapsulating in his mien, their manners, cosmology, morality, world-thoughts, and aspirations. As a witness, watching a dramatic production requires the audience to reflect on the fundamental questions that motivate human existence. As Robeson knew, the actor is important because it is he who imagines new ways of being in the world, new directions for human action, and, most importantly, new prerogatives for human compassion. It is for this reason that we must properly contend with his interpretation of Othello, which was a historic achievement in the Shakespearean theatrical tradition in that it insisted upon the necessity of seeing Othello as an African nobleman and ruler in Italy, an insight which sheds light not only on the role of Africa in the early modern world but also, the origins of Western civilization in Africa, out of the contestations between Christian Rome and Islamic Afro-Asia.
His disappointments with the mainstream film industry made Robeson keenly aware of the limitations placed on roles black actors could play in Hollywood and it was through these experiences that he came to realize what role he—as artist and revolutionary—needed to play in history in order to secure the freedom of his people. Thus, in every speech he gave and every song he sang, Robeson conveyed that he spoke for the African-American people, guiding world opinion in their favor and bending it towards justice. In testimonies such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearing, during which he is the subject of the U.S. government’s vile scrutiny, Robeson plead the fifth amendment rather than betray his comrades. In maintaining this firm position, he vowed that he would never be moved by the chauvinism of white people, that he would not be cowed by the virulent anti-communism and racism of the U.S. government, which basely seized his passport for his role in the struggle for peace in the world.
His voice cries out of the past holding us spellbound in the deep timbres and hollowings of his tremendous basso profundo, and in the end he left us with more than a body of musical and dramatic interpretations: they are meticulous enactments, offerings, of what it means–and has meant–to ache and agitate for a world where the liberation of humanity from white civilization and imperialism is not only a concrete possibility, but an inevitability. Such was the mettle of his hope and the tenacity of his exhortation. Long live Robeson. His spirit prevails and his songs will follow us to the heavens.