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Here We Stand: Thoughts on Paul Robeson, Dissent, and African Unity

Paul Robeson the man is a monumental subject within any discussion. The ideal of Robeson is as big as his voice and the deeds that brought him celebrity as well as an undeserved infamy. He thought it was just and appropriate that he live a full and successful life, ordered by the philosophies of the African American community that raised and nurtured him. He accomplished much in life during the period encompassing the New Negro movement and the Great Depression. He was, in his time, a world acclaimed artist, a graduate of Rutgers University, an all American football player. He earned a law degree at Columbia University and sang and recorded the sacred music of African Americans, the Spirituals. He is also considered a scholar, and a foremost actor and entertainer. He appeared in many theatrical productions including All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Othello, Porgy and Bess, Showboat and in one of his most famous roles in The Emperor Jones. By 1943 he starred in Othello on Broadway, in what was the longest run of any Shakespeare in the New York theatre district. He shared the spotlight with such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and his big band, Jesse Owens, and world heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Within the roles he took on, he tried to change how black men and women were depicted in American life and in art.

Robeson’s life offers something for everyone. I have always moved by his autobiography Here I Stand (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971 (1958)), and one statement that, out of the many examples of his genius, encapsulated why he is so beloved and why he was so vilified. The statement I am referring to briefly outlines a philosophy of his life. That philosophy was without label pan-Africanist, community centered, and committed: “In my music, my plays, my films I want to carry always this central idea: to be African. Multitudes of men have died for less worthy ideals; it is even more eminently worth living for.” He wanted his life to have greater meaning than through the singular enjoyment of his own wealth and notoriety. Not only would he be consciously successful but also that idea would benefit blacks as well as the nation, and it would continue an important legacy. Robeson would have to leave the United States to pursue a career in Europe to do this. And in upholding his beliefs he was among those targeted in the anti-communist investigations. Branded as a communist, Robeson had always, long before the rise of the group within his sphere, been an advocate for the rights of African Americans and for workers. In the 1930s he worked with the Communist Party (CP), but he was not a member of the organization. He defended the Soviet Union and maintained his beliefs in the ideas espoused by the CP, and for the right to openly express those ideas. He was denigrated for his views. But some scholars believe that the criticisms and harassment that followed him through a great part of his life was also related to the ideas he expressed like those highlighting the irony of African Americans fighting in World War II but continued to be racially oppressed.

Paul Robeson,American actor, athlete, bass-bar...

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 Any support or expression of sympathy for the Communist Party was particularly unsettling during this time, but the aggressive and vocal agitation for Black rights was something else altogether in the 1930s and 1940s. As a community activist with a national platform, Robeson spoke against racial discrimination, segregation, and the then popular ideology of white supremacy and black inferiority. Robeson was adamant about the assertion that African Americans should do more than listen to speeches. He found that practice unproductive and wasteful. He believed that blacks should be action-oriented—and in doing so, that they should not be afraid. This campaign for black rights included African American labor organizations taking on the responsibility for strengthens the power of black and white unions. Robeson understood how the rhetoric of racism was used to position white workers against black workers. He had a deep respect and understanding of the struggles of the working class.

Robeson’s model for unifying the myriad of voices of African Americans was through his concept of coordinated action. He had a vision of good works, which suggested that the diversity within the black community did not preclude unity. The idea would bring together the many different individuals and their organizations within the community for a common cause. In this way blacks would learn to speak with one cohesive voice on the central issues confronting them. In this way African Americans would actualize his statement: “a unified people requires a unified leadership…” For Robeson this was important because of the many sources of injustice faced by individuals and groups. For example, he critiqued the “Suppression of Communism Act,” and its use in attacking the work of such organizations as the NAACP. His sense of pan-Africanism lead him to in the 1940s further connect the struggles of African Americans to Africans and other people of color around the world. By 1950 the United States State Department revoked his passport. Robeson, like W.E.B. DuBois, would not sign an affidavit denying Communist Party membership. The government felt that his travels would be contrary to the interests of the country. The Supreme Court would rule this ban on Robeson unconstitutional in 1958. Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others were reissued their passports to travel abroad.

Probably one of the most important lessons Robeson learned in his lifetime, certainly one he stressed in his autobiography, was that of unity among African Americans. He defined this unity as a process of cooperation and collaboration. His idea of Black unity was a clear understanding of how to plan for the future collectively. He reminded the African American community that people must learn how to work together within groups in a process involving exchanging opposing ideas, and when disagreements over beliefs, methodology or tactics occur, individuals within groups should find that common ground—that singular purpose, for at least that moment, that governs dynamic action. Robeson, who continues to speak to us through the generations, did not fail to remind us that, when the time comes, we must eliminate from the group all of the issues that have the potential to separate us. I believe that this was how he viewed the essence of Black unity and that while it focused steadily on the concerns of Black; it did not however dismiss the support from others. But Robeson maintained that Black unity would serve to shore up the supporters who should in turn recognize the unity interests and work of African Americans. Ultimately Robeson hypothesized that movements (and organizations that drive them) develop, rise and choose to continue rather than fall, because their mission reflects a broad imperative, one that allows the membership to override extinction—it learns how to survive the challenges of intergroup conflict through an intelligent group thrust, an indomitable spirit and the altruism of people. Robeson knew that Jim Crow segregation and the legal constructs buttressing racial discrimination would fall someday. It was if he could see it all unfolding before him, and this, despite his sufferings, and because of the strength of the people, kept him going.

by Katherine Bankole-Medina