Friday, 13 April 2018

Paul Robeson ~ Singing Across the Line

I want to begin writing about some of the people who inspire me and give me strength for the journey. Paul Robeson is one of those people; one of my own ‘folk saints’, a ‘holy activist ancestor’. And truly I knew very little about him until I happened to go and see a play about his life, ‘Call Mr Robeson’ by Tayo Aluko, in 2013. I can’t even remember what prompted me to go now. I rarely went to the theatre but I think that a friend had been to see it and recommended it, and I had such fond memories of my dad singing, ‘Ol’ Man River’ in his beautiful voice. I think that somewhere I have a recording of him that I can’t quite bear to listen to singing along to it with ‘Show Boat’ on the telly and it was one of the songs that we chose for his funeral. Yes, I think that I went to see the play because of my dad. I had no idea that I would discover in that play a man of such fire and dignity, of such hugeness of hope and heart. I am ever grateful.

Paul Robeson was born on 9th April, 1898, and so this week has marked the 120th anniversary of his birth. So much has changed, and so much hasn’t, since he joined us. His father, William Drew Robeson, a descendant of the Igbo people of Nigeria, was born into slavery on the Roberson plantation, North Carolina, in 1844. In 1860, when he was 15 years old, he escaped with his brother, Ezekiel, via a network of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railway to make his home in the free state of Pennsylvania. He worked as a labourer with the Union Army in the American Civil War, joining at 16 in an effort to help the work of ending slavery in the South. After the war he went on to college and became a Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1876. Whilst there he met teacher, Maria Louisa Bustill, a member of a prominent black Quaker family and whose ancestry was part Lenni-Lenape Native American, part Anglo-American, and part Igbo. Her family had been free since the 1700s and her great-grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, had been one of the founders of the Free African Society, which held religious services and provided aid for ‘free Africans and their descendants’. Her father, Charles Hicks Bustill, was an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railway. Nevertheless, it was considered by her family that she had ‘married down’ when she chose William Drew Robeson.

Maria Louisa and William Robeson (Public Domain USA)

Maria, who was known as Louisa, and William married in 1878 and had seven children together, five of whom survived into adulthood. Louisa worked as a teacher and tutored privately and William became the minister of a Presbyterian church in Princeton, New Jersey, where Paul was born. However, when Paul was 3 years old, his father was ousted from his church after 20 years service having refused to bow to pressure from white financial supporters of the church to stop speaking out against social injustice. On leaving his entirely black congregation, all of whom supported him, he said that his heart was filled with nothing but love and urged them, "Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain." On resigning his ministry, William was forced to take low paid work and three years later, Louisa, who had become almost blind with cataracts, died when an ember from their kitchen stove set fire to her clothes. Only two of their children, Ben and Paul, were still living at home but William eventually became unable to provide a house for them and they moved into an attic above a store in Westfield, New Jersey. In 1910, William again found a position as a minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, where Paul would stand in for his father in giving sermons on occasion.


Both William and Louisa believed in the importance of education for their children and Paul attended a High School where, despite racial taunts, he performed in Julius Caesar and Othello, sang in the chorus, and excelled at sports. Prior to graduation, he won a statewide academic contest and earned a scholarship to Rutgers, the eighth oldest college in the United States, where he became only the third ever African-American student (and the only one at the time). On arrival his resolve to join the football team was tested via ‘excessive play’, which resulted in his sustaining a broken nose and dislocated shoulder! He also joined the debating team and sang off-campus to gain spending money. He also sang with the on-campus glee club, but this could only be informal as membership required attending all-white events from which he was excluded. During Rutger’s sesquicentennial celebrations he was left on the bench during a football match when a team from the South refused to play because their opponents had fielded a ‘negro’. Nevertheless, he was recognised in The Crisis, the official magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, for his athletic, academic, and singing talents. A true Renaissance man! It was at this time that his father, William, became very ill and Paul took sole responsibility for caring for him, noting that his father had been, the “glory of his boyhood years.” It is touching indeed that he cared for his father so tenderly, especially at a time when he was just beginning to make his own way in the world; a care that was echoed by his own son, Paul Robeson Jr., when he himself became ill in his later years. A beautiful fatherline.

William died in May 1918 and was buried next to Louisa. Paul went on to make a huge success of his time at Rutgers, being recognised both for his sporting achievements (Walter Camp, considered to be the ‘Father of American Football’ considered his to be the “greatest end ever”), and by his classmates, who elected him class valedictorian. In his valedictory speech he urged them to work for equality for all Americans, having been critical during his time there of a country who would allow African-Americans to fight for them in WWI but not offer them the same opportunities as whitre citizens at home.

Paul went on to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1923, having abandoned his footballing career several months earlier. During his time at the school he had met and married anthropologist, author, actor, and civil rights activist, Eslanda ‘Essie’ Goode. Essie graduated from Columbia with a degree in chemistry and it was her time there that stimulated her interest in racial equality. After university she became the first black person to be the head histological chemist of surgical pathology at New York Presbyterian Hospital but she gave up her intention to study medicine when her husband’s career began to take off and became his business manager. Paul Robeson credited her with encouraging his acting career, saying that he only took roles in order to stop her ‘pestering’ him. Theirs was a tumultuous relationship, shadowed by rumours of his unfaithfulness. It was his affair with Peggy Ashcroft whilst he was appearing with her in Othello in London, that let Essie and Paul to become briefly estranged. 

At that time Essie resumed her career, taking parts in three films and gaining an anthropology degree from the London School of Economics in 1937, together with a PHD in the subject in 1946. She learned more about Africa whilst in England and made three journeys to the continent, later writing a book, ‘African Journey’, which urged black people to be proud of their ancestry. Her perspective as a black African-American woman was considered to be both unique and important. Like her husband, she had her passport revoked during the McCarthy era under accusation of being a Communist. When it was returned she again travelled to Africa, attending the first post-colonial All-African People’s Conference in Ghana in 1958. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1963 and died in New York in 1965.

Essie, Paul, and Paul jr, circa 1950 from

As for Essie’s husband, he worked briefly as a lawyer but renounced that work due to rampant racism. When a white secretary refused to take dictation from him, he resigned, saying: “On the stage only the sky could hold me back.” Essie financially supported them for a time but his acting and singing career soon led to startling success, despite his own reported indifference. Following various roles at home, he appeared in 1928 in the American musical ‘Show Boat’ at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which ran for 350 performances. He was hugely popular in his role, was summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace, was befriended by MPs, and he and Essie bought a house in Hampstead. Nevertheless, he was refused seating at the Savoy Grill and issued a press release describing the insult. In 1930 he became the first black actor to take the lead role in ‘Othello’ since Ira Aldridge more than 100 years earlier. On opening night he received 20 curtain calls but reviews were mixed, suggesting that he was ‘too genteel’ in the role. He later stated that the sensitivities around a black man embracing a white woman had made him tense, "I was backin' away from her all the time. I was like a plantation hand in the parlour, that clumsy." Off-stage they fell in love and there are suggestions that they had planned to marry but the pressure of opinion against unions such as theirs was just too great.

Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft in Othello, 1931

However, it was whilst in London that Paul Robeson experienced an ideological awakening. In the winter of 1929, he had heard the sound of a Welsh miners’ choir. They had walked all the way from Wales to protest their desperate poverty and to petition the Government for help. He immediately joined them to sing, later paying for their train journeys home, together with food and clothing, and visited the Rhondda to sing for mining communities and talk to the people there. Later, it was often the people of Wales who supported and lifted him as he became more isolated in his own country. In 1934 he enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he studied 20 African dialects and became more acutely aware of African history and its impact on culture, together with the effects of colonialism. In December 1934, due to his friendship with members of the anti-Imperialism movement and British Socialists, he visited the Soviet Union with Essie and said that it was the first time in his life that he had felt like a human being who could walk with “full human dignity”. In 1936, he and Essie decided to send their son, Paul Jr., to school in the Soviet Union so that he could experience a culture without racism.

It was the Spanish Civil War which Robeson credited with turning him into a poltical activist. He began to use his stage performances to advocate for the Republican side and for refugees of the war, together with permanently changing his rendition of ‘Ol’Man River’ from a resigned and world weary sorrow-song into one of defiance. When he was warned that this might affect his commercial success he refused to change his stance. Whilst in Wales he spoke in tribute to the Welsh people who had died fighting for the Republican cause and said, "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." Those fine words were to become his epitaph. He later visited the Spanish battlefront, singing to wounded soldiers and attempting to lift morale.

On returning to England, he developed a close friendship with Nehru, who was working towards Indian independence, and, having heard him speak on Imperialism’s links with Fascism, decided to refocus his career on the struggles of the ‘common people’. He became an important voice in the Second Sino-Japanese War, sympathising with China and holding concerts to raise aid. A song, written by progressive Chinese activist Liu Liangmo, and recorded in the Chinese language by Robeson, became China’s national anthem in 1949. Even though Liangmo died in a Beijing prison in 1968, Robeson made sure to send royalties to his family. Robeson often recorded songs in languages other than his own, such as Gaelic and Yiddish, seeing this as a form of protest against colonialism. I so agree that, in order to be free, we must hear and dare to speak our Older Tongues.

Paul Robeson’s last film in Britain was, ‘The Proud Valley’ (1940), set in a Welsh coal-mining town. It was filmed on location in the South Wales coalfield and documented the harsh realities the lives of Welsh miners. Although by the time of its release Robeson was on Lord Beaverbrook’s publicity blacklist, having spoken out against British and French appeasement of the Nazis and remained pro-Soviet, his performance was praised as powerful and sensitive. He later said that the role, in which he built relationships across boundaries of nationality and race, was his favourite due to its sympathetic portrayal of workers and their lives. He was firmly of the view that the struggle for freedom transcended all differences, and that the fight of the Welsh miner was exactly that of the black slave in America.

Although he was feted as ‘America’s no.1 entertainer’, on his return there he was refused almost all hotel accomodation and the one hotel that would let him stay insisted that he use an assumed name. Because of this he dedicated two hours to sitting in the lobby each day! He had also come to the attention of the FBI, who declared the documentary ‘Native Land’, which he narrated and depicted the struggle of trade unions against corporate power, to be ‘communist propaganda’. Not long afterwards, he said that he would no longer appear in films as the roles written for black actors were demeaning.

After abandoning his film career, Paul Robeson went on to reprise his role in ‘Othello’, becoming the first black actor to play the central role with a white supporting cast on Broadway. His political activism was tireless, as he learned and spoke out about anti-fascism, continued racism within sport, and imperialism. In 1946, he founded the ‘American Crusade Against Lynching’ organisation, when President Truman refused to enact anti-lynching legislation after the mass lynching of four black men in July of that year. Some years later he delivered a petition accusing the United States government of genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention. He became a great advocate for union rights, believing them to be crucial in the fight for civil rights. When he was called before the Senate and questioned about his affiliation with the Communist Party, he replied, "Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary." Later, he was forced to again travel abroad as so many of his US concerts were cancelled at the request of the FBI.

The Red List

Whilst travelling, he spoke at the World Peace Council, where he was misreported as equating America with a Fascist state. On visiting the Soviet Union in June 1949, he learned of the persecution of Russian Jews but he never publicly spoke of it in order to prevent the Right Wing of US politics gaining ground. Speaking at the Paris Peace Congress soon afterwards he said, "We in America do not forget that it was on the backs of the white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war on anyone." Words that many of our leaders would do well to heed now. Because of this he was blacklisted by the mainstream US press, including by many black periodicals. Attempts were made to remove him from history; a book described as ‘the most complete on American football history’ ignored his contribution, television performances were cancelled, and his passport was removed. When he asked why, he was told that it was due to his, “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa." and that "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries."

Further attempts were made to politically isolate him and articles designed to ruin his reputation and the popularity of the Communist Party were distributed in Africa. In 1952, he was awarded the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples by the Soviet Union and, on Stalin’s death the following year, he wrote ‘To You My Beloved Comrade’, praising Stalin as a peacemaker and a guide. He saw the Soviet Union as an essential source of political balance in an unbalanced world and continued with this stance even though it assured that his passport would not be returned. As an act of defiance, the union movement held a concert for Robeson at the Peace Arch on the border between Washington State and British Columbia in 1952. Three further concerts were performed by him there in the following years. At the same time he was encouraged by his friend Aneurin Bevan to record radio concerts for his supporters in Wales. 

With Welsh Labour MP, Nye Bevan

Robeson said that, "here was an audience that had adopted me as kin and though they were unseen by me I never felt closer to them.” That he remains much loved there is proven by the Manic Street Preacher’s 2001 song, ‘Let Robeson Sing’.

In 1956, during the McCarthy era, he was called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities after he refused to sign an affidavit confirming that he was not a Communist. When asked why he hadn’t previously remained in the Soviet Union with which he had such an affinity he replied, "because my father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!", going on to say that, “I will not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people.” He was refused the right to travel for the next four years and, in 1957, sang for sell out audiences in both London and Wales via the Transatlantic Telephone Cable, saying that "We have to learn the hard way that there is another way to sing". Amen to that!

Although he continued to find ways to perform by 1957 his recordings and films had been removed from distribution and it became harder and harder to hear him sing, buy his music, or see his films. However, an appeal to have his passport returned was successful the following year and he was able to visit the Soviet Union, England, and Wales, attending the National Eisteddford and becoming the first black performer to sing in St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1960, he visited Australia and New Zealand, becoming the first person to perform on the construction site of the Sydney Opera House and, having been brought to tears by their conditions, spoke out against the inequality faced by the Maori and Aboriginal Australian peoples, saying that, "..the people of the lands of Socialism want peace dearly".

Paul_Robeson_yn_Eisteddfod_Genedlaethol_Cymru,_Glynebwy,_1958 Geoff Charles Wiki Commons

 On their return to London, Essie argued that they should remain there as she feared that Paul would be killed should he return to the US. However, determined to resume his work with the civil rights movement, he insisted on going and left her in England to travel back alone via Moscow. Whilst in the Soviet Union a party, described as ‘uncharacteristically wild’, took place. During the evening Robeson became unwell, locked himself in his bedroom, and attempted to commit suicide by cutting his wrists. Days later he told his son that he had felt extreme paranoia, together with overwhelming emptiness and depression. His son continued to believe to the end of his life that his father had been drugged and that his suicide attempt, and many subsequent health problems, were due to the FBI’s and CIA’s attempts to ‘neutralize’ him. Others believed that he had already been suffering from a debilitating depression. If so, it is even more remarkable that he continued to fight for the dignity of others through it all.

Paul remained in the Soviet Union for a time until he was recovered enough to return to London. There, he later suffered a relapse and was admitted to The Priory where he endured many sessions of Electroconvulsive Therapy and heavy doses of drugs (but no psychotherapy). In August 1963, distressed at his condition and treatment, family and friends were able to facilitate his transfer to a hospital in East Berlin where doctors expressed ‘doubt and anger’ at the treatment he had been given in London. He quickly improved under their care but was never the same, physically at least.

At the end of 1963 Paul returned to the US and, following Essie’s death, lived quietly with his son and then with his sister. In 1973, he recorded a message to be played at a concert at Carnegie Hall in honour of his 75th birthday. He said, "Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood." He died following the complications of a stroke on 29th July 1976. Subsequent reflections on his life downplayed his political activism and his refusal to bend, describing him as a ‘Great American’. How easily the powerful believe that they can silence rebel and revolutionary with flattering words. They are wrong of course. Some keep listening.

Since his death, Paul Robeson has been honoured many times for his work to end racism and imperialism, including a posthumous award from the United Nations for his efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa. In addition he has been acknowledged for his other achievements ~ In 1995, he was at last admitted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1998, the centenary of his birth, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I wonder whether that would have been the case if he were still here singing out? His portrayal of Othello on Broadway was the longest running Shakespeare production ever staged there, and his performance has been described as ‘a high point in Shakespearean theatre in the 20th century.’ The main campus library at Rutgers is named after him and a black cultural centre at Penn State University bears his name. His rendition of ‘Joe Hill’ remains the third most popular choice for Labour Party politicians on ‘Desert Island Discs’. In 2010, his granddaughter, Susan, began a project with Swansea University and the Welsh Assembly to create an online learning resource in her grandfather’s memory. I think that of all the accolades and tributes he might have liked that the best of all.

I can’t pretend to know a great deal about history and so I find it hard to understand the fullness of Paul Robeson’s political activism, particularly his unflinching respect for the Soviet Union, and yet it seems that he was able to somehow see the vastness of so much that was happening in his, and our world, that he could sense the ‘ecosystem’, tap into the roots, and gain an awareness of where so many issues that we might see as separate join together. I wish that there were more who could do the same. I have always found such people inspiring, but what I most love about Paul Robeson is the determination that he had to speak his truth, the relationships that he built with people who seemed so different but who he knew faced the same struggles, and the heart and the passion that I hear in his voice, whether speaking out or singing. A visionary, a true prophet speaking truth to power. And I love that under all of that I can hear my dad.

After death huge efforts are made to tame the memory of so many activists who were unbowed in life. Martin Luther King has become a ‘national treasure’, despite the fact that at the time of his death he was wildly controversial, Nelson Mandela, a sort of kindly grandfather, and Paul Robeson’s rendition of ‘Ol’Man River’ is in most of our heads as the ‘resigned and world weary’ song of old. Has it been so easy for the river to put the fire out? Somehow I don’t think so, and fire that has gone underground is often the wildest of all.

I will end with the words of Naomi Shihab Nye and her poem, ‘Cross That Line’…

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.

He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was not allowed
to cross that line.

Remind us again, brave friend!
What countries may we sing into?
What lines should we all be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away

to deepen our days?
Our holy activist ancestor, our prophet, our friend, Big Paul. Just as big in death as in life. Still singing to us across the line. It's up to us to make sure that he can hear us singing back.



Remembering Eslanda Robeson Goode ~

On the power of religion and organisation ~


  1. i'd no idea of the link between paul robeson and the welsh miners. fascinating. what a varied, difficult, extraordinary life he had. i'm sad to say that here in the country of his birth much progress needs still to be made against the kind of racism and jingoism that plagued his life and time...

    what songs should we be singing, indeed...

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  5. I have seen Tayo's show twice at the Bolton Socialist club. What a mighty man Paul Robeson was. I knew little of him too, just 'Lazy Bones' that I had picked up from a Perriot show I saw as a young teenager on the Isle of Bute.
    Later when my father-in-law died, we took his Paul Robeson album home.

    I loved the fact he was such a hit with the Welsh Miners.


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