From the 1920s until the 1950s Paul Robeson, the centenary of whose birth falls on 9 April, was one of the most famous men in the world. By the early 1930s he had a reputation as one of the world's greatest bass-baritone singers. He had achieved fame as a stage actor whose portrayal of Othello was considered one of the truest interpretations of Shakespeare's play. He went on to a successful career as a film actor having earlier won recognition as an athlete and professional footballer. He also mastered seven international languages.
But most extraordinary is the fact that Paul Robeson was a black American whose father had been born a slave. In the 1930s he became a radical critic of colonialism, imperialism and racism in the US and throughout the world. He became a committed anti-fascist, putting his great talents at the service of the working class movement. After the Second World War, his unswerving commitment to the left led in his own country to the destruction of his career and to his persecution at the hands of the McCarthyite witch hunt. Finally, his health collapsed and he died a broken man in 1976.
Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His mother was a school teacher, his father a Methodist minister. Robeson went to Rutgers University where he had a brilliant academic career. He went on to Columbia School of Law where he was the third ever black graduate. He practised law but left the profession due to entrenched racism. He drifted into the theatre after being discovered by Eugene O'Neill who chose him for the lead in his play The Emperor Jones. It was discovered, almost by accident, that he possessed a phenomenal singing voice. His career took off.
From 1928 to 1939 Robeson lived in Britain. In the stage production of Showboat he first sang 'Old Man River' with which he was to become identified for the rest of his life and which in later years he was to turn from a lament into a song of struggle and resistance. In 1930 he played Othello for the first time on the London stage to great critical acclaim. He starred in ten movies bringing a power and dignity to his roles which ran counter to the stereotypes of blacks then common on the screen. Nevertheless he found that the opportunities for the truthful portrayal of black people in films were severely limited. In 1937 he said:
'I find I cannot portray the life nor express the living hopes and aspirations of the struggling people from which I come...One man cannot face the film companies. They represent about the biggest aggregate of finance capital in the world.'
He forged in the 1930s what was to be a lifelong bond with the South Wales mining communities of the Rhondda. In 1938 he went to Spain where he sang to the brigades defending Madrid. 'It is not only as an artist that I support the cause of democracy,' he said, 'but also as a black. I belong to an oppressed race...one that could not live if fascism triumphed in the world.'
Robeson returned to the US as war broke in Europe and continued his political involvement there. During the war he reached the height of his professional career. But after the war his political views and activities were to lead him into deep trouble with the US government.
While in Britain Robeson had become closely associated with the Communist Party. He visited the USSR for the first time in 1934 where he was idolised. Paul Robeson's public attitude to the Soviet Union was uncritical throughout his life. It would be easy to dismiss him as a Stalinist hack, but it would be wrong. In the 1940s and 50s he was under terrible pressure. He had thrown himself into the struggle for black civil rights long before this struggle had become a mass movement. In his view the US Communist Party was the only political organisation that stood four square for black liberation. Robeson was not a black nationalist nor a separatist; he saw the struggle primarily in class terms.
In 1950, in a speech in New York, he said that black Americans should refuse to fight in Korea, arguing that 'the place for the Negro people to fight for their freedom is here at home.' This speech sealed his fate. The US government decided to silence him. He was placed under strict surveillance by the FBI and was denied access to concert platforms. He was the first American banned from US television. His records were withdrawn and his recorded voice and image were banned from the media. Most leaders of the black community shunned him. Finally, the state department withdrew his passport. He received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
It was made clear to him by the FBI that if he stopped making political statements everything fame and fortune would be restored to him. He declined the offer. He continued to speak out, working with close comrades like WEB Du Bois.
When, eventually, in 1958, his passport was restored, Robeson returned to Britain. He played in Othello at Stratford and gave concerts throughout the country. He sang not only spirituals but ballads and protest songs in many languages with an emotional power that was unforgettable. But now, in Britain, very few people under the age of 50 know anything about him. The McCarthyite witch hunt which sought to erase his name from the record succeeded for far too long.
Fortunately, a rare recording of his voice has recently been unearthed and is now available on CD. A fascinating story hangs by it.
In 1949 Robeson visited Moscow after having been in Warsaw and seen the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto. This was at the height of the Stalinist 'anti-Zionist' campaign actually directed against Soviet Jews and Yiddish culture. The great Jewish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, had been murdered, and the writer, Itzik Feffer was imprisoned in the Lubianka. Robeson knew nothing of this, but when he requested a meeting with Feffer, an old friend, the writer was released briefly from prison to visit him at his hotel. Feffer indicated to Robeson the fate that had befallen him and other prominent Jews.
At his last Moscow concert Robeson sang, in Yiddish, the fighting song of the Warsaw Ghetto, 'Zog Nit Keynmol' (Never say that you have reached the very end), introducing it with a dedication to the Jewish martyrs in the anti-fascist struggle. His audience of Jews and non-Jews rose in spontaneous applause. The recording of the concert, which was broadcast live throughout the USSR, was immediately suppressed.
Last year the recording resurfaced in Moscow. 'The Legendary Moscow Concert' is a fitting tribute on this centenary to a great socialist, a great internationalist and a great forerunner of the black liberation movement.