To a whole generation, the name of the African American singer Paul Robeson is unfamiliar. This fact is difficult to comprehend when one considers that Paul Robeson was once one of the most, if not the most famous artist in the word. More so, he was one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
As just one piece of evidence, on April 9, 1958, India celebrated Paul Robeson’s 60th birthday with celebrations held in major cities. Simultaneously, celebrations were held in several other countries including the Soviet Union and China. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said on the occasion, “This occasion deserves celebration…because Paul Robeson is one of the greatest artists of our generation”.
The New York Times reported: “It is an important fact that Mr. Robeson is a hero to most Indian intellectuals”.
Paul Robeson was being celebrated in part for his continuous fight against imperialism and for peace between the Soviet Union and the US. The US government, in response, spent many years hounding and harassing Robeson, trying to destroy his career and prevent any mention of his name. This largely explains our present lack of knowledge.
Paul Robeson was a model of principled integrity in response. When asked, testifying to a House Committee, during the McCarthy era of vicious anti-communism, “Why do you not stay in Russia?” he replied in an indictment of American Society:
“Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, 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. Is that clear?”
Today, more than 60 years after that celebration, we must not only remember Paul Robeson the man but must also examine his philosophy and ideas, which were at the foundation of the principles that he stood for.
Paul Robeson was an extraordinarily gifted person. Born in 1898, he grew up in Princeton, “a college town of Southern aristocrats” where African Americans “lived for all intents and purposes on a Southern plantation”.
There were no black students at Princeton University then and there would be none till near the end of the second world war. Robeson’s grandfather was born in a slave plantation, and he himself was born into poverty. It is this experience that set the context of his eventual life and ideas.
In college at Rutgers University, Robeson became America’s foremost college football player in 1917-1918. He excelled in a wide range of sports, was an accomplished orator and won prizes for extempore in college. He pursued theatre and singing, touring London in the 1930s with his performance in Shakespeare’s Othello winning him the most acclaim. It is here that Robeson met and made friendships with a host of anti-colonial figures including Nehru.
Robeson had started formulating his philosophy and principles, which centred around a profound critique of Western civilisation. In 1936, he said:
“As Western civilisation advances, its members find themselves in the paradoxical position of being more and more in control of their environment, yet more and more at the mercy of it”.
‘I want to be an African’, said Robeson and advised Asian and African intellectuals against aping the west.
In fetishising abstract intellectualism, particularly applied science and technological achievement, Robeson believed we had “grasped at the shadow” and “lost the substance”. He was committed to socialism but asked that we use the triumphs of science “while retaining the vital creative side”. His philosophy does not permit easy summary but it shone through the life that he lead.
Paul Robeson looked to understand the civilisational contributions of Africa and Asia, to create new art forms from this understanding, and to unite them in their contemporary struggles. He was blocked from attending the famous Bandung conference but sent his greetings:
“I have long had a deep and abiding interest in the cultural relations of Asia and Africa….living evidence of the ancient kinship of Africa and Asia is seen in the language structures, in the arts and philosophies of the two continents.”
Robeson spoke more than 25 languages and studied the relationship of African and Asian languages, Chinese in particular, and found many similarities. Importantly, he found similarities in rhythm and tone rather than simply words and meaning.
As an artist, Robeson would sing Negro spirituals or African-American folk music. He said “Folk songs are, in fact, a poetic expression of a people’s innermost nature, of the distinctive and multi-facted condition of its life and culture”. The folk songs “reflected a spiritual force”, “they reflected the wrath and protest against the enslavers and the aspiration to freedom and happiness”. He believed that music derived from folk traditions served as a basis of unity for cultures.
He became most famous for his rendition of “Old Man River”, a song which used the river Mississippi as a metaphor, and described it as “rolling along” even as black workers suffered on its banks. Robeson changed the lyrics to change it from a song of despair to a song of struggle, replacing “Ahm’ tired of livin’ and afraid of dyin’” to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.”
Politically, many in India expressed their solidarity with Robeson. An American visitor to Gandhi during the second world war, said of his conversation “The first thing he wanted to know was how Paul Robeson was”. However, it was his music that perhaps connected Robeson most deeply to India. Historically, African-American spirituals have found a very receptive audience in India, with Martin Luther King Jr. reporting on his visit: “The Indian people love to listen to the Negro spirituals. Therefore, Coretta ended up singing as much as I lectured.”
Paul Robeson’s music had touched many parts of India. Robeson’s most well-known musical connection to India is Bhupen Hazarika who had based his famous songs ‘Bistirna Parore’ and ‘Ganga Behti Ho Kyun’ on Ol’ Man River. These songs continue to be popular. The mathematician and historian D. D. Kosambi “had a strong preference for Paul Robeson’s songs”. The Telegu writer Chalam one wrote that his daughter compared Sri Sri’s writing with Robeson’s music.
It was Bengal, however, that gave Robeson the most magnificent tribute. Hemanga Biswas, a member of Indian People’s Theatre Association, himself remembered for drawing from folk traditions and fighting for peace, would perform the song “Negro Bhai Amar Paul Robeson” along with his troupe.
This song, composed and written by Kamal Sarkar, was based on a translation by Subhash Mukhopadhyaya of Nazim Hikmet’s poem written in 1949 to his “Negro Brother” Paul Robeson. “They don’t let us sing our songs” for “they are afraid” is the call of both the original poem and the song.
It was this closeness, ultimately created by a joint historical struggle, that Ali Sardar Jafri beautifully captured in his poem for Paul Robeson:
“Our lands may be far, but our hearts are close, Your garden of flowers is right next to mine”.
Today, in a time of confusion, a study of this past closeness offers us the possibility of grasping the ‘substance’ that Robeson spoke of, whose aim is, after all, as a famous writer once said “to make the world a more human dwelling place”.
Archishman Raju is a research fellow in Physics and Biology, at Rockefeller University.