Paul Robeson’s legend has been celebrated in the black community for his contributions to African American culture, thanks to his exceptional intellectual prowess, distinguished singing, fearless athleticism, thriving acting career and his activism.
The New Jersey native and son of a former slave earned an academic scholarship to study at Rutgers University (he later studied law at Columbia University). While at RU, Robeson excelled inside the classroom and on the football field. As an actor, Robeson was one of the first black men to garner thoughtful roles in white theaters. He starred in plays such as “The Emperor Jones,” “Borderline” and “Othello,” among many others.
Despite Robeson’s various trailblazing accomplishments, his radical political beliefs and relationship with Russia is credited to his rapid downfall. Some may even argue that Robeson’s downfall overshadowed his advocacy for civil rights and oppressed people.
“During his heyday in the 1920s, 1930s and before 1945 generally, Robeson was lionized in the black community, but there is little doubt that the post-1945 attack on him by the U.S. authorities exacted a toll,” Prof. Gerald Horne, professor of African American Studies at the University of Houston, says. “Still, by the time of the 1960s awakening, many of our youth had gravitated toward him once more.”
Prof. Horn is the author of more than thirty academically researched books. Horne’s latest publication, Paul Robeson: Artist as Revolutionary (University of Chicago Press) pans the accomplished life of Paul Robeson. During our interview, Prof. Horne discusses Robeson’s downfall, his mastery of several languages, his activism and much more.
VIBE: What points do you want to get across by telling Paul Robeson’s story?
Gerald Horne: Paul Robeson was the “tallest tree in our forest.” As an actor he was a precursor of Denzel Washington. As a singer and celebrity at one time, he was as well known as Michael Jackson. As an athlete he was on a par with LeBron James. However, as a political activist devoted to the cause of socialism, he was without contemporary parallel—and there rests the reason why his name has been so muddied and his image so scandalized. By telling his story I hope to inspire our youth, in particular, to walk in his giant footsteps.
How would you assess Paul Robeson activism in comparison to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X?
As a secular or non-religious figure, Robeson was able to appeal globally to those who may not have been Christian like Dr. King or Muslim like Malcolm. Assuredly, his global contacts were more varied than both of these heroes. Still, he anticipated Dr. King in placing emphasis on mass mobilization and the power of trade unions. And his militancy and confrontational approach anticipated Malcolm X.
In your book, you write about Robeson’s love of studying languages. Why do you feel that’s an important theme in his life?
Robeson studied dozens of languages from virtually every continent and spoke a number of them fluently. His linguistic versatility illustrated one of the central aspects of his ideology, i.e. the unity of humankind who, he thought, were all marching toward the ultimate goal of socialism. Of course, his ability to sing in various languages brought audiences worldwide closer to him and, in the final analysis, closer to the struggle of African-Americans. Of course, this ability to converse in various African, European and Asian languages further distinguished him from Dr. King and Malcolm.
Being able to speak many languages allowed him to better understand various global struggles, too?
Right. This allowed him to get firsthand knowledge of struggles when he traveled to North Africa or to Russia or France. It allowed him to read newspapers and magazines in various languages, too. This factor allowed him to win allies globally for the anti-racist struggle. Historically, global support was crucial in the battle against slavery—the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass spent more time in London rallying against slavery than Robeson, correspondingly, spent in Moscow—at a time when both of these European powers were seen as antagonists of Washington. Yet pressure from these European powers proved to be essential in the retreat of slavery, then Jim Crow.
On page 61, you mentioned a conversation that Robeson had with William Patterson. You wrote: “In fact, those looking for a single day in which one can pinpoint when Robeson became a revolutionary. It was that day…” Can you give us story or some idea of what that conversation was like?
William Patterson, as my biography of him suggests, was a “Black Revolutionary” who, like Robeson spoke Russian, and in fact studied the science of revolution. He led the global battle to free the Scottsboro 9, African American youth in Dixie charged falsely with rape of two Euro American women and were on the fast track to execution (like so many before and since) before Patterson rallied the world on their behalf, saving their lives and helping to create legal precedents via U.S. Supreme Court litigation that continue to have potency in this era of “Black Lives Matter.” This was in the 1930s and in the early part of that decade, Patterson, who was one of Robeson’s closest friends and comrades, in the conversation you reference helped to convince him that cases like those of the Scottsboro 9 could benefit greatly from his talent. At the time Robeson was “living large” in London and later that decade as war was erupting in Europe, Robeson chose to return back to Harlem where he rallied millions against lynching in particular.
His story is centered on Hollywood, internationalism and activism. How did the former shape his ideas about activism?
Robeson saw Hollywood as a profit machine that simultaneously shaped consciousness, and in the case of black people, engaged in almost casual defamation of this community. He also saw Hollywood as a site of struggle, not only in terms of seeking to shape the image of those routinely defamed but to ally with unions which were rife in this business. Thus, he was quite close to John Howard Lawson, a founder of what became the Writers’ Guild, those in charge of penning screenplays.
Robeson spoke Russian fluently. Based on your expertise of Robeson, how would he gauge Trump’s relationship with Russia?
Robeson saw the worsening of relations with Moscow as being inimical to the interests of African Americans, not least since heightening military spending which is what this downturn involved, meant fewer tax dollars to spend on education and health care, two of the pressing priorities for his own constituency.
Will you briefly explain his downfall?
Robeson’s advocacy of socialism and professing of friendship with Moscow were at odds with post-1945 thinking among the U.S. ruling elite and, to be fair, among a good deal of the African American leadership too. His income plummeted as a result from the six figures to the low four figures. His passport was taken so that he could not travel abroad to earn a living. This was the case from about 1950 to 1958; at that point a global pressure campaign caused the U.S. to return his passport and he departed immediately for London.
Being that Robeson was blacklisted by so many people, why is his story important?
Robeson’s story is important in that it underscores the value of often lonely study (particularly of languages) and the value of collective struggle, too. He founded the Council on African Affairs, an early crusader against apartheid and with Patterson’s Civil Rights Congress filed a petition at the United Nations in 1950-1951 charging the U.S. with genocide against black people and it was precisely this sort of global activism that is so sorely missing today and which underscores the continuing importance of telling Robeson’s story once more.
Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary is available on Amazon.com.