Paul Robeson - voice of the oppressed

by Brian Durrans

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a towering figure, and unquestionably the pre-eminent African-American, in mid-20th century politics and culture. As his blurb on the music-streaming website Spotify says, he “excelled as an athlete, actor, singer and activist, qualifying him as a contemporary renaissance man.”[1] Blacklisted by the US ruling class for his wholehearted solidarity with working people everywhere, Robeson stood his ground. His defiance won admiration even from many who didn’t share his politics. It runs through his matchless bass-baritone voice, his beautifully-enunciated words and the meaning they convey, moving listeners then and now, and confirms him as forever on, and at, our side.              


His writer friend Lloyd L. Brown called him “Robeson the Great Forerunner” for linking the struggle for African-American civil rights with those for colonial liberation and socialism. [2] Robeson’s varied talents brought him acclaim in different fields from different audiences, not just in the US but around the world. Rooted in the hybrid tradition of Afro-American folk and church music, he was drawn to local musical forms wherever he went, and his readiness to sing foreign songs in other languages had its own roots in a commitment to learning that he owed to his father, church, teachers and earlier, until her death when he was six, to his mother.

His performances brought not just acclaim but also affection for this artist who one minute sang the tenderest lullaby and the next spoke or sang out for the oppressed. He traveled to sing, to share views and learn from others. The longest time Robeson worked anywhere outside the US was for twelve years in London (1927 to 1939), although from there he circulated widely in the UK and elsewhere.


Since internationalism was so obviously at the core of his being as an artist and an activist, the State Department’s spiteful withdrawal of his passport for eight years (1951-1958) aroused outrage and sympathy for Robeson himself. The travel ban robbed live audiences overseas of a world-class singer, still in his fifties and in perfect voice. In a dozen countries political discussion was diminished by his absence. 

But a long, worldwide campaign to restore his passport ensured that the man, his music and his politics were never forgotten. Shortly before that campaign triumphed there was an electrifying concert at St Pancras Town Hall on the evening of 26 May 1957, courtesy of the first transatlantic telephone cable which carried his voice from a studio in New York. The box office sold a thousand tickets in an hour, and Londoners roared their rapturous reception down the phone.

Extracts from an audio record of the event provide the soundtrack for a striking display in the Communications Gallery at London’s Science Museum, where although the star of the show is supposedly a replica of the cable (which for the first time made possible affordable phone calls between the US and the UK), it is unsurprisingly upstaged by Robeson himself. Along with such favourites songs as ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Water Boy’, some visitors may recognise, in the song ‘Scandalise My Name’, a reference to the anti-Communist witch-hunt out to get him.   


The House [of Representatives] Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) aimed to isolate Robeson politically after his speech at the Paris Peace Congress on 20 June 1949, in which he rejected anti-Soviet war-mongering in the name of Black Americans and working people everywhere.  The committee subpoenaed supposedly former Communist Party members to confirm on oath – in the event, unconvincingly - that he was also a member. It enlisted baseball star Jackie Robinson to ‘scandalise his name’ among African-Americans as an unpatriotic American acting as an agent of a foreign power. Robeson retained his dignity throughout these ordeals, and Robinson later retracted:

“[…] in those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. I would reject such an invitation if offered now …. I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truths about America's destructiveness. And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.” [3]

Facing the HUAC himself on 12 June 1956, Robeson invoked his constitutional rights and turned the tables on his accusers. A transcript of the proceedings is available online [4] and, even better, so is an audio recording of his magnificent testimony, albeit cut short when the Committee tried to limit its embarrassment by suspending the hearing [5].  

In an interview published a year later in the influential Ebony magazine for October 1957 - sensing an attempt to divert him from subjects closer to the lives of the magazine’s largely African-American readers - Robeson ignored a question about Soviet Communists’ recent revelations/denunciations of the Stalin period, and instead condemned the hypocrisy of racist senators who urged Black Americans to support a war with the USSR. Without the presence of Soviet power, he argued, no progress would have been made towards self-determination for the former colonies in Africa and Asia [6]. Given the emergence of predatory neoliberalism since the defeat of the former socialist bloc, Robeson’s observation resonates even more strongly today.

[1] Spotify lists 136 albums under Robeson’s name, including the superb Paul Robeson, Words Like Freedom (Freedom Archives, 2008). This album includes the recording mentioned in note 5 below.

[2] In his preface to the 1971 reprint of Robeson’s autobiography Here I Stand (1958), a book that reflects its author’s laudable purpose of recording details of his life to advance the cause to which he devoted it. 

[3] For more details on Robeson’s treatment by the FBI and HUAC, see Jordan Goodman’s excellent Paul Robeson, A Watched Man (2013). 



[6] Goodman, cited in note 3 above, p. 265.

Paul Robeson with Moore Shipyard workers, singing the Star Spangled Banner