We celebrate Paul Robeson on his 125th birth anniversary as a man for our times. As the world transitions from the age of empire to the age of humanity, Robeson’s legacy teaches us how we must prepare for the world to come.
In 2023, the world is at a crossroads. The darker nations are rising, and demand a new democratic world order. South Africa, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Argentina, Mexico, Mali, Central African Republic, and Saudi Arabia join together in their common interest after decades of imperialist destabilization and division. Western economies face high inflation, rising interest rates, and bank failures. Meanwhile, the Western elite push humanity towards nuclear disaster in Ukraine and threaten China. The American people confront the ruling class with a crisis of legitimacy. As Martin Luther King prophesied in his speech “A Time to Break Silence”, the people reject the elite consensus of racism, deindustrialization, and war. They cry out for a new economic and social system based on human dignity and peace. Paul Robeson shows us a way forward in these turbulent times.
As a Black American, Robeson saw himself in the masses of Asia and Africa and the working people world over. Though the American government barred him from attending the Bandung Conference of 1955, he sent his unwavering support, declaring that the very fact of the convening of the Conference signified a historic turning point in all world affairs and a new vista of human advancement. He expressed the support of the working people of the West, who had a vested interest in the defeat of imperialism abroad, since it was inextricably tied to racism and exploitation at home.
Paul Robeson believed in the connection of Africa and Asia unmediated by the West. He observed that Western civilization was exhausted because of its obsession with reason and intellect at the expense of intuition and feeling, and left it to the great cultures of the non Western world to create a new human being who could use scientific knowledge for the upliftment of human life. He saw, as Du Bois did, that “Science is a great and worthy mistress, but there is one greater and that is Humanity which science serves; one thing there is greater than knowledge and that is the Man who knows.” He observed the continuity of the great cultures of the East with the great cultures of Africa, developing in a belt extending into Russia. He recognized folk culture as the expression of the wisdom and humanity of the people reflecting their historical journey and experience. He foresaw that this art and culture could be the basis of a forward movement of all humanity towards peace and love. So committed was he to folk culture, that he learned, spoke, and sang at least 25 languages including Chinese, Russian, and Yoruba.
As Robeson believed in the darker nations, so too did he believe in the working people of the world. He believed in their ability to come together in defiance of the white supremacist warmongers. He identified racism with the bluebloods of Princeton and in the halls of Congress rather than with the majority of Americans. He believed in the moral capacity of working people to follow the Black tradition into the struggle for peace. He encouraged all Americans to join his people in singing their song, “I’m going to lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside... I’m going to study war no more!”
Paul Robeson believed in the reconstruction of the American economy on the basis of peace and justice. He rejected the war economy created by white supremacist elites with its inflation, unemployment, deindustrialization, exploitation and hunger. He embraced a peace economy, with a monetary system for the people rather than the financiers, full employment, dignity, and self-determination. He advocated that the nations of Africa and Asia had the right to choose their own economic system in accordance with the needs of their people and to advance their civilizations without fear of retaliation. He knew that Western civilization’s greed would be its undoing, and judgment day was near for the great white masters of the world.
Robeson believed that the artist must choose a side and elect to fight for freedom or slavery. He took positions that were neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but because his conscience said it was right. He lived his life with extraordinary courage and humility, even in the face of political persecution. The House Un-American Affairs Committee tried to destroy him. The government denied his passport and took away his means of work. His so-called friends and allies canceled him. The ruling class tried to turn him from the most celebrated Black man on the planet to a nonentity. Throughout it all, he remained unbowed and unbroken. He never apologized for his stances and welcomed every new stride toward freedom. Even as his government tried to cancel him, his people and the people of the world rallied around him and loved him even more. As Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri wrote, “Whether or not you are proud of your songs/Songs are proud that they are your art/Our lands lie far apart/ But not our hearts/Your garden lies just beyond mine”.
As a new world order rises and the old crumbles, we celebrate Robeson as a figure for our times. Robeson teaches us to believe in the capacity of the working people to reject the warmongers and embrace humanity. He teaches us to practice love in the sense Martin Luther King practiced it, not as sentimental bosh, but as the unifying principle of life, and the key that unlocks the door which leads to the ultimate reality. We must sing Robeson’s Song of the Rivers, which speaks of the merging of the Nile, Ganga, Yangtse, Volga, and the Mississippi into “the mightiest river of all–the people’s will for peace and freedom now surging in floodtide throughout the world”.