Voice of Dark Humanity
“Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. … It must ally itself with the forces of liberation.” - Charles White
Robeson singing at a rally for communist newspapers in London in 1960.
Robeson believed that culture originated within the masses of people and reflected their deepest aspirations.
He said “Folk songs are, in fact, a poetic expression of a people’s innermost nature, of the distinctive and multi-faceted condition of its life and culture”.
He emphasized on the need to cultivate intuition and spirit instead of cold logic and reasoning that the Western science and intellectuals placed excessive importance on. He said “A blind groping after Rationality resulted in an incalculable loss in pure Spirituality... we grasped at the shadow and lost the substance and now we are altogether not clear what the substance was.”
Robeson believed that Africa and Asia had made undeniable and immense contributions to human civilization. His research about folksongs, folklore and languages in these civilizations led him to identify the commonalities between them- not just in the words themselves but also in rhythm and tones. He spoke more than 25 languages including Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Tivi and Swahili. Through his study of the different Asian and African civilizations, he came to appreciate how darker humanity can lead the world into a new democracy.
He urged African Americans to take pride in their African roots with all its spiritual heritage and linguistic and artistic richness. He felt that only the Black man with his "immense emotional capacity" can revive and bring new life to the culture in America.
Robeson with African and Asian students at the World Youth Festival in Vienna (1959).
He recognized that racism and imperialism were intimately linked as both relied on exploiting labour for the profit motive and the White and Coloured worker must unite to free themselves. He noted “....English workers came to understand that if cheap labour could be obtained in Africa or the West Indies or in Southeast Asia, their living standards in England would suffer accordingly. This is a lesson White workers in America must increasingly learn”.
Robeson also recognized that imperialism hinged on denying that Africa had an advanced culture. He recounted how British Intelligence questioned him about the political meaning of his activities, arguing that "If African culture was as I insisted it was, what happens to the claim that it would take 1,000 years for Africans to become capable of self-rule".
Robeson saw himself as a part of the working people worldwide. He believed that the struggle of Black people was intimately linked to the struggle of humanity worldwide for freedom, peace and justice.
"I have sung my songs all over the world and everywhere found that some common bond makes the people of all lands take to Negro songs as their own."
While singing Old Man River- a song about Black workers toiling on the banks of Mississippi, at a benefit concert for the Spanish Republican cause, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Robeson changed the lyrics of the song from “Ahm’ tired of livin’ and afraid of dyin’. ” with “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’. ”, making the song about continued human struggle instead of one of despair.
Another song that Robeson often performed was about Joe Hill, a labour activist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who was wrongfully convicted and executed in 1915 for his socialist policies.
Robeson's Message to Bandung Conference