ArticlePDF Available

Placing Paul Robeson in History: Understanding His Philosophical Framework



Paul Robeson is one of the greatest yet most unknown figures of the 20th century. This article goes beyond the traditional bibliographic style of documenting this great life, toward constructing a usable philosophical framework from it. Utilizing Robeson’s own works, and building on the small critical literature already in existence, I present his philosophical framework - comprised of anti-colonialism, socialism, and human rights. I present these dense, interconnected, and ever-expansive philosophical stances into a form of communication that can be easily understood, evaluated, taught, and compared. Understanding the philosophies, actions, and examples of his ideological framework will provide the appropriate contextual background for understanding (to play off the title of Robeson’s 1958 book, Here I Stand) where Paul Robeson philosophically stood.
Journal of Black Studies
2016, Vol. 47(3) 235 –257
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0021934715623533
Placing Paul Robeson in
History: Understanding
His Philosophical
Mark Alan Rhodes II1
Paul R obeson is one of the greatest yet most unknown figures of the 20th century.
This article goes beyond the traditional bibliographic style of documenting
this great life, toward constructing a usable philosophical framework from it.
Utilizing Robeson’s own works, and building on the small critical literature
already in existence, I present his philosophical framework - comprised of anti-
colonialism, socialism, and human rights. I present these dense, interconnected,
and ever-expansive philosophical stances into a form of communication that
can be easily understood, evaluated, taught, and compared. Understanding the
philosophies, actions, and examples of his ideological framework will provide
the appropriate contextual background for understanding (to play off the title of
Robeson’s 1958 book, Here I Stand) where Paul Robeson philosophically stood.
Paul Robeson, anti-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, nationalism, socialism,
human rights, education, philosophy
Paul Robeson has been described as one of the United States’ greatest musi-
cians, scholars, athletes, actors, and activists of the 20th century.
Certainly, Paul Robeson’s fame on the football field, on the concert and
theater stage, in
1Kent State University, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mark Alan Rhodes II, Department of Geography, Kent State University, 319A McGilvrey Hall,
Kent, OH 44240, USA.
623533JBSXXX10.1177/0021934715623533Journal of Black StudiesRhodes
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
236 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
film, and through his own scholarship and activism reached around the world.
The blacklisting and illegal seizure of Robeson’s passport for his adamant
beliefs in anti-colonialism, socialism, and human rights ended nearly half a
century ago. However, despite a worldwide generation of commemorations,
publications, albums, films, plays, poems, and documentaries, there is still
little recognition or memory of him. Despite being little known today, Paul
Robeson expressed his philosophical beliefs throughout his life in his
research, singing, acting, athleticism, and activism. Of the many quotes
which describe Robeson’s life, struggle, and philosophy, the following state-
ment applies most to the development of a Robeson philosophical frame-
work: “[o]ne day, . . . , the example and struggle of Paul Robeson will be fully
recognized by all for what it was and is: a blueprint for human existence”
(Blockson, 1998, p. 250).
How does this “blueprint for human existence” relate to Paul Robeson’s
philosophical beliefs? How was he influenced by leading scholars, activists,
and artists, and how did his beliefs fit into larger philosophical movements?
And what evidence exemplifies Robeson’s actions as they relate to his philo-
sophical framework? Blockson uses the term “blueprint,” but a synonym that
better illustrates the complexities that are intertwined with the plurality of
Robeson’s beliefs is framework. In this article, I argue that anti-colonialism,
socialism, and human rights were the three tracts of Robeson’s framework,
though they are broad generalizations and still do not include every aspect of
Robeson. Using primary and secondary sources from P. Robeson’s time and
P. Robeson’s own writing (1958), speeches (1978), and performances, I sim-
plify these dense, interconnected, ever-expansive philosophical stances into a
form of communication that can be easily understood, evaluated, taught, and
compared. Understanding the philosophies, actions, and examples of his ide-
ological framework will provide the appropriate contextual background for
understanding where Robeson stood.
Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, to Maria and
Reverend William Robeson, an escaped slave and Union veteran. Excelling
in academics, athletics, and the arts in high school, Robeson earned a scholar-
ship to Rutgers University, where being valedictorian and selected for the
College Football All-American team in 1917 and 1918 were among his many
accomplishments. In 1923, he graduated from Columbia University with a
law degree, and while financing his education he played football professionally
and joined a theater company that traveled to Britain. Encountering the intense
racial divides that limited his ability to practice law at the level which he desired,
Robeson took his life in a more professionally artistic direction by acting in
theater, later on screen, and eventually as a musician. After moving to London
for almost a decade, he began to further his interest in ethnomusicology, African
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 237
culture, and politics, and by the mid-1930s, Robeson had fully integrated
these interests into his art. Not long after that, Paul Robeson began to very
actively participate politically in issues of labor rights, anti-colonialism, and
human rights, specifically in such political debates as Welsh unionization,
British de-colonization, the Spanish Civil War, and ultimately the griping
violation of human rights occurring against African Americans in the United
States (P. Robeson, 1958).
Paul Robeson holds the record for the longest running Shakespeare play
on Broadway. He was a member of a championship professional football
team as well as the 1917 and 1918 All-American college football teams
(Harris, 1998). He held a key to the city of Boston, three honorary doctorates,
and a law degree from Columbia (Ramdin, 1987). In the early 1940s, Robeson
was considered one of the greatest African Americans alive, yet not 10 years
later, he was classified as one of the greatest “un-Americans.” After regaining
this respect after the McCarthy era (despite never having lost it in other parts
of the world) it would be expected that today his name would be no less com-
monplace than Martin Luther King Jr. (Naison, 1998/2002). Instead, in the
United States, commemoration of him has been severely limited.
Despite Paul Robeson being a force in intellectual circles within and out-
side of academia, the current research on Paul Robeson is relatively small.
Most common are traditional biographical sketches (e.g., Boyle & Bunie,
2001; Davis, 1998; Duberman, 1988; Goodman, 2013; Hayes, 2001;
Swindall, 2013) often originating from his friends and family (e.g., Brown,
1976; Robeson, 1930; Robeson, 1989, 1993, 2001, 2010; Seton, 1958).
Recently, critical academic analyses of Robeson (Criterion Collection, 2007;
Dorinson & Pencak, 2002; Stewart, 1998), each using a different cultural
framework (i.e., critical theater studies or critical ethnomusicology perspec-
tives), have begun to rival and question the grounds of his near mythical
standing and deepen the more traditional biographical works. The lack of
memory and limited research on Robeson has particularly led to an absence
of him within geography, my own field, with the only exceptions being slight
mentions in Jim Tyner (2006), David Featherstone (2013), and Tyner,
Kimsroy, and Sirik (2015) and Rhodes’s (2015) thesis on Robeson’s memo-
rialization in Wales.
Particularly within colonial discourses, debates on class, and discussions
of human rights, Paul Robeson can address many of the issues, which accom-
pany structural legacies and contemporary concerns. Khonsura Wilson’s
(2013) Robesonian framework revealed the power of creativity in social
activism and identity, and was truly the first attempt outside of education
(Blum, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2008; Calvin & Rogovin, 1999; Fernekes, 2004) at
developing a framework built around Paul Robeson. Wilson provides an
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
238 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
invaluable resource through the establishment of a framework for under-
standing the creative ideal, the creative agent, and creative thought in general
through Robeson’s perspective. Studies and works of performance, art, edu-
cation, and others are able to implement this framework for further integra-
tion of agency, identity, and social justice. He even posits that a “Robesonian
framework of creative themes, insights, and categories might be on the hori-
zon” (Wilson, 2013, p. 727). While this is certainly a necessary contribution
and a great leap within the scholarly work on Paul Robeson, it is slightly
putting the cart before the horse. Wilson mentions many of Robeson’s influ-
ences and theoretical perspectives, but does not lay them out as a “principle
framework” in such a way as would set up his own development of a frame-
work (Wilson, 2013, p. 726). This article sets up such an underpinning philo-
sophical framework, which not only further bolsters the themes of Wilson’s
manuscript, but adds an additional layer to the Robesonian framework.
Religious Foundations
Robeson’s philosophical developments neither occurred in a vacuum nor did
they have a specific starting point. In order to understand the influences and
actions of his later life, P. Robeson Jr. (2001) argued that Paul Robeson’s
early years, specifically the influences of his father, set the stage and influ-
enced Robeson’s philosophical development.
Paul Robeson’s father preached as a Presbyterian minister for the
Witherspoon Presbyterian Church for 20 years before 1898, when Paul
Robeson was born (Duberman, 1988, p. 6). The Presbyterian Church of the
United States of America (PCUSA) is not commonly associated with the
African American community, but by the turn of the century the Church, due
partly to its large missionary presence and the association of slave owners,
their slaves, and the Church, had a rapidly growing African American pres-
ence. Just as the PCUSA today is arguably the most liberal of the major
denominations, there was a strong movement within the Church at the end of
the 19th century to move away from its perception of being selfish and mer-
cenary. Rev. Matthew Anderson (1897) wrote that the Church must move
beyond pity and toward love and respect in order to ensure every race and
nationality their God-given rights and privileges. The Church also clarified
that financial prospects had nothing to do with their motives (though this very
clarification calls into question their motives).
Tolerance, just as today, did not thoroughly permeate the Presbyterian
Church, nor was it insusceptible to outside forces of White supremacy. Rev.
Robeson found this out in 1900 when the intolerance of Princeton, New
Jersey’s, leaders toward his sermons of social injustice forced him out of the
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 239
Presbytery. In 1907, Rev. Robeson found a new denominational home in the
African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church and founded his new par-
ish, St. Thomas, in 1910 in Somerville, New Jersey. Less is known about the
impact of the AME Zion Church on Rev. William Robeson’s last decade of
life, though most of his convictions were said to be uncompromising. Most
importantly, the AME Zion Church would, ultimately, have a more profound
impact on Paul Robeson’s life (Duberman, 1988, p. 8). His eventual blacklist-
ing limited his concerts to Black Churches across the country in the 1950s,
and one of his greatest supporters was his brother Rev. Benjamin Robeson,
minister of an AME Zion Church in Harlem. Paul Robeson Jr. (2001) insisted
that the interactions his father had with religion (generally speaking) shaped
everything he did in life and laid the foundation for his philosophical ideas.
Anti-Colonialist is the first of the three philosophical components which
makes up Paul Robeson’s “blueprint of human existence,” though featured
heavily within this category is also the role of Pan-Africanism and national-
ism. The ideas of the anti-colonialist movement itself cannot be separated
from the ideas coming out of the broader human rights movements, but what
makes anti-colonialism and Pan-Africanism unique are their philosophical
worldviews and perspectives. Anti-colonialism can be seen as comprised of
first, the non-violent resistance teachings of activist Mahatma Gandhi (1965),
and, second, around those who held a more militant perspective such as revo-
lutionary scholars Frantz Fanon (1963) and Amílcar Cabral (1980). Also
included in the anti-colonial movement was the structure of Marxism.
Robeson built on and reinterpreted many of the anti-colonial discourses of
Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. As Williams (2012, p. 167)
states, it was his Black nationalist philosophies in conjunction with ethnic
and cultural factors, such as folk songs, that led Robeson to believe that
Marxism and a cosmopolitan understanding of the world were the means to
end imperial control.
Robeson’s foundation for these socialist anti-colonial beliefs came first
from the Soviet constitution and later the famous African-Asian Bandung
Conference. “Article 123,” issued by the Soviet Union in the 1936
Constitution, influenced Paul Robeson greatly through the following:
Equality of rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R., irrespective of their nationality or
race, in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life, is an
indefeasible law. Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely,
any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
240 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national
exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law. (Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics, 1936)
While controversial, because of the issues occurring in the Soviet Union at
the time, Robeson developed his understanding of the Soviet Union from the
perspective of their political propaganda. This combined with Robeson’s
first-hand experiences of racial freedom and tolerance in the Soviet Union
and led Robeson, until he became aware of the discrimination that was
covertly occurring, to be one of the Soviet Union’s most vocal supporters
(P. Robeson, 1958).
These ideas manifested at the 1955 Bandung Conference, to which
Robeson remotely contributed, and in the Ten Principals of Bandung. He
forever cited the Principals in reference to his opinion on international affairs
and an example of countries with colonial legacies coming together in an
effort to form an economic and political block to imperial exploitation.
1. Respect for fundamental human rights and for the purposes and prin-
ciples of the charter of the United Nations.
2. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations.
3. Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all
nations large and small.
4. Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of
another country.
5. Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself singly or collec-
tively, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations.
6. (a) Abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defense
to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers.
(b) Abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other
7. Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force
against the territorial integrity of political independence of any
8. Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as
negotiations, conciliation, arbitration, or judicial settlement as well as
other peaceful means of the parties’ own choice, in conformity with
the charter of the United Nations.
9. Promotion of mutual interests and cooperation.
10. Respect for justice and international obligation. (P. Robeson, 1958,
pp. 46-47)
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 241
Robeson also played a major role within British politics promoting the
British Labour and Communist Parties’ agenda of de-colonization, especially
concerning India. Joining forces with the British politician Sir. Stafford
Cripps, British MP Shapurji Saklatvala, and other leaders, he was brought
into the House of Commons on more than one occasion to be asked his opin-
ion on his ideas of race, colonialism, and “third world” cultures (Duberman,
1988, p. 213).
One of the few debates concerning Robeson relates to his relationship to
colonialism. Unfortunately, his role in many British films indubitably served
as propaganda for British colonialism. The three sides to the debate are first,
that he was making a living while opening up the possibility for Blacks to
obtain major roles in future films (Ellrod, 1997). The second is that he was
coerced into creating each movie and then later manipulated through the edit-
ing process (P. Robeson, 2001). The third admits that he was used and or
agreed to the British colonial propaganda; however, in each part he played he
progressively exerted his own agency, representing African people and cul-
ture in a way that, while still being manipulated, was still radically different
from mainstream film (Musser, 1998, 2007).
Within the anti-colonialist movement, many other leaders also happened
to be friends of and influences to Paul Robeson. Saklatvala, Indian Prime
Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1964), Cripps, and journalist George Padmore
were all involved in the very political debate of British de-colonization; keep-
ing in mind the continued influence of Marxism on Robeson, and his belief
that a similar system to “Article 123” of the Soviet Union 1936 Constitution,
which on paper granted, under penalty of law, complete equality to all citi-
zens, was seen as a possible solution to colonialism.
Saklatvala, an Indian, was the third Asian MP in the United Kingdom, and
was a prominent figure in both the Communist Party and in the Indian Home
Rule League. One of his most prominent identifiers was the public polarity
expressed between himself and Gandhi. Both supporting humanitarian and
independent goals for India, Saklatvala’s industrialized communism chal-
lenged Gandhi’s ideas of communal cottage capitalism (or vice versa).
Despite geographical irony that Gandhi was a political power in India while
Saklatvala was an Indian political power in Britain, Gandhi refused a national
rebellion while Saklatvala called for India to act in 1927 after he was influ-
enced by colonial Ireland (Saklatvala & Gandhi, 1927).
One of the most influential figures in British politics which also influ-
enced Robeson was Cripps (1946). Cripps did not necessarily wish to change
colonialism (as he defined it); what he desired was a strong and powerful
commonwealth of equally free, understood, and respected nations, with
Britain sitting no higher politically, economically, or socially than any other
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
242 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
member. This idea of nationalism without inequality is clearly expressed in
Robeson’s music. Not only does Robeson sing the national and nationalist
anthems of many countries (e.g., China, the Soviet Union, the United States,
Russia, Poland, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), but specifically within his ren-
dition of composer Ludwig van Beethoven and poet Friedrich Schiller’s “All
Men are Brothers.” The lyrics of the song, “[b]rothers, sing your county’s
anthem; Shout your land’s undying fame; . . . Raise on high your country’s
sign; . . . Brothers, lift your flag with mine,” reflect this nationalist aspect of
Robeson’s anti-colonialist philosophy (P. Robeson & Booth, 2013).
Last, anti-colonialism includes many of the leaders of the Pan-African
movement. Pan-Africanism also focused on fighting for national and ethnic
sovereignty and against imperialism, but specifically, African freedom was
fought for because of its overall diasporic effect and the interconnectedness
of all Africans (P. Robeson, 1978, p. 88).
Paul Robeson’s role in Pan-Africanism and his identity as African began
in the 1930s as he expanded his work as an ethnomusicologist. In 1933, he
enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London
University where he began research into African languages and folk music. It
was through his involvements with the school that he became involved with,
and an honorary member of, the West African Students Union (WASU; P.
Robeson, 1958, p. 32). During this time, his political ideas evolved from “I’m
an artist. I don’t understand politics” in 1931 (Ramdin, 1987, p. 75) to his
famous 1937 speech “[t]he artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for
freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative” (P.
Robeson, 1978, p. 119).
This swift shift in philosophy can in no small part be contributed to his
ongoing contact and friendship of the members of the WASU: Jomo Kenyatta,
Nnamdi Azikiwe, Cyril Lionel Robert James and one of their mentors Du
Bois (Swindall, 2013, p. 67). The WASU was mostly comprised of male stu-
dents from wealthy West African families in British colonies who were con-
cerned about continued colonial rule (Given, 1989). Kenyatta is a great
example. While he fought for freedom from colonial oppression for Kenya
(which he eventually helped achieve and became the independent state’s first
president) and other African nations, he also had prolonged interactions with
Padmore (1937) and Gandhi, who were both involved in the broader concept
of Anti-colonialism (Jomo Kenyatta, 2014). This overlapping of influences
and philosophies, from Robeson, Kenyatta, Du Bois, Gandhi, and Padmore,
is just one example to the intricacy of the layering of Robeson’s ideology.
Azikiwe was another major influence on Paul Robeson’s African thoughts.
Just as he mentored Kwame Nkrumah, who later became the first president of
Ghana, the first “post”-colonial African country, Azikiwe influenced Robeson
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 243
during their interactions in London. Azikiwe used his expertise in political
science and journalism to decolonize Nigeria and become its first president in
1963. Interestingly, he attended and taught at Lincoln University (where
Robeson coached football) and attended Columbia University (where
Robeson earned his law degree). It would be hard to argue that Azikiwe’s
time at Lincoln and Columbia did not involve philosophical transfer of civil
rights ideologies which would then add to his overall stance in Pan-Africanism
and reciprocation between Robeson and himself (French, 1996).
To best understand where Paul Robeson fits into the movement of the
1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, analyzing the writings of the leaders of the
movement, which Robeson would have read and influenced, sets the stage.
Cabral, Fanon, and Julius Nyerere are all considered leaders of Pan-African
thought during the time of Paul Robeson. Nyerere (1968) was a teacher-
turned-politician who fought for the independence of Tanzania and became
its first president. Despite controversial practices of his government, Nyerere
was a leading example of African socialism and independence who hosted
and supported the South African-based African National Congress and the
continental Pan-African Congress. Fanon fought for Algerian independence,
while exposing the ontology of the colonized through his writing and psychi-
atric work (Emory University, 2014). Fanon, much like Du Bois, revealed
that the colonized have ontologies imposed on them through means such as
language, religion, and other cultural and racial values (Peterson, 2007, p.
24). It is in Fanon’s (1963) The Wretched of the Earth that he argues that the
only cure for this is the violent destruction of race as a social construct, a true
and encompassing revolution (P. Robeson, 2008). Cabral (1980) was born in
Guinea Bissau but grew up in and is recognized for his work in Cabo Verde
as an agronomist and struggle for the de-colonization of Portuguese colonies.
Like Fanon, he did not shy away from a militant response to colonialism;
however, he did not believe militancy was inevitable. He instead championed
the idea of cultural resistance and the role it ultimately plays in breaking
down colonial rule. The work and philosophies of these individuals parallels
that of Paul Robeson throughout his struggle for African freedom.
Robeson fully believed African Americans in the United States could not
be free until all African people around the world were free. In Here I Stand P.
Robeson (1958, p. 64) wrote, “[c]an we oppose White Supremacy in South
Carolina and not oppose the same vicious system in South Africa?” As you
will see in all of Paul Robeson’s philosophies, humanitarianism and the one-
ness of humankind are constantly present.
While Robeson did act and perform art from African cultures, his most
affecting contributions toward the Pan-African movement were through his
speeches and his work with the Council on African Affairs (CAA).1 Even
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
244 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
before he founded the CAA, P. Robeson (1978, pp. 88-104) was vocal about
the importance of an African nationality, the ceasing of European interven-
tion in Africa, and the concept that colonialism was rooted in race. He argued,
long before biology had proven so, that race was not a physical thing. Rather,
it is a social construct for the means of economic exploitation.
Once the CAA was founded, Robeson found a national and international
platform beyond his own stages and personal speeches, which he used to
combat colonialism and racism in Africa. There was certainly a trend from
the early 1940s, when P. Robeson (1978, pp. 158, 193) decided that the world
must act, to the realization that the world was not acting in the late 1940s and
the necessity of African countries to achieve freedom for themselves. Through
the CAA, he appealed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President
Harry Truman, and the United Nations on numerous occasions, both raising
awareness of and concerning the Fascist-like states of South Africa and
Kenya and calling the United States and the World into action. “ACTION
NOW,” is what P. Robeson (1978, p. 164) wrote in a joint U.S.-United
Nations address in 1946: “WILL AMERICA HELP FREE AFRICA? . . .
AMERICA MUST ANSWER!” When no answer came, or at least no answer
that Robeson agreed with, there was a definite shift in his philosophy, as evi-
denced in his speeches. Paul Robeson (1978, pp. 193-194 & 307-317) was
becoming more militant and supportive of militant protest in places such as
Kenya and South Africa. In 1949, he stated that there will be no tolerance and
no compromise, “racism must be destroyed” (P. Robeson, 1978, p. 194). Just
as Du Bois, Robeson saw the connections between slavery and racism. In
referring to the Union of South Africa, he said, “[o] my brothers and sisters
of the two USA’s – we are going to be free!” (P. Robeson, 1978, p. 325). Not
only did he see freedom in Africa as freedom for African Americans, he was
willing to lead the African American charge to “pry loose” the chokehold
colonialism and Fascism held on the continent (P. Robeson, 1978, p. 351).
So, it is clear that Robeson was influenced by some of the greatest anti-
colonial and Pan-African leaders and activists of the twentieth century. His hon-
ors themselves speak to his involvement in the movements, from being invited by
Nkrumah to teach for the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana,
to an award from the United Nations in 1978 for his contributions toward the
international fight against apartheid, and his 1950 Nigerian “Champion of
Freedom” award (Hunton, 1958, p. 117; O’Malley, 1978; Ramdin, 1987, p. 196).
This Anglo-directed anti-colonial philosophy transitions nicely into Paul
Robeson’s Anglo-originating socialist ideology. Robeson’s philosophies on
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 245
the global labor movement are quite possibly the most difficult to contextual-
ize of his three philosophies. For the benefit of relative simplicity, emphasis
will be on socialism in the United States and the United Kingdom including
the Soviet influences to each of these areas. Philip Foner (1967, 1991), a
leading labor historian, provided a good consensus of the dominance in the
United States’ labor movement of trade unions, as opposed to government
organizations. The exception to this concept would be President F. D.
Roosevelt’s (1947) New Deal. Quite differently, in the United Kingdom the
labor movement was propelled by party organization. It was then, through the
many socialist parties, especially the leading Communist and Labour Parties,
that unions were able to gain traction (CP, 2015; Labour, 2015).
Most of Robeson’s influences came from leading labor activists in Britain.
While in London, he had many discussions on Marx, socialism, and labor
with such individuals as writer Herbert George Wells, poet Langston Hughes,
Cripps, and Nyerere. Cripps and Nyerere highlight the intersection of anti-
colonial and Pan-Africanism, respectfully, with socialism. Cripps (1946), a
leading figure in the history of the Labour Party was an advocate for a curtail-
ing of private industry and property and increasing jobs, pay, conditions, and
benefits. Many of Nyerere’s (1968) beliefs on labor were later published in
his government’s programs. The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU)
Creed and the broader Arusha Declaration state that all citizens deserve equal
pay, there must be an absence of exploitation, workers should own the means
of production, a democratic government is necessary, and socialism must be
a belief system. This last point clearly connects with Robeson. They both
believed people cannot simply put in place a socialist political or economic
system. It must be accompanied by a fundamental revolution of principal,
where people live the ideals of socialism and are not simply dictated by them
(Nyerere, 1968; P. Robeson, 1958).
Robeson’s labor ideas, to a greater extent than his other ideologies, evolved
throughout his life with his experiences. As he traveled to the Soviet Union,
other nations of the British Isles, and eventually back to the United States, his
writing reflected a changing opinion of the role labor rights and socialism
should have on the world (Horne, 1998).
Museum curator Charles Wright (1975) provided the best synopsis of
Robeson’s worldwide contribution to the international labor movement.
From advocacy in and of the Welsh mines, to his support of the India League,
to his presence on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, to his singing of
“Joe Hill” all across the United States in union halls and public and state
venues (P. Robeson, 2013a), Robeson championed the ideas of scientific
socialism. Wright, of course, is not the only writer of Robeson’s labor
involvement. Singer Pete Seeger (2007) and historian Joseph Walwik (2002)
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
246 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
also discussed Robeson through the Peekskill Riots, historian Ron Verzuh
(2012) spoke of his Peace Arch Concerts, and Robeson’s own work through
music (P. Robeson, 2013b) and film (Hurwitz & Strand, 1942; Tennyson,
1940) represents his role in the worldwide struggle for labor rights and ideas
of socialism.2
Wright’s (1975) book, Robeson, Labor’s Forgotten Champion, speaks not
only to Robeson’s contribution to labor, but also the lack of memory of him
in 1975 which continues today. He identifies the different unions Robeson
supported and sometimes helped organize: The International Longshoremen’s
and Warehousemen’s Union, the Tobacco Workers of North Carolina, the
National Maritime Union, the United Public Workers’ Union, the United
Automobile Workers, the National Negro Labor Council, the South Wales
Miners’ Union, and many more to lesser extents. In addition to his union
activity, he then linked this activity to his geography. Wales, Scotland,
Manchester, England, and Hawaii all receive special attention by Wright, as
they all received special attention by Robeson as pivotal centers of interna-
tional commerce and thus centers of labor movements.
Peekskill, New York, is also discussed by Wright, but other scholars have
also paid special attention to the riots at Peekskill which served as the turning
point in Paul Robeson’s national reception (e.g., Fast, 2002). Recently passed,
legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger sang at the concert at Peekskill, and it was
his organization, Peoples Artists Inc., that helped sponsor the 1949 concerts.
With an audience composed mostly of union supporters, some men sur-
rounded Robeson on his concert platform, while others created a periphery to
protect the concert-goers from the ever raucous protesters. The violence
occurred after the concert when, as the cars and people were leaving, thou-
sands of rocks were thrown while the police who had been containing the
protestors either did nothing, or contributed to the violence (Wright, 1975, p.
123). Robeson’s response to the violence is also just as important. He asked
where the next Peekskill would be and how much further will the racists and
those who wish to exploit the common worker go in their violence? Again,
Robeson’s philosophies blur, as the riots at Peekskill were as much racially
charged as they were politically, and Robeson used the event in further dis-
cussion of both socialism and human rights. Wright (1975, pp. 127-128)
ended by quoting Robeson, “[l]et them continue . . . It [Robeson’s voice] will
be heard above the screams of the intolerant.”
The Secretary of State under President Truman, Dean Acheson, revoked
Paul Robeson’s passport that year. The blacklisting period had begun, and for
the next decade Robeson had to rely, with the exception of the Black Church,
on trade unions and universities for his support. That, however, did not dimin-
ish his returned support of labor rights. Together, Robeson and unions across
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 247
the globe waged “war” (as Harvey Murphy of the Mine Mill and Smelters
Union of British Columbia put it) against the U.S. government. Murphy’s
union invited Robeson to Canada in 1951 and despite not needing a passport
to cross the border, the U.S. Border Patrol was under executive order to deny
Robeson passage. In 1952, and for the next 2 years, Robeson went back to the
Canadian border and held a concert at the Peace Arch in Blain, Washington,
first of all in protest of his own denied freedoms, but also in support of the
international labor movement and the freedom for all people (Verzuh, 2012).
Paul Robeson’s other expression of his pro-labor ideas became manifest in
his art. Unity Theater, which he founded in London, is one such example.
Unity Theater provided a stage for actors to perform works which they had
written and were accepted by the common people of Britain, somewhat like
a working actors union. Robeson also made sure that many of his concerts
were accessible to all. Especially as he toured the British Isles outside of
London and areas of the Caribbean and Central America, he charged as little
as one dollar or pound for entry. Of course, his art itself acts as a testament to
the struggles of labor (Duberman, 1988). The song “Joe Hill” describes the
martyrdom of a union leader in Utah (P. Robeson, 2013a). The film The
Proud Valley is now a Welsh national symbol for its depiction of miners in
Wales and their fight for labor rights (Musser, 2007; Tennyson, 1949). The
documentary Native Land highlights the many injustices which occurred in
the United States against unions in the 1940s (Hurwitz & Strand, 1942). Paul
Robeson (1978, p. 119) stated the artist must elect to fight for freedom or for
slavery. He made his choice. He had no alternative.
Human Rights
The third philosophy of Paul Robeson was his involvement and influence in
the civil rights movement and more broadly his constant struggle towards the
universal equality of human rights. More so than his other philosophies, there
is little separation between his influences and the leaders of the human rights
movement than those of the anti-colonialist and socialist movements, at least
in the early twentieth century when his conceptualization of human rights
developed. With statesman Frederick Douglass (1945) as the backdrop, politi-
cal activists Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Du Bois (1970, 1993,
2007; Balaji, 2007) were the most influential individuals to Robeson and,
within the human and civil rights movements, are often viewed in polarities.
Paul Robeson’s acting actually led to a public vilification of him by
Garvey. Garvey’s separatist (Pan-African Nationalist) beliefs found their way
into Robeson’s theories on civil rights, but they did not stop Robeson from
accepting a handful of roles, which Garvey saw as a disgrace to Robeson and
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
248 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
all Black people. Robeson, however, did not agree with Garvey’s ideas on
race or repatriation. P. Robeson (1978, p. 104) firmly believed that race was
a social construct and laughed at the idea of Black Nationalism destroying the
White civilization. He also was firmly against leaving the United States.
When asked by Pennsylvania Democrat Chairman Francis Walter of the
House Un-American Activities Committee why he did not stay in Russia, P.
Robeson (1978, p. 427) replied,
[b]ecause 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?
Washington’s ideas of cultural assimilation, a strong education and, for
those who were able, a responsibility to utilize their skills in whatever way
was acceptable to mainstream culture are evident in Paul Robeson’s early
life. Robeson even mentions Washington as he writes about his early educa-
tional experience and how much he respected Washington (Hayes, 2001).
Robeson’s early acting career reflected this. While these two figures were in
stark ideological contestation between separatist and assimilationist ideals,
Robeson mainly from his father’s teaching of subtlety, balanced the two
(Duberman, 1988, p. 15). Chambers (2006) however, argues that P. Robeson’s
(1958) autobiography served as a breaking point with his father’s more
Washington-influenced philosophies. Overall, while these two ideologies
conflicted as far as Robeson’s human rights philosophies are concerned, the
stress on integrated education and a Pan-African Nationalist approach to cul-
tural and political distinction were balanced through an air of respect and
Douglas and Du Bois were the most influential to Robeson and Robeson,
in turn, was most similar to them. Both were scholars, statesmen, and activ-
ists, and both discussed race as a social construct. Douglas said “[w]e are then
a persecuted people; not because we are colored, but simply because that
color has for a series of years been coupled in the public mind with the deg-
radation of slavery and servitude” (Goldfield, 1997, p. 92). Beyond simply
being influenced by Du Bois, Robeson and Du Bois became great friends as
they grew older. Both were highly educated, part of the WASU in London
(Carew, 2004), and friends with Nkrumah and fought for an independent
Ghana and African de-colonization in general. Du Bois earned the Lenin
Peace Prize, while Robeson earned the Stalin Peace Prize. Du Bois served on
Robeson’s CAA, and both were ultimately vilified and condemned by the
U.S. government; Robeson was forbidden to leave and Du Bois was forbid-
den to enter (P. Robeson, 1958).
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 249
Robeson’s role in the human rights movement is often cited as paving the
way for his predecessors such as singer Harry Belefonte, boxer Muhammad
Ali, and activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (Nazel, 1980).
Robeson set the example for African Americans in sports and campaigned for
their continued integration (Dorinson, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c). He broke the
stereotype of the Black actor on stage (Baraka, 1998; Duberman, 1998). He
was the first to program Negro music as concert music (McGinty & Shirley,
1998; Pencak, 2002). After a long struggle with stereotypes in film, he walked
out on Hollywood (Als, 2007). On the political stage Robeson, again using
the CAA and his own influence, fought for outlawing lynching and Jim Crow
throughout the United States, all the while attempting to unite, arouse, and lift
off the inferiority complex he perceived of many African Americans (Bell,
1998; Perucci, 2004, 2009).
During Paul Robeson’s time in high school and at Rutgers, he broke
through every racial barrier in athletics which was presented to him. He
became the first African American to play for Rutgers, coached football for 1
year at Lincoln University, and then played professionally for 3 years with
the Hammond Pros, the Akron Pros (who were the championship team the
year prior), and the Milwaukee Badgers (Harris, 1998). P. Robeson (1978, p.
151) carried this support of desegregated sports throughout his life and was
part of the committee who met with Major League Baseball to put an end to
prohibiting Black players (Dorinson, 2002b).
On the stage and screen, Robeson fought another battle against the use of
his body in a way which played into the established “norms” of a Black actor
or a Black man in general. The 1937 film Jericho is an example where he
only signed on to act in the film after he was guaranteed editing control. His
roles in Othello and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, where he co-starred with a
White woman as his partner, also broke down color barriers in the United
Kingdom, but especially in the United States. This exertion of power, first,
created movies that for the first time did not have racist overtones, and sec-
ond, paved the way for other Black actors to hold dignified positions
(Criterion Collection, 2007).
In the same manner as his acting, Robeson lifted African American music
above its perceived level to the concert stage. He was the first concert singer to
hold an event where only African American music was programmed. This rep-
resents Robeson’s idea of the validity of the African American culture and his
agreement with Garvey that assimilation should not be the only solution to the
many problems facing African Americans in the United States (Pencak, 2002).
Within politics and the legal issues facing the human rights movement,
Paul Robeson played a major, and often underappreciated or contested, role.
Paul Robeson founded the CAA, was on the Civil Rights Congress, led a
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
250 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
march on Washington against lynching, and spoke in almost every state on
the horrible discrimination of Jim Crow Laws (Duberman, 1988).
To this day, debate continues as to why Robeson was blacklisted and his
passport revoked. Officially, it was caused by his support of African indepen-
dence movements. Another perspective cites his ties with the Soviet Union
and communism. The final opinion offered is that Robeson was detained
because, as he traveled around the world, he spoke out against the humanitar-
ian violations and racism in the United States. He chose to fight for freedom
and so they revoked his passport, but his voice and body shattered that barrier
(Beeching, 2002; P. Robeson, 1978). Today Robeson’s body and voice con-
tinue to represent values of the civil rights movement, represented here by the
words of the late former Poet Laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka:
That’s why these revolutionaries still give us strength every day,
That’s why the fools and racists can’t make them fade away,
Two great beings of fire and light,
Two great figures who can make day out of night,
And the huge constellation called Paul Robeson has returned once
His century of revolutionary struggle will guide without end,
Paul the artist,
Paul the actor,
Paul the scholar,
Paul the fighter,
All combined so that he was the tallest of men. (Baraka, 2006)
In the end, whether he was fighting against colonialism, racism, or capital-
ism, Paul Robeson was fighting Fascism. Just as he often replied to the ques-
tion of his political stance, he was a staunch Ant-Fascist. He was on the front
lines during the Spanish Civil War. He shook his finger in President Truman’s
face and threatened possible violent action after being told lynching was not
a national concern. Robeson marched with thousands of Welsh miners, lead-
ing them in song, through the streets of London in protest of labor exploita-
tion. His life went from that of vocal expression to that of physical protest
despite the strongest attempts by the U.S. government to silence him. They
never did, but 25 years of blacklisting have left a scar on the memorial land-
scape of Paul Robeson.
However, his involvement internationally was not expunged from all land-
scapes and there are isolated pockets throughout the United States and greater
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 251
pockets of popular memory throughout the world, such as Wales (Dobbs &
Cope, 2001a, 2001b, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b; Rhodes, 2015; Williams,
2012), Canada (MacDowell, 2003; Verzuh, 2012), and Germany (Carmody,
2014). It is through these locations where connections can be drawn to under-
stand how well the aforementioned philosophies have been represented.
Furthermore, there may be intricate political, cultural, and historical implica-
tions which may arise and can be identified from an incomplete representa-
tion. It is vital that humanity remembers Paul Robeson, and not that he was
just a singer or an actor. He was an anti-colonialist, a socialist, and a human
rights leader, and this memory of Paul Robeson holds the potential to contrib-
ute a philosophical blueprint of human existence to the world.
The author thanks George Garrison above all for his continued support and constructive
criticism of this work as it has progressed over time. The author also thanks the two
anonymous reviewers and Chris Post, Jim Tyner, Tayo Aluko, Daniel Williams, Mark
Rogovin, Sian Williams, Hywel Francis, Greg Cullen, Amanda Rogers, Pyrs Gruffudd,
Sterling Stuckey, and Gareth Hoskins for their incredible contributions to his own abil-
ity to wrap his mind around such a broad philosophical discourse as Robeson’s.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publica-
tion of this article.
1. Throughout his life, Robeson’s opinions on his film acting career evolved, but
to others, such as his close friend Du Bois (as cited in Reid, 1998, p. 175), this
was a representation of double consciousness, or “ . . . two warring ideals in one
dark body . . .” As Reid (1998, p. 168), states in his chapter, “Race, Working-
Class Consciousness, and Dreaming in Africa: Song of Freedom and Jericho,”
Robeson’s work in many of his films embodied the marriage of Pan-Africanism
and benevolent colonialism.
2. This recording, and these two films, represent only a fraction of Robeson’s
greater artistic legacy. Overall, however, most films Robeson produced he later
denounced, along with some of his recordings. In light of this, and the complica-
tions which arise from deeply interpreting film and music, I have chosen to focus
primarily on Paul Robeson’s writings and speeches, many of which reference his
art, where he provided his own interpretations and perspectives.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
252 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
Als, H. (2007). Master of disguise: Paul Robeson and The Emperor Jones. In Criterion
Collection (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Portraits of the artist (pp. 11-17). Irvington,
NY: The Criterion Collection.
Anderson, M. (1897). Presbyterianism: Its relation to the Negro. Philadelphia, PA:
John McGill White.
Balaji, M. (2007). The professor and the pupil: The politics and friendship of W.E.B.
Du Bois and Paul Robeson. New York, NY: Nation Books.
Baraka, I. (1998). Paul Robeson and the theater. New York, NY: Indiana University
Baraka, I. (2006). Revolutionary legacy, revolutionary tradition. Retrieved from
Beeching, B. (2002). Paul Robeson and the Black Press: The 1950 passport contro-
versy. The Journal of African American History, 87, 339-354.
Bell, D. (1998). Doing the state some service: Paul Robeson and the endless quest for
racial justice. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 49-61).
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Blockson, C. (1998). Paul Robeson: A bibliophile in spite of himself. In J. Stewart
(Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 235-252). New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press.
Blum, P. (1998). Combating historical amnesia: Using Paul Robeson to promote a
university/high school connection. The History Teacher, 31, 331-339.
Blum, P. (1999). Expanding the African-American studies curriculum: “Paul
Robeson: An American Life.” Pennsylvania History, 66, 100-108.
Blum, P. (2002). Expanding the African-American studies curriculum: “Paul Robeson:
An American Life.” In J. Dorinson & W. Pencak (Eds.), Paul Robeson: Essays
on his life and legacy (pp. 213-218). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Blum, P. (2008). Paul Robeson: The quintessential public intellectual. The Journal of
Pan African Studies, 2(7), 70-81.
Boyle, S., & Bunie, A. (2001). Paul Robeson: The years of promise and achievement.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Brown, L. (1976). Paul Robeson: Rediscovered. New York, NY: American Institute
for Marxist Studies.
Cabral, A. (1980). Unity and struggle: Speeches and writings. London, England:
Calvin, D., & Rogovin, M. (1999). Notes for educators. In B. Armentrout & S.
Stuckey (Eds.), Paul Robeson’s living legacy (pp. 20-24). Chicago, IL: Columbia
College Chicago and Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee.
Carew, J. (2004). Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois in London. Race & Class,
46(2), 39-48.
Carmody, T. (2014). Missing Paul Robeson in East Berlin: The spirituals and the
empty archive. Cultural Critique, 88, 1-27.
Chambers, C. (2006). Here we stand: Politics, performers, and performance: Paul
Robeson, Isadora Duncan, and Charlie Chaplin. London, England: Nick Hern Books.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 253
CP. (2015). Short history of the CP. Retrieved from
Cripps, S. (1946). Democracy alive: A selection from recent speeches of the Rt. Hon.
Sir Stafford Cripps. London, England: Sidgwick & Jackson.
Criterion Collection. (2007). Paul Robeson: Portraits of the artist. Irvington, NY:
Davis, L. (1998). A Paul Robeson handbook: Everything you want to know about
Paul Robeson. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing.
Dobbs, D., & Cope, P. (2001a). Breaking chains making connections: Responses to
the life of Paul Robeson. Cardiff, Wales: Paul Robeson Wales Trust.
Dobbs, D., & Cope, P. (2001b). Let Paul Robeson sing! A celebration of the life of
Paul Robeson and his relationship with Wales. Cardiff: Paul Robeson Cymru
Dobbs, D., & Cope, P. (2002a). Boo to racism! Joel age 9 ¼: Responses to the life of
Paul Robeson: Newport 2002. Cardiff: Paul Robeson Wales Trust.
Dobbs, D., & Cope, P. (2002b). A voice so pure, a vision so clear: Responses to the
life of Paul Robeson: Swansea 2002. Cardiff: Paul Robeson Wales Trust.
Dobbs, D., & Cope, P. (2003a). Black is just a colour: Responses to the life of Paul
Robeson: Wrexham 2002-3. Cardiff: Paul Robeson Wales Trust.
Dobbs, D., & Cope, P. (2003b). Gadewch i Paul Robeson ganu! Dathlu bywyd Paul
Robeson a thrafod ei berthynas â Chymru [Let Paul Robeson Sing! Celebrating
the life of Paul Robeson and his relationship with Wales]. Aberystwyth, Cymru:
Pwyllgor Paul Robeson Cymru a Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru.
Dorinson, J. (2002a). Introduction. In J. Dorinson & W. Pencak (Eds.), Paul Robeson:
Essays on his life and legacy (pp. 7-12). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Dorinson, J. (2002b). Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson: Athletes and activists at
Armageddon. In J. Dorinson & W. Pencak (Eds.), Paul Robeson: Essays on his
life and legacy (pp. 113-119). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Dorinson, J. (2002c). Something to cheer about: Paul Robeson, athlete. In J. Dorinson
& W. Pencak (Eds.), Paul Robeson: Essays on his life and legacy (pp. 65-75).
Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Dorinson, J., & Pencak, W. (2002). Paul Robeson: Essays on his life and legacy.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Douglass, F. (1945). Frederick Douglass: Selections from his writings. New York,
NY: International.
Duberman, M. (1988). Paul Robeson. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Duberman, M. (1998). Robeson and Othello. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist
and citizen (pp. 123-134). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1970). W.E.B. Du Bois speaks: Speeches and addresses, 1920-
1963. New York, NY: Pathfinder Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1993). On prejudice: A global perspective. New York, NY:
Du Bois, W. E. B. (2007). Africa, its geography, people, and products. Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
254 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
Ellrod, J. (1997). The stars of Hollywood remembered: Career biographies
of 82 actors and actresses of the golden era, 1920s-1950s. Jefferson, MO:
Emory University. (2014). Fanon, Frantz: Postcolonial studies at Emory University.
Retrieved from
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Fast, H. (2002). Remembering Peekskill, USA, 1949. In J. Dorinson & W. Pencak
(Eds.), Paul Robeson: Essays on his life and legacy (pp. 130-132). Jefferson,
NC: McFarland.
Featherstone, D. (2013). Black internationalism, subaltern cosmopolitanism,
and the spatial politics of antifascism. Annals of the Association of American
Geographers, 103, 1406-1420.
Fernekes, W. (2004). Courage and commitment: Paul Robeson, peacebuilding, and
citizenship education. Theory & Research in Social Studies Education, 32,
Foner, P. (1967). The Bolshevik Revolution: Its impact on American radicals, liber-
als, and labor. New York, NY: International.
Foner, P. (1991). History of the labor movement in the United States. New York, NY:
French, H. (1996, May 14) Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of Nigeria, dies at 91.
New York Times.
Gandhi, M. (1965). All men are brothers. London, England: Heritage Press.
Given, B. (1989). West African Students’ Union (WASU). Retrieved from http://diaspora.
Goldfield, M. (1997). The color of politics: Race and the mainsprings of American
politics. New York, NY: The New Press.
Goodman, J. (2013). Paul Robeson: A watched man. London, England: Verso.
Harris, F. (1998). Paul Robeson: An athlete’s legacy. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Paul
Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 35-49). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Hayes, D. (2001). Paul Robeson. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press.
Horne, G. (1998). Comrades and friends: The personal/political world of Paul
Robeson. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 197-217).
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Hunton, A. (1958). A note on the Council on African Affairs. In P. Robeson (Ed.),
Here I stand (pp. 117-119). New York, NY: Othello Associates.
Hurwitz, L., & Strand, P. (Directors). (1942). Native land [89 min, DVD]. Irvington,
NY: The Criterion Collection.
Jomo Kenyatta, M. (2014). The presidency: Executive office of the president.
Retrieved from
Labour. (2015). History of the Labour Party. Retrieved from
MacDowell, L. (2003). Paul Robeson in Canada: A border story. Labour/Le Travail,
51, 177-221.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 255
McGinty, D., & Shirley, W. (1998). Paul Robeson, musician. In J. Stewart (Ed.),
Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 105-123). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press.
Musser, C. (1998). Troubled relations: Paul Robeson, Eugene O’Neil, and Oscar
Michleaux. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 81-104).
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Musser, C. (2007). The search for a achievable utopia: Robeson and documentary.
In Criterion Collection (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Portraits of the artist (pp. 45-51).
Irvington, NY: The Criterion Collection.
Naison, M. (2002). Paul Robeson and the American Labor Movement. In J. Stewart
(Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen (pp. 179-196). New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press. (Original work published 1998)
Nazel, J. (1980). Paul Robeson: Biography of a proud man. Los Angeles, CA:
Holloway House Publishing.
Nehru, J. (1964). Nehru and Africa. New Delhi, India: Indian Council for Africa.
Nyerere, J. (1968). Freedom and socialism/Uhuru na ijamaa: A selection from writ-
ings and speeches 1965-1967. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Oxford University
O’Malley, P. (1978). Nelson Mandela Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.
Padmore, G. (1937). Africa and world peace. London, England: M. Secker &
Pencak, W. (2002). Paul Robeson and classical music. In J. Dorinson & W. Pencak
(Eds.), Paul Robeson: Essays on his life and legacy (pp. 152-159). Jefferson, NC:
Perucci, A. (2004). Paul Robeson and the politics of Cold War performance (Doctoral
dissertation). Available from (UMI No. 3114216)
Perucci, A. (2009). The red mask of sanity: Paul Robeson, HUAC, and the sound of
Cold War performance. The Drama Review, 53(4), 18-48.
Peterson, C. (2007). Du Bois, Fanon, Cabral: The margins of elite anti-colonial lead-
ership. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.
Ramdin, R. (1987). Paul Robeson: The man and his mission. London, England: Peter
Reid, M. (1998). Race, working-class consciousness, and dreaming in Africa: Song
of Freedom and Jericho. In J. Stewart (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen
(pp. 165-179). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Rhodes, M. (2015). “They feel me a part of that land”: Welsh memorial land-
scapes of Paul Robeson (Electronic thesis). Available from https://etd.
Robeson, E. (1930). Paul Robeson, Negro [Nook e-book]. New York, NY: Harper &
Robeson, P. (1958). Here I stand. New York, NY: Othello Associates.
Robeson, P. (1978). Paul Robeson speaks. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
256 Journal of Black Studies 47(3)
Robeson, P., Jr. (1989). Human rights and world geopolitics in the 1990’s. Swansea,
Wales: University College of Swansea.
Robeson, P., Jr. (1993). Paul Robeson Jr. speaks to America. New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press.
Robeson, P., Jr. (2001). The undiscovered Paul Robeson: An artist’s journey, 1898-
1939. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Robeson, P. (2008). Passport speech. On Words like freedom [CD]. San Francisco, CA:
The Freedom Archives and The Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee.
Robeson, P., Jr. (2010). The undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for freedom, 1939-
1976. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Robeson, P. (2013a) . Joe Hill. On Paul Robeson: Black historian (Vol. 2) [Digital
Album]. Entertainment Group International.
Robeson, P. (2013b). Songs of Struggle [CD]. Milborne St. Andrew, England: Regis.
Robeson, P., & Booth, A. (2013). All men are brothers. On Greatest rarities (Archive
’56-’57) [CD]. London, England: The Digital Gramophone.
Roosevelt, F. D. (1947). Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Selections from his writings.
New York, NY: International.
Saklatvala, S., & Gandhi, M. (1927). Is India different? London, England: Communist
Party of Great Britain.
Seeger, P. (2007). Note. In Criterion Collection (Ed.), Paul Robeson: Portraits of the
artist (pp. 72-73). Irvington, NY: The Criterion Collection.
Seton, M. (1958). Paul Robeson. London, England: Dobson Books.
Stewart, J. (1998). Paul Robeson: Artist and citizen. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press.
Swindall, L. (2013). Paul Robeson: A life of activism and art. Lanham, MD: Rowman
& Littlefield.
Tennyson, P. (Director). (1940). The proud valley [76 min, DVD]. Irvington, NY: The
Criterion Collection.
Thornton, F. (Director). (1937). Jericho [75 min, DVD]. Irvington, NY: The Criterion
Collection, 2007.
Tyner, J. (2006). The geography of Malcolm X: Black radicalism and the remaking of
American space. New York, NY: Routledge.
Tyner, J., Kimsroy, S., & Sirik, S. (2015). Nature, poetry, and public pedagogy: The
poetic geographies of the Khmer Rouge. Annals of the Association of American
Geographers, 105, 1285-1299.
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (1936). 1936 Constitution of the USSR. Retrieved
Verzuh, R. (2012). Mine-Mill’s Peace Arch concerts: How a “red” union and a
famous singer-activist fought for peace and social justice during the Cold War.
BC Studies, 174, 61-99.
Walwik, J. (2002). Paul Robeson, Peekskill, and the red menace. In J. Dorinson &
W. Pencak (Eds.), Paul Robeson: Essays on his life and legacy (pp. 120-129).
Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Rhodes 257
Williams, D. (2012). Black skin, Blue Books: African-Americans and the Welsh,
1845-1945. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press.
Wilson, K. (2013). The cosmopolitan creative-intellectual: The creative ideal of Paul
Robeson. Journal of Black Studies, 44, 725-740.
Wright, C. (1975). Robeson: Labor’s forgotten champion. Detroit, MI: Balamp.
Author Biography
Mark Alan Rhodes II is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Kent State
University whose research has focused on the role of Paul Robeson in Wales and
continues through the veins of memory, performance, and music.
at KENT STATE UNIV LIB on March 10, 2016jbs.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... By analysing Robeson's writing, speeches, and artwork, the diverse patterns of this framework may be understood. Scholarship (Rhodes, 2016;cf. Wilson, 2013) does just that by defining a Paul Robeson philosophical framework, connecting his activism and scholarship to three distinct tracts: anti-colonialism, human rights, and socialism (cf. ...
... Recently, critical analyses of Robeson have challenged and deepened traditional biographical works (The Criterion Collection, 2007;Dorinson & Pencak, 1999, 2002Rhodes, 2016;Stewart, 1998). Despite Paul Robeson being a force in intellectual circles within and outside of academia, the current research on Robeson is relatively limited overall and, despite the recent push for Black Geographies, virtually non-existent within geography beyond the occasional passing mention (Featherstone, 2013;Hodder, 2017;Rhodes, 2017;Tyner, 2006). ...
Memorialization of specific individuals necessitates processes of remembering and forgetting, memory work, and obfuscation. The African American Paul Robeson is considered an “honorary Welshman” and a “Welsh achiever.” How could Robeson, erased from the history books in his own country, be appropriated by popular vote as a Welsh national hero? This paper questions how Robeson’s philosophies, evident in his arts and actions, were memorialized into those of a Welsh hero through the theoretical lens of absent presence and geographies of biography. I explore this relationship between Wales and Robeson further to understand his influence and commemorative presence in Wales via the material memorial landscape of Robeson and how he is represented within broader Welsh memorialization and nationalism. Through the discourse of the memorial landscapes of Wales, elements of his philosophy may be over or under‐represented. For example, he connected with the strong socialist history in Wales, but the complexity of Robeson’s philosophical framework remains absent. Why were only some of his philosophical beliefs transmitted into Welsh society and the memorial landscape? This paper reveals both the presence and absence of Paul Robeson’s complex biography in the material memorial landscape in Wales. As a case study on the inclusion of (auto)biographical knowledge in the context of complex geographies and landscapes, this work frames biographical inclusion and exclusion as vital geographic concerns, particularly in the precarious Black geographies of Paul Robeson in Wales. In so doing, it further reifies the indelible connections between geography, biography, and the sociopolitical contexts from which memorial landscapes emerge.
... others strive to understand his theoretical underpinnings (e.g. Spohrer, 2007, Blum, 2008, Wilson, 2013, and Rhodes, 2016a. Throughout the literature, and Robeson's (1958Robeson's ( , 1978 own writing, the themes of anti-colonialism, human rights, and socialism come to the floor. ...
... These place-based patterns explain a great deal as to some of Paul Robeson's stereotyping. Robeson continues to be a victim of red-baiting (there have been multiple protests for the naming of Rutgers University's library after him), and his association on YouTube with places such as Russia and China will continue skewing Robeson toward a communist-style socialism, and away from the British, laborrights, style socialism that he actually promoted (Rhodes, 2016a). Furthermore, the negative response to these videos (the national anthems of the USSR and China) is also something that comes across clear in the data. ...
This article utilizes the African American Paul Robeson and his representation on YouTube to address three critical and underexplored arenas in heritage studies. First, Paul Robeson is an individual all but lost in the public memory of the USA, despite having been one of the USA’s most well-known celebrities. This article presents, for the first time, a global analysis of his representation and presence through the medium of YouTube. Second, in only a limited number of studies has YouTube been utilized to analyze memorialization and heritage; this article solidifies, channels, and expands upon those techniques. Finally, this article presents a spatial component to the otherwise nonspatial technique of analyzing YouTube social networks, presenting specific spatial data, which can be mapped and analyzed. Utilizing values of connectedness among videos of different topical clusters, as well as audience reactions to videos of a specific topic or place, allows for a deeper and broader understanding of both how Paul Robeson is memorialized and represented globally and how YouTube is an essential tool in social spatial heritage studies.
... Here, Hwn yw fy Mrawd is the literal performance of the nation and what I can only describe as a creeping celebration of difference. Located within the Millennium Center, readily experi-415 enced by some as a site of national history and memory, bringing Paul Robeson into these halls during the National Eisteddfod, none-the-less, further commits Wales to the narrative of Robeson (Rhodes 2015 Q8 ; Rhodes 2016Rhodes , 2018 ). In addition, both performances of Hwn yw fy Mrawd sold out long before the week of the Eisteddfod. ...
... Evidence suggests that, at some point in the early twentieth century, Paul Robeson might have been the most known individual on the planet. This world-renowned actor, activist, athlete, singer, and scholar involved himself in the politics of the United States, Russia, China, India, Ghana, Nigeria, Ireland, and many others fighting for civil and human rights, labor rights, and against colonialism (Rhodes, 2016b; see Figure 1). He achieved All-American status twice playing football at Rutgers, then went on to play in the National Football League, landing him both in the College Football Hall ...
Since his first interactions with Welsh miners striking in London in 1929, Paul Robeson has been considered by some as an “honorary Welshman.” While the African American actor, athlete, activist, singer, and scholar never lived in Wales, he did have various interactions in Wales throughout his life. This special relationship persists on the memorial landscape of the country in various ways, but none as extensive as the Let Paul Robeson Sing! exhibition. This article extends beyond an overview of the exhibition to identify it as an example of exceptional memorialization techniques. Combining the concepts of participatory, temporary, and mobile memorialization, in order to commemorate Paul Robeson through a sensorial, spatially, and conceptually diverse program, Let Robeson Sing! exhibits memory through a unique and engaging memorial landscape. This article situates the exhibition within the techniques of participatory, temporary, and mobile memorialization, and how the combination of the three provides a unique, effective, and affective form of commemorating Paul Robeson in Wales.
When writing on the Spanish Civil War for the Guardian in 2007, Eric Hobsbawm remembered it was the artists, writers and poets who documented it by means of ‘the pen, the brush and the camera’. Absent in Hobsbawm’s recollections is any mention of music or musical performance. Taking Alan Bush’s 1939 Popular Front spectacle, Festival of Music for the People as a point of departure, this article explores some of the myriad musical responses to the Spanish Civil War, including a commission for the young Benjamin Britten, Frida Stewart’s work with the Basque refugee children’s choirs and the activism of the celebrity singer Paul Robeson. These responses involved music in fundamentally different ways, from the creation of new art music for a political cause to the use of music in social action. Taken together they provide a glimpse of Britain’s diverse and multifaceted musical response to the question of Spain.
Each year the National Eisteddfod alternates between north and south Wales in a festival that consistently redefines itself and what it means to be and perform Welshness. As a publicly funded and organized national institution, the National Eisteddfod’s performances, competitions, and pavilions reflect aspects of Welsh memory and heritage through traditional poetry, dance, and music. Likewise, this space is central to the continuing evolution of Welsh memory and Welsh music. The work of memory, language, and music during the annual ten-day festival in 2018 experienced numerous structural changes from customary eisteddfodau. Through musicals, folk music, carnivals, and other performances, music and memory in Cardiff Bay intersected with transatlantic identities, protest, and the deindustrialized urban setting. Using interviews and a transoptic landscape analysis, this paper explores the musical, performative, and national landscapes of the 2017 and 2018 National Eisteddfodau to better understand these emerging postcolonial, post-industrial, performative, and pluralized memories in Wales.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
The 1950s was a period of ‘Great Expectations’ for the United States, both politically and economically. Faced with a new phase of the world order called the Cold War, the US replaced the glory and position of the United Kingdom in the past and emerged as the real representative and power of the liberal democratic camp. In addition, the US of the time was filled with great expectations for the economy. For instance, the 1950s was one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in the US history. Among the US citizens was accordingly a growing sense of pride, self-esteem, and positive sentiments that they ‘are’ and ‘should be’ the members of the world’s strongest and wealthiest nation. The 1950s is remembered as one of the best of times in American history. Meanwhile, this decade was the worst time for an American citizen. Paul Robeson (1898-1976), an American artist, lawyer, star athlete, and social activist, was also a talented singer and actor. He was the first professional concert singer in history to use Black spirituals. Robeson was the first major African American actor to play the role of Othello, the tragic Moor in Shakespeare’s play. In the 1950s, this popular actor met a reversal of fate in the face of anti-communist political mood and public sentiment represented by McCarthyism. The ‘American’ celebrity was classified as an ‘un-American’ reactionary and his passport was cancelled. What happened to him? This presentation examines the case of racial and artistic censorship brought by American political ideology in the 1950s, focusing on the personal history of African American artist Paul Robeson.
Full-text available
In 1949 Paul Robeson (with support from Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Howard Fast, and others) attempted to and then successfully held a civil and workers’ rights concert in Peekskill, New York. Marring these performances, however, were protests that turned progressively violent. These violent protests have come to be known as the Peekskill Riots and serve as a major milestone in the nation’s history surrounding protest, music, politics, and Paul Robeson. This paper reflects on this relationship, particularly how it is being remembered today. Through field research, including participant observation, interviews, landscape analysis, and primary and secondary archival research, I demonstrate how British-Nigerian writer, singer, actor, activist, and architect Tayo Aluko “performs history” through his musical Call Mr. Robeson. This includes how Paul Robeson and the Peekskill Riots are remembered through performance and how the continued performances place the identity and history of Peekskill in a state of becoming. This is also a case study more broadly for how social movements are influenced, fueled, and remembered through performance. Find the full text here:
Full-text available
Between 1975 and 1979, more than 2 million men, women, and children died in what has become known as the Cambodian genocide. In just under four years, approximately one quarter of the country's prewar population succumbed to arbitrary murder, torture, detention, starvation, and disease. Amidst these acts of destruction, however, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK; the Khmer Rouge) advanced various pedagogical practices, including the promotion of poetry. Superficially, poems produced by the Khmer Rouge are literary forms of propaganda. Such a conclusion is incomplete. Through a reading of Khmer Rouge–era poetry, this article contributes to two themes in geography: fictive and public pedagogy. We argue that the Khmer Rouge used poetry as a form of public pedagogy. More specifically, Khmer Rouge–era poetry presented nature as the fulcrum on which society was to be transformed. The cultivation of a proper political consciousness required the nurturing of a community identity of what Democratic Kampuchea was to become. This argument is developed in five sections. First, we provide a brief overview of literary geographies. We then consider the transformative power of public education. Third, we provide an overview of educational policies under the Khmer Rouge. This is followed by a discussion of nature as conceived by the CPK. Our main empirical analysis of Khmer Rouge poetry is presented in the fifth section. Finally, we conclude with a consideration of the politics of creative interventions as a form of public pedagogy.
Full-text available
Paul Robeson was a world renowned activist, actor, athlete, singer, and scholar from the United States in the 20th century. The memory of him in the 21st century, however, is relatively limited overall, yet prominent in the memorial landscape of Wales. Using archival research, interviews, and landscape and museum analysis of the material memorial landscape, I highlight the links between the landscape and Robeson’s philosophical framework of anti-colonialism, socialism, and human rights. These philosophies transcend scale and are represented to varying degrees on the Welsh memorial landscape. This thesis illustrates three themes in the commemoration of Paul Robeson. First, participatory, temporary, and mobile memorial landscapes offer a distinct ability for visitor engagement and access. Second, the memorial landscapes of Robeson reveal more general processes of Welsh memorialization. Third, these landscapes expose specific structures and relationships that tie together Paul Robeson, his philosophical framework, and his memorialization in the material memorial landscape of Wales.
The focus of this article is Paul Robeson's creative ideal (aesthetic). Though there is much literature that discusses the creative accomplishments and social activism of Robeson, with much agreement on his importance to the Africana intellectual history, a comprehensive discussion on his creative ideal, that is, his conception of beauty, creativity, and expression, has yet to emerge in the current literature. The absence of such a discussion represents a missing area of research. Robeson shared a wealth of creative insight and values that would provide an Afrocentric point of departure and heuristic resource of concepts for the Africana scholar. With an interest in using the African intellectual heritage as a resource, the main objective of this research is to cull ideal creative themes and values from the writings and interviews of Robeson that render a portrait of his creative-intellectual thought. This article will not only discuss the finding of Robeson's creative insights but also suggest that a Robesonian framework of creative themes, insights, and categories might be on the horizon.
This is a compelling biography of a great American in his formative years. The son of a former slave, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) rose to become an All-American athlete, Phi Beta Kappa student, internationally celebrated singer and actor, and champion of racial equality. Yet, despite his courage and many accomplishments, he could not overcome the combined effects of racism and McCarthyism. He was forced to live his last years in internal exile under FBI surveillance, without the respect he deserved. This massively researched biography takes Robeson from his humble beginnings in rural New Jersey to international fame on the eve of World War II. It presents a fully rounded picture - a portrait that corrects, supplements, and revises previous work on Robeson and his circle.