In April 1958, Paul Robeson’s 60th birthday was celebrated in several cities in India. These celebrations were organised by an all-India committee under the chairmanship of MC Chagla, the former chief justice of the Bombay High Court. This committee had been initiated by Indira Gandhi, who had consulted with Jawaharlal Nehru about the possibility of celebrating Robeson in India. The prime minister had readily agreed.
By this time, Paul Robeson was a famous singer and actor known around the world. The American government had confiscated Robeson’s passport in 1950, claiming that “Paul Robeson’s travel abroad at this time would be contrary to the best interests of the United States”. It was only after the celebrations of 1958, where people around the world rose up in solidarity for Robeson that the battle for his passport was finally won and he was able to travel again.
The American government immediately reacted to the possibility of these celebrations being held in India. The Consul-General of the US visited Chagla trying to pressure him to stop the event. Nehru had written earlier to Chagla, “I gather there is a good deal of excitement and some distress in the upper circles in the United States about this celebration of Paul Robeson’s sixtieth birthday in India.”
In the opinion of the American ruling elite and its Cold War world view, a celebration of Robeson would confirm that India was drifting into the “communist camp”. It was incomprehensible to them that India might admire Robeson on its own terms, that there were revolutionaries in India who were not necessarily communist but not anti-communist either. They were staunchly anti-imperialist and instinctively associated with Robeson’s struggle.
Indeed, in his address at the celebration, Chagla said, “Robeson was fighting against the insolence and arrogance of a ‘superior’ race, and the sense of dominance which comes from a lack of pigmentation in the skin.” He added, “If there is a God, and God is only another name for compassion and kindness, the Negroes must be dearer to Him than any other people.”
Chagla was referring to the consciousness that shaped the time: the idea that the darker nations and peoples of the world who had faced or were still facing colonialism and neo-colonialism had common cause. The fight against racial discrimination was linked to the fight against colonialism and western supremacy. This is why celebrations for Paul Robeson were held around the worldm including in Africa and China.
There are some parallels to the situation today as we observe Paul Robeson’s 125th birth anniversary. In the neo Cold War view of the US ruling elite, it is incomprehensible that India does not toe the western line on foreign policy. Meanwhile, many nations of what is termed the global South are recognising the era of western domination is over. is worth remembering Paul Robeson’s close relationship with the darker nations of the world and the reason they celebrated him.
Communicating through song
Robeson is usually remembered as a singer but he was in fact a great thinker and philosopher. Songs, for him, were a medium to communicate his ideas and a way to understand the commonality of working people around the world. “I have found that where forces have been the same, whether people weave, build, pick cotton or dig in the mines, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering and protest,” he once said. Robeson was devoted to singing folk songs, by which he meant “songs of people, of farmers, workers, miners, road diggers…that come from direct contact with their work”.
One of the members of the 1958 Indian committee to celebrate him, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, had written, “When Paul Robeson sings he becomes something more than a singer. He transcends all human limitations and becomes the disembodied melody, which knows neither colour nor race. He interprets the ageless, deathless spirit of his lost land of Africa, his priceless heritage, before which even the hooded order of bigotry and hate spontaneously retreat.”
In 1937, Robeson founded the Council on African Affairs, with the objective of fighting for African freedom and educating the American people about Africa. The Council led several struggles particularly against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1944, the Council held a conference in which Kwame Nkrumah, who was to become president of Ghana, participated. The Conference came up with a six-point programme to provide concrete help to the African masses and strengthen the alliance of progressive Americans with Africans.
In June, 1946, the Council on African Affairs organised a “For African Freedom” rally at Madison Square garden. At the rally, Robeson said “The race is on–in Africa as in every other part of the world– the race between the forces of progress and democracy on the one side and the forces of imperialism and reaction on the other.”
Earlier, in September 1942, when the Congress leadership was in jail following the Quit India movement, the Council on African Affairs had organised a Free India rally. Speaking at the rally, Robeson told the audience how he had toured Spain with Krishna Menon and become friends with Nehru, Vijay Laxmi Pandit and others while he was in London in the 1930s. Another speaker at the rally was Kumar Ghoshal, a little-known Indian revolutionary who was a member of the Council on African Affairs. Kumar Ghoshal would bring ES Reddy into the Council on African Affairs. Reddy was later to play a huge role in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.
The membership of the Council on African Affairs was largely composed of African-Americans. Paul Robeson’s support for India’s freedom reflected the support of the African American people. In October 1942, right after the council rally, the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper in which Kumar Goshal had a column, took a survey of black Americans on whether “India should contend for her rights and liberty now.” Close to 90% responded with “yes”.
If Paul Robeson supported the Indian people’s struggle, he was equally close to the Chinese struggle. At a Sun-Yat Sen tribute meeting in New York in 1944, he spoke of the parallels between China and Africa. He became close friends with Liu Liangmo, a Chinese musician who collaborated with him in the production of an album of songs titled Chee Lai, Songs of New China. Robeson spoke Mandarin and his rendition of Chee Lai continues to be popular online. Robeson was appointed as honorary director of the China Defense League formed by Soong Ching Ling, of which Nehru was also a member.
He could never visit China or India because his passport had been confiscated. “If only my heart could become a bird, I could fly freely, fly to China,” he said. Similarly, he could not attend the famous Bandung conference but sent his greetings. Whether in Korea, or Vietnam, Robeson would always voice his support for any struggle in Asia or Africa. He was a committed socialist and a great admirer of the Soviet Union. Till the end of his life, he refused to bend to anti-communism and Cold War McCarthyism in the U.S., never condemning the Soviet Union. As he said, “I shall not retreat one thousandth part of an inch.”
Robeson’s legacy is not more well known today because, as Coretta Scott King said, he was “buried alive”. In a letter to Marie Seton two years before her death, Indira Gandhi called Paul Robeson “a remarkable man.” She noted, “It is tragic that his country tried to denigrate and belittle him.”
On his 125th birth anniversary, it would be fitting for people around the world, whose struggles he steadfastly supported, to recall his legacy and learn from it for our own time.
Archishman Raju is a scientist based in Bangalore associated with the Gandhi Global Family and Saturday Free School, Philadelphia.