Category: Paul Robeson
The House I Live In (Paul Robeson), Video by Tayo Aluko
worker | July 24, 2021 | 7:12 pm | Paul Robeson | Comments closed
A Robeson-Inspired Prayer and Birthday Greeting from England
worker | April 19, 2021 | 8:07 pm | Paul Robeson | Comments closed

Brother Mumia Abu-Jamal is scheduled for heart surgery on Monday, 4/19. The following updated article is now posted in the Jamal Journal, where there is also information on actions in support of Mumia’s release from prison; his campaign is calling for people to call certain numbers. Please circulate widely.

A Robeson-Influenced Prayer and Birthday Greeting from England (for Mumia Abu-Jamal), by Tayo Aluko

A Robeson-Influenced Prayer and Birthday Greeting from England

Written by Tayo Aluko

It was Paul Robeson who introduced us, albeit he’d been dead for 32 years. My new acquaintance had been locked away in prison for 26 years, and was still contesting a death sentence.

The venue was the Oakland City Hall, and the occasion the grand opening, on what would have been Paul Robeson’s 110th birthday – April 9, 2008 – of an exhibit by the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee, on Robeson. I had just arrived from Irvine, CA, where I had given my first-ever US performance of my one-man play, Call Mr. Robeson, and was due to reprise it the following day. I was staying with people I had never met, but who nonetheless willingly welcomed my pianist and me into their home, because a mutual friend in Liverpool had told them I was coming over to tell Robeson’s story. A choir sang South African freedom songs. I performed an extract from the play. I shook the hand of Ron Dellums, then Mayor of Oakland, heard him speak, and would learn only later that he was a very distinguished politician – a former congressman who, among other things, had been instrumental in getting the US government to reluctantly issue sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, hastening that regime’s demise.

I was introduced to active members of the ILWU longshoremen’s union, which had proudly made Robeson an honorary member. These men told me they had not only organised boycotts of South African ships, refusing to load and unload them, but also supported the dockers’ struggle in Liverpool.


Harry Belafonte’s familiar raspy tenor voice was next heard, as his message was played on a tape machine. A veteran even then, he said that Paul had been his mentor, guide and inspiration as a young man.

And then we heard this strong, clear, baritone voice declare, from the same machine, “Paul, the magnificent!” The speaker went on to recall what a huge impression was made on him by Robeson’s defiant answer to one member of the House Un-American Activities Committee who had asked why Robeson didn’t move to Russia. “Were this a movie,” this voice said of Robeson’s answer, “it would require a clap of thunder to mark this dramatic moment.” He remarked at how, despite his fame and fortune, Robeson had refused to lose sight of the battle faced by the majority of his fellow Americans, Black or otherwise, and lamented at how so few present-day people in similar positions were brave enough to express similar views. The message finished with, “How much such art as he produced is needed now…. From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

Who? From Death Row? How is that possible? I found out since of course that Mumia had somehow been able to continue his pre-imprisonment journalistic profession by broadcasting regularly from behind bars, and, thanks to the internet, reaches all round the globe with his revolutionary eloquence. This is reminiscent of Robeson himself, who, when prevented by his government from leaving the USA between 1950 and 1958, was able, thanks to the newly laid Trans-Atlantic cable, to present a whole virtual concert to an audience at St. Pancras Town Hall, London, on May 26, 1957, and then sing to the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl, Wales, on October 5.

The St. Pancras concert had been presented by the Let Robeson Sing campaign, which saw prominent artists team up with trade unions and the general public to pressure the US State Department to restore Robeson’s right to travel. That campaign was probably only exceeded by the Free Mandela campaign decades later, and one could argue that the campaign to Free Mumia not only follows in that great tradition, but also places Abu-Jamal in the same league as the other two.

Mumia has spent much longer in jail as a political prisoner (forty years) than Mandela did, but there is one other interesting, maybe controversial comparison to make.  Madiba would perhaps never have been freed and gone on to assume the presidency of his country, had he not made certain compromises which would prevent post-Apartheid South Africa from achieving its promise and potential. On the occasion of Mandela’s death, Mumia himself wrote and recited another beautiful essay which he titled “Mandela Sanitised,” finishing it with this uncomfortable truth: “South African independence … opened the door to elective office but closed the door to South Africa’s vast wealth by putting it in private hands. Dr. Nelson Mandela was hired to consolidate this state of affairs.” 

As I have written elsewhere, as Barack Obama revelled in his top-billing at the world’s most watched funeral, he chose not to see the irony of his words of praise for Mandela’s courage as an activist who was unafraid to speak truth to power, and as a political prisoner. Obama’s eulogy belied the fact that back home, the system he oversaw held people like Mumia, Leonard Peltier and Chelsea Manning in prison, and that both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden had been granted political refuge by the Ecuadorian and Russian governments.

Halfway through Obama’s second and final term, many had started discussing the possibility of Mumia receiving a Presidential Pardon as the country’s first Black President left office.  It is the measure of Abu-Jamal that he was nonetheless brave and honest enough to continue recording several commentaries critical of Obama.  In one, he reacted to Obama’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement for “yelling at political leaders.” Mumia placed it in the context of past civil rights struggles, and quoted from one-time-political-prisoner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He finished his essay by saying, “Black Lives Matter’s yelling ain’t the problem. Far too often, the problem is politicians, who make deals –while Black people die.”


I offer one last example of Mumia doing exactly what Robeson repeatedly stated as his life’s mission: to use his art as his weapon in defence of all oppressed people. On April 23, 2016 – the day before his own birthday – Mumia discussed how treatment for Hepatitis C (a condition he had, but this wasn’t about him) cost over $100,000, thanks to the chokehold that Big Pharma – and in this instance, a company called Gilead Sciences – has over the health industry. Mumia again evoked Robeson, referring to Paul’s 1958 Carnegie Hall concert. Revealing the quality of his own baritone by singing the opening lines of one of the songs Paul had sung at that concert, Balm in Gilead, he titled his essay, Is There a Balm In Gilead? and finished it with this simple, powerful truth: “If you can’t afford it, you die.”


Such honest appraisal of one’s own country, even though done from a place of love, has grave consequences, as people like Dr. King and Malcolm X well knew, as does Mumia himself. So did Paul Robeson. He became a prisoner of conscience of sorts when, in addition to losing his passport, he found recording and performing opportunities denied him for eight long years, at great financial, physical and mental cost.


It is nothing short of remarkable, and even miraculous, that Mumia has survived so long in the literal rectum of the beast with his incredibly impressive mental faculties so intact. He has also battled bravely against disease and deliberate medical negligence. As I write this, he is shackled to a hospital bed in preparation for heart surgery, not long after having contracted Covid-19. Despite forty years of such cruel and inhumane treatment, Mumia has somehow retained a deep humanity. In that 110th birthday tribute, he recalled Robeson talking about having had opportunities that his sharecropper relatives had been denied. Robeson was of course speaking for the majority of Black America. He could have been speaking of Mumia too, for when such an undeniably unusual talent is forced to spend the majority of his life behind bars because of his politics, not only is he being denied the opportunity to flourish and to contribute to society to his full potential, but his country and the world are being denied the benefit and the pleasure of his physical freedom.


This article was originally intended as a simple birthday greeting to a man who I am willing to bet was, in addition to all his remarkable qualities, a great sportsman and actor as a young man, just like Paul Robeson. I send it off with a prayer to the ancestors, to the universe and all higher powers, that on April 24, we will all indeed be celebrating the life of the one man capable of surviving this last of several attempts on his life:

Mumia, the Magnificent!


Ona Move!


Tayo Aluko, April 15, 2021


–Tayo Aluko is a Nigerian writer, actor and singer living in Liverpool, UK. He has been touring internationally with his one-man play, Call Mr. Robeson  since 2008, and has recently written and released a new radio play, Paul Robeson’s Love Song, recorded during lockdown, and now streaming online. Visit: Tayo Aluko & Friends.

Latest News:

AVAILABLE NOW: Paul Robeson’s Love Song. An Audio Pay. Streaming from African Theatre to Your Home.

International Stations Announced for April 9 World Premiere Broadcast of Paul Robeson’s Love Song April 3. 2021

Forthcoming performances/appearances:

June 12: Call Mr. Robeson @ Greenwich Theatre, London

June 13: Just An Ordinary Lawyer @ Greenwich Theatre, London

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Why Paul Robeson’s Voice Still Rings True Today
worker | April 6, 2021 | 8:41 pm | Paul Robeson | Comments closed

Portside Date: April 5, 2021
Author: Tayo Aluko
Date of source: April 2, 2021
The Progressive

Editor’s note: Author Tayo Aluko is a Nigerian-born actor, singer, and playwright who lives in England. He first discovered the work of Paul Robeson in 1995 and, since 2008, has been performing around the world in a one-person show, “Call Mr. Robeson,” about Robeson’s life. 

On April 9, 2021, the 123rd anniversary of Robeson birth, Aluko will launch a new radio play in which two middle-aged siblings discover a surprising familial connection with the legendary Black baritone as they listen to news reports of the racial awakening across America during the summer of 2020.

Watching the horrific scenes unfolding in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last August as a rightwing vigilante shot and killed two people protesting police violence and wounded a third, and then seeing the mob of white supremacists attack the U.S. Capitol in January, a lyric came to mind:

The people who desecrated the Capitol last January called themselves patriots. Millions supported them, too, including members of both Houses.What is America to me? / A name, a map, a flag I see / A certain word, ‘Democracy’ . . . 

The particular version of The House I Live In was sung by Paul Robeson. From the first time I heard his recording, I was struck by the sad irony of him singing such a patriotic song, a song so expressive of love for his country and its people, only for him to eventually be successfully painted as a communist bent on violently overthrowing the government.

Yet the people who desecrated the Capitol last January called themselves patriots. Millions supported them, too, including members of both Houses. This again reminded one of Robeson, because seventy-two years earlier, another angry mob might well have lynched him.

The scene was the outskirts of Peekskill, in Westchester County, New York. The occasion, a benefit concert to support the Civil Rights Congress. Robeson, who had been born in 1898, the youngest child of a runaway slave, was by now perhaps the world’s most famous American, a highly successful stage and screen actor, and a concert singer of international renown.

An example of Robeson’s popularity was his singing of the patriotic cantata, The Ballad for Americans, to 30,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in July 1940, accompanied by a large chorus and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The United States would not enter World War II for another year, but by the end of that war, attitudes toward their ally, the Soviet Union, had completely reversed, and people like Robeson who refused to abandon his socialist beliefs began to be regarded with suspicion.

In a speech to the World Partisans for Peace Congress in Paris in April 1949, he stated that he didn’t believe African Americans should, or would, fight against the Soviet Union—a country which treated him, his people, and other minorities immeasurably better than America did. This speech was distorted by the American press as they ramped up anti-Communist sentiment. And, by the time Robeson returned to his country that summer, he had become a public enemy.

It was in this atmosphere that Robeson traveled to Peekskill to sing on August 27. Encouraged by the press, local militia attacked the organizers and the audience before the concert was due to start, forcing it to be cancelled. Robeson returned to New York and later announced at a press conference that he would be back to sing for racial equality and peaceful relations with the Soviet Union.

Another issue Robeson faced was that of antisemitism. His wife was part-Jewish, his son had married a Jewish woman two months earlier, and Paul himself was already a strong lover of Jewish culture, to the extent that two of the many languages he spoke fluently were Hebrew and Yiddish.

The concert went ahead on September 4, and labor unions had organized a protective guard of a few thousand trade unionists to encircle the 20,000-strong crowd. This included about a dozen guards around Robeson on stage, to shield him from any prospective sniper’s bullet. After his set, he was immediately spirited away.

But, as audience members left, they were led by the police into an ambush, where the local militia lay in wait to attack them. Dozens of cars were damaged, and 145 people were injured, including one Black man who lost an eye. Yet again, the mainstream press reported the incident as violence initiated by Blacks, Communists, and Jewish supporters of the un-American Paul Robeson.

Another sad, striking irony here is that only two years previously, Robeson had recorded these words, to great acclaim, describing America as:

The house I live in, my neighbors, white and black / The people who just came here, or from generations back . . .

The man who penned these lyrics was Abel Meeropol, writing under the alias of Lewis Allen, presumably in order to deflect attention from his Jewish heritage, his membership in the Communist Party, and to protect his position as a school teacher. Meeropol had written a poem in 1937 which became the lyrics to the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit. It is another irony that this gifted poet had to hide behind an alias to publish his work.

The right to speak my mind out / that’s America to me.

Robeson himself refused to hide behind anything or anybody. When a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC) asked at his hearing in June 1956 if he had once been known by the name of John Thomas, he retorted, “My name is Paul Robeson, and anything I have to say, I have said in public all over the world, and that is why I am here today.”

In June 1946, Robeson gave a speech at Madison Square Garden which showed why he was such a threat to the Establishment:

“A day or two ago, Mr. Bevin, the British Foreign Minister said . . . ‘If we do not want to have total war, we must have total peace.’ For once, I agree with him,” Robeson told the audience. “But Mr. Bevin must be totally blind if he cannot see that the absence of peace in the world is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American, and other imperialist powers to maintain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.”

As true today as they were then, such words demonstrate why Robeson’s voice, like his rendition of The House I Live In, can be considered to be the soundtrack to a lost opportunity. It is the opportunity to hear and heed messages of truth, peace, and justice such as he delivered through his art, a weapon in defense of all the oppressed people on Earth.

[Tayo Aluko is a writer and performer living in Liverpool, United Kingdom. His new radio play, Paul Robeson’s Love Song, premieres April 9, 2021. For more information, visit]

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“The World is my Home- “The Life of Paul Robeson”
worker | January 10, 2021 | 8:50 pm | Action, Paul Robeson | Comments closed
“The World is my Home-
“The Life of Paul Robeson”
Jefferson Performing Arts Society
6400 AIRLINE DRIVE – Metairie, La.
(New Orleans Area)
SATURDAY JAN. 23, 2021
SUNDAY JAN 24, 2021
SAT @ 7:30 PM
SUN @ 2:00 PM
Tickets & Info
Arts & culture has always thrived in times of uncertainty & social turmoil. We descendants of the Children of the Sun, having endured the scorn of nations; must as our ancestors before us did. Survive Creatively!
I invite you to bring your weary minds, your broken hearts, your tortured souls & your hat full of dreams; to experience a inspiring, music filled, uplifting love story of resilience, hope & heart in a socially distanced theater outside of New Orleans. Life is for the living & so we shall.
Dedicated to all our dearly departed friends & family that now live in the sky. Till we rest in peace with you. Wishing you love, light & a brighter tomorrow.
Stogie Kenyatta
For Worldwide Bookings Contact
Nicholas Anderson at Kingston Rose Mgmt  
Paul Robeson: His Life as an Unfinished Symphony
worker | October 21, 2020 | 8:11 pm | African American Culture, African American history, Culture and Art, Paul Robeson | Comments closed

Paul Robeson: His Life as an Unfinished Symphony

Football star, leading man, communist, outcast: RT dives into life of black icon hounded for beliefs
worker | May 6, 2018 | 7:38 pm | African American history, Paul Robeson | Comments closed

Football star, leading man, communist, outcast: RT dives into life of black icon hounded for beliefs

Football star, leading man, communist, outcast: RT dives into life of black icon hounded for beliefs
Paul Robeson rose from poverty and early loss to become one of the most famous performers in the world. But his prickly activism and a Soviet connection cost him his career, but not his legacy.

A son of a preacher, whose mother died in a fire when he was six, Robeson was a bewilderingly talented man. At Rutgers, where he was the only black student on the whole campus, he was chosen as valedictorian, won oratory prizes, played leading parts in the theater, sang to audiences, and was voted an All-American as a football player – eventually winning a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.

His early adult career was similarly gilded. He moved between heavyweight dramatic roles, such as Othello, becoming the first black Hollywood leading man, and singing hits beloved by millions; while rubbing shoulders with the world’s richest and most powerful, and living in luxury that his runaway slave father could never have envisaged for his son.

But Robeson did not want to be just a song-and-dance man… RT explores the journey that gave him a cameo in many of the major events of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War, to the McCarthy trials, and the Civil Rights Movement. As well as uncovering unexpected curios from his back catalogue, like the performance of the Soviet anthem in English in his deep baritone, the 16-minute report exposes the sustained campaign of hounding that led to the one-time star living out his years in reduced circumstances. It wonders what lessons one man’s battle to remain true to himself in the face of hostility has for American activists today.


Scandalize my Name…

Scandalize my Name…

– from Greg Godels is available at:

For the owners, publishers, and editors of the The New York Review of Books anti-Communism is still alive. The periodical occupies a unique, indispensable role in fostering and sustaining Cold War myths and legends.

The New York Review of Books has embraced rabid anti-Communism since its opportunistic birth in the midst of a newspaper strike. Founded by a cabal of virulent anti-Communists with identifiable links to the CIA through The Paris Review and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, NYRB maintains the posture of the popular intellectual journal for academics, high-brow book clubbers, and coffee shop leftists for over half a century. Seldom would an issue go by without an earnest petition signed by intellectual celebrities pointing to human rights concerns in some far-off land that was coincidentally (perhaps?) also in the crosshairs of the US State Department. To be sure, the NYRB would muster a measure of indignation over the most egregious US adventures, particularly when they threatened to blemish the US image as the New Jerusalem.

Even with the Cold War behind us, the NYRB maintains an active stable of virulent anti-Soviet writers, partly to hustle its back list of Cold War classics and obscure “dissident” scribblers, partly to pre-empt any serious anti-capitalist thought that might emerge shorn of Red-dread.

Paul Robeson on Trial

In a recent essay/book review (The Emperor Robeson, 2-08-18), the NYRB brought its Red-chopping hatchet to the legacy of Paul Robeson in a piece transparently ill-motivated and poisonous.

Paul Robeson was nothing if not an exceptional, courageous political figure who galvanized US racial and political affairs in mid-century. Yet NYRB assigned Simon Callow, a UK theater personality, to the writing task despite the fact that he reveals in an interview cited in Wikipedia that “I’m not really an activist, although I am aware that there are some political acts one can do that actually make a difference…” And his essay bears out this confession along with his embarrassing ignorance of US history and the dynamics of US politics.

Callow begins his essay seemingly determined to prove his inadequacy to the task: “When I was growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Robeson was much in evidence… His name was haloed with the sort of respect accorded to few performers…” He then goes on at some length, heaping praise on Robeson. Then suddenly at “some point in the 1960s, he faded from our view…”

Whether Callow’s impressions are reflective of the UK experience is irrelevant. Surely, the important truth, the relevant fact, is that in Robeson’s country– the US– he was, throughout that time, a veritable non-person, the victim of a merciless witch hunt. To fail to acknowledge the fact that Robeson and his work were virtually unknown, were erased by the thought police, underscores Callow’s unfitness to discuss Robeson’s career. Indeed, members of the crowd that sought, at that time, to put lipstick on the ugly pig of racism and anti-Communism were soon to found the NYRB.

To say, as Callow does, that before the Cold War Robeson was “…lionized on both sides of the Atlantic…” is to display an unbelievable ignorance of the racial divide in the US. Robeson’s unequalled command of and success at multiple disciplines failed to spare him the indignities and inequalities that befell all African Americans in that era of US apartheid.

As for the post-World War II Red-scare, Callow simply ignores it as if it never occurred. Never mind the harassment, the surveillance, the denied careers, the confiscated passports, and the HUAC subpoenas that Robeson, like thousands of others, suffered from a hysterical, vicious anti-Communist witch hunt. For Callow, Robeson’s problems spring from a meeting granted by then President Truman in which Robeson had the audacity to make demands on his government. “From that moment on…” Callow tells us, “…the government moved to discredit Robeson at every turn…”

What a deft, nimble way to skirt the suffocating, life-denying effects of an entire era of unbridled racism and anti-Communism.

And, from Callow’s myopic perspective, Robeson’s campaign for peace and Cold War sanity resulted in “…universal approbation turned overnight into nearly universal condemnation.” For Callow, standing for peace against the tide of mindless conformity and mass panic is not the mark of courage and integrity, but a tragic career move.

In contrast to Paul Robeson’s life-long defiance of unjust power, Callow attributes a different approach to Robeson’s father, William: “But the lesson was clear: the only way out of poverty and humiliation was hard, hard work– working harder than any white man would have to, to achieve a comparable result.” One waits futilely to read that this reality is precisely what son, Paul, was trying to correct.

Like so many of today’s belated, measured “admirers” of Paul Robeson, Callow cannot resist delving into Robeson’s sexual proclivities, an interest which bears relevance that frankly escapes me. Similarly, Callow raises the matter of Robeson’s mental health and his withdrawal from public life.

Rather than considering the toll that decades of selfless struggle and tenacious resistance might have taken on Robeson’s body and mind, as it did countless other victims of the Red Scare, Callow contrives different explanations. “Robeson, it is clear, knew that his dream was just that: that the reality was otherwise. But he had to maintain his faith, otherwise what else was there?” So, for Callow, Robeson’s bad faith was responsible for mental issues and ill health. It was not a medical condition, the emotional stress of racism, or the repression of his political views that explain his decline. Instead, it was the consequences of bad politics.

Paraphrasing the author of a book on Robeson that Callow favors, he speculates that Robeson’s physical and mental decline “may have directly stemmed from the desperate requests from Robeson’s Russian friends to help them get out of the nightmarish world they found themselves in.” We are asked to believe that a man who resisted every temptation of success, defied the racial insults of his time, and steadfastly defended his commitment to socialism was brought to his knees by anti-Soviet media rumors? Certainly, there is no evidence for this outlandish claim.

Again, using author Jeff Sparrow (No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson) as his mouthpiece, Callow reveals his “problem” with Robeson: “…Robeson’s endorsement of Stalin and Stalin’s successors, his refusal to acknowledge what had been done in Stalin’s name, is the tragedy of his life.” In other words, like Budd Schulberg’s fictional snitch in On the Waterfront, if Robeson had only denounced his class, ratted on his friends, and bent to authority, he could have been a “contender” for the respect of liberals and the blessings of bourgeois success. But since he didn’t, his life was “a pitiful spectacle.”

Thankfully, there are still many who draw inspiration from the “pitiful spectacle” of Paul Robeson’s extraordinary life.

One Who Does

As if misunderstanding Robeson were not enough, Callow attacks a prominent scholar who does understand Robeson’s legacy. In contrast with his fawning review of the Sparrow book (“as different as chalk and cheese”), Callow demeans the contribution of one of the most gifted and thorough chroniclers of the page in history that included the life of Robeson. As a historian, Gerald Horne’s prodigious work stretches across books on such politically engaged Robeson contemporaries as WEB DuBois, Ben Davis, Ferdinand Smith, William Patterson, Shirley Graham DuBois, and John Howard Lawson. His writings explore the blacklist and The Civil Rights Congress, both keys to understanding Robeson and his time. In most cases, they represent the definitive histories of the subject.

But Callow prefers the shallow Sparrow account that substitutes the overused literary devices of “in search of../searching for…” to mask its limited scholarly ambition.

Callow is baffled by Horne’s Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. Horne’s insistence that Robeson was a ‘revolutionary’ makes Callow apoplectic (“…page after page…”). But if Robeson was not an authentic, modern US revolutionary, then who was?

Callow cannot find a “clear picture of Robeson’s personality” in the Horne account, a conclusion that probably should not trouble Horne who seems more interested in history rather than psychology.

Callow’s sensibilities are especially offended by Horne’s depiction of the odious Winston Churchill, the man many believe to share responsibility for the WWI blood bath at Gallipoli and the two million deaths in the Bengal famine of 1943. It seems that Horne’s words for the short, chubby, Champagne and Cognac-loving prima donna– “pudgy, cigar-chomping, alcohol-guzzling Tory” — struck Callow’s ears as “vulgar.”

But Callow spews his own venomous insults: Horne’s book lacks “…articulate analysis, his account is numbing and bewildering in equal measure, like being addressed from a dysfunctional megaphone…”

Horne’s concluding endorsement of the relevance of Marx and Engels famous slogan– Workers of the World, Unite! –really brings Callow’s rancor to a boil: “I’m sorry to break it to Mr. Horne, but he doesn’t. And it isn’t.”

We surely know which side of the barricades Simon Callow has chosen.

The Legacy

The legacy of Paul Robeson has been maintained for the four decades since his death by his comrades and allies of the left, principally the Communist left. Most of those who worked and fought alongside of him have also passed away. Yet a small, but dedicated group of a few academics and more political activists have continued to tell his story and defend his values against a torrent of hostility or a wall of silence. Through the decades, he has been forced out of the mainstream– the history books and popular culture.

Of course, he was not alone in suffering anonymity for his Communist politics. Another giant who was brought down by Cold War Lilliputians, denigrated by hollow mediocrities, was African American Communist, Claudia Jones. Until recently, her powerful thinking on race, women’s rights, and socialism could only be found by those willing to search dusty corners of used book stores.

Perhaps no one promised to live and further Robeson’s legacy than the young writer Lorraine Hansberry, celebrated before her tragic death for her popular play, A Raisin in the Sun. Her work with Robeson and WEB DuBois on the paper, Freedom, brought her politics further in line with theirs: militant anti-racist, anti-imperialist, pro-socialist, Communist.

Forgotten by those who wish to portray her as a mere cultural critic, she famously called out Robert Kennedy’s elitist, patronizing posture in a meeting with Black civil rights leaders as enthusiastically recalled by James Baldwin.

Ignored by those who would like to see her as simply another civil rights reformer, her speech at a Monthly Review fundraiser, shortly before her death, resounds with revolutionary fervor:

If the present Negro revolt is to turn into a revolution, become sophisticated in the most advanced ideas abroad in the world, a leadership which will have had exposure to the great ideas and movements of our time, a Negro leadership which can throw off the blindness of parochialism and bathe the aspirations of the Negro people in the realism of the twentieth century, a leadership which has no illusion about the nature of our oppression and will no longer hesitate to condemn, not only the results of that oppression, but also the true and inescapable cause of it—which of course is the present organization of American society.

Today, there is a renewed interest in Robeson, Claudia Jones, and Lorraine Hansberry. Articles, books, and documentaries are appearing or are in the works. Some are offering ‘new’ perspectives on the lives of these extraordinary people, exploring aspects of their lives that show that their humanity perhaps reached further than previously thought. Yes, they were Communists, but they were not just Communists. Indeed, they belong to the world.

However, it would be a great tragedy if they were denied their conviction that capitalism– the present organization of American society, in Hansberry’s words– represented the foundation of other oppressions. It would be criminally dishonest if there were no acknowledgement that they were made enemies of the state precisely because they embraced socialism. For an African American, in racist, Cold War mid-century USA, the decision to embrace Communism was not taken lightly or frivolously. Robeson, Jones, and Hansberry knew exactly what that commitment meant to the forces of repression. And they risked it. They should be looked upon as people’s champions for their courage.

New researchers are welcome to explore other dimensions of the lives of these unbending fighters for social justice. But their authentic legacies are needed now more than ever.

Greg Godels