The Intersectionality of Black Cultural Politics, Internationalism and Nationalism

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

In a June 4, 1939 interview in the Sunday Worker, Eugene Gordon wrote of the warm reception Paul Robeson received in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory when he “adapted Russian words to a Negro folk lullaby.”1  Robeson was greatly acclaimed as journalists lauded him as “more truly representative of the United States than any American artist.”  Paul Robeson stated in a 1937 speech that “the artist must take sides.”  He differentiated the performer and the artist, identifying himself as an artist, thus acknowledging his responsibility to lend his voice to the causes of disenfranchised peoples.  Implicit in this conviction was the sense that silence was complicity.  The African- American folk tradition that he brought to the stage had extended beyond the exceptionalism of his people’s history, bringing voice to a global working- class culture.  Paul Robeson’s affirmation of African- American folk culture and his constant reiteration of the working- class as the seat of power and culture no doubt resonated across the globe.  This moment was a cultural marker demonstrating the intersectionality of Black consciousness, politicization and dual- consciousness as the African- American folk song became a universal mode of expression.

Paul Robeson was not the first to bring the African- American folk song to the international stage.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the later the Hampton Singers battled rampant racial discrimination to bring their harmonies across the United States, England and Europe in the early 1870s.2  Performing in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland before a constituency accustomed to minstrelsy and blackface, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were lauded in newspapers as “real Negroes” and their performance was weighed relative to contemporary minstrel performances.3  The Fisk Jubilee singers met criticism when they “smoothed” their voices, altered the grammar and employed a ‘proper tune’ in their arrangement of the spirituals.  Professor Lawrence W. Levine contended that “in the process of transmission from the praise house to the concert hall the songs were denatured into a form more compatible with Euro- American musical tastes.”4   An ex- slave commented that “dose are de same old tunes, but some way they do’n sound right.”  Another expressed dissatisfaction at the accompaniment: “I do not like the way they messed up our songs with classical music.”  The latter quote highlights the collectivity of African- American folk culture (“our songs”); the spiritual and the work songs were products of collective creativity.  Moreover, translating that collective creativity before an audience foreign to the culture while retaining authenticity was a challenge.  Paul Gilroy posited that “Black people singing slave songs as mass entertainment set new public standards of authenticity for black cultural expression;” authenticity was not measured only by adherence to tradition, rather it was legitimized by the distance from “the racial codes of minstrelsy.”5 There is little doubt that African- American musical traditions found a wider audience; John Wesley Work commented in 1915 that “one would be as likely to hear Negro Folk songs at St. Peter’s at Rome as in Fisk University.”

Paul Robeson retained the grammatical structure of the Negro folk song, while arranging the songs with classical music.  In his rich tenor voice, he conveyed the soulfulness of the songs of his people.  In his rendition of “Joshua fit de Battle ob Jericho,” Robeson enunciated carefully, to a piano arrangement, without deviating from the vernacular of his predecessors.  The fidelity of his performances to tradition distanced him and differentiated him from minstrel performances, and his appearance reassured the authenticity of his renditions.  Arguably, Robeson was more distanced from the specter of minstrelsy than the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Singers.  However, this is not to say that he was not subject to the same racism faced by his predecessors.  Son of a former slave, growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson was certainly familiar with systematic and habitual racism, and the accompanying duality of his simultaneous invisibility and heightened visibility as a Black man.6  Coupled with his height and build, his skin color afforded him a great deal of visibility.  As a Black man, the supposed inferiority signified by his skin color marked him as invisible and unremarkable within a racial hegemonic structure.  In his films, plays and songs, he attempted to show positive images of African- Americans to counter the cultural images of the “uncultured, lazy or sly Black person that were rooted in slavery.”7  In his work as an actor, he made sure that his characters were not the stock stereotypes generally ascribed to Blacks.  Notably in the plays The Emperor Jones and Othello, Robeson portrayed particularly dominant and well-rounded protagonists.

On June 15, 1934, Paul Robeson published an article in The Spectator (a London- based arts and culture publication) titled “The Culture of the Negro.”  He began with the words of critics who reproached him for refusing to pursue a career as an opera singer and rebutted them with his obligation to bring his culture to the fore.  He recalled being laughed at for suggesting the performance of Negro spirituals in a concert setting before an English audience: “How could these utterly simple, indeed, almost savage songs interest the most sophisticated audience in the world?”8  In reply, Robeson made an analogy between Negro spirituals and Negro culture parallel to the canonical works of English poets in relation to English culture.  He made the analogy by referring to his studies at the London School of Oriental Languages where he began his study of isiSwahili and the Bantu language group.  In these studies he found a “kinship of rhythm and intonation” between the languages of East and West Africa and the vernacular English of African- Americans in the South.9  Concluding the article, Robeson affirmed the value of African- American culture.  He broached the same subject in greater detail three years later on his third visit to the U.S.S.R. in a Sunday Worker article titled “When I Sing.” This particular visit to the Soviet Union “under the auspices of the Moscow State Philharmonic” afforded Robeson greater opportunities to immerse himself in Soviet culture.  He contended that “the Russian folk songs and those of the Soviet National Republics… bear a close relationship to folk songs of the Negro people.”10  Linking the plight of people of color globally, he illustrates his point.  Peoples of color “who are poor, landless and disenfranchised” share a common experience of subjugation and oppression and their folk music is an expression of their personhood and consciousness.

This understanding matured over time.  As he became more politicized, Robeson expanded his repertoire from Negro spirituals and began to include African, Welsh, Scotch Hebridian, Russian, Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs.  He termed these “songs for my people.”11  In a 1951 article titled “The People of America are the Power,” he asserts that power rests in the working- class, the seat of culture.  Paul Robeson again states that he “saw the likenesses between songs of different peoples” and began to learn their folk songs.  He had sung with Welsh miners, Scotch workers, African and West Indian seamen in the course of a decade, establishing kinship ties with those engaged in a struggle for full citizenship- workers and colonial subjects.  This meshed well with his declaration that the artist must take sides- either the artist must fight for freedom or he is complicit in the enslavement of peoples around the world.12  Silence is complicity, dissent is patriotism.

The African- American folk songs Robeson performed were either spirituals, or they were working songs which conformed to the cadence of the laborers.  Between 1946 and 1951, he would sing no other songs- none but the songs of his people.13  In the July 1949 edition of Sovietskaia Muzyka, Robeson published a piece on Negro folk culture; in it he cited the necessity of understanding kindred cultures.  This article was preceded by a performance in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory where he “felt the full force of this passionate interest in and love of our folk songs.”14 Although his Soviet audience felt a sense of sympathy with his own culture, he felt it necessary that his audience understood the roots and significance of African- American folk songs as “Soviet audiences are insufficiently acquainted with the history of Negro music and do not, perhaps, have a completely clear idea of the origins, sources and the real content of Negro lyrics.”15

He continued on to refute an argument made by American musicologists that contended that African- American musical tradition was heavily influenced by English church music.  Countering this assertion, Robeson pointed out that English liturgical tradition in the South was never comparable to the “artistic merit… [of] Negro music.”  He acknowledges a level of reciprocal influence between African- Americans and the Christian liturgical tradition.  Furthermore, he sought to dismantle the false idea that the African- American is savage and therefore incapable of possessing a culture by demonstrating the artistic traditions of the African peoples.  Their language was full of complex intonational structures even before the advance of European colonization.  Tracing the roots of the basal rhythm and harmony of African- American music to the African continent, Robeson established continuity in the folk musical tradition of African- Americans, suggesting that the richness of the music did not simply arise from circumstances at one point in time.

Paul Robeson also divided Negro folk music between spirituals, work songs, songs of protest and later blues; the latter three being collective creations, and the former being the expression of the individual.  He made this distinction to avoid the essentialization of African- Americans as entirely spiritual.  Furthermore, he observed the secularization of African- American culture, noting that the content and meaning of many spirituals was “far removed from religious concepts.”16  Using the spiritual “Heab’n” as an example, he notes the significance of “up North” to African- American slaves in the mid- nineteenth century.  Frederick Douglass testified that ‘heab’n’ in this song referred not to the Christian heaven, but North where the Black man could taste freedom.
I got a robe, you got a robe,
All of God’s children got a robe.
When I get to heab’n goin’ to put on my robe.
Goin’ to shout all over God’s heab’n.
Ev’rybody talkin’ about heab’n ain’t goin’ there,
Goin’ to shout all over God’s heab’n

The work song was characterized by the rhythmic choral refrain alternating between “a free recitative solo.  One example of a work song is the “Cott’n Pickin’ Song” created by Black cotton pickers in Florida: to the cadence of their work, the cotton- pickers sing in unison:
This cott’n want a pickin’
So bad!
This cott’n want a pickin’
So bad!
Goin’ clean all over this farm

The Workleader then adds his grievance:
When the boss sold that cott’n,
I asked for my half.
He told me I chopped out
My half with the grass

Perhaps what motivated Robeson to publish ‘Songs of my People’ was the same defensiveness that Lawrence W. Levine discussed in Black Culture and Black Consciousness.  In his discussion of the presentation of the Negro spiritual to a world audience, he alludes to the defensiveness of Black intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This defensiveness arose from an acute awareness of a particular perception of Black music filtered through the lens of racism.  The Negro folk song was perceived as inferior and laughable.  At the centennial celebration of Columbus, Mississippi, Black field hands performed their “wild and original” songs before a primarily white audience who found their performance humorous and blundering.  James Weldon Johnson, composer of the Black National Anthem, argued that “the maker of the [Negro] song was struggling as best as he could under his limitations in language.”17  His argument demonstrated the discomfort at bringing the Negro folk song before an audience that was generally ignorant of the intricacies of Black culture.  On the other hand, scholars treated Negro spirituals as exceptional, elevating them “to a point where their essence became distorted.”18  In this case, Robeson elevated the Negro spiritual to the status of an international mode of expression.  However, the essence of the Negro spiritual was not diluted in this process.  The struggle found expression in these songs; the longing expressed in the Negro song was found in the mines of Southern Wales, the communes of Soviet Russia and the seaports of the West Indies.

Following a 1938 performance in Madrid before the troops of the International Brigade (volunteers fighting on the side of the Spanish government against the fascists), Paul Robeson concluded that the “Battlefront is everywhere.”  His politicization was apparent in his performance of ‘Ol Man River’ on the 1935 film Show Boat.  Turning “Ol’ Man River” on its head, he switched the passive lyric “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin'” for the more radical “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’,”     The song was no longer about the “niggers” and “darkies” working on the Mississippi River, it was now a vocal expression of the disenfranchised worker.  This consciousness was an impetus for the diffusion of the Negro spiritual as a medium of expression.

However, Robeson’s American-ness was called into question when he proclaimed the Soviet Union as his home, where he saw “no signs of racial discrimination.”19 The federal campaign against Black militancy predated the Cold War and no exception was made for Paul Robeson.  He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Tenney Committee several times in the 1940s and 1950s.  In 1956, testifying before House Un- American Activities Committee, Robeson was asked why he did not stay in the Soviet Union.  His reply appealed to African- American exceptionalism:  “Because 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.”20  While criticizing American foreign and domestic policy, Robeson was also holding fast to the promise of America.  This is the dissident Americanism that Professor Waldo Martin refers to in his book No Coward Soldiers: Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America.  Despite their “conflicted, sometimes antagonistic relationship to the American nation,” Blacks identified themselves as quintessentially American.21  This dissident Americanism coupled with the politicization of peoples of color across class lines is expressed precisely in the cultural moment of Paul Robeson’s adaptation of Russian folk songs to Negro spiritual tunes.  The African- American was both African and American and both identities were distinct.  As global citizens, matters regarding workers’ rights and the self-determination of peoples of color were of utmost importance.  And no less important were domestic matters affecting Americans.

Paul Robeson’s adaptation of Russian folk songs to Negro folk rhythms was a significant cultural marker.  The intersectionality of Black consciousness, politicization and dual-consciousness was apparent in the moment that the African- American folk song became a universal mode of expression.  As an individual, Robeson was both African and American.  The identities were distinct, and their political importance would play a greater role in African- American nationalism and internationalism.  This necessitated a thrust beyond the exceptionalism of African- American history and experience.  Moreover, the defense and affirmation of African- American folk culture was essential to a sense of race pride.  Those simple and powerfully delivered songs bridged a domestic and international divide within and without the African-American community.  Linking Black political consciousness, race pride and workers’ and peoples’ of color struggles across the globe, this moment was part of the greater phenomena of Black internationalist and nationalist politics.

Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Boston. Beacon Press. 1958. p. 36 
20 Paul Robeson Here I Stand. (Boston: Beacon Press. 1958). p. xix
21 Waldo E. Martin. No Coward Soldiers: Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 11, 19

1 “A Great Negro Artist Puts His Genius to Work for His People.” Eugene Gordon. Sunday Worker. June 4, 1939. pub. pub, Foner, Philip S. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918- 1974. New York.Brunner/ Mazel. 1978. pp. 127- 130
2 ibid. Levine, 167
3 Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press. 1993. p. 88
4  Lawrence W Levine. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro- American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. London. Oxford University Press. 2007. pp. 166
5 ibid. Gilroy, 90
6 Chambers, Colin.  Here We Stand: Politics, Performers and Performance, Paul Robeson, Isadora Duncan and Charlie Chaplin. (London: Nick Hern Books. 2006). pp. 2

7 ibid. Chambers, 16
8 The Culture of the Negro. The Spectator. London.June 15, 1934. pp. 916-7, pub. ibid. Foner (86-7)
9 ibid. Foner, 87
10 “When I Sing.” Sunday Worker. February 7, 1937. pub. ibid. Foner (115-7)
11 “The People of America at the Power.” ‘Here’s My Story.’ Freedom. April 1951. pub. ibid. Foner (270-2)
12 “The Artist Must Take Sides.” June 24, 1937. pub. ibid. Foner 118-9
13 “The People of America are the Power.” ‘Here’s My Story.’ Freedom. April 1951. pub. ibid. Foner (270-2)
14 “Songs of My People.” Sovietskaia Muzyka (Soviet Music). No. 7. July 1949. pp. 100- 104. pub. ibid. Foner (211-217)
15 ibid. Foner (212)
16 ibid. Foner, 215
17 Levine. Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro- American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. London. Oxford University Press. 2007. pp. 169
18 ibid. Levine, 169
19 ‘”I am at Home” Says Robeson at Reception in Soviet Union.’ Interview by Vern Smith.  Daily Worker. January 15, 1935. pub. pub, Foner, Philip S. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918- 1974. New York.Brunner/ Mazel. 1978. p. 94-5

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