An Excerpt of My Thesis: Dissident Americanism and (Black) Double-Consciousness


Paul Robeson

Dissident Americanism and Double-Consciousness (pgs 16-19)

The Council on African Affairs continued to stress trans- Atlantic internationalism despite the turning of the tides.  Essentially, the Council rejected the notion of a singular Black experience, instead recognizing the common thread that winds itself through the fabrics of the histories of diasporic Africans and Africans alike- that of colonialism.  In a speech at a CAA- sponsored rally at Madison Square Garden, Paul Robeson asserted that “the Negro- and I mean American Negroes as well as West Indians and Africans- has a direct and first- hand understanding, which most people lack, of what imperialist exploitation and oppression is.”

Using Negro as a universal appellation for people of color, Robeson continued on to speak for his ‘brothers’ in colonial bondage, framing Africa as a continent of “immense and immeasurable wealth and resources” which imperialists covet, and anti- imperialists must defend.   Ten years later, 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.”

As an African- American, his dual citizenship obliged him to a civic duty to both his birthplace and his motherland.  With this in mind, equality in the eyes of the law and self- determination, both domestically and abroad, mattered more than the Cold War.

This dual- citizenship is the politicized equivalent to the double-consciousness discussed by W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright in the first half of the twentieth century.  This double- consciousness moved beyond mere African-American exceptionalism, allowing for a Pan-African, trans Atlantic conceptions of history and struggle.   In his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois described the Negro as one who was born with a veil.  This veil afforded the Negro “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”

DuBois’ conception of the Negro was characterized by a ‘twoness;’ he was both African and American, and both identities were distinct.  Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, explored the limits of this ‘double- consciousness’ stretching DuBois’ spiritual and psychological ‘double- consciousness’ to social and economic paradigms.

Paul Gilroy’s discussion of the Black Atlantic downplays the tensions of this ‘twoness,’ casting the hybridity of the African diasporic community in wholly positive terms.  Breaking down double-consciousness into three modes: thinking (racial), being (nationalistic) and seeing (diasporic), Gilroy ties DuBois’ construction of ‘double-consciousness’ with Pan-Africanist impulses.

Robeson is inscribed in this discussion because his trans-Atlantic internationalism coupled with his dual consciousness emancipated him from the limitations of nationalismThis enabled him to resist the essentialism implicit in assumptions of national homogeneity.

Double-consciousness afforded Robeson  American-ness and African-ness in a manner that allowed him to criticize American domestic policies, while permitting him to speak on the behalf of the world’s disenfranchised people of color.

U.C. Berkeley professor Waldo Martin discussed a dissident Americanism characteristic of African- American cultural politics 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.

This is clearly demonstrated in Paul Robeson’s February 1949 article entitled “I, too, Am American” in response to having been labeled as “un-American.

He attests to being banned from speaking at American universities, countering this with the example of an American nation that was built on the backs of his enslaved ancestors.  Surely, his birthright as an American entitled him to free expression.  He ends the article with the refrain, “I, too, am American.”  “I, too, am American” was also a response to sentiments similar to those expressed in Arthur Schlessinger Jr.’s 1950 article warning that the “African craze” was “retrogressive” and therefore should be abandoned.  Furthermore, he urged Black Americans to identify as Americans first and foremost.  Essentially, the African- American was to “regard himself primarily as an American, not a Negro; an American not a descendant of Africa.”

Schlessinger, a leading figure in the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, ended his article succinctly with a note to African- Americans, warning them to leave internationalism to Paul Robeson.  Schlessinger’s article advised a narrowing of Blacks’ political concerns from the international sphere to the domestic sphere.

As acting chairman of the Council on African Affairs, Paul Robeson signed a petition calling for the United Nations to punish the United States government for its complicity in legal lynchings of African- Americans in 1951.  This petition was the entitled “We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People”….

The document took a strong anti-lynching stance, utilizing historical lessons on genocide and fascism, and appealing to United Nations Article II: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted December 1948).

Outlining the procedures for punishing the crime of genocide, the Civil Rights Congress asserted that lynching was genocide.  Taking a lesson from Nazi Germany, the article made the argument that genocide leads to fascism, which leads to war, casting lynching as a “world matter” before the General Assembly.


36 Acklyn R Lynch. “Paul Robeson: His Dreams Know No Frontiers”. The Journal of Negro Education. vol. 45, no. 3 (Summer 1976). pp. 225- 234

37 Paul Robeson Here I Stand. (Boston: Beacon Press. 1958). p. xix

38 W.E.B. DuBois,. The Souls of Black Folk. Signet Classic. New York. 1995. pp. 45

39 William Lyne. “The Signifying Modernist: Ralph Ellison and the Limits of the Double Consciousness”. Modern Language Association, Vol. 107, No. 2 (Mar., 1992), pp. 319-318. accessed 09/03/2009

40 Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1993). pp. 126

41 Samir Dayal. “Diaspora and Double Consciousness”. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 48. accessed: 09/03/2009

42 Waldo E. Martin. No Coward Soldiers: Black Cultural Politics in Postwar America. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 11, 19

43 “I, Too, Am American,” Paul Robeson, Reynolds News, London, February 27, 1949 (Foner, 191- 193)

44 James, L  Roark.” American Black Leaders: The Response to Colonialism and the Cold War, 1943- 1953”.  African Historical Studies. Vol. 4, No. 2. 1971. pp. 269

45 We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People. Contributors: Civil Rights Congress. (New York: International Publishers.16161970). pp. iv.- 238

46 Charles P. Henry. “U.S. human rights petitions before the UN”. The Black Scholar. 26:3-4 [Fall 1996-Winter 1997].  accessed 16-03-2009:


  1. Wonderful! I’ve always found Robeson’s “Because my father was a slave…” quote to be particularly relevant now, during the Obama presidency, with so many “real Americans” questioning the loyalty and motives of people of color here.

    I’m not familiar with Schlessinger (adding to my reading list pronto), but I have to say that I disagree with his idea that Blacks should narrow their political concerns to the domestic as opposed to the international. Seems that those types of sentiments could really disconnect us from similar issues that our African brothers and sisters face. Sure, take care of home first, but never disregard issues abroad. (Just my two cents.)

    1. I agree wholeheartedly! The whole issue of POC being told that they should be uncritically patriotic makes me shake my head.

      I’m glad Paul Robeson stood up to HUAC. Jackie Robinson couldn’t do the same, but hey *shrugs* He’s in the history books, not Paul Robeson. Did you know that Langston Hughes excluded Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois from a history book for kids (focusing on Black history)?

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