“As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.”
The quote above is from Paul Robeson. One of the most famous faces in the world during his career peak in the thirties and forties, Robeson’s work and legacy are rarely discussed or commemorated in ways that other early film figures are. This is widely acknowledged to be a result of his political activism; he combined a successful stage, film and singing career with decades of campaigning for racial equality, anti-imperialism and an end to oppressive regimes worldwide.
His career began on stage; he starred in acclaimed dramas The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings before transferring to the big screen with roles in Show Boat, The Proud Valley and King Solomon’s Mines. Despite his success, Robeson openly criticised the limited and cliched depictions of African Americans to be found in American popular culture. Even his own work was not immune. Despite starring in it, he blasted Tales of Manhattan (1942) as “very offensive to my people” and offered to picket the film alongside anyone else who had been offended! Robeson’s vocal critiques of racism within his own country did not go unobserved; a 1971 edition of the African-American journal Freedomways was dedicated to him, wherein academics, celebrities and cultural commentators analysed his contributions to various political causes.
Robeson campaigned tirelessly to secure rights for his fellow African-Americans but also recognised and empathised with other forms of inequality across the world. His relationships, for instance, with the Miners’ and industrial communities of South Wales are well documented. In film The Proud Valley (1940), he portrayed David Goliath, an American working in the South Wales coalfields. Co-starring Rachel Thomas, the film attempts to realistically portray the hardships of industrial communities when representations of both the working classes and ethnic minorities were often broadly-drawn caricatures.
Robeson refused to dilute his political views, no matter how unpopular they might be with government officials. Despite the growing anti-Communist sentiment in America after the Second World War, he would not be drawn into the paranoid, accusatory atmosphere that defined the period. When asked about his affiliation with the Communist Party he replied: “Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary”. Such opinions cost him his passport in 1950, cutting him off from fans of both his music and his political views.
In 1957, unable to travel to the South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod at Porthcawl, it was arranged that Robeson would perform via the telephone line. The concert was a great success and the Miners’ Library holds correspondence between members of the N.U.M and Robeson’s wife Eslanda regarding the organising of the concert and its reception. In response to a question about recording royalties, Eslanda writes: “You are welcome to use whatever his share would be for the furtherance of your work there”.The relationship between Robeson, his family and South Wales industrial communities can be seen in the fond mentions Robeson affords them in his memoirs Here I Stand.
The Paul Robeson exhibition has toured to numerous locations over the years. It contains documents and artifacts from Robeson’s life and career and is managed by the Miners’ Library. There is a wealth of material at the Miners’ Library about this fascinating figure; his contribution to both artistic and political spheres are well worth re-examining.