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How Britain Made Paul Robeson a Socialist

Pioneering black singer Paul Robeson was born on this day in 1898. One of America’s great radical figures, it was his encounters with Britain’s labour movement which inspired his socialist and anti-imperialist politics.

American actor and singer Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976) leaves Waterloo Station in London, to catch the 'Majestic' boat train, 25th September 1935. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On a cool London day in 1928, the towering African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson sat down for a much-anticipated lunch. Seated with him were his new acquaintances: a Miss Douglas, the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, the wife of American President Calvin Coolidge. Robeson witnessed a heated debate ensue between Shaw and Coolidge. The topic was socialism. ‘When Shaw asked me what I thought of Socialism,’ Robeson recalled later, ‘I hadn’t anything to say. I’d never really thought about Socialism.’ 

Born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898, Paul Robeson was at that moment in the opening stages of an acting and singing career that would win him almost unparalleled international fame. This fame came in part due to the variety of his talents. ‘I never failed to be amazed at the combination in one person of great strength, great tenderness and great intellectuality,’ the communist folk singer Pete Seeger wrote of Robeson. He exhibited the great strength of a professional football player, the tenderness of a stage actor, and the intellectuality of a lawyer who, despite racial prejudice, had finished at the top of his class. As a Black man from a segregated country, the son of a freed slave with ancestors who were forced from their homeland, Robeson fought against the novel ideas of success that America had instilled in him, opting instead for what he described as building ‘the richest and highest development of one’s own potential.’ 

The part of this monumental life conducted in London, from the late 1920s through the 1930s, would stir Robeson personally, professionally, and above all politically. As the twentieth century progressed, he would become one of the most outspoken advocates for socialism — a politics that would result in the US revoking his passport, blacklisting him, and purging his name from the history books.

The Most Respected American in London

Robeson was in London in 1928 for the opening of Show Boat at the Drury Lane Theatre. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name included a character, Joe, written for a specific lofty Black actor. Due to scheduling conflicts, Robeson was noticeably absent from the first showing on Broadway, but on Drury Lane, his deep, thundering voice sang out his now-famous rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’. 

Although brief, this moment in the show left an enduring impression on the audience. Marie Seton, a British actress, critic, and friend of Robeson, recalled in the book Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner that ‘everything else in Show Boat was forgotten by both audience and critic.’ He was booked as a singer in the same theatre, performing in Show Boat nightly while singing a solo concert on Sundays. It was at this moment that everyone, from Chelsea’s intelligentsia to Clapham’s youth, was talking about Paul Robeson. He became, as Seton put it, ‘the most admired and respected American in London.’

Paul Robeson attends a rally against nuclear armament organised by the British Peace Committee, Trafalgar Square, London. (Express/Express/Getty Images)

Paul and his wife, Essie, decided to stay in London, purchasing a home in Hampstead overlooking the Heath. The London press covered extensively the Robesons’ attendance at social gatherings where they would, with a degree of hesitation, mix with some of the most prominent individuals and families of the city. ‘Within six months, Londoners read of Robeson moving in circles where they had seldom if ever heard of an actor moving before,’ Seton observed; ‘among those who were authorities on the British Empire, its economics and politics, and among the leading members of the Labour Party, who were the traditional opponents of British imperialism.’ 

As London, that city once described by an American journalist as a ‘bottomless receptacle of empire,’ embraced Robeson, so too did those on all sides of the imperial struggle. Robeson recalled one large party hosted by the publisher and imperialist Lord Beaverbrook ending with ‘our sitting with a group all night after H.G. Wells had just walked up to me and begun to ask me a lot of questions.’ The American, who was treated as a second-class citizen by many of his countrymen back home, came to be summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace and was befriended by Members of Parliament. It was also in London that Robeson befriended anti-colonial leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Jawaharlal Nehru of India.

In November of 1928, Robeson was invited by a group of Labour MPs for lunch at the House of Commons. Seated next to him was former prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, who discussed with Robeson the future of the British colonies. Later, Robeson was escorted by James Maxton and Ellen Wilkinson to the tea room where they informed him that the Borough of Battersea, just over the Thames, had re-elected the Indian-born communist and the Labour Party’s first MP of colour, Shapurji Saklatvala, an individual whose politics would’ve landed him in a British prison had he still lived in India. 

The lasting effects of these conversations were evident years later. In 1951, Robeson would deliver with William Patterson a petition from the Civil Rights Congress to the United Nations charging the United States with genocide against Black Americans, which argued that the prevalent police violence, economic racism, and denial of voting rights in that nation amounted to ‘the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.’ As he’d reflected after leaving London: ‘My whole social and political development was in England and I became as much a part of English life as I now am of America.’

Political Formation

In 1929, Robeson toured Europe, further expanding his worldview and politics. He witnessed the distinct yet universal struggles and cultures of the continent, from the poverty of the Viennese people to the similarities between Hungarian folk songs and ‘Negro spirituals’. He sang some of those spirituals in Albert Hall on returning to London, and then on a provincial tour that included Blackpool, Birmingham, Brighton, Torquay, Eastbourne, Folkestone, Margate, Hastings, Southsea, and Douglas. ‘Very early,’ Robeson recalled, ‘I had the idea of singing in the summer at the spas and seaside resorts. It seemed to me a way to reach the British public.’ 

Paul Robeson in ‘The Proud Valley’, 1940

In that period, Robeson also met striking Welsh miners. He’d been enraptured by the harmonies of group mineworkers who had travelled to London by foot from the Rhondda valley to demonstrate against poverty pay and dangerous conditions, and he joined their protest, sparking a long-lasting and formative relationship. The parallels he perceived between the racist oppression of Black Americans and the exploitation of Britain’s miners and industrial workers would shape his socialist and internationalist politics, with Robeson later reflecting, ‘It’s from the miners in Wales [that] I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.’

This bond with Welsh miners culminated in the anti-racist, pro-labour 1940 film The Proud Valley. Set in South Wales, Robeson played an unemployed African-American seaman embraced by miners after choir leaders heard him sing. Of his numerous provoking film roles — in Show Boat, The Emperor Jones, and King Solomon’s Mines — his role in The Proud Valley remains one of the few characters that Robeson was proud of politically. In the prime of his acting career, the radicalised Robeson had begun turning down degrading, shallow, and stereotypical roles, instead seeking out chances to ‘depict the Negro as he really is — not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen.’ 

Robeson Against the Colour Bar

Of course, Robeson’s time in London was not all positive inspiration. In 1929, Lady Colefax, a steady host of parties for the city’s artists and actors, invited him and Essie to a party at the Savoy Grill, into which the couple then found themselves refused entry on arrival. It turned out there was an unspoken policy among management, kindled by the American tourists who frequented the venue, to bar access to people of colour. Such a policy would’ve been commonplace in the segregated US or even a British colony, but it was unexpected in London — and after African and West Indian community groups called a press conference, it triggered a massive outcry.

Within the week, Labour MP James Marley announced that he’d raise the issue in the House of Commons, and Ramsay MacDonald, then in his second prime ministerial term, said it was against hotel practices, although he declined to intervene at a government level. The Quakers set up a joint ‘Negro-white council’ to muster public opinion against racism; Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard published an article by Richard Hughes calling for an investigation of all hotels in London; hotel managers from a variety of establishments, including the Mayfair, the Berkeley, and the Ritz, came out opposing the Savoy Grill’s actions. Although no legal action followed, public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of the Robesons and against discrimination.

As the Black American writer James Baldwin would later write about moving to France, ‘one had to come into contact with these institutions in order to understand that they were also outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel.’ It was in Paris, that city where he ‘didn’t feel socially attacked, but relaxed,’ and that allowed him ‘to be loved,’ that Baldwin was also arrested for using bed sheets his friend had taken from a hotel. 

Robeson, too, cherished a degree of social relaxation in London relative to America, a country where violent attacks on his concerts were not uncommon. But he also experienced first-hand and bore witness to the ongoing injustices of European hierarchies and institutions, with the Savoy Grill controversy being just one example. On another day, Robeson heard an aristocrat angrily talking to a chauffeur as one might a dog. It was a far smaller event, one probably reflected in similar scenes happening across the city at that moment, but it shook Robeson. ‘I realised that the fight of my Negro people in America and the fight of the oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle,’ he reflected. ‘That incident made me very sad for a year.’ 

Few likely understood these contradictions better than Claudia Jones, a former leader in the Communist Party of America, who, after deportation from the US, had founded the West Indian Gazette — and would later play a central role in the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival — in London. Her paper hosted the Robesons at what was described as a ‘festive event’ in 1959; ‘because of Jones’ efforts, the couple was greeted by famed percussionists from Ghana,’ Robeson biographer Gerald Horne writes. In London, both Robeson and Jones could actually enjoy press coverage that reflected their work and their achievements, Horne also observes, whereas American journalists only cared to sensationalise their connections to the Communist Party. 

An Enduring Change

The racism and class exploitation Robeson experienced in England didn’t slow him down. In 1930, he played Othello onstage in London, the first Black man to do so in a hundred years — he was supposed to perform the role in America afterwards, but the production was cancelled under racist pressure. In 1931, he was one of the first singers to record in a new studio called EMI Recording Studios, which would later become Abbey Road Studios; in 1934 he enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he studied the culture of his African ancestors.

Robeson attends an afterparty following the opening performance of ‘Othello’. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty)

That same year, at the invitation of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, and along with Essie and Seton, Robeson ventured on his first trip to the Soviet Union, where he felt like ‘a human being for the first time in [his] life.’ It was not solely Eisenstein, a great friend and creative mentor to Robeson, who convinced him to make the journey. Multiple experiences in London inspired curiosity in him, one being a conversation with the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral who told Robeson enthusiastically about what he’d heard of the great socialist state. 

A second, more confrontational situation arose at the League of Colored Peoples in London, where Robeson was speaking about the importance of African culture. A man stood up in the back and yelled at the intellectuals to recognise the class dynamics of the exploited masses in Africa. ‘Why don’t you go [to] Africa, especially why don’t you follow what’s going on in the Soviet Union,’ the man shouted. Robeson later reflected on the transaction, admitting he ‘accepted the challenge’: ‘A couple of weeks later I found myself in Moscow.’

Robeson starred in a number of interwar British films and plays before permanently moving back to the US in the lead-up to the Second World War, where his fame and radical politics saw him blacklisted and stripped of his right to travel abroad. As it happened, he had also been watched by MI5 while in England, with one 1943 report complaining he was ‘rather strongly anti-white.’ 

It would be years before McCarthyism died down enough to allow Robeson the ability to have a career and travel again. But the repression didn’t stop him from trying. In May of 1957, he sang to a sold-out audience in London. Since he couldn’t perform in person, he sang via the newly completed transatlantic telephone cable. In October, he used the same technology to sing to an audience of 5,000 in Wales. Holding on as tight as ever to the importance of international connection in collective liberation, he told the London audience down the line: ‘Undoubtedly, one result [of this solidarity] will be concrete activity here around the implementation of our basic freedoms.’