[This memoir of a man whom James has described as “one of the most remarkable men of the century” was first published in Black World in November 1970.] -From Spheres of Existence
Paul Robeson was and remains the most marvellous human being I have ever known or seen. Yet this man was in his time feared by the great majority of white people in the United States, and today, although he is still alive, is forgotten by many of those who knew him. The present generation of militant young Blacks have not merely forgotten him. It is worse. They never
knew him, and are not aware of him. This article is a beginning. That is all it can be of such a gigantic ﬁgure.
I went to London from the West Indies in 1932 and soon got to know Paul. He was not only a very famous man in England but he was very much loved by everybody. His reputation was legendary. The English appreciate sporting heroes and Paul, it was known, had been selected for some national football team in the United States at the end of one season. He had played in Shakespeare’s Othello opposite to the Desdemona of one of the most distinguished young English actresses; he had even kissed her, which was quite an event in those days. He sang in recitals. He made films. But what was more than all this, there was his magnificent self. He was some six feet six inches in height and built in proportion, but he always had the silhouette and litheness of a great athlete. He was obviously immensely strong, strong enough to deal with two or three men at a time. Even in ordinary speech you were aware of his magnificent voice. He was obviously not only from his reputation and his achievements
but in ordinary speech, a man of unusual intelligence. But what was most important, and this everyone knew, was that despite all these accomplishments and achievements he was as gentle a man as one could meet. He never gave the slightest impression of being aware of all that he was. He spoke a lot. But Paul was always listening to what you had to say, listening and giving it great consideration. To have spent half an hour in his company or to have ten minutes alone with him, was something that you remembered for days, and if I had to sum up his personality in one word, or rather two, I would say it was the combination of immense power and great gentleness.
I used to meet him at various places, at the houses of English people who were happy to invite Blacks as well as whites to their parties; there was not too much of that in those days because there were not too many Black people around. I wrote a play using as a basis some work that I was doing on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of the revolution in the French colony of San Domingo which established the state of Haiti. Somehow—I believe through the writer Marie Seton who was a good friend of ours—the Stage Society, a very exclusive society which had given first performances of Bernard Shaw and many other playwrights who became world famous, had got hold of my manuscript. Mr Isaacs, one of their officials, said that they would play it if they could get Paul Robeson to play the leading part. It was very difficult to get him, but finally Isaacs and I ran him down at some party, told him about it and he agreed to read the script. He read it and with great simplicity and directness said, yes, he would be ready to play the role: there were not too many parts in those days which gave a Black actor, however distinguished, a role that lifted him above the servants’ quarters.
The important characters in the play were played by a body of professional actors and we rehearsed many hours a day for a number of weeks. It was then that I got to know Paul pretty well. The producer was a young man, Peter Godfrey by name, who later came to Hollywood and made films. But at times Godfrey was occupied and as the author I had to rehearse the cast. It was during those days that I had a good look at Paul and got to know him well. He was here, as elsewhere, always the centre of attention, a not easy role to fill. Besides playing the lead, he was his own extraordinary self and not only players but all who were connected with the stages where we rehearsed had their eyes fastened on him and were all ears when he spoke. Yet he continued to be that extraordinary combination of immense power enclosed in a pervading gentleness. Paul listened all the time to what Peter Godfrey or I had to say. I was somewhat naive then and was always ready to say exactly how I thought the words of the character should be said and what the character ought to do. Paul was always ready to listen and to oblige, far more so than one or two others in the cast. I remember, however, that one day we were doing a passage which I had inserted in the play almost directly from the material I had collected. I had made it into a long speech by Toussaint. If I am not mistaken, the original passage went as follows:
If self-interest alone prevails with nations and their masters, there is another power. Nature speaks in louder tones than philosophy or self-interest. Already are there established two colonies of fugitive negroes, whom treaties and power protect from assault. Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted. Where is he, that great man whom Nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty. This venerable signal will gather around him the companions of his misfortune. More impetuous than the torrents, they will everywhere leave the indelible traces of their just resentment. Everywhere people will bless the name of the hero who shall have re-established the rights of the human race; everywhere will
they raise trophies in his honour.
Paul was reading his part in the scene and suddenly his voice opened up and the transition from his usual quiet undertone to the tremendous roar of which he was capable was something to
hear. He was usually subdued but today he was giving it all he had. When he reached “Those lightnings announce the thunder. A courageous chief only is wanted,” he stopped. I and everyone looked to him to go on. He turned to me. “James,” he said, “I don’t want to go any further. I think it should stop here.” It was the first and last time that he made any changes in the script or in the positions that he was asked to take. He explained later: “I feel that that is where we should stop.” It seemed that he had been reading the passage and that was why he opened out. He was testing his ideas and he had come to a conclusion. When so quiet a man made a definite decision you automatically agreed.
Originally, the play had not in any way given him any opening to sing. One or two people thought that it would be a mistake for Paul to play and not to sing. I was not too anxious for singing to be injected into what I had written in reality for the sake of hearing a marvellous voice, but I looked at Paul and his attitude was: “I am not particular but if you all want me to sing I will
sing.” So that an opening was made and he sang a song, I believe while he was in prison.
When the play was performed he, if not it, was a great success. For the sake of the record, I quote from two notices:
Mr James’s dialogue is informative rather than suggestive: it lacks suppleness, and too many of his scenes are at their best when they depend upon Mr Paul Robeson’s almost unsupported monologues; but the work as a whole is sincere and unpretentious. For this reason, and because the dramatist, having an interesting subject, sticks to it, the play, in spite of woodenness now and then, holds the stage at the Westminster Theatre.
What binds its episodes together is Mr Robeson’s individuality . . . the action is genuinely vitalised by Mr Robeson alone. His method is unusual and its merit hard to define. By the rules that apply to others it is clumsy, but his appearance and voice entitle him to rules of his own, justifying the directness of his attack upon his audience. It brings him out of the frame and, in a play dependent on composition, would have to be modified; but this play is not a composed picture—it is almost exclusively a portrait of Toussaint-—and Mr Robeson’s interpretation of him deliberately and rightly lays stress upon his dominance and reduces his associates to the background. In a play concerned with slavery, it is much that the tone is neither whining nor of hysterical defiance, but of reasoned determination. Toussaint is at once astute and guileless,
preserving through all misfortune his personal integrity and through all triumph a cautious eye for political reality as he understands it. When he is trapped, one feels that he has been mistaken in his calculations but not in his ultimate purpose, and the sympathy evoked by Mr Robeson in his prison cell is not for a tricked Negro but for a statesman paying a price for his ideal. In brief, though the obvious characteristic of Mr Robeson's acting is its gigantic vitality,
it by no means depends upon this only, but has the special tension that springs only from disciplined emotion and balance. [Charles Darwin, The Times, 22 March 1936]
Here is one of the best known English drama critics, Ivor Brown:
Mr James's play is a careful prose-record of Toussaint’s tremendous struggle against the remorseless toughness of the European exploiters and the weakness and the flightiness of his own hard-driven people . . . Probably poetry would better have honoured the great and magnanimous figure of ebony which Mr Paul Robeson presented like some tremendous tree defying hurricanes and finally overwhelmed by the small, mean blade of French dishonesty. [The Observer, 22 March 1936]
Paul was pleased. We agreed that we should seek ways and means to do it commercially. “I can play Toussaint and you can play Dessalines, and later we can switch, you will play Toussaint and I will play Dessalines." But at that time Paul was headed towards Moscow and I, as a trotskyist, was most definitely anti-Moscow. We knew about each other and never quarrelled, but the idea of doing the play automatically faded into nothing.
But Paul and l, as a result of the rehearsals and the play, used to talk. Before I knew him he had written a famous article in The Spectator, an English journal, of 15 June 1934. It should be carefully studied today. Paul believed and told me often:
No matter in what part of the world you may find him the Negro has retained his direct emotional response to outside stimuli; he is constantly aware of an external power which guides his destiny. The white man has made a fetish of intellect and worships the God of thought; the Negro feels rather than thinks, experiences emotions directly rather than interprets them by roundabout and devious abstractions, and apprehends the outside world by means of intuitive perception instead of through a carefully built up system of logical analysis.
In this article Paul went on to say, and here again I shall use his own words:
Culturally speaking, the African Negro, as well as his American and West Indian brothers, stands at the parting of the ways. The day is past when they were regarded as something less than human and little more than mere savages by the white man. Racial tolerance and political equality of status have taken the place of oppression and slavery for the greater part of the Negro race. But the sufferings he has undergone have left an indelible mark on the Negro’s soul, and at the present stage he suffers from an inferiority complex which finds its compensation in a desire to imitate the white man and his ways; but I am convinced that in this direction there is neither fulfilment; nor peace for the Negro. He is too radically different from the white man in his mental and emotional structure ever to be more than a spurious and uneasy imitation of him, if he persists in following this direction. His soul contains riches which can come to fruition only if he retains intact the full spate of his emotional awareness, and uses unswervingly the artistic endowments which nature has given him.
That was an astonishing observation to make as early as 1934, and I want here to make clear what Paul was saying and what he was not saying. He used to speak to me quite often about this type of what I may call the psychological personality of the Black man. But what he always said was that he had discovered this in Negro spirituals and in the popular music and songs of
various other countries. He had found a certain quality in Negro spirituals in the United States and he had found it in the songs of Africa:
As a first step I went to the London School of Oriental Languages and, quite haphazardly, began by studying the East Coast languages, Swahili and the Bantu group which forms a sort of Lingua Franca of the East Coast of Africa. I found in these languages a pure Negro foundation, dating from an ancient culture, but intermingled with many Arabic and Hamitic impurities. From them I passed on to the West Coast Negro languages and immediately found a kinship of rhythm and intonation with the Negro-English dialect which I had heard spoken around me as a child. It was to me like a homecoming, and I felt that I had penetrated to the core of African culture when I began to study the legendary traditions, folksong and folklore of the West African Negro. I hope to be able to interpret this original and unpolluted Negro folksong to the world and I am convinced that there lies a wealth of uncharted musical material in that source which I hope, one day, will evoke the response in English and American audiences which my Negro spirituals have done; but for me this is only one aspect of my discovery.
This had been written in 1934 and he was always talking about it. But he always talked about it as some information and knowledge of music and of languages which he was pursuing and which he was testing. Never did he give the impression that he was merely developing an instinct, or a political attitude that he thought was useful in the struggle against white domination. Artist as he was, he subjected his strong feelings to a rigid
There was something else that he used to speak about. He was not satisﬁed that he as a Black man was confined to playing Othello among Shakespeare’s plays. Often enough he said, “I believe that the Negro actor should be able to play Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and that he should not be confined to Othello because Othello is a Black man. I am quite certain that if
he played them as well as I know he will be able to play them, people will ignore the fact that this actor is Black. The play’s the thing.” As I think of many ideas prevalent today, it is important to remember that while Paul was insisting that the Black man had special qualities which were the result of his past in Africa and of his centuries of experience in the Western world, he was equally aware of the fact that this Black man was able to participate fully and completely in the distinctively Western arts of Western civilisation. While he was insistent that the Black man had something to contribute, something specially of his own, he did not feel it necessary to attack or to discredit or to give the impression that it was impossible for whites to understand Blacks, or Blacks to understand whites. All that was very far
from Paul, and is important today.
Now I come to what makes him one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. A man whose history is not to be understood unless seen in the context of the most profound historical movements of our century. And, at the same time, the most profound historical movements of the twentieth century cannot be understood without taking into consideration Paul Robeson. Paul committed himself completely to the communist doctrine that only a world revolution could save society from the evils of imperialism and capitalism, in general. And, in particular, only such a revolution could assist the Black people in the United States to gain freedom and equality, and assist the white people in the United States in making America a place where all men, Black and white, could live in peace. That Paul believed completely and without reservation. In the thirties and forties I also believed the same. A whole body of intellectuals, C. Day Lewis (the present Poet Laureate in England), W. H. Auden, the most celebrated of contemporary English poets, Stephen Spender, John Strachey, Andre Malraux, some of the most distinguished intellectuals in Great Britain and in other parts of Europe, in those days all believed the same. Particularly after the Great Depression and the impact which the first Russian five-year plan made upon the world. Such sentiments were widespread among all the intellectuals of the day. What is notable about Paul is that he not only believed it, but all his magnificent powers, his great reputation and his impact upon the people who listened to him singing and acting, all this Paul gave completely to the idea that only the world revolution could save humanity from the crises and catastrophes of capitalism. Specifically, this world revolution was to be led by the communist parties with their ideological and organisational headquarters in Moscow.
To the extent that he expected the revolution to be led by the communist parties of Moscow he was wrong. That, here, is not important. What is important is that he gave all he had to the cause. And he had plenty to give. Nobody had more to give. And the devotion, the concentration, the complete commitment that Paul gave to his political beliefs and to the organisation which in his opinion represented it, is one of the great historical events of the period. I don’t intend to go into details of his struggles with the American government, his attempts to sing at Peekskill, the long quarrel over the passport—these are details which are quite subordinate to the fact that a man of such magnificent powers and such reputation gave up everything and committed himself to what he believed was the only way for the salvation of mankind. Such is the quality which signalises the truly heroic figure. Paul had no need of a revolution to be able to participate in what modern civilisation had to offer. The exact opposite was the case. It was his devotion to the world revolution which caused him to lose the immense personal opportunities which his abilities and character opened out for him. I don’t want to go into these details. Others have to do it in a way that makes people understand what Paul did and what he signified in the consciousness of world crisis which was so widespread in the thirties and forties and continues in our own time. For years Paul showed that hidden behind his friendly kindliness there was a relentless fighter who could not be moved from what he believed.
Two more points, only two, remain, because this is an article, not a biography.
I was in the United States busily noting all that was going on in politics concerning Black people, and I became certain, and all the people whom I talked to were absolutely certain, that if Paul had wanted to he would have built a movement in the United States that would have been the natural successor to the Garvey movement. Further, Paul, being what he was and his ideas being what they were, the movement would have been of a far higher intellectual quality than was the Garvey movement, which had laid a foundation for future movements. I can say, and it will be easy to prove, that people were looking to Paul to start such a movement. There were numbers of people, dozens and scores of people, who would have been ready to work with him if he had begun, and the mass of the Black population would have followed him as they were ready to follow him everywhere he went. But the plain fact is that Paul felt himself committed to the doctrines and the policies of the Communist Party. The Black movement which could have burst and swept the United States around Paul Robeson did not come because Paul did not see it that way. That is a part of the history of the United States which everybody in the United States should know. What was there, what was possible, what was missed, and why. . . .
I have one more episode concerning Paul which is strongly in my mind as a characteristic of him. When he was in England there was a singer in England whom everybody knew as “Hutch”. His name was Leslie Hutchinson. He used to sing and play and was widely known and admired all over the country. It seems that “Hutch”, an extremely handsome and impressive person, made an impression upon a member of the Royal Family, resulting in an association which everybody knew and used to talk about, as people gossip about these things, particularly in those days. In time the association reached a pitch when people highly placed in England thought that it should be brought to an end. Their method was quite simple and quite
effective. A notice appeared in one of the evening papers in a column of society gossip to the effect that everybody was talking about the relationship between a member of the Royal Family
and a popular coloured singer. That brought the thing out into the open and, from what we heard and ﬁnally saw, the lady was called and told that the matter was now a public scandal and the
time was ripe for her to take a trip—to Kenya, Uganda, the Far East or the Near East, or somewhere, but she should be away for six months or so and allow this gossip to die. The lady had no choice and went.
One day I was walking up the street to the British Museum. I saw Paul's magnificent figure coming down the street and, as usual, I stopped to talk to him: it was always a pleasure to be in his company and to talk to him. He was a man not only of great gentleness but of great command; he was never upset about anything. But this day Paul was bothered. “James,” he said, “you hear what all the people are saying about a coloured singer and a member of the British Royal Family? It's not me, James,” he said passionately. “It's not me.” I started to laugh. Paul looked at me somewhat surprised and he said: “What is there to laugh at? I don't see anything to laugh at.” I told him: “Paul, you are a Negro from the United States; you are living in
England and you say that people are linking your name to a member of the British Royal Family. That, my dear Paul, for you is not a scandal, it is not a disgrace. I laugh because you seem so upset about it. That is very funny.” He said, “Well, maybe there is something to what you say, but you know who it is.” I said, “Yes, I know who it is, and I know it isn’t you, Paul, but nevertheless it is very funny,” and we parted. That is many many years ago and I have seen and read about Paul and heard about him in many circumstances and in very different and more
serious situations. But for some reason or other there remains in my mind his passionate denial that he was the person who was being written about in the papers and talked about as having an illicit relationship with a member of the British Royal Family. Most men whom I know, nearly all, might have denied it but in all probability would have given the impression that they were
not displeased, certainly not bothered one way or the other. But for some reason or other, which I cannot go into here but which I think should be remembered about Paul, is his passionate statement: “James, it isn’t me."