A Prayer for Dark Folk

Remember, O God, thru’out the world this night those who struggle for better government and freer institutions…Help us to realize that our brothers are not simply those of our own blood and nation, but far more are they those who think as we do and strive toward the same ideals. So tonight in Persia and China, in Russia and Turkey, in Africa and all America, let us bow with our brothes and sisters and pray as they pray for a world, well-governed–void of war and caste, and free to each asking soul. Amen.

The day has dawned when above a wounded, tired earth unselfish sacrifice, without sin and hell, may join through technique, shorn of ruthless greed, and make a new religion, one with new knowledge, to shout from old hills of heaven ‘Go down Moses!’

W.E.B DU BOIS

Love Songs for the Prince Of Peace

I. Prelude: the Search

Your smile is warming and knowing;

It traps me like magnolias writhing

against a garden gate. You lure me,

in your promise of love lingering,

the greatness of love.

For you, the marshland sings with frogs,

Turning a sharp green at the last wane of dusk,

all quietly beckoning the truth of the lucid night;

when death’s boatmen roam and deal in their deathly trades,

remember,

beauty is a dark woman’s eyes

glowing

against the moon of the waning night.

II. Encomium: May I never stray far from your lotus feet, my Lord!

Dare I share my wrongest deeds with your privy ear, so that love once more beckons near: men fear seed sprouting, shaking itself into blossoming life,

these truths are chastened like my trespassing lips against the chastity of thine.

I loved you like petals struggling to stay open amidst late summer grasses,

if I have seen you in a blade of grass, I have also seen you in a lump of clay, And if I have seen you thus tightly coiled in nature, I have seen myself,

for I am one and the same, when found in the splendor of you.

now the time of letter-writing has passed and we are left with that haunting,

that pausing, heaving, that fever in the matter, that prayerful jaunting,

that chitter chatter and pitter patter,

of the voice that says thou shall not get caught,

the warm embrace of the law that says thou shall not be bought,

By the graves of the lost and in the arms of the longing, I sing this song:

Oh man, you are meant for greater things than war,

And so May I never stray far from thy Lotus Feet, my Lord.

III. Coda:

love is like the slow roll of a tabla gliding across a taal; in the monsoon,

it shakes itself free like a wet branch, sagging with the weight of rain,

in the winter it burrows underground,

like a rich vegetable vein

the pain of losing it escapes me,

a whispering wind in midnight forest, when sweet rapture cuts

like violin bow against supine string,

in perfect subjection shall I sing hymns of joy in the city of gods.

Like the seed sprouting in this Bitter Earth is your Love

ever

spring, purple like the cabbage in a secret garden,

ancient and new, it awakens long slumbering souls, shaking them to life with the passion of its bodiless consummation, its timeless consciousness.

Losing it is like

losing a needle in the haystack;

We are forever in search to stitch ourselves back together again.

Pattachitra art form, artist unknown

Mahatma Gandhi on Satanic Civilization

IT IS my firm belief that Europe today represents not the spirit of God or Christianity but the spirit of Satan. And Satan’s successes are the greatest when he appears with the name of God on his lips. Europe is today only nominally Christian. In reality, it is worshipping Mammon.

Young India, 8-9-1920

Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation.

Young India, 26-1-1921

I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic…. 

(YI, 17-3-1927, p. 85)

This industrial civilization is a disease because it is all evil. Let us not be deceived by catchwords and phrases. I have no quarrel with steamships or telegraphs. They may stay, if they can, without the support of industrialism and all that it connotes. They are not an end. We must not suffer exploitation for the sake of steamships and telegraphs. They are in no way indispensable for the permanent welfare of the human race. Now that we know the use of steam and electricity, we should be able to use them on due occasion and after we have learnt to avoid industrialism. Our concern is, therefore, to destroy industrialism at any cost. 

(YI, 7-10-1926, p. 348

A time is coming when those, who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’ Civilizations have come and gone, and in spite of all our vaunted progress, I am tempted to ask again and again, ‘To what purpose?’ Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, has said the same thing. Fifty years of brilliant inventions and discoveries, he has said, have not added one inch to the moral height of mankind. So said a dreamer and visionary if you will–Tolstoy. So said Jesus, and the Buddha, and Mahomed, whose religion is being denied and falsified in my own country today.

By all means drink deep of the fountains that are given to you in the Sermon on the Mount, but then you will have to take sackcloth and ashes. The teaching of the Sermon was meant for each and every one of us. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. God the Compassionate and the Merciful, Tolerance incarnate, allows Mammon to have his nine day’s wonder. But I say to you…fly from that self-destroying but destructive show of Mammon. 

(YI, 8-12-1927, p. 414)

Formerly, when people wanted to fight with one another, they measured between them their bodily strength; now, it is possible to take away thousands of lives by one man working behind a gun from a hill. This is civilization. Formerly, men worked in open air only as much as they liked. Now thousands of workmen meet together and, for the sake of maintenance, work in factories or mines. Their condition is worse than that of beasts. They are obliged to work, at the risk of their lives, at most dangerous occupations, for the sake of millionaires….This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. 

HS, pp. 36-37

I would have our leaders teach us to be morally supreme in the world. This land of ours was once, we are told, the abode of the gods. It is not possible to conceive gods inhabiting a land which is made hideous by the smoke and the din of mill chimneys and factories and whose roadways are traversed by rushing engines, dragging numerous cars crowded with men who know not for the most part what they are after, who are often absentminded, and whose tempers do not improve by being uncomfortably packed like sardines in boxes and finding themselves in the midst of utter strangers who would oust them if they could and whom they would, in their turn, oust similarly. I refer to these things because they are held to be symbolical of material progress. But they add not an atom to our happiness. 

(SW, pp. 354-5)

I am humble enough to admit that there is much that we can profitably assimilate from the West. Wisdom is no monopoly of one continent or one race. My resistance to Western civilization is really a resistance to its indiscriminate and thoughtless imitation based on the assumption that Asiatics are fit only to copy everything that comes from the West. I do believe, that if India has patience enough to go through the fire of suffering and to resist any unlawful encroachment upon her own civilization which, imperfect though it undoubtedly is, has hitherto stood the ravages of time, she can make a lasting contribution to the peace and solid progress of the world. 

(YI, 11-8-1927, p. 253)

The Indian Press Defended Paul Robeson in 1947

As revolutionary India entered the world stage as a free nation in 1947, The Hindu, a widely read Indian newspaper, condemned the banning of Paul Robeson’s public performance in Peoria, Illinois as a consequence for his agitation for world peace and the freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere. “If Paul Robeson is un-American, so much the worse for America,” declared the writer of the piece. The article was republished on the first page of The Baltimore Afro-American on May 24, 1947

In 1956, Robeson would be viciously targeted for his support of the erstwhile Soviet Union and his lifelong admiration for the Russian Revolution as well as the revolutions of Asian and African peoples for independence from colonial rule by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which was established in 1938 in efforts to quell the rising tide of communism as the American nation struggled against a deep economic depression. Robeson’s heroic defense at the investigation against the encroachments of the virulent Jim Crow, anti-communist regime:

Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. . . .

Dandi Satyagraha

In early March of 1930, Gandhiji began his padayatra to mine salt from the brackish waters lapping the coastal village of Dandi in northwestern India. Britishers had declared Indian production of salt illegal and foisted an imperial tax on the necessity, rendering it a commodity and thus alienating the substance from the common Indian laborer, who was starving and physically ill as a result of the abuses inflicted upon him by the white man. Witnessing the suffering of his people, Gandhiji said, “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life” and marched hundreds of miles for twenty-four days to reaffirm his commitment to satyagraha, the law of Love-unto-Truth, and swaraj, the complete independence of India from Europe.

Sarojini Naidu, Eulogy to Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, whose frail body was committed to the flames yesterday, is not dead. It was right that the cremation took place in the midst of the dead kings who were buried in Delhi, for he was the kingliest of all kings. It is right also that he who was the Apostle of Peace should have been taken to the cremation ground with all the honours of a great warrior. Far greater than all the warriors who led the armies to battle was this little man, the bravest, the most tried friend of all. Delhi has become the centre and sanctuary of the great revolutionary who emancipated his enslave country from foreign bondage and gave it to its freedom and its flag.

Mrs. Sarojini Naidu

Asia in Africa

In the ninth chapter of his 1946 inquiry The World and Africa, which explores the role played by Africa in the ancient and modern world, W.E.B Du Bois theorizes the black foundations of Asiatic civilization, citing as evidence the African origins of the name “Nahsi” and the black features of the Buddha and Krishna, two of India’s most revered gods. Siddhartha Gautama who ascended to Enlightenment many centuries before Hume, Kant, and Hegel, sought to liberate Hinduism from the strictures of inequality and chart out a selfless path of human being-in-the-world. Du Bois copiously illustrates the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange in the Afro-Asiatic zone–the region above the Sahara Desert linking the African continent to the Asian land-mass, particularly the Indian subcontinent, in antiquity as well as by modern developments. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa and India met in the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean and Roman North Africa had extensive trade relationships with the Indian peninsula. Finally, these continents were linked by the spread of Christianity and Islam.

As Du Bois confirms

The Asiatic and African blacks were strewn along a straight path between tropical Asia and tropical Africa and there was much racial intermingling between Africa and Western Asia.

He advances a scientific argument that presents evidence about race relations in the framework of historical materialism, guided by the logic of the Marxist dialectic. As such, though he draws on mythology and literature and indeed European ethnography as primary sources, he reads them to reconstruct a picture of the world that counters the Western imperial order, one in which the dark proletariat leads humanity in our common efforts to build a civilization founded on principles of peace and freedom. As a sociologist, Du Bois was interested in studying aspects of social life arising from human actions. As a humanist, he was guided by the belief that humanity had emerged from a common origin in Africa before developing continuously to our present condition. Ancient Greece and Rome were not European or “Caucasian”, per the evolving field of race science in Europe which struggled to establish the origins of humanity even while denying kinship with African and Africoid peoples throughout the world. Such was the vastness of the shadow cast by the Du Boisian epistemology on the history of science. Scientists today confirm what Du Bois discovered in 1946: that bi-pedalism, tool use, and language first arose in Africa before spreading to Asia about 2 million years ago and to the Americas by way of the Atlantic and the Pacific and later to Europe. Settled cultivation of land and use of iron began in Africa, as we now know. Du Bois was one of the first historians to insist upon this truth in the West in his pivotal study, The World and Africa which was published in America at the height of Jim Crow as a wave of virulent anti-communism swept the nation. The ground-breaking philosophy of history argued that contrary to white civilization, Black Africans had not only contributed to but led civilization in all epochs of human history.

Social science saw the history of human being in the world as a materially unified whole capable of being studied scientifically. Humanity’s origins were relatively recent in the history of the modern world and each phase of its development was characterized by a different relationship to means of production and reproduction. For example, means of production differed in the Stone Age and the Iron Age; during the latter, which began earlier in Africa, human beings discovered iron as a raw material, welding it to create tools, weapons, and other implements to improve their lives and build civilization. Du Bois’s intervened in the debate about positivism in Western social science, which suggested that the laws of the human social world operated in the same way as the laws of the natural world, a premise which he exposed as a fallacy. As he continued his scientific study of social life and human actions he realized that there was something incalculable about humanity–human behavior is counterintuitive and human consciousness infinitely variable, always operating in movement of time as an unknown factor. Moreover, as he increasingly turns to the work of Karl Marx and strengthens his commitment to the world Communist movement, he understands that each epoch of human history, and its attendant form of social organization, was constitutionally shaped by the mode of production upon which it depended. Hence, he saw that the world around him–a world riven by the color line–was so because it depended on a system of production that necessitated subjugation of the darker races and most especially the black race to labor for the capitalist planter and merchant.Thus, his dialectical reasoning interprets the ancient and modern past of humanity and human action in terms of their political and economic consequences for the dark nations in order to carve out a path for revolutionary change and non-capitalist development.

The rise of Islam and Christianity in the past two thousand years and the latter’s deployment in defense of European capitalism and slavery inculcated new civilizational developments for humanity in the medieval and modern period. Du Bois’s argument in this chapter also reminds me that both Hinduism and Islam developed against the spread of Western Christianity which also took on a new life in Africa and Asia, like other Abrahamic religions, and amongst African-Americans and indigenous American peoples in the New World colonies of Europe. His hypothesis is also confirmed by recent investigations of scholars such as Kosambi, Abu-Lughod, Gunder-Frank, Panikkar, and, to some extent, Wallerstein, though what distinguishes the Du Boisian thesis from the above and even a Martin Bernal is his commitment to a revolutionary politic, exemplified by his lifelong search for a broad strategy for human liberation and in particular, the unconditional freedom of the African-American people, who continue to wage a heroic struggle against the forces of white supremacy and war in the heart of the American Empire.

As he argues in his “Guiding One-Hundredth Address,” race is not solely a physical reality; it is, first and foremost, a psycho-social dynamic in that the racial experience of each group is shaped by its relation to the social power structure, means of production, which together shape the movement of history. This Karl Marx understood is the struggle of the oppressed to overcome the oppressor in the pursuit of freedom, a deeply human drive. As he puts it here

all races really are a cultural group. It is too bad that we have to use the world “cultural” for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15, 000, 000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common suffering and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That person’s sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to Advocate not pride of biological race but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals so as to form a method of progress.”

Du Bois compels us to revisit the inconvenient truth that in the past four hundred years, the white race has subjugated the darker races to toil on its behalf so as to sustain its criminal pursuits throughout the world. It was thus no wonder that the struggles of black folk in America for peace and freedom from slavery and later, segregation, and the struggles of colonized peoples throughout the world against imperialism and European domination germinated a tremendous renaissance of civilization amongst the darker races in the twentieth century, from Baldwin in America to Tagore in India. The dark proletariat created civilization in the face of soul-seeping oppression, pressing on in its heroic quest to free society from imperial tyranny and monopoly capital, and to define and interpret reality so as to gain control of it and thereby, transform it themselves.

Du Bois’s thesis is a significant discovery because at the time he was writing in America, whites were perpetuating the lie that civilization amongst black people was impossible,drawing on this rhetoric to deny the connection of African-America to Africa–and the latter’s relation o Asia–so as to justify the slave trade and slavery, both of which formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a process that began in the early modern period and created the conditions for modern life aaa we know it. Thus, Du Bois marshals a wealth of evidence attesting to the achievements of black civilizations throughout the world in order to show the complexity of black peoples worldwide and to disprove, by way of scientific argument, the primary lie of Western science which served as colonialism’s chief alibi: that the black race was inferior by nature and that African-Americans were incapable of development and self-determination–a premise that compels him to write a novel called Dark Princess in 1928 wherein he presents a vehement rebuttal of European race theorists by way of a bravely imagined political allegory about a romance between an Indian princess and an African-American doctor who together establish a pivotal alliance against world imperialism. Du Bois’s research emphasized, by contrast, that it was oppression which had impeded the progress of black folks in America and throughout the world towards their highest potential, not nature or historical inevitability, as it was being suggested by bourgeois science. He thus recognized that colonialism had set the darker races back by several centuries in development. It was for this reason that he insisted upon world peace, communism, and Pan-Africanism, by which he meant something very specific, namely the progress of oppressed peoples against imperialism towards the non-capitalist path of development, wherein production and civilization are directed towards the fulfillment of human need rather than imperial gain.

Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, as Henry Winston, leader of the American Communist Party clarified some decades ago, rejected the vicious anti-communism of the day which had led to the witch-hunt of so many beloved leaders, including Du Bois and Robeson but also King and Gandhi, peace-bringers who were assassinated for their efforts to cultivate civilization amidst war, poverty, and colonial devastation. It sought to oust imperialism from every corner of Africa and the world. It advocated the pursuit of the non-capitalist path of national development in newly independent countries and called upon exemplary figures amongst the darker races to eschew the European bourgeoisie and join with the proletariat in order to build socialism in their countries. This intercivilizational vanguard sought to create a revolutionary society in its own image, in the service of the people’s interests–education, industry, harvests that fed the people, art that nourished and propelled their imagination in pursuit of the grandest possibilities of the human mind and spirit, music that combed through the most antagonistic knots of the soul, literature that revealed revolutionary being-in-the-world–the kind of human beings we must become to build the world that will overcome the one that is presently collapsing.

The Black Buddha, after W.EB Du Bois

Shalabhanjika, terra-cotta, 5th century, Gupta dynasty, India

Oraa Aamaader Gaan Gaaite Dyay Naa: A Bengali Panegyric to Paul Robeson

On June 27, 1938, a large crowd of supporters welcomed Jawaharlal Nehru, the future Prime Minister of independent India, and Paul Robeson, African-American artist, leader, and freedom-fighter, at London’s Kingsway Hall. Rajani Palme Dutt, an Indo-Swede who served as the foremost journalist and theoretician of the Communist Party of Great Britain delivered the opening address. In just two short years, Nehru had raised the membership of the Indian National Congress from half a million to over three million. In his remarks, Dutt (who would tragically criticize Gandhi’s civil disobedience strategy in 1922 and defend Trotsky in 1926) seems to have had a change of direction, to some extent: at the 1938 India League meeting, he congratulates Nehru’s capacity to reach and retain the commitment of the Indian masses to the broad movement for national independence. In his address to the crowd, Robeson emphasized the necessity of uniting the democratic and progressive forces throughout the world against imperialism. He noted that the African-American people, who were seeking political and economic freedom in Jim Crow America, were closely watching “the Indian struggle and have been conscious of its importance to us.”

As Martin Duberman writes in his biography of Robeson, during their stay in London, Paul and Eslanda Robeson met frequently with Nehru. In fact, there is some evidence in the history of the exchanges between Eslanda and Nehru of a possible romantic involvement between the two. Essie, Nehru writes, “would dash in occasionally into my flat and announce in the American way, that she was feeling like a million dollars. I am sure she has that capacity of feeling that way whatever happens.” Eslanda would herself remark that she thought Nehru rather dashing. After a luncheon with Nehru following the India League rally at Kingsway Hall, Essie presented Nehru with her biography of her husband, Paul Robeson, Negro. She would also become a good friend to Vijaya Laxmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister, with whom she corresponded throughout her life. Vijaya Laxmi had accompanied Nehru to England in 1938.

Earlier that month, Robeson would act in A Plant in the Sun, a political play about young workers in the shipping department of a sweet factory in New York organizing to stage a sit-in when a co-worker named Peewee–played by Paul Robeson–is fired for expressing pro-union sentiments. Nehru, Vijaya Laxmi, and Krishna Menon, the Secretary of the India League, were all present in the audience.

The play’s plot-line underscores the importance of political solidarity across race as well as class lines. As Henry Winston, the Du Boisian-Leninist leader of the American Communist Party, beloved by his people as “Winnie,” emphasizes, “There are no substitutes for the class unity of the working class as a whole. This requires the equality of joint Black and white leadership of the Black liberation movement and all components of the working class leading all the oppressed and exploited against corporate monopoly.” Winston’s words remind us that the preservation of unity is key to the sustenance of any broad liberation strategy for genuine world peace–a peace rooted in the freedom of all those oppressed by neoliberalism and Western civilization, a peace opposed to the specious Pax Americana that impedes our present struggle for freedom.

The intimacy of relations between the leadership of the African-American and Indian people’s independence movements is not uncoincidental. As I have previously suggested, after Du Bois, we must think of the unity of Pan-Africa and Pan-Asia when considering the movement of human history in the past two thousand years. Such an approach is vital to the defense of our common future, which must begin, first and foremost, with the liberation of the dark proletariat in unity and struggle with–but not subservient to–the white proletariat, which, in turn, must, as Winston emphasizes, join in sincere dialogue and empathy with the Black workers of the world in order the identify their common oppressor.

“Our Black Brother, Paul Robeson” is a folk song quilled by Bengali singer and composer Hemanga Biswas (1912-1987), a freedom-fighter, and man of the people. I am not entirely certain of the date when it was written, but I’d guess sometime in the late 40s, though I could be mistaken. Biswas was born in British Assam, in a region that is now Bangladesh. In college, Biswas embraced the principles of communism and composed a variety of plays and poetic pieces on questions pertaining to truth, equality, and justice. He began arranging “Gana Sangeet”–anthems dedicated to the liberation of his beloved India from the bitter yoke of British oppression.

Paul Robeson is the reigning muse of this sangeet, whose lyrics I include below in Bengali and English. The Indian people cherish Robeson’s example of revolutionary humanity at its most developed and salute him as their black brother in struggle–“Negro bhai aamar Paul Robeson” They don’t allow us to raise our voices, Robeson,” they plead to him accusingly, pointing to their British oppressor. The recurring refrain invoking Robeson as a moral anchor in the song, as witness at the scene of the crime, ought to remind us of the gravity of Robeson’s moral authority in matters concerning Black racial progress in the world labor movement. Robeson is repeatedly called upon to bear witness to the suffering of the Indian masses. He was beloved by Indian workers, who saw, like Nehru and Vijaya Laxmi, in Britain, that their destinies were bound up in each other’s, so much so that a young Bengali college student was compelled to compose an anthem in his name. The song continues to remain a popular folk song on the subcontinent.

The people of the India are a musical people. Thus, they are not a people capable of tolerating silence for very long and so, they are socially prone to raising their voices in song at various intervals of daily life. Music, moreover, sustains human work throughout the world, having accompanied it for millennia, with the African-American spiritual and labor songs bequeathed to us by Robeson being some of the most beautiful examples of songs wrought in love and struggle. So we can see why in “Our Black Brother Paul Robeson,” Biswas’s chorus of workers, from whose perspective the song is imagined, summon Robeson to the scene of labor itself in order to draw attention to how the raised voices of the people in unity pose a threat to the ever-encroaching master who diligently oversees their work.

“Ora Aamader Gaan Gaite Deyna” or “Our Black Brother Paul Robeson”

Bengali

ORA AAMADER GAAN GAITE DEYNA NEGRO BHAI AAMAR PAUL ROBESON

AAMRA AMADER GAAN GAI

ORA CHAY NA ORA CHAY NA

NEGRO BHAI AAMAR PAUL ROBESON

ORA BHOY PEYECHHE ROBESON

AAMADER KUCHKAOAJE BHOY PEYECHHE

AAMADER ROKTO CHOKH KE BHOY PEYECHHE  HIMMOTER SHOKTI KE BHOY PEYECHHE ROBESON

NEGRO BHAI AAMAR PAUL ROBESON.

ORA BHOY PEYECHHE JIBONE  ORA BHOY PEYECHHE MORONE  ORA BHOY KORE SEI SMRITI KE

ORA BHOY PEYECHHE DU: SWOPONE.

ORA BHOY PEYECHHE ROBESON.

English Translation

They don’t allow us to raise our voice.

My black brother Paul Robeson.

We sing in our raised voice.

They don’t like, they don’t like

My black brother Paul Robeson.

They’re fear-struck Robeson.

They’re fear-struck as they hear our war cry.

They’re fear-struck as they see our red eye.

They’re fear-struck as they feel our vigor of bravery, Robeson.  My black brother Paul Robeson.

They are afraid of living.

They are afraid of dying.

They are afraid of remembering.

They are afraid of dreaming.

They are afraid Robeson.

Listen here

“The Truth Shall Make You Free”: The Friendship Of Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and W.E.B Du Bois

Cover art of Freedomways magazine featuring Paul Robeson. The quarterly magazine was founded by Shirley Graham Du Bois. Paul Robeson was a great admirer of Dr. W.E.B Du Bois and was acutely sensitive to the significance of Du Bois’s contributions to literary, scientific, and philosophical inquiry in the common struggle of the dark nations against Western imperialism in large part because of their shared service to African America and humanity in the world peace movement. He shared a unique affinity and sympathy with Du Bois’s sacrifices in the freedom struggle, given the similarity in the charges leveled upon both men under the virulently anti-communist McCarthyite regime in America, but also because he was greatly admired by Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the violence of white civilization–its destruction of Africa, devastation of the Americas, and plunder of Asia–was obscured, or else rationalized, by a growing accretion of lies about the darker races and their civilizations, lies masquerading as truth, as Western art and science were directed towards the ideological consolidation of European values of beauty, truth, freedom, innovation, and development. Such values negated the presence of these aspects of human civilization amongst the darker races, given that the peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the islands of the sea, were progressively deemed peoples without history and civilization as European colonialism took root in humanity’s common soil. Nineteenth-century Europeans advanced what Martin Bernal in Black Athena has termed the “Aryan model” of history in order to consolidate their commercial interests in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, falsely positing Europe as the apex of humanity’s historical development . As such, it is important to underscore the significance of black political philosophers and artists like Robeson and the Du Boises, for like other leaders of national liberation movements in the dark world, they knew that the struggle against European imperialism had to be waged on both the material as well as the ideological front. For the denial of oppression is part and parcel of the oppressor’s strategy to maintain dominance amongst the masses. We know this because the people armed with the correct ideas and objectives, then and now, pose the greatest threat to the oppressor.

Robeson recognized Du Bois as a leader in the world peace movement, the movement away from a society founded on war, rape, and theft of dark civilization. Indeed, it was their decisive role in the fight for such a society that led to both Du Bois’s and Robeson’s indictments. Speaking of the “victorious and glorious conclusion of the case of Dr. W.E.B Du Bois” Robeson observed:

It was indeed wonderful to feel the underlying joy and happiness in the hearts of all. There were knowing smiles, handshakes, and congratulations. For this was one of the historic points in the Negro people’s struggle. The attempt to stop Dr. Du Bois from speaking was at the same time aimed to silence him in his defense of the rights of his people to voice their grievances, to call for vast improvements and changes in their condition of second class citizenship. Time and again one returned to the inspiring figure of Dr. Du Bois, to some evaluation of what this history means and can mean. Here was a most illuminating expression of the people’s power, of the people’s will of peace.

Robeson understood that that taken together, Du Bois’s scientific contributions, literary innovation, and historical insight served as an enduring political intervention in the greatest affliction facing humanity in the twentieth century: the problem of the color line. Du Bois’s intervention was a concretely imagined program for peace and the civilizational renaissance of the darker races throughout the world. For us, civilization was not the province of white folk, but the duty of dark folk to humanity. Under imperialism, science and art are deployed in the interest of war and oppression; by contrast, in the struggle for a positive peace in the dark world, they are put in the service of truth, freedom, and humanity. Indeed, this aspiration is also foundational to Robeson’s own artistic ambitions as a singer, linguist, jurist, orator, folklorist, actor, dramatist, and historian.

The two would also serve on the Council on African Affairs, which was as an important Pan-Africanist mouthpiece in the mid twentieth century. Robeson was appointed chairperson for most of the organization’s tenure, while Du Bois served in the capacity of vice-chairperson. The Council linked the struggles of the African-American nation for freedom in the United States to the struggles of the darker races against imperialism throughout the world. Alphaeus Hunton, who then taught English and Romance languages at Howard University, served as the Educational Director and editor of its publication New Africa. In 1953, the Council on African Affairs became the target of the Smith-McCarran Act, though the U.S. Federal Bureau Of Investigations began surveilling the group as early as 1942. Members were charged and indicted. Hunton would spend six months behind bars for his role.

Finally, that Shirley Graham wrote the definitive biography of Paul Robeson–titled Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World–deepens the connections between Du Bois and Robeson. The biography is itself a work of art, compositionally speaking, in that it is a grand synthesis of her musicological, literary, and political genius. Formally, she contends with constraints and possibilities of the biographical form, the challenges and complexities of limning with sufficient complexity the shape of a life. Her account of Robeson’s life is simultaneously operatic, novelistic, and epic in structure and represents a new kind of narrative in my personal study of twentieth-century world literary production. It parallels Du Bois’s The Souls Of Black Folk, in many ways, though particularly with respect to its incorporation of music theory and form into narrative form. James Joyce’s Ulysses attempts to do something similar. Graham Du Bois’s portrait of Robeson situates him in his milieu, as a character on the world stage and a decisive authority on his civilization. As Robeson himself said, “Artists are the gatekeepers if Truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” Of Robeson’s pursuit of a career in acting, Graham Du Bois, herself a prominent playwright, writes:

This was then what the theater offered him–to speak to all men.

In Western literary criticism of the Romantic period, we often hear about the relationship between Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley–its political and creative implications. The novel Frankenstein, for instance, was born out of a story-writing competition between the three during a mountain retreat. We must consider the literary consequence of the relationship that flowered between Robeson, Du Bois, and Shirley Graham over the course of their lives with equal weight.

Graham Du Bois also discourses extensively on Robeson’s organic connection to the Tri-State region of the United States in lush and memorable detail. I was struck by how she coaxes the story of Robeson’s life out of the social landscape of his life, which she presents by way of a political economy and historical sociology of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, giving special attention to the migration patterns structuring labor relations In the region historically. I️ found this interesting for autobiographical reasons, being reminded of where I️ am presently stationed: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Much of the nation’s early history has been made in New Jersey. From the earliest days her land has served as a corridor between New York and Philadelphia. The old colonial post-roads grew hard with the passing of many feet. Her farmlands attracted immigrants during three centuries. To the colonial settlers Dutch, English, Scotch, and smaller numbers of French, German and Swedish had been added wave after wave of Irish, German, and Italian…from Ellis Island they could see the nearby fields and pleasant towns of New Jersey. They had converged on these growing towns and established communities in the shadows of the factories much as their peasant ancestors had clustered beneath the walls of the feudal manor. A few Negroes had been among the early settlers. Aided by state emancipation laws, they had passed from slavery into wage labor as coachmen, gardeners, house servants and tannery workers. They owned and operated barber shops, laundries and catering establishments. In such a community Paul Robeson’s father had pastored his church at Princeton. But about the year 1900 hundreds of frightened unlettered Negroes from the deep south began pouring into the state. They had no roots and were regarded askance by foreign- and native-born. It was to these people, thrown as they were among the newly arrived immi- grants, that Paul’s father took his ministry when he closed the door of the Princeton parsonage behind him.

When reading this highly literary biography, one gains a sense of Robeson as an actor in the world freedom movement and of the texture of the relationships that developed between thinkers and artists of the period–what they thought of each other, how they related each other’s work, where they grew up, their formative childhood experiences, and the arc of their hopes for the new world they sought to build. Shirley Graham Du Bois wields her pen with great control and yet her greatest gift is her commitment the principle of aesthetic freedom in all of its possibilities. Her ever so careful rendering of the deep impression left by Du Bois’s thought on Robeson leaves one with a palpable sense of the shadow cast by Du Bois as a member of the world intelligentsia. Shirley Graham also casts her husband in the biography with great alacrity, grace, and love. I️ will end with her reflections on a meeting of these two giants of African-American civilization at a Alpha Phi Alpha banquet:

Then came the last night of the year, when they came together for their closing banquet and to hear their most distinguished member, the internationally known savant, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois.

Paul leaned forward studying this man of whom he had heard so much, whose books he had read. He observed the proud, handsome face which looked as if it had been chiseled in bronze, the piercing eyes, the haughty carriage of head. Here was a man who walked with dignity who spoke with authority, precisely, without emotion.

The truth shall make you free. There is no other way. Ours is the task of bringing about united action on the part of thinking Americans, white and black, to force the truth concerning Negroes to the attention of the nation.”

Each man listened attentively. Paul looked again down the long board.

“Scientific investigation and organized action among Negroes, in close co-operation, to secure the survival of the Negro race, until the cultural development of America and the world is willing to fight for Negro freedom as an essential part of human progress.”

He had concluded his speech. No flights of oratory, no impassioned peroration only the truth.

Paul was never to forget that evening. When but ten minutes of the old year were left everybody stood in a circle around the room, with arms crossed and each man’s hand grasping the hand of the man beside him. Standing thus they sang “Alpha Phi Alpha”

In our Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternal spirit binds all the

Noble, true and courageous.

Manly deeds and scholarship, Service to all mankind

Are the aims of our dear Fraternity.

–Shirley Graham Du Bois, Paul Robeson: Citizen Of The World


Peter Blackman, Robeson and Du Bois.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Howard Fast, Paul Robeson, and others in New York, ca. 1950

Vito Marcantonio with Paul Robeson and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois in Harlem.

Shirley Graham Du Bois at her typewriter, c. 1945