Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, June 12, 1956

THE CHAIRMAN: The Committee will be in order. This morning the Committee resumes its series of hearings on the vital issue of the use of American passports as travel documents in furtherance of the objectives of the Communist conspiracy. . . .

Mr. ARENS: Now, during the course of the process in which you were applying for this passport, in July of 1954, were you requested to submit a non-Communist affidavit?

Mr. ROBESON: We had a long discussion—with my counsel, who is in the room, Mr. [Leonard B.] Boudin—with the State Department, about just such an affidavit and I was very precise not only in the application but with the State Department, headed by Mr. Henderson and Mr. McLeod, that under no conditions would I think of signing any such affidavit, that it is a complete contradiction of the rights of American citizens.

Mr. ARENS: Did you comply with the requests?

Mr. ROBESON: I certainly did not and I will not.

Mr. ARENS: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?

Mr. ROBESON: Oh please, please, please.

Mr. SCHERER: Please answer, will you, Mr. Robeson?

Mr. ROBESON: What is the Communist Party? What do you mean by that?

Mr. SCHERER: I ask that you direct the witness to answer the question.

Mr. ROBESON: What do you mean by the Communist Party? As far as I know it is a legal party like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Do you mean a party of people who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?

Mr. ARENS: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?

Mr. ROBESON: Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?

Mr. ARENS: Mr. Chairman, I respectfully suggest that the witness be ordered and directed to answer that question.

THE CHAIRMAN: You are directed to answer the question.

(The witness consulted with his counsel.)

Mr. ROBESON: I stand upon the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution.

Mr. ARENS: Do you mean you invoke the Fifth Amendment?

Mr. ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth Amendment.

Mr. ARENS: Do you honestly apprehend that if you told this Committee truthfully—

Mr. ROBESON: I have no desire to consider anything. I invoke the Fifth Amendment, and it is none of your business what I would like to do, and I invoke the Fifth Amendment. And forget it.

THE CHAIRMAN: You are directed to answer that question.

MR, ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth Amendment, and so I am answering it, am I not?

Mr. ARENS: I respectfully suggest the witness be ordered and directed to answer the question as to whether or not he honestly apprehends, that if he gave us a truthful answer to this last principal question, he would be supplying information which might be used against him in a criminal proceeding.

(The witness consulted with his counsel.)

THE CHAIRMAN: You are directed to answer that question, Mr. Robeson.

Mr. ROBESON: Gentlemen, in the first place, wherever I have been in the world, Scandinavia, England, and many places, the first to die in the struggle against Fascism were the Communists and I laid many wreaths upon graves of Communists. It is not criminal, and the Fifth Amendment has nothing to do with criminality. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Warren, has been very clear on that in many speeches, that the Fifth Amendment does not have anything to do with the inference of criminality. I invoke the Fifth Amendment.

Mr. ARENS: Have you ever been known under the name of “John Thomas”?

Mr. ROBESON: Oh, please, does somebody here want—are you suggesting—do you want me to be put up for perjury some place? “John Thomas”! My name is Paul Robeson, and anything I have to say, or stand for, I have said in public all over the world, and that is why I am here today.

Mr. SCHERER: I ask that you direct the witness to answer the question. He is making a speech.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Excuse me, Mr. Arens, may we have the photographers take their pictures, and then desist, because it is rather nerve-racking for them to be there.

THE CHAIRMAN: They will take the pictures.

Mr. ROBESON: I am used to it and I have been in moving pictures. Do you want me to pose for it good? Do you want me to smile? I cannot smile when I am talking to him.

Mr. ARENS: I put it to you as a fact, and ask you to affirm or deny the fact, that your Communist Party name was “John Thomas.”

Mr. ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth Amendment. This is really ridiculous.

Mr. ARENS: Now, tell this Committee whether or not you know Nathan Gregory Silvermaster.

Mr. SCHERER: Mr. Chairman, this is not a laughing matter.

Mr. ROBESON: It is a laughing matter to me, this is really complete nonsense.

Mr. ARENS: Have you ever known Nathan Gregory Silvermaster?

(The witness consulted with his counsel.)

Mr. ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth Amendment.

Mr. ARENS: Do you honestly apprehend that if you told whether you know Nathan Gregory Silvermaster you would be supplying information that could be used against you in a criminal proceeding?

Mr. ROBESON: I have not the slightest idea what you are talking about. I invoke the Fifth—

Mr. ARENS: I suggest, Mr. Chairman, that the witness be directed to answer that question.

THE CHAIRMAN: You are directed to answer the question.

Mr. ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth.

Mr. SCHERER: The witness talks very loud when he makes a speech, but when he invokes the Fifth Amendment I cannot hear him.

Mr. ROBESON: I invoked the Fifth Amendment very loudly. You know I am an actor, and I have medals for diction.

. . . .

Mr. ROBESON: Oh, gentlemen, I thought I was here about some passports.

Mr. ARENS: We will get into that in just a few moments.

Mr. ROBESON: This is complete nonsense.

. . . .

THE CHAIRMAN: This is legal. This is not only legal but usual. By a unanimous vote, this Committee has been instructed to perform this very distasteful task.

Mr. ROBESON: To whom am I talking?

THE CHAIRMAN: You are speaking to the Chairman of this Committee.

Mr. ROBESON: Mr. Walter?

THE CHAIRMAN: Yes.

Mr. ROBESON: The Pennsylvania Walter?

THE CHAIRMAN: That is right.

Mr. ROBESON: Representative of the steelworkers?

THE CHAIRMAN: That is right.

Mr. ROBESON: Of the coal-mining workers and not United States Steel, by any chance? A great patriot.

THE CHAIRMAN: That is right.

Mr. ROBESON: You are the author of all of the bills that are going to keep all kinds of decent people out of the country.

THE CHAIRMAN: No, only your kind.

Mr. ROBESON: Colored people like myself, from the West Indies and all kinds. And just the Teutonic Anglo-Saxon stock that you would let come in.

THE CHAIRMAN: We are trying to make it easier to get rid of your kind, too.

Mr. ROBESON: You do not want any colored people to come in?

THE CHAIRMAN: Proceed. . . .

Mr. ROBESON: 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. . . .

Mr. ARENS: Did you make a trip to Europe in 1949 and to the Soviet Union?

Mr. ROBESON: Yes, I made a trip. To England. And I sang.

Mr. ARENS: Where did you go?

Mr. ROBESON: I went first to England, where I was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of two American groups which was invited to England. I did a long concert tour in England and Denmark and Sweden, and I also sang for the Soviet people, one of the finest musical audiences in the world. Will you read what the Porgy and Bess people said? They never heard such applause in their lives. One of the most musical peoples in the world, and the great composers and great musicians, very cultured people, and Tolstoy, and—

THE CHAIRMAN: We know all of that.

Mr. ROBESON: They have helped our culture and we can learn a lot.

Mr. ARENS: Did you go to Paris on that trip?

Mr. ROBESON: I went to Paris.

Mr. ARENS: And while you were in Paris, did you tell an audience there that the American Negro would never go to war against the Soviet government?

Mr. ROBESON: May I say that is slightly out of context? May I explain to you what I did say? I remember the speech very well, and the night before, in London, and do not take the newspaper, take me: I made the speech, gentlemen, Mr. So-and-So. It happened that the night before, in London, before I went to Paris . . . and will you please listen?

Mr. ARENS: We are listening.

Mr. ROBESON: Two thousand students from various parts of the colonial world, students who since then have become very important in their governments, in places like Indonesia and India, and in many parts of Africa, two thousand students asked me and Mr. [Dr. Y. M.] Dadoo, a leader of the Indian people in South Africa, when we addressed this conference, and remember I was speaking to a peace conference, they asked me and Mr. Dadoo to say there that they were struggling for peace, that they did not want war against anybody. Two thousand students who came from populations that would range to six or seven hundred million people.

Mr. KEARNEY: Do you know anybody who wants war?

Mr. ROBESON: They asked me to say in their name that they did not want war. That is what I said. No part of my speech made in Paris says fifteen million American Negroes would do anything. I said it was my feeling that the American people would struggle for peace, and that has since been underscored by the President of these United States. Now, in passing, I said—

Mr. KEARNEY: Do you know of any people who want war?

Mr. ROBESON: Listen to me. I said it was unthinkable to me that any people would take up arms, in the name of an Eastland, to go against anybody. Gentlemen, I still say that. This United States Government should go down to Mississippi and protect my people. That is what should happen.

THE CHAIRMAN: Did you say what was attributed to you?

Mr. ROBESON: I did not say it in that context.

Mr. ARENS: I lay before you a document containing an article, “I Am Looking for Full Freedom,” by Paul Robeson, in a publication called the Worker, dated July 3, 1949.

At the Paris Conference I said it was unthinkable that the Negro people of America or elsewhere in the world could be drawn into war with the Soviet Union.

Mr. ROBESON: Is that saying the Negro people would do anything? I said it is unthinkable. I did not say that there [in Paris]: I said that in the Worker.

Mr. ARENS:

I repeat it with hundredfold emphasis: they will not.

Did you say that?

Mr. ROBESON: I did not say that in Paris, I said that in America. And, gentlemen, they have not yet done so, and it is quite clear that no Americans, no people in the world probably, are going to war with the Soviet Union. So I was rather prophetic, was I not?

Mr. ARENS: On that trip to Europe, did you go to Stockholm?

Mr. ROBESON: I certainly did, and I understand that some people in the American Embassy tried to break up my concert. They were not successful.

Mr. ARENS: While you were in Stockholm, did you make a little speech?

Mr. ROBESON: I made all kinds of speeches, yes.

Mr. ARENS: Let me read you a quotation.

Mr. ROBESON: Let me listen.

Mr. ARENS: Do so, please.

Mr. ROBESON: I am a lawyer.

Mr. KEARNEY: It would be a revelation if you would listen to counsel.

Mr. ROBESON: In good company, I usually listen, but you know people wander around in such fancy places. Would you please let me read my statement at some point?

THE CHAIRMAN: We will consider your statement.

Mr. ARENS:

I do not hesitate one second to state clearly and unmistakably: I belong to the American resistance movement which fights against American imperialism, just as the resistance movement fought against Hitler.

Mr. ROBESON: Just like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were underground railroaders, and fighting for our freedom, you bet your life.

THE CHAIRMAN: I am going to have to insist that you listen to these questions.

MR, ROBESON: I am listening.

Mr. ARENS:

If the American warmongers fancy that they could win America’s millions of Negroes for a war against those countries (i.e., the Soviet Union and the peoples‘ democracies) then they ought to understand that this will never be the case. Why should the Negroes ever fight against the only nations of the world where racial discrimination is prohibited, and where the people can live freely? Never! I can assure you, they will never fight against either the Soviet Union or the peoples’ democracies.

Did you make that statement?

Mr. ROBESON: I do not remember that. But what is perfectly clear today is that nine hundred million other colored people have told you that they will not. Four hundred million in India, and millions everywhere, have told you, precisely, that the colored people are not going to die for anybody: they are going to die for their independence. We are dealing not with fifteen million colored people, we are dealing with hundreds of millions.

Mr. KEARNEY: The witness has answered the question and he does not have to make a speech. . . .

Mr. ROBESON: In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.

Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?

Mr. ROBESON: 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. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.

Mr. SCHERER: You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause.

Mr. ROBESON: I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are like the Alien [and] Sedition Act, and Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.

. . . .

THE CHAIRMAN: Now, what prejudice are you talking about? You were graduated from Rutgers and you were graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I remember seeing you play football at Lehigh.

Mr. ROBESON: We beat Lehigh.

THE CHAIRMAN: And we had a lot of trouble with you.

Mr. ROBESON: That is right. DeWysocki was playing in my team.

THE CHAIRMAN: There was no prejudice against you. Why did you not send your son to Rutgers?

Mr. ROBESON: Just a moment. This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up—and here is a study from Columbia University—for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason my own success has not meant what it should mean: I have sacrificed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for what I believe in.

Mr. ARENS: While you were in Moscow, did you make a speech lauding Stalin?

Mr. ROBESON: I do not know.

Mr. ARENS: Did you say, in effect, that Stalin was a great man, and Stalin had done much for the Russian people, for all of the nations of the world, for all working people of the earth? Did you say something to that effect about Stalin when you were in Moscow?

Mr. ROBESON: I cannot remember.

Mr. ARENS: Do you have a recollection of praising Stalin?

Mr. ROBESON: I said a lot about Soviet people, fighting for the peoples of the earth.

Mr. ARENS: Did you praise Stalin?

Mr. ROBESON: I do not remember.

Mr. ARENS: Have you recently changed your mind about Stalin?

Mr. ROBESON: Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union, and I would not argue with a representative of the people who, in building America, wasted sixty to a hundred million lives of my people, black people drawn from Africa on the plantations. You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please.

Mr. ARENS: I am glad you called our attention to that slave problem. While you were in Soviet Russia, did you ask them there to show you the slave labor camps?

THE CHAIRMAN: You have been so greatly interested in slaves, I should think that you would want to see that.

Mr. ROBESON: The slaves I see are still in a kind of semiserfdom. I am interested in the place I am, and in the country that can do something about it. As far as I know, about the slave camps, they were Fascist prisoners who had murdered millions of the Jewish people, and who would have wiped out millions of the Negro people, could they have gotten a hold of them. That is all I know about that.

Mr. ARENS: Tell us whether or not you have changed your opinion in the recent past about Stalin.

Mr. ROBESON: I have told you, mister, that I would not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people, and I will not discuss Stalin with you.

Mr. ARENS: You would not, of course, discuss with us the slave labor camps in Soviet Russia.

Mr. ROBESON: I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people some day, singing for them, I will discuss it there. It is their problem.

. . . .

Mr. ARENS: Now I would invite your attention, if you please, to the Daily Worker of June 29, 1949, with reference to a get-together with you and Ben Davis. Do you know Ben Davis?

Mr. ROBESON: One of my dearest friends, one of the finest Americans you can imagine, born of a fine family, who went to Amherst and was a great man.

THE CHAIRMAN: The answer is yes?

Mr. ROBESON: Nothing could make me prouder than to know him.

THE CHAIRMAN: That answers the question.

Mr. ARENS: Did I understand you to laud his patriotism?

Mr. ROBESON: I say that he is as patriotic an American as there can be, and you gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

THE CHAIRMAN: Just a minute, the hearing is now adjourned.

Mr. ROBESON: I should think it would be.

THE CHAIRMAN: I have endured all of this that I can.

Mr. ROBESON: Can I read my statement?

THE CHAIRMAN: No, you cannot read it. The meeting is adjourned.

Mr. ROBESON: I think it should be, and you should adjourn this forever, that is what I would say. . . .

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of the Unauthorized Use of U.S. Passports, 84th Congress, Part 3, June 12, 1956; in Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938–1968, Eric Bentley, ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 770.

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

Du Bois on war and peace

Political power today is but the weapon to force economic power. Tomorrow, it may give us spiritual vision and artistic sensibility. Today, it , gives us or tries to give us bread and butter, and those classes or nations or races who are without it starve, and starvation is the weapon of the white world to reduce them to slavery.

—W.E.B Du Bois, The African Roots of War

Ramadan Mubarak: Blessed are the Peacemakers

The season of Ramadan being upon the world, I turned to the first sura of the Qu’ran, which warns the seeker of peace of those who would misguide us from our destined path, a path which must be none other than peace, for to say otherwise is to deny the very existence of Allah, who represents the transcendence of human strife, the very pinnacle of peace to which all believers must necessarily gravitate, out of faith and goodwill in the common progress of humanity.

I was reminded of this verse when I began to think about Paul Robeson and W.E.B Du Bois, two beautiful examples of human being-in-the-world whose contributions remind us that to overcome that which confronts us, we must act in principled unity against the forces that prevail in our times, for they represent the antithesis of all that humanity has called civilization. What would it mean to contend on a strict political platform for a social program that would bear fruit to the freedom of humanity from the brutal consequences of white empire, here in the heart of it all?

In the spirit of sacrifice (qurban) demanded by the time of Ramadan, let us continue to struggle for our new Jerusalem.

With faith may we strive. As-Salaam-Alaikum. May peace be upon us all.

In the name of Allah, The Gracious, The Merciful/ Praise Be To Allah, Lord of the Worlds /…/ Guide us to the straight path / the path of those You have blessed, not those who are misguided.

1.1-1.7, The Holy Qu’ran.

Universal Consciousness: Alice Coltrane’s Turn To Hinduism

You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.

–Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane

A portrait of Alice Coltrane, R. Divya Nair

In this clip, Turiya Coltrane, the grand-daughter of jazz pianist, harpist, and vocalist Alice Coltrane (née McCleod) reflects on her grandmother’s study and interpretation of Hindu philosophy through the gospel of the Detroit churches of her childhood. The Hindu bhajan (devotional) and the African-American spiritual together constitute the formal foundations and thematic touchstones of Alice Coltrane’s ecumenical sound. I may have mentioned that a few weeks ago, I had the great honor of singing her composition, “Om Shanti,” at Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Saturday Free School’s celebration of the philosophy of Robeson, King, and Du Bois, at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. I chose the piece because it is an invocation to world peace and a much-needed intervention in the politics of imperialism which thrives on perpetual war, war waged by the few at the grave expense of the many. The earth reels from many centuries of ceaseless destruction as humanity cries out for an end to oppression and a resolution to the degradation of the darker races in the past four-hundred years of white rule. Since then, I have been reading voraciously about her, focusing in particular on her spiritual evolution, namely her turn to Hinduism, the world-historical significance of her interpretation of it, and how it connects with the contributions of her contemporaries, familiars, and interlocutors.

After her husband, the legendary John Coltrane of North Philadelphia, passed on to the next world, Alice immersed herself further in the study of Hindu scripture and Indian classical music forms. She traveled to the city of Chennai in southern India to study with Swami Satchidananda. However, it was John Coltrane who would introduce her to the philosophy, theology, music, and meditation practices of Pan Africa and Pan Asia. John, who was ten years older than Alice when she first met him at age 26, likely encountered these sources during his world tour in the U.S. armed services–an experience which deeply inscribed upon him the evils of war and American imperialism. Coltrane would himself undergo a spiritual awakening in 1957.

Following her husband’s death, Alice fell into a deep tapas, a self-imposed spiritual retreat undertaken by Hindus committed to an intentional path wherein one lives a life of strict mental and physical discipline in order to reach a higher spiritual plane of existence and consciousness. Tapas often yields states of high spiritual vibration characteristic of Alice’s ecstatic compositions. During this period, it is said that Alice made connection with John’s spirit. She strove to continue advancing their common aspiration to create music capable of illuminating the totality of the human experience, the internal struggles of the atman (soul force) in the face of the external strife of humanity’s relation to itself and the physical world–songs of innocence, songs of experience, songs of pain, and songs of bliss. Indeed, her chosen spiritual name Turiyasangitananda roughly translates to the transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss. In Hindu philosophy, turiya (Sanskrit: तुरीय or English “the fourth”) refers to the fourth dimension of consciousness, underlying waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The seventh verse of the Mandukya Upanishad, which discourses upon these four states of consciousness which are accessible through the universal syllable Aum or Om, refers to the magnitude of Turiya’s infinity and incalculability in the following terms:

Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,

not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,

unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,

non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,

of which is the state of being one with the soul

the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,

such they think is the fourth. He is the soul (atman). He should be discerned.

The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is the shortest of the Upanisads and is associated with the Atharvaveda, which is chiefly concerned with the practice of everyday life. It is also an affirmation of the soul force underlying all existence and creation. It reflects on the physics of the four-part structure of the sound AUM–A + U + M + “silence,” which not only harnesses the past, present, and future of time, but bends them such that the transcendence of time by the soul force is made possible. The intonation of the Aum sound explains the progression of sound through the universe, tracking its movement from the syllable “a,” which signifies Apti (searching and aspiring), to “u” or Utkarsa (exaltation) to “M” or Miti (Reconstruction) followed by the punctuating silence that separates each intonation. The rhythmic chanting of aum thusrepresents the human will to know in this world and beyond, to be of one’s time and yet, reach beyond it.

As such, it is high time that we recognize the true significance of the commitment to Afro-Asiatic civilization in twentieth-century jazz composition, a realization which once again affirms the intercivilizational unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggle against imperialism and European civilization’s ongoing attempts to repress the contributions of the darker races to humanity. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that John and Alice Coltrane, along with Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Yusuf Lateef, and so many other black composers in the United States, re-imagine the relation of the darker races to one another at a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Robeson were extending their hands in open friendship with revolutionary leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and others. They dedicated their life’s work towards establishing an epistemology that saw the civilizations of Africa and Asia in a historical continuum, so as to break free from the chokehold of the Western interpretation of human history.

Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane thus participated in the invention of a radically new form of world spiritual music that fundamentally re-interpreted Hinduism–not unlike her contemporaries Don Cherry (e.g: his record “Mahakali”), Pharaoh Sanders (e.g “The Creator has a Master Plan”), and indeed, John Coltrane (e.g “Om”)–in terms of the African-American spiritual tradition and political struggle for freedom, truth, and peace. Her work ought to be considered in dialogue with other Black composers of the period who increasingly turned to Africa and Asia to discover their relation to African-America and broadly, the truth about the origins of humanity and the shape of its future. In the wake of their musical and cosmological experimentations, they left behind a rich body of music characterized by a distinctive Afro-Asiatic sound . What distinguishes their aesthetic practice at this juncture in history is their grounding in the black anti-imperialist political tradition. Prophets and architects of peace, these artists were committed to fulfilling the Creator’s great plan for the advancement of humanity in the twenty-first century.

Alice Coltrane’s songs are hymns to truth, grace, love, and peace. Her oeuvre ought to be studied in light of her deep spiritual longing for what James Baldwin memorably christened the New Jerusalem. In the new galaxies of sound she maps out for the world, in her cosmic distillations of jazz, we see the outlines of all that which remains to be won by humanity in our common quest for a kingdom of heaven on earth.

Letter from Chanan Singh to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 7, 1963

In this letter dated May 7th, 1963 from Nairobi, Kenya, Kenyan official Chanan Singh writes to W.E.B Du Bois about the possibility of contributing to the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois had very early established the need for a an encyclopedia that presented the truth about Africa and its civilization in place of the lies of Western Enlightenment. He endeavored to develop a Black equivalent to the colonial Encyclopedia Britannica and thereby overturn Western epistemologies of knowing and being. As he put it in his 1945 essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia Of The Negro,”

There is need for young pupils and for mature students of a statement of the present condition of our knowledge concerning the darker races and especially concerning Negroes, which would make available our present scientific knowledge and set aside the vast accumulation of tradition and prejudice which makes such knowledge difficult now for the layman to obtain: A Vade mecum for American schools, editors, libraries, for Europeans inquiring into the race status here, for South Americans, and Africans.

Notably, Singh–who was then serving in the capacity of Parliamentary Secretary to Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President from 1964 to 1978–inquires whether Du Bois’s proposed Encyclopedia Africana will include articles about Indians living in Africa and offers assistance with compiling historical and statistical information on the subject:

I wish to offer my services to help you in compiling information about the Asians of Indian origin… For 15 years, I wrote the editorials and editorial notes of a local weekly, The Colonial Times. I was a member of the Legislative Council Of Kenya from 1952 to 1956 and again from 1961 to 1963.

Singh’s letter is significant, in part, because it once again illustrates the geographic and epistemological continuities between Africa and Asia and the necessity of looking at their civilizations in a continuum. Many thanks to the folks at Black Agenda Report for picking up “Reflections on the Pan Afro-Asiatic Civilizational Complex.”

“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