Those who know him say that the only things he couldn’t do was swim and whistle. He also flatly refused to accept capitalism as a development option and spent his whole adult life fighting against all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Paul Robeson was almost everything. He was an actor, a basketball player, a runner, a boxer, a poet, a lawyer, a musician and above all else, he was a Marxist.
He believed that all his faculties needed to be applied to the service of the oppressed and he did just that as he struggled through life as an African-American in the United States of America (USA) from the 1950s all the way up to 1976 when he died.
At the age of five, Paul saw his mother die in flames. Apparently a piece of charcoal fell on the mother’s dress while she was cooking and burnt her to death right in front of the child.
He never spoke about this experience at least in public and friends and family claimed that this tragedy shaped him in more ways than one and made him exceptionally close to his father.
Till date, there are many socialists in the United States of America who say that he either directly influenced their thinking or he inspired them to search for alternative understanding of the world in trying to answer such simple questions as “where did we come from?” “where are we? “what is the purpose of life? And “what kind of world should we build for ourselves”.
There are many who claim to have been members of Marxist study groups formed or led by him and there is a woman I met in the early 1990s in London, the United Kingdom who said that she had no formal education and that she learnt to read and write in a study group led by Paul Robeson.
He would have been an extraordinary super star if he lived and worked in today’s world. He simply excelled in everything he did. His baritone voice was a special asset for a signer and his physical strength was more than helpful to him as a sports personality and his intellectual depth was his fortress as a lawyer and philosopher.
Unfortunately for him, he lived in times of extreme racism and the cold war which combined to deal deadly blows to him.
At one stage, the Government of the United States of America seized his passport and that of his loving wife. He was put on trial for treason for allegedly committing treason and he defended himself stoutly at his trail stating in no uncertain terms that he had no regrets for being on the side of the oppressed throughout the world.
Paul Robeson refused to condemn the Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR) under Joseph Sterlin and urged the oppressed people of the USA to refuse to go to war against the Soviet Union.
He stopped practicing as a lawyer, when after graduating from law school, a secretary in a law firm where he worked refused to take dictation from him saying “I don’t take dictation from Nigers”.
It was at this point that he realized that no matter how brilliant he became as a lawyer, the colour of his skin would be an impediment and he and his wife decided that he would take to the stage for a living.
Paul Robeson supported the national liberation movements in Africa to the hilt believing that their victories would be the first giant steps towards the socialist revolution and would provide huge impetus to the advancement of internationalism.
It is indeed a great pity that Paul Robeson is not usually given his due by the worldwide revolutionary movement as an icon of the struggle for socialism.
This is my very personal salute to Paul Robeson, a pillar of justice and equality for all men and women of the world. The flame he lit will continue to burn until final victory.