My history hero: Paul Robeson (1898–1976)

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O’Grady chooses Paul Robeson as his history hero

Singer Paul Robeson rehearses at a piano in 1958. He had a unifying outlook, observing that "neither suffering nor compassion is confined to one face." (Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Paul Robeson was an American singer (bass-baritone), and stage and film actor also known for his political activism. Following the success of the London premiere of the musical Show Boat, in which he sang ‘Ol’ Man River’, he starred in a West End production of Othello, and a number of films, including a big-screen adaptation of Show Boat. He later supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, but his leftwing sympathies and backing for the American civil rights movement led to him being blacklisted and having his passport taken away during the McCarthyite era. He died in Philadelphia in 1976, aged 77.

When did you first hear about Paul Robeson?

My dad had some of his records so I heard his voice before I knew his name – he has one of those voices that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. I also have a vague recollection of seeing the Paul Robeson film, The Proud Valley (1940), as a kid. In my twenties, I saw his son, Paul Robeson Jr, introduce the film at a festival. From that moment on I was hooked, and had to read his biography and find out more about his life.

What kind of person was he?

He was a Renaissance man: a sportsman, a scholar, a singer, an actor, and a socialist and anti-fascist. His father was an escaped slave, and that legacy shaped his politics and way of thinking – he was conscious of being only one step away from slavery himself. He also lived at a time when the black man was very much a victim of racism. So to achieve all he achieved makes him pretty amazing.

What made him a hero?

The thing that really strikes me about Robeson was his capacity for empathy, and his ability to elevate us all and make us realise what it is to be human. He once said that “neither suffering nor compassion is confined to one race”, and I’ve always been struck by the sheer generosity of that statement, given all the racism that he encountered. He also had a special relationship with miners, labour organisations and workers around the world. He was a groundbreaker in so many ways, and was one of the first black actors to find fame on the big screen and the stage.

What was Paul Robeson’s finest hour?

For me it’s the recording of him singing down the phone to the Miners’ Eisteddfod in Wales, 1957. He was in New York, because his passport had been taken away by the US government, and was unable to attend. The Welsh miners’ leader Will Paynter introduced him to the miners, and a Welsh choir sang back to him on the phone. Robeson had had a strong bond with the south Wales miners since 1929 when the sound of singing in London led him to a group of blacklisted miners from the Rhondda who were marching in protest. He sang with them and gave them money for their train fare home.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Robeson wasn’t faithful to his wife Eslanda, but on the other hand, I suspect that she had her own flaws. He was also slow to acknowledge the truth about Stalin, but we need to remember that he was only one generation away from slavery, and that segregation and racism were rife in the US. In the Soviet Union he felt he was treated as an equal human being and he was therefore reluctant to criticise the Soviet Union publicly.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Sadly, I’m nowhere in his league. That said, I think we share the same vision and values. He also dedicated much of his life to improving conditions for labour.

If you could meet Paul Robeson, what would you ask him?

I’d ask him how he would remain optimistic today in the face of the resurgence of white supremacy.

Frances O’Grady was talking to York Membery.

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Frances O’Grady is the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). She is the first woman to hold the position. Paul Robeson is featured on the TUC website (tuc150.tuc.org.uk) to mark its 150th anniversary.