Paul Robeson: son of a slave who became a superstar

In 1961 Paul Robeson was diagnosed with ‘depressive paranoid psychosis’. Robeson was driven insane by his humanity. He felt ‘a suffocating weight, a smothering set of expectations that he was unable to meet’. Robeson made multiple suicide attempts and had 50 courses of electroconvulsive therapy.

He had strong links with the Welsh mining community as this extract shows:

“In the West End one evening, Robeson overheard the carousing of a Welsh male voice choir. Men from the Rhondda were in London on a protest march. Robeson was transfixed and joined in with the communal street and pub singing.

In the coming months and years, ‘he forged an intense and remarkable relationship with the men and women of the mining villages of South Wales’.

He visited Pontypridd and the valleys many times, seeing in the miners, who lived in poverty and struggled with thankless tasks, something of American slavery.

The Welsh accepted him unquestioningly: ‘Aren’t we all black down the pit?’ This brings tears to my eyes.

As late as 1957, Robeson was joining in with the miners’ concerts through a radio-link from America to Porthcawl. He couldn’t be there in person as his passport had been cancelled.

Why? Because the Welsh people had awoken Robeson’s political conscience, which was strengthened by his visits to Spain during the Civil War. He also visited the Soviet Union, where he hoped that post-Revolutionary Russia would be a ‘land free of prejudice’.

In this biography of Robeson’s ‘dizzy rise and crashing fall’, his collapse was caused by political naivete. Believing that the Left would abolish racism, he gave to any anti-fascist cause.”

See the review of the new book about the life of Paul Robeson entitled “No way but this: In search of Paul Robeson” by Jeff Sparrow here.

 

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