By MURPHY BROWNE
Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, the fifth and youngest child of Maria Louisa (née Bustill) and William Drew Robeson.
The youngest Robeson would grow up to become a world renowned scholar, singer, stage and movie actor, athlete, writer and lawyer. He was also an internationally recognized peace and social justice advocate and activist.
Robeson’s father had been born into slavery like most African Americans who were born before 1865 when the enslavement of Africans in America came to an end. In his autobiography Here I Stand which was first published in 1958, Robeson wrote of his father’s escape from slavery as a 15-year-old. His mother came from an African American family which had been free for generations before slavery was abolished in the U.S.
Robeson wrote of his great-great grandfather’s contribution to the war that freed America from British rule (1775-1783).
“The winter of the following year (1777) found Washington and the ragged remnants of his troops encamped at Valley Forge, and among those who came to offer help in that desperate hour was my great-great grandfather. He was Cyril Bustill who was born a slave in New Jersey and managed to purchase his freedom. He became a baker and it is recorded that George Washington thanked him for supplying bread to the starving Revolutionary Army.”
Robeson was hounded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other American government agencies because he advocated for an end to the Jim Crow laws that circumscribed the lives of African Americans, especially those who lived in the Southern United States. The harassment of Robeson and his family is well documented in FBI files which were made available to his son, Paul Robeson Jr., through the Freedom of Information Act.
The FBI claimed that part of their reason for the extensive surveillance and intrusion into the lives of the Robesons was a connection to Communism. In reality, the American government was committed to ensuring that anyone who advocated equality for African Americans would be harassed and their lives destroyed.
Robeson refused to be silenced; he used his international popularity as a singer and actor to bring world attention to the plight of his people and others who were oppressed. “I refuse to let my personal success, as part of a fraction of one per cent of the Negro people, explain away the injustices to 14 million of my people; because with all the energy at my command, I fight for the right of the Negro people and other oppressed labour-driven Americans to have decent homes, decent jobs and the dignity that belongs to every human being.”
When he was told that African Americans should wait to gain the same rights as White people Robeson expressed his disagreement. “The viewpoint that progress must be slow is rooted in the idea that democratic rights, as far as Negroes are concerned, are not inalienable and self-evident as they are for White Americans. Any improvement of our status as second-class citizens is seen as a matter of charity and tolerance. The Negro must rely upon the goodwill of those in places of power and hope that friendly persuasion can somehow and some day make blind prejudice see the light.”
Robeson began his autobiography by describing himself in the terms of those who had enslaved, oppressed and colonized his ancestors. “I am a Negro. The house I live in is in Harlem – this city within a city, Negro Metropolis of America. And now as I write of things that are urgent in my mind and heart, I feel the press of all that is around me here where I live, at home among my people.”
However, Robeson did know that he was an African because in an article published in the British magazine Royal Screen Pictorial, April 1935 he is quoted: “I am a Negro. The origin of the Negro is African. It would, therefore, seem an easy matter for me to assume African nationality.”
He later expressed his understanding of what was lost to him/stolen from him as an African whose ancestors had been kidnapped and enslaved in America. “I am a singer and an actor. I am primarily an artist. Had I been born in Africa, I would have belonged, I hope, to that family which sings and chants the glories and legends of the tribe. I would have liked in my mature years to have been a wise elder, for I worship wisdom and knowledge of the ways of men.”
Robeson acknowledged that his education in America and the culture of America did not encourage African Americans to recognize their African heritage: “I ‘discovered’ Africa in London. That discovery – back in the twenties – profoundly influenced my life. Like most of Africa’s children in America, I had known little about the land of our fathers.
“Both in England, where my career as an actor and singer took me, I came to know many Africans. Some of their names are now known to the world — Azikiwe and Nkrumah and Kenyatta, who has just been jailed for his leadership of the liberation struggles in Kenya.” Once he ‘discovered’ Africa Robeson embraced his Africanness by visiting the African continent and learning about African culture and languages.
“It is astonishing and, to me, fascinating to find a flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius, for example. These qualities and attainments of Negro languages are entirely unknown to the general public of the Western world and, astonishingly enough, even to Negroes themselves.”
On March 25, in acknowledgement of the International Day to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, Robeson’s extraordinary life of social justice activism was recognized with the unveiling of a poster by the City of Toronto. Robeson’s life can serve as an inspiration to those in our community who are in positions and have the opportunity to speak out about anti-African systemic racism in this society.