“The Truth Shall Make You Free”: The Friendship Of Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and W.E.B Du Bois
“Robeson and the Du Boises knew that the struggle against European imperialism had to be waged on both the material as well as the ideological front.”
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.
“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.”
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, 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.
“Du Bois’s intervention was a concretely imagined program for peace and the civilizational renaissance of the darker races throughout the world.”
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 of 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.
“Her account of Robeson’s life is simultaneously operatic, novelistic, and epic in structure.”
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. I found this interesting for autobiographical reasons, being reminded of where I am presently stationed, in 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 immigrants, 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 to 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. I 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
This article previously appeared in Minervas’s Perch.
R. Divya Nair is an artist, writer, editor, and educator who is currently completing her doctorate in literary studies. She organizes with The Saturday Free School in Philadelphia, which is currently leading a year-long, city-wide campaign to read W.E.B Du Bois’s works and return to his political practice with fresh eyes.