Tayo Aluko gives us the background to his one man show about Paul Robeson.
I remember singing Deep River in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool at a beautiful multi-faith service and concert many years ago. The word I would use for the occasion was simply, “beautiful.” We were celebrating Liverpool’s diversity in all forms. People from all over the world sharing music, culture, food, faith and shared humanity, enjoying the “brotherhood of man.” And then the bishop came onto the microphone to say, “I’m sorry to say that we have just heard that the United States has just started bombing Afghanistan.”
It may be difficult to remember now that the reason given then was that the Taliban were believed to have been responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. That was 2001. Thousands of wasted lives and trillions of wasted dollars later, Afghanistan is still a mess, and her people are still seeking peace and safety around the globe. Since then, we have had Iraq, we have had Egypt, and we have had Syria.
I was preparing to go down to London to promote two plays in which that song features, and the lyrics came back to me on the train: “Deep River / my home is over Jordan / Oh, Deep River, Lord / I want to cross over into camp ground” Those words were put together hundreds of years ago by enslaved Africans in America, at a time when they dreamed of a life free from bondage, where their toil would be for nourishment of themselves and their own families, and not “De massa” who traded them like cattle, and worked them literally to death.
I had encountered the song many years before I was introduced to one of the people who popularised it in modern times – Paul Robeson – whose own father had indeed been born into slavery in North Carolina. I was introduced to him because someone heard me singing another spiritual – My Lord, What A Morning – and told me I reminded her of him. The music that had been created by his ancestors had linked me to this most amazing man. And what a morning to recall the introduction, because I woke up to the news that the US had just dropped a salvo of Tomahawks on Syria. I was on my way down to the Trades Union Congress Black Members’ Conference in London, to promote my play, and I found that there were many delegates there who hadn’t heard of Robeson. This didn’t surprise me, because even though as an artist he was one of the most famous Americans of his day, his story has been swept under the carpet in a process that started even before he died some 41 years ago. His problem was that he didn’t confine his activities to pure entertainment. This is an example of the kind of thing he used to say:
A day or two ago, the British Foreign Minister said, and I quote, “If we do not want to have total war, we must have total peace”. For once, I agree with him. But Mr. Bevin must be totally blind if he cannot see that the absence of peace in the world today is due precisely to the efforts of the British, American and other imperialist powers to retain their control over the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
That was part of a speech he made in Madison Square Garden in 1946, at a rally in which he was supporting the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party – a complete outsider who was then resoundingly beaten. Today’s equivalent would be Beyoncé backing Jill Stein, the leader of the Green Party in the US, about whom most Americans have never even heard, since the media so determinedly and effectively sidelines real progressives.
Still, Robeson was prepared to risk his livelihood by taking that stance, because he knew that his country’s and indeed the world’s future was at stake, and that nothing on offer from the two main parties remotely came close to addressing the real issues, and particularly the shameful history of imperialism which politicians deliberately forget to explain to their populations – that is if they were aware of that history in the first place themselves.
In the twenty two years since I first encountered Paul Robeson, I have been determined to share his story with as many people as I can, and in the last ten, have been privileged to do so to small audiences as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as New Zealand. This has been in the form of a one-man play, to audiences ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred – hardly the numbers that will cause a world revolution any time soon. The fact however remains, that one woman, thanks to one song created hundreds of years ago by people in bondage, mentioned one name to me, and that sparked a major change in one life – mine. Through the medium of art, this story, encompassing much of world history, continues to be shared around the world, and who knows how many other lives are changed in the process.
One acknowledges that changing the system we find ourselves in is like turning round the proverbial supertanker: it happens incredibly slowly. Still, to take the metaphor further, even the largest supertanker can be sunk if it develops enough tiny leaks. And the tools with which such leaks can be made are the ones that artists use – words and music included. That is the reason people like Robeson were considered as particularly dangerous, because in his hands, and through his voice, these tools were especially effective. He it was who described his art as his weapon in defence of his people and all oppressed people of the world.
Some of the dreams his ancestors dreamed have come true, wholly or partially. They bequeathed their art to us to continue to use as weapons in today’s battles. Today’s struggles can sometimes seem easier in comparison to yesterday’s, and thanks to people like Robeson to link us to those ancestors, we are reminded that we indeed have powerful weapons at our disposal – weapons that are more awesome than those our leaders unleash with devastating consequences. That we are not just hoping and praying, but re-energising and re-arming ourselves and others, when we sing words like:
Oh don’t you want to go / to dat gospel feast? / Dat promised land / where all is peace....