Paul Robeson in Spain
Interview by Nicolás Guillén, Mediodia, Havana, Cuba, 1938-Reprinted in Bohemia, Havana, May 7, 1976; English translation by Katheryn Silver, Daily World, July 25, 1976
At the side of democracy in Spain, and on every front of struggle for its triumph, there are men of the most diverse races, from the most diverse places in the world. Silent Chinese who fire their rifles at Italians and Germans, confident that it is the same as their fight against the Japanese who profane Nanking; sad Hindus who traded the dirty banks of the Ganges for the narrow waters of the Jarama; Blacks born in the Yankee south, in Cuba, in Jamaica, in Brazil . . Who sends them?
No one; they are true volunteers, in contrast to those who pack the cold ambition of Mussolini in sad bundles, to hurl them on a land that they in fact do not hate, and in which they are forced to oppose people who have done nothing to them. These come knowing what cause they defend, what enemy they have to exterminate. They ask only a place in combat, a definite, efficient task; here, they make themselves useful with selfless simplicity, loading a machine gun, doing guard duty on a battlement, buried for months on end, at the service of science, in a hospital.
Each according to his own possibilities, each adjusting his aid to the measure of his own skills. Langston Hughes, the great poet of Mulatto, lived long days in Madrid and visited the front to bring to men of his race and his land the simple popular verse that flows from the blues and from spirituals; Cueria, from Havana, son of a Black and an Asturian, commands a company of machine gunners in the Central Front; Paul Robeson, the wonderful American singer, child of slaves, rushes from London to enter Spanish soil with a smile of hope. Paul Robeson? And what is Paul Robeson doing in Spain? What, wait; he himself is about to tell us.
When I arrive at the hotel Majestic, where he is staying, I find the famous cinema artist blockaded by a crowd of people hanging on his most insignificant gestures. Robeson pays attention to everyone, smiling. He poses repeatedly for photographers, answers the most: diverse questions without tiring. While the people pursue him, I watch. He is an enormous Black, who towers loftily above the group around him.
How old is this man? His kinky hair is beginning to: lighten a little in the center of his head, and next to his temples it is firmly whitening. Forty years old? Forty-five? He must be about that . . . Nonetheless, his formidable physical development, the expression of happiness that always plays across his face, the deep brilliance of his eyes, all considerably discount the singer's accounting of years.
When he talks, he talks passionately, his enormous hands contracted and turned palms up, an invariable gesture of his when talking. He dresses without luxury, rather one could say with great simplicity: a dark grey suit, not very new, a cap whose long use shows clearly, shoes that have walked about long enough to have forgotten the day they first stepped on the ground . . . But everything in very good taste, with a great deal of care and balance.
His solid personality projects great attractiveness, and his body moves with the elasticity of an athlete, that makes one remember his career as a football player so long ago. I catch bits of his discussion, in which one word, "Spain," is repeated frequently; and while he talks, I look at his wife, a spirit of great purity and perception, who has published a book about her husband, attending to the visitors in the room with a pleasant smile. It is she who finally says to me:
"Paul is waiting for you . . ."
The contact is made without formalities, in the manner of a reporter. "I would like you to tell me yourself," I say to him. "What reasons led you to come to Spain."
"My devotion to democracy," he answers rapidly. "As an artist, I know that it is dishonorable to put yourself on a plane above the masses, without marching at their side, participating in their anxieties and sorrows, since we artists owe everything to the masses, from our formation to our well-being; and it is not only as an artist that I love the cause of democracy in Spain, but also as a Black. I belong to an oppressed race, discriminated against, one that could not live if fascism triumphed in the world. My father was a slave, and I do not want my children to become slaves...During these last months I have worked a great deal in London, singing to raise funds to send to the Spanish people, and I will continue doing it, not only there, but everywhere that I am able to do it."
"I know that you have just come from Madrid," I say. "What is your impression of what you have seen in this city and in the rest of democratic Spain?"
"It made a great impression on me. I have never seen a more courageous people, one more energetically working for victory. I confess that I feel happy to have been able to come to Spain and above all to Madrid. The people there talk to you, and everyone gives you their warmth, their simplicity, their generosity. The day I arrived, they called me 'Pablo' two days later, they were calling me Pablito.' Imagine, me, Pablito, with my height! Besides, no one there ever thinks of defeat. In spite of the destruction inflicted on the city by the howitzers of the fascists, in spite of the danger of the daily bombings, in spite of the hardships that people are suffering, no one protests or complains. It's war. Everyone gives all his strength to resist and to win. No; there is no fear there . . . On one of the last afternoons, on the eve of my departure, I peacefully played a game of football with a group of boys in a site all too close to a zone of the city that was under artillery bombardment at that moment."
Robeson smiles, and is silent for a minute.
"The Madrileños are also very generous," he continued. "Shortly after I arrived, I gave a package of cigarettes to a Spanish captain, because I knew about the shortage of tobacco there. A few moments later I went with him to visit a hospital, where I sang, and I was delighted to see that man distributing his cigarettes among his comrades, without leaving anything for himself. And they do the same thing with everything else . ."
"That's true," I say. "I have never seen a Spaniard wrangle about having a little more or less of material things, in contrast to what happens in other areas, where at times they have a fame that is in fact exaggerated. In many stores, when there is no change for the money that we have, they return it to us with the merchandise, saying, 'It doesn't matter, bring me the money another time: that little bit won't make us either richer or poorer . .
"I remember one day, walking with Langston Hughes through the streets of Madrid, when the poet's shoe broke. The sole had come loose, and it prevented him from walking. We went into a small shoe-repair shop, where an old man was fixing a man's boot. He left it; Langston showed him what he wanted; he scrupulously examined the shoe, and in less than ten minutes, he sewed it and nailed it together, leaving it in perfect condition. When we asked him what it cost, the man answered, almost angrily, 'Cost, you say? Go on, senor: ask and nothing more!' Yes, Mr. Robeson, you're right; they are very generous. . ."
The conversation moves on, from there, to film and theater.
"Some years ago," says Robeson, "the Black was a comic personage in North American theater. When Emperor Jones, the work of O'Neill, was brought to the stage by another Black actor, I saw the possibilities that a Black had in dramatic art. For that reason, I wanted to portray that character, first on the stage and then on film.
"I must tell you that for me this was only a point of departure, a means to do more basic and important things, since it was necessary in a country like mine to demonstrate first that a man of color had artistic sensibility, and could walk the stage or pose before a movie camera with the same presence as the whites, and sometimes with greater presence. That is why I later portrayed Othello, and I am now preparing to do King Lear.
"However, today I am convinced that the great American and English companies are controlled by big capital, especially by the steel trust, and they will never let me do a picture as I want. For that reason, I am not interested right now in film work, and less in pictures dealing with the 'Negro problem.' The big producers insist on presenting a caricature image of the Black, a ridiculous image, that amuses the white bourgeoisie, and I am not interested in playing their game . . ."
"So," I say, "your cinematographic work up to now does not satisfy you . . ."
"I never even saw those pictures after I made them," he answers. "Then you are going to abandon films?" I ask him. "No, not that. What I won't do any more is work for the big companies, which are headed by individuals who would make me a slave, like my father, if they could. I need to work with small independent producers, in short films with songs, until the moment comes to make something with greater breadth and a more positive meaning than has been possible so far.
"I would like to make a film on the life of a Black commander of the Lincoln Battalion in the International Brigades, who dies there; but this would be refused by the big Yankee movie companies . . However, I hope to get my wish, and bring to the screen the heroic atmosphere that I have breathed in Spain, and the great participation of men of my race in this struggle."
Robeson then talks to me enthusiastically about Spanish music.
"I have been surprised and delighted by the similarity between Black music and some Spanish music. The Flamencan song is Black in its rhythm and its sad depths. In Madrid, during a concert, I asked them to play Flamencan music; the artists very courteously did so, and then I could sing a Black song without the musicians having to change the rhythm with which they had accompanied the cante jondo in the least. Because of that, I want to return to Spain when there is more calm, when we have won the war, to gather and study many songs of this kind."
"Do you know Cuban music?" I ask. "The Black contribution to that music is also enormously rich, just as it is in the case of the rest of the Antilles and in Brazil."
"Yes, I know it, and I like it enormously. In fact, I am also thinking of going to Cuba, to study its musical folklore, which I know has the characteristics you describe. I think it would be enormously useful for my next films . ."
Robeson begins to get restless, because he has to leave immediately, he tells me, for London, where he lives. From there he will return to Paris, in order to sing in a meeting for the support of Spain, in La Mutualité. I understand that the interview has ended. He offers his enormous right hand, while he smiles. I say:
"It would be very good if you came to Cuba soon. There are many surprising things to learn there as well . . ."
Scanned from Paul Robeson Speaks, pp. 122-127
Slightly reformatted for easier readability on the Web. Larger paragraphs broken into smaller ones.