Sunday 7 June 2020

Nerd Church - Paul Robeson and His Beloved Wales

1920s London. An unlikely meeting that would forge an unbreakable bond.

I figured, given the ongoing racial injustices and prejudice against Black people, that now was a good time to talk about and highlight a Black hero of the (mainly White) Welsh miners: Paul Robeson.

Some of the details are a little disputed - it's become its own mythology over the years - but I've tried to go with the consensus, and there're resources at the end of the post if you're interested to learn more!

(And yes, she's talking about Wales again!)

'Paul Robeson and His Beloved Wales' next to a photo of Paul Robeson onstage at the National Eisteddfod in 1958

Image of Paul Robeson: Geoff Charles (1909-2002)/Wikimedia Commons

Paul Robeson was a Black American actor, singer, athlete, and political activist - including Civil Rights and Socialist activism. 

He is also a national hero here in Wales, especially among the older generations.

A man of many, many, talents, Paul was born in 1898, the son of a former slave, the Rev. William Robeson, and the Rev's wife, Maria, in Princetown, New Jersey.

He had a Law degree from Columbia University, but found his career in showbiz taking off. Which is how he ended up in London in the late 1920s.

So, during a run of Show Boat in London's West End in 1929*, he happened to hear singing...

That singing was a march of protesting Welsh miners from the South Wales Valleys, who had walked from the Valleys to London.

Some sources say it was a protest against blacklisting by employers, others say that it was against low wages and poor working conditions. 

You could be blacklisted for complaining about low wages and poor working conditions, so it was probably about all of it.

*A few sources say 1927.

Robeson, instead of just watching and letting the protest pass him by, asked questions, and ended up marching with the miners - and reportedly singing Old Man River.

He never let his connection to the Welsh miners, the Welsh trade unions, and the Welsh communities, slip - in fact, it became stronger over time.

He also made a film here - The Proud Valley - said by some to be his favourite. 

It explored the plight of the Welsh working-class and, though few people nowadays have actually seen it (I haven't,) had a lasting cultural impact.

THE PROUD VALLEY - David Harewood on Paul Robeson

(Warning: mild flashing images, racist labels)
Run time: 12.07

The line 'Aren’t we all black down that pit?' - while doubtless an over-simplification of racial issues - also had a lasting resonance.

I have heard variations on it many, many, times.

Because, simplified though it may be, (and believe me, I'm under no illusions - there was and is racism in Wales,) there's a certain truth to the equalising power of coal.

Underground, there is solidarity. Because fatal accidents can and did happen - and you had to trust the others down there with you, whether you liked it or not.

And - elephant in the room - coal will quite literally make everyone the same colour. 

That superficial change still, of course, doesn't erase White privilege, or racism against Black people, both of which are embedded in centuries of oppression and institutional prejudices. 

But it was a simple way of explaining that everyone's human, and deserves to be treated as such.

And it doesn't change the fact that racism, especially casual racism, happens here, and that there was plenty of racist attitudes around throughout the 20th Century. And it continues now.

I reiterate, it does happen here. And it's not good enough.

But Robeson and The Proud Valley showed the kind of unity that was possible. 

And there were Black miners, in Wales and other British coal-fields, though they were in the extreme minority. 

And they deserve to be remembered and honoured too.

Robeson's moral and financial support of the Welsh working-class earned him the loyalty of a nation.

And Welsh loyalty, especially the loyalty of Welsh coal miners, is fierce.

Which is why, when Robeson's passport was confiscated by US authorities due to his Socialism and Civil Rights activism, Wales stood by him.

As he had stood by our Spanish Civil War dead, recognising comrades-in-arms in a war against fascism that it was actually illegal for British people to fight in, so we stood by him.

Paul Robeson Welsh TransAtlantic Concert

The South Wales Miners' Eisteddfod at the Porthcawl Grand Pavilion, 1957 - Intro from Will Paynter and Paul Robeson, followed by Robeson singing 'Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?'
Run-time: 4.40

As he had supported our working-class, we supported him.

As he supported our Socialism and Communist sympathies, so we supported his. 

(Because Wales was far-left af my darling nerdlets - a lot of Americans would probably consider us Communist - and Robeson found a camaraderie in that.)

I'll leave you with Paul Robeson's 'Land of My Fathers' - an English translation of the Welsh national anthem, Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau:

Sources and Resources:

'The story of Paul Robeson and the unbreakable bond he formed with the miners of Wales' -

'Paul Robeson - Let Robeson Sing' -

'Wales on Film - The Proud Valley (1940)' -

'Exhibition marks Mountain Ash Paul Robeson Concert' -

'“They Feel Me a Part of that Land”: Welsh Memorial Landscapes of Paul Robeson' -

So, what do you think of Paul Robeson and his connection with Wales?
Talk to me!

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  1. Thank you for this educational post, Cee! I had no idea who Paul Robeson even was before reading this! I think it’s awesome that he made such an impact in Wales.

    1. Thanks Em! :)

      I really and truly admire Paul Robeson - there's a lot of love for him here! :)


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