How Paul Robeson Found his Political Voice in the Welsh Valleys

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 In the 1940 film The Proud Valley, about a Welsh community that takes in a black unemployed seaman. Photograph: Getty Images

02 July 2017 | Jeff Sparrow | The Observer

“The son of an escaped slave, Paul Robeson built his career despite the segregation of the Jim Crow laws – basically, an American apartheid system that controlled every aspect of African American life. He came to London with his wife Eslanda – known as Essie – partly to escape the crushing racism of his homeland.

Yet later in life he always insisted that he became a radical as much because of his experiences in Britain as in America. In particular, he developed a deep bond with the labour movement – particularly with the miners of Wales. That was why, in 2016, I travelled from my home in Australia to visit the landscape that shaped Robeson’s politics.

Pontypridd was a village carved out of stone. Grey terraced cottages, grey cobbled streets, and an ancient grey bridge arching across the River Taff.

The sky was slate, too, a stark contrast with the surrounding hills, which were streaked with seasonal russet, teal and laurel.

By accident, he’d encountered a party of Welsh miners from the Rhondda valley. They were stragglers from the great working-class army routed during what the poet Idris Davies called the “summer of soups and speeches” – the general strike of 1926. Blacklisted by their employers after the unions’ defeat, they had walked all the way to London searching for ways to feed their families.

By then, Robeson’s stardom and wealth were sufficient to insulate him from the immiseration facing many British workers, as the industrialised world sank into the economic downturn known as the Great Depression.

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