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Paul Robeson and Japanese Americans, 1942-1949

One hero and friend of Japanese Americans, both individuals and the community generally, was Paul Robeson. Robeson was (after Joe Louis) the most popular and visible African American of the 1930s and 1940s. He was a celebrated stage actor and movie star, an internationally famous folk singer, a champion athlete, a lawyer and orator, civil rights activist, and linguist conversant in some two dozen languages. Robeson remains known today chiefly as an uncritical supporter of the Soviet Union and the U.S. Communist Party. Because of his left-wing sympathies and advocacy of civil rights, he suffered severe repression during the 1950s. Although Robeson had been the highest-paid black entertainer in the nation during the prewar years, he was blacklisted and effectively unemployed for ten years, harassed by the FBI, and stripped of his passport.

While Robeson’s advocacy of friendship with the Soviet Union aroused the greatest public attention, his primary interest on the international scene during the 1930s and 1940s was Africa, whose nations were then struggling for liberation from European colonialism. Robeson considered himself African, and he championed traditional culture as a tool to give Africans the self-esteem necessary to achieve independence. He argued that the interest of Africans (and thus African Americans) lay in coordination with other groups, particularly those which had powerful cultural traditions from which Africans could draw strength. For example, Robeson was a fervent admirer of Jewish culture and worked to build coalitions between Blacks and Jews in the United States. He also admired China, studied Chinese language, and sang Chinese folk music in his concert programs. In the years from 1939 to 1941 (when Robeson followed the Communist Party’s overall antimilitarist line) he threw himself into support for the struggle of the Chinese people against the Japanese occupation. Robeson appeared at rallies for China relief and recorded an album of Chinese songs.

Despite his concern for Asian

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