Notice of Online Archive

  • This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of the last page update.

    For questions about page contents, contact the Communications Division.

Floyd W. Hayes III, senior lecturer in political science and coordinator of undergraduate programs in Africana studies at The Johns Hopkins University, spoke on “The Cultural Politics of Robeson and Richard Wright: Theorizing the African Diaspora” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Sharon Gavin-Levy, professor of English at Northampton Community College.

In 1940, as Paul Robeson was reaching the height of his popularity as a singer and activist for civil and workers’ rights, author Richard Wright was rising to a fame of his own with the publication of his first novel, Native Son.

“Both men were widely regarded intellectual artists,” said Floyd W. Hayes III. “Both embodied progressive images of knowledge and courage. Both left America for a period of time.”

Hayes said the two differed in their relationship with Africa and the African Diaspora—the dispersal of African people throughout the world, first through slavery, then in other ways.

Hayes said that while Robeson had a lower middle class upbringing and a stellar education, Wright grew up in poverty and was unable to earn even a high school diploma. While both embraced Marxist politics, Wright joined the Communist Party, then left it. Robeson did not join the party.

Oddly, Hayes said, Robeson’s visits to Africa left him with a deep connection to the African people, while Wright, who visited Ghana, was repulsed by traditional customs and dress.

“Robeson and Wright, like other creative intellectuals, found themselves trying to explain the meaning of Africa to black Americans,” Hayes said. “Although Robeson considered himself a son of Africa, Wright considered himself the displaced offspring of America.”

Unlike Wright, Hayes said, Robeson had a deep understanding of African culture, honed at the London School of Oriental Languages.

“It led him to conclude that the African people should be free of European colonialism,” Hayes said. “He and others linked imperialism and colonialism with white supremacy.”

Hayes said that while Robeson worked toward that goal as American, despite its racism and the restrictions placed on him during the McCarthy era, Wright left the United States in 1947 and lived in France until his death in 1960.

“It seems to me that Robeson represented, in his person and scholarship and art, a contradiction,” Hayes said. “There is no simple view.”

Categorized in: News and Features