“And so by fateful chance the Negro folksong--the rhythmic cry of the slave--stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas…..it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”
-Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois 
Paul Robeson was one of the greatest artists our world has ever seen. He was one of the greatest not just because he was a prolific singer and an actor but because of how he used his art to become one with the people of the world. Robeson believed that art and the artist cannot be separated from the struggle for humanity’s deepest strivings- freedom, peace, and dignity. In this fight, “the artist must take sides”. The moral imperative that Robeson felt as an artist reflected in the life he lived. He used his talents to further the cause of humanity and exemplified courage and a spirit of sacrifice that earned him the love of people worldwide. Once accepted as a talented artist by the US ruling class, when he used his art for the emancipation of his people, he was intensely persecuted. Despite many attempts by the American government to isolate Robeson and his ideas from the people, progressive humanity worldwide marched under the banner of his name
Culture, as Robeson believed, originates within the masses of people and is a reflection of their aspirations and their history- that is, relationships between individuals of a society and between an individual and the environment. Thus, a people’s contribution to furthering human civilization is unique. Yet this culture, though unique in its character, can connect you with the universal -- it speaks of the suffering, the struggle of the people, their philosophy of life and their hopes and aspirations. Speaking of the music of his own people, the Black Spirituals, Robeson said: “…this enslaved people, oppressed by the double yoke of cruel exploitation and racial discrimination, gave birth to splendid, inspired, life-affirming songs. These songs reflected a spiritual force, a people’s faith in itself and a faith in its great calling; they reflected the wrath and protest against the enslavers and the aspiration to freedom and happiness. These songs are striking in the noble beauty of their melodies, in the expressiveness and resourcefulness of their intonations, in the startling variety of their rhythms, in the sonority of their harmonies, and in the unusual distinctiveness and poetical nature of their forms” . These songs of struggle spoke to millions of oppressed people worldwide and inspired many of the anti-colonial movements. Robeson said: "I have sung my songs all over the world and everywhere found that some common bond makes the people of all lands take to Negro songs as their own."  Robeson saw the Black struggle as part of a larger struggle of darker humanity against exploitation and for freedom and positive peace.
Robeson’s view of art and culture is deeply philosophical. For him, art and culture rooted in the people are concrete and depict an inner emotional or intuitive capability which adds vitality to the creation. It is the interaction of the incalculable human capacity with the physical reality that gives birth to something that speaks to the human spirit. This expression of the human spirit is what binds all art and music originating in the East. Robeson asserted that the people of Africa in particular, and Afro-Asia have made some of the greatest contributions to furthering human civilization, particularly in art and culture. It is only in applied science that the West rose ahead and claimed its superiority on this basis. However, this excessive emphasis on applied science has led to an abstract intellectualism and hollowness among the Western bourgeoisie. In developing his intellectualism, the Western bourgeois man lost touch with his creative side. This meant that Western art got trapped in unrooted abstractions that do not speak to an inner human striving and are often lifeless. Robeson said: “A blind groping after Rationality resulted in an incalculable loss in pure Spirituality... we grasped at the shadow and lost the substance and now we are altogether not clear what the substance was.” 
Culture, through its reflection of material and spiritual conditions of a people, serves as a touchstone to assess the historical claims made by imperialism. Robeson argued that Africa with all the linguistic and artistic diversity represented a highly advanced civilization similar to other civilizations, like China. He recognized that imperialism relied on denying that darker humanity, especially Africa, had made any contributions to the world and that they were “primitive” in order to justify the exploitation of the colonized people. The history and social roots of Black music and art were distorted to portray Black culture as imitative, and produced by people who were meek and submissive. So, he made it his mission to educate the world about the immense contributions that his people had made to the world. Robeson declared: “In my music, my plays, my films, I want to carry always this central idea; to be African. Multitude of men have died for less worthy ideals; it is even more eminently worth living for.” He urged Black people to not fall prey to the racist theories of inferiority of the African race and embrace their roots. He said: “He (American Negro) sees only the savagery, devil-worship, witch doctors, voodoo, ignorance, squalor and darkness taught in American schools. Where these exist, he is looking at the broken remnants of what was in its day a mighty thing; something which has perhaps not been destroyed but only driven underground, leaving ugly scars upon the earth’s surface to mark the place of its ultimate reappearance.”  He felt that only the Black man with his "immense emotional capacity" could revive and bring new life to the culture in America. But, if on the other hand, the Black man were to imitate the White society, he would lose the immense artistic wealth that his people had accrued over the course of history through struggle.
Art and culture thus, represent a life-world-- a means of experiencing the universe or truth through subjective interpretation collectively. As art brings people closer to the human universal, it serves as the broadest approximation of truth. This collective quest for truth is not just determined by history but also determines what future the human civilization will move towards. It is this agency that revolutionary culture nurtures in people which allows them to see the sky of possibilities and hope and work towards a better future even when they are enveloped with dark and troubling times. According to Robeson, “the whole problem of living cannot be understood until the world recognizes that artists are not a race apart…Each man has something of the artist in him.” 
The culture promoted by the ruling elite is contrary and opposed to revolutionary culture. It relies on a belief that the ability to see and appreciate beauty in art and music is inherited by a handful of people and the rest of humanity is viewed as “uncultured” and unworthy. This culture celebrates a life of materialistic indulgences and consumerism and upholds these as ideals worth aspiring to. Within this framework, the masses of people are portrayed as morally depraved without the right to claim their future. Such a culture tries to obscure the paths available for collective human struggle to reach a future where all human beings can express their maximum potential. It thrives by creating a nihilistic and grim view of the future that almost paralyzes people from engaging in any kind of struggle and makes them retreat into an individualistic life. Art and culture therefore cannot be separated from the ideologies that they represent. As Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois said in the Criteria for Negro Art, “all art is propaganda.” 
The basis for evaluation and appreciation of all art must be rooted in an understanding of morality and the contribution of art to the struggle of people. One cannot merely appreciate art or culture without embracing the people who produce it or the ideals that shape it. Robeson criticized the white “cultured” elites of America who claimed to appreciate or even appropriated the art produced by the Black people but refused to recognize the Black man as a human being. Racial discrimination and segregation continued to oppress the Black population. The music and art that was produced during the Harlem Renaissance was highly appreciated by the White American society and became an object of national pride, while the creators of the art-- the Black artists and people continued to be denied social, political and economic equality.
Robeson was seen and loved by the people of dark humanity, especially people in India. The memory of his songs of struggle carried across generations who felt their souls stirred by Robeson the man and his voice. People participated in rallies and stood in protest of the imperialist and fascist American government’s attack on Robeson. They also celebrated Robeson despite the threats by the American government. But today this collective memory is dormant. It is dormant because the Indian people have been robbed off their revolutionary history and the organic connection with Black America because of the West-facing Indian intellectuals. The Indian freedom struggle produced artistic and literary expressions that reflected the strivings of the masses of Indian people and united us with the world humanity’s struggle for freedom from exploitation, famines, poverty and war. Together, we aspired for a world where we could determine our future and every human being had a right to reach their highest potential.
We must revisit and remember the deep spiritual and cultural connection that we have with Black America. Instead of trying hard to assimilate into and seek acceptance from the White world, we must return to where we belong naturally- with all of darker humanity and its system of values.
Neha is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a member of the Saturday Free School for Philosophy and Black Liberation.