Situated in the midst of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Second World War, and anticolonial resistance in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, Eslanda Goode Robeson (1895-1965) worked as a journalist, anthropologist and political organizer to connect the political struggles for independence and freedom for oppressed people of color globally. While she is often omitted in conversations about the Black internationalist and radical left tradition, her political contributions were invaluable to the enrichment of transnational relations and activism during the mid-20th century. Her passion for internationalism brought her all over the world, and through her travels she built lifelong connections with political figures who were also committed to fighting against white supremacy, capitalist exploitation and imperialism on a global scale. Robeson strongly believed that Black American solidarity with Third World movements could facilitate the creation of a new egalitarian world order.
Affectionately referred to as “Essie,” Eslanda Robeson was born to a middle-class family in Washington DC in 1895. Her grandfather was an elected official in South Carolina during the Reconstruction period who advocated for the rights to citizenship for formerly enslaved Black people, and her mother was a volunteer for the Black leftist and internationalist newspaper The Voice in the 1910s. Robeson later moved to New York City and graduated with a degree in Chemistry from Columbia University. She became the first Black person to be the head histological chemist of Surgical Pathology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. After marrying activist and performer Paul Robeson in 1921, she became his manager and in the late 1920s, left her career in chemistry behind. Her position took her to Europe, and her time in cities like London and Paris transformed her politically.
In 1931, Robeson began to study anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her time as a student in London made her aware of the existence and plights of the larger African diaspora. Robeson’s anthropological work allowed her to travel throughout the continent of Africa, where she gained a deeper understanding of the diasporic connections between African people and Black Americans in the United States, publishing articles about her experiences in popular transnational Black publications like Amsterdam News and the Challenge. Additionally, she formed community with Black African and Caribbean people in London, which cultivated her internationalist lens towards the issues of white supremacy and economic exploitation. She was a member of the West African Student Union (WASU), a leftist and anticolonial organization founded in London in 1925. Her participation in WASU allowed Robeson to build friendships with other radical leftist intellectuals and anticolonial political leaders like George Padmore and C.L.R James from Trinidad, and Jawaharlal Nehru from India.
With the onset of World War II and the Cold War, the Black internationalist community came together to discuss how they would dismantle Western colonial rule. In 1941, Robeson and other Black political figures formed the Council on African Affairs (CAA) in the United States. Her husband, Paul Robeson, was the organization’s chairman. The mission of the organization was to promote Pan-Africanist solidarity to support the movement of colonized people more broadly. Robeson promoted Afro-Asian solidarity which was developed through her visits to China. For example, in 1945, Robeson attended the Asian Women’s International Democratic Federation meeting in China as a representative of the CAA. On her trip she was inspired by the Chinese people’s triumph over feudalism through land reclamation and believed that this had important implications for Black Americans in their struggle for equality in the US. While at home she campaigned all around the country for the US government to formally recognize the People’s Republic of China. Her work with communist China prompted the suspicion of the FBI, who proceeded to surveil both Robeson and the CAA. After World War II, Robeson with the CAA, played an important role in the establishment of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945. Robeson was very optimistic about the potential of the UN, and believed it was the key to remake a new world, free of global exploitation.
Over the next ten years, Robeson was integral to the founding of many progressive organizations and political groups. In 1948, she cofounded the U.S. Progressive Party with former Vice President Henry Wallace. When Wallace ran as a Progressive Party presidential candidate in the same year, Robeson campaigned with him, while also running for the Connecticut Secretary of State. Robeson and other Black leftist women like Shirley Graham DuBois and Charlotta Bass spearheaded the grassroots organization of the Party.
Robeson then began her work with the United Nations in 1951 as a journalist for the left-leaning publication New World Review (NWR). The journal was founded as a part of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, an organization that Robeson was a member of. The paper had readers of all races, and Robeson was the editorial advisor, covering topics on African American politics and colonialism. Writing for the NWR allowed her to expand on her world vision that relied on the cooperation of the United States and the Soviet Union, racial and gender equality, and the end of Western domination. She used her position to highlight leaders in newly independent African countries like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Touré of Guinea, and she advocated for Black leaders’ equal representation and participation in the UN. She also reported on the role of women at the UN, opposing the gendered segregation in the organization’s structure, and arguing that women should be present at all levels of the UN and not only for specific women’s commissions.
In 1952, Robeson and 13 other leftist African American women formed the organization Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a Black feminist internationalist organization dedicated to dismantling Jim Crow, colonialism, and critiquing and mobilizing against U.S. Cold War foreign and domestic policy. This organization forged connections with South African women in the African National Congress Women’s League. Sojourners for Truth and Justice was the only African American communist left collective with over a hundred Black American women dedicated to the liberation of women of color all around the world. The next year, Robeson and her husband testified before the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, led by U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy. She was subpoenaed because of her friendships with known communists, her positive writings on the Soviet Union, and because two of her books, Paul Robeson: Negro and African Journey were seen as “un-American.” During the trial, she questioned the legitimacy of the trial and refused to answer the council’s questions, citing the Fifth and Fifteenth Amendment as her legal justifications. As a result, both Eslanda and Paul had their passports revoked for five years.
When their passports were returned, Robeson continued her internationalist work and went to Africa for what would be the final time, and attended the All-Africans People’s Conference in Ghana. Robeson was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1960s, but despite her declining health, she continued to support the American Black freedom struggle and independence movements in Africa. She partnered with journalist and organizer Claudia Jones to establish a Pan-African women’s organization in London, the All-African Women’s Freedom Movement. In 1963, she was awarded the German Clara Zetkin medal for her antiracist and human rights activism and continued to be invited to events and honored for her work until her death in1965, two days shy of her 70th birthday.
Eslanda Goode Robeson lived her life with a staunch dedication to the liberation of colonized and oppressed people despite being under constant surveillance by both American and British intelligence agencies. She encouraged Black activists to see their community as extending beyond national borders, and the power that lay within the establishment of an African diasporic community. Though she never explicitly named herself a feminist, her politics have always considered the ways that race, gender, and class intersect. She remains a remarkable example of Black feminist leftist internationalism.
Paul Robeson House & Museum. (2021). Celebrating the Life of Eslanda Goode Robeson