Black Americans in Russia: Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson

Merrill, Lisa and Saxon, Theresa orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-2129-2570 (2022) Black Americans in Russia: Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson. In: Revolutionary lives of the Red and Black Atlantic since 1917. Racism, Resistance and Social Change, II . Manchester University Press (MUP), Manchester. ISBN 9781526144782

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African American actors Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson are pivotal figures for discussions of attitudes globally that continue to inform contemporary critical approaches to race and representation. This chapter explores their engagements, reception, and appropriation in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Aldridge and Robeson visited Russia within very different political climates. Aldridge travelled from America to England in 1824, then in the 1850s and 60s spent several years in Russia. Official discussions around emancipation of serfs, and connections between the systems of slavery and serfdom were noted in press reports of Aldridge’s performances. In the 1930s Robeson was drawn to the USSR, regarding it as a place where persons of African descent would be treated fairly, unlike the discrimination they faced in the US. Robeson travelled extensively through the Soviet Union from 1934, throughout the 1940s, and returned later after the US reinstated his passport in 1958. Though Robeson was more overtly political than Aldridge, they each were drawn to Russian culture, received warmly by Russian audiences and utilised by the Russian press as catalysts for political positions that they were seen represent with their artistry. Robeson’s speeches in support of Soviet workers and of the Communist state led to his harassment by HUAC/the US government. Aldridge’s celebration of African ancestry and championing of the repressed in Russia led authorities to fear his advocacy. This heritage of political activism associated with both Aldridge and Robeson as Black American performers in Russia forms the basis of this chapter.

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