Decolonising the Law School: Lessons from the work of Paul Robeson


Paul Robeson (1898-1976) won fame as an actor and singer. His political engagement for civil rights in the United States, against imperialism, and on behalf of the international labour movement, is renowned. His life is prized as one of endurance and achievement in spite of social and state racism. Robeson had a deep and sustained involvement with Welsh culture and with the labour movement in South Wales. A frequent visitor to the region, he starred in the film Proud Valley which dramatized the experience of black coal workers. He performed at the national and miners’, Eisteddfod, the latter famously by telephone from America after the US government withdrew his passport. His visit to the multicultural community of Tiger Bay in Cardiff is still cherished. Less well known is the fact that Robeson started his career as a lawyer having graduated JD from Columbia University. Prejudice and hostility from clients and fellow professionals forced him to abandon the law, and to realize his artistic gifts instead. Our second plenary roundtable connects these strands of Paul Robeson’s life with the contemporary movement to decolonize the law school curriculum, to challenge occupational injustices, and to celebrate the achievements of all scholars. It asks what we can learn from his experiences, his thought and his art, in pursuing these goals.

Professor Penelope Andrews

New York School of Law, Chair of the Law and Society Association

Penelope Andrews has written on Paul Robeson’s legal career and its relevance to struggles against racism around the world. She is Co-Director of the New York Law School’s Racial Justice Project, and is committed to ensuring the relevance of law and society scholarship to academic communities in the global south and global north. Editor of the International Journal of Law in Context. Her published books and articles focus on comparative constitutional law, gender and racial equality, human rights, the judiciary, and legal education in South Africa and internationally. She publishes regularly in the popular media and on social media, focusing on issues of race, poverty, legal education, public interest litigation, and the ongoing challenges of transforming an economically unequal and racially divided society. She has served on the Judicial Institute for Africa, and as an Acting Judge of the North Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, and as an arbitrator in hearings on racial discrimination in South Africa.

Professor Daniel Williams

Swansea University

Daniel Williams has published extensively on Paul Robeson’s deep connections with the labour and anti-fascist movements in Wales. His research interests range from the 19th century to the present day and encompass Welsh English language literatures on both sides of the Atlantic. These interests are linked by a concern with questions of nationalism, ethnicity and identity. Director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales and has served as President of the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History.

Dr Foluke Adebisi

University of Bristol

Foluke Adebisi has pioneered work on decolonizing the law curriculum in the UK. She holds an LL.M with Distinction from Lancaster University in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. Her Ph.D, was also completed at Lancaster University. She has a background in legal practice and NGO work. She currently teaches Contract Law, Foundations of Business Law as well as Law and Race. She is the founder and Director of Forever Africa Conference and Events and writes about law, Africa, pedagogy and life in general at Foluke's African Skies. 


Image: Paul Robeson American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, Spingam Medal winner, and Stalin peace prize laureate.   June 1942. Source - Library of Congress