The first time I came across the name Paul Robeson was in 1995 at a 75th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the Australian Communist Party. The event was held in a hall used by the Maritime Union of Australia where the Communist Party once, and presumably still did, have a political presence, although now it was spiritual rather than material. The Australian Communist Party died of a broken heart four years earlier when the Soviet Union entered its death throes but these old Communists refused to yield, picking their way through the wreckage to salvage what was good and unspoiled in the socialist movement. One figure they could point to was Paul Robeson; born in 1898 to an escaped plantation slave before dying in 1976, free but not redeemed.
Paul Robeson, an unknown figure in contemporary culture, was in the early and mid-twentieth century a giant of stage and screen across the Atlantic and one of America’s most popular, then most reviled figures – at least among the American political establishment. Jeff Sparrow’s new biography of Robeson No Way But This – in search of Paul Robeson attempts to bring to life Robeson’s exploits and travails for a new generation and in so doing, he tackles the question of why some people and events are memorialised in perpetuity – including some of the 20th century’s most repellent figures like the Stalinist torturer Felix Dzerzhinsky – while others drop into the historical void, as Robeson clearly has, despite his amazing story.
Sparrow has chosen to retrace Robeson’s global footprint and to then weave into the biography segues and reflections on contemporary politics vis-à-vis interactions with local guides. So the book starts with Sparrow meeting some southern women whose relatives were slave owners, Paul Robeson’s father William being the chattel of one of these women’s great, great grandfather, George Robason (a variant spelling). Maybe I didn’t find these women compelling but switching between the history of William Robeson and these women took me out of the narrative. This pattern continues throughout the book with sojourns – admittedly some interesting and damming ones – into the Black Lives Matter movement, the peccadilloes of Princeton’s historical society, or the gentrification of Harlem and Wales. As important as these subjects may be, it diminished the focus on the central subject.
Geoffrey C. Ward’s extraordinary biography of Jack Johnson ‘Unforgivable Blackness’ – whose subject is another commanding and now largely forgotten black American figure – is thick with engrossing detail, made all the more compelling because Ward doesn’t keep drawing the reader out with contemporary assessments of race relations or politics. The other thing Ward does is start with an arresting anecdote about Johnson which illustrates his enormous charisma and potency; revealing to us why he was such a loathed figure amongst white racists and idolised by enormous swathes of the African American population, then works back. Sparrow pursues a linear approach which is sensible enough but it feels like the most engaging information is buried too far back and the story of his father – an enormous influence to be sure – could have been weaved sparingly through the book.
In any case, Sparrow’s biography is full of fascinating detail about Robeson’s life and the age he lived in. The insights into the Harlem Renaissance and how this large, black city in the centre of New York allowed black artists and culture to flourish is a wonderful historical detail to those uninitiated in American history as well as being an important moment in the artistic development of Robeson. It was here that Robeson would be convinced to sing slave songs – inhering songs that might have been embarrassing to cultured African Americans with great gravity – and where he also starred in an all black production Simon the Cyrenian which bought him to the attention of talent watchers. But as Sparrow illustrates, that artistic development might have remained latent if not for the racist mores and structures of the age which propelled him in that direction.
Robeson was a prodigious talent who excelled at almost everything he turned his hand or mind to. He won a scholarship to Rutgers where he won 14 varsity letters, studied law, headed the debating team and played elite level college football. Despite this academic and sporting prowess he was never invited to celebratory events for any honours he was a central part of achieving. Intending to practice law, he gave up that dream when a stenographer objected ‘I don’t take dictation from a nigger’. From here Robeson’s wife Essie – who saw law as a dead end for a black man in racist America – encouraged him to pursue acting and singing for which he also had a terrific facility. He starred in several Eugene O’Neill plays and in addition to being a national football name became so branded in national consciousness that a fight with Jack Dempsey was mooted. But in spite of his abundant talents and the popular and critical acclaim he was achieving in America, he was continually humiliated by the Jim Crow conventions which racially segregated him from American life.
This set Robeson to cast his line further, to England where he would be offered the coveted role of Othello and cavort with that country’s social elite, from the Duke of York to James Joyce. Lionised and earning good money, Robeson allowed himself to believe the racial strictures of America didn’t function in England. But after separating from Essie (who was seeing Noël Coward and flirting with Marcel Duchamp just as Paul had pursued other affairs with women) in order to marry a white English actress, Yolande Jackson, she evidently got cold feet after threats of familial and social ostracism. Race had asserted itself again powerfully back into Robeson’s consciousness, sending him into a month-long disconsolate funk.
Just as the chapter on Harlem charted Robeson’s cultural development, the chapter on Wales charts the development of Robeson’s political consciousness and is a very moving chapter. It’s worth recounting briefly because it is a watershed period in both Robeson’s emotional and political development and explains his decision to become a folk singer. The enmeshing of Robeson’s emotional and political worlds goes a long way to understanding Robeson’s boundless energy and conviction as well as his tragic decline in later life.
Robeson had just finished a performance of Show Boat in 1929 in London when he heard some dulcet singing. His ear led him to discover that the singing was emanating from destitute Welsh miners who were marching on London after being defeated in a general strike 3 years earlier. Robeson, with his large stature and couture aesthetic cut an incongruous figure next to the ragged workers, but joined the march and regaled them at their destination with a rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ and some spirituals. Robeson gave money to the desperate miners in their darkest hour and then paid for their train trip home as well as providing food and clothing. Robeson continued the relationship, sending aid to the miners and donating concert proceeds after a mine fire killed 226 men.
From here, Robeson committed himself forever to the international labour movement, which would take him to the Spanish Civil War where fascism and social democracy were engaged in a brutal and foreboding struggle. In London, Robeson railed at a well-attended meeting in support of Spanish Republicans at the Royal Albert Hall – supported by figures like WH Auden, Virginia Woolf, HG Wells and Nye Bevan – stating artists and writers must get involved. “There is no standing on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers…The battlefront is everywhere.” The speech was cheered to the echo. And Robeson did visit those battlefronts, singing to international brigades of Republican volunteers. When Robeson sang the slave spiritual ‘Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child’ the face of the brigade chief went ‘the colour of beetroot with the effort to repress the rising tears.’ He would die soon after.
Robeson’s politics remained as they were in the 1930s and during World War Two; those politics were about extending the unfinished project of American democracy and seemed not to raise anyone’s hackles. But with the end of the wartime alliance came the cold war and McCarthyism and in its wake, Robeson was mercilessly hounded by the American state. Robeson had never joined the American Communist Party but made no secret of the fact he thought socialism was a sort of confederacy of the oppressed, a system in which race didn’t appear to matter. That belief certainly seemed borne out by the international complexion of the Spanish Civil War and its politics. As Sparrow recounts, a racial slur by Ernest Hemingway in Spain was answered by a Republican with a clarifying ‘package…in the teeth’. Then there was the love of the Welsh miners who invited Robeson to visit them in 1956 to sing at their union eisteddfod at a moment when Robeson was blacklisted by the FBI, refused a passport, denounced by friends as a communist dupe at HUAC hearings and at his lowest ebb and was of great personal sustenance.
But as Sparrow goes on to recount, when the horrors of the Soviet Union were revealed in Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin, the revelation was undoubtedly unsettling. To feel that you have given soft support to a regime that is responsible for monstrous crimes and betrayals and that you’ve spent years destitute and in the wilderness because of it would be devastating and indeed the last fifteen years of his life were wracked by psychological crises and suicide attempts, although how central these revelations were is impossible to assess.
Still, even if Robeson was wrong on the Soviet Union, that didn’t mean he was wrong on America and its race issues. Nor did it mean those in the labour movement – like the Welsh miners, the Spanish Republicans or the old Australian communists – were inveterate bastards like Stalin either, but, like Robeson, an honest fighter for a better world. The international labour movement loved Robeson and took him into their embrace, as exemplified by 5,000 Welsh miners serenading Robeson with ‘We’ll Keep a Welcome on the Hillside’ over a telephone line when Robeson was banned from travel. As oppressed, dignified and courageous fellow travellers in misfortune, they were a perfect fit. The quiet reverence of workers listening in rapt attention to Robeson in the videos provided here tells you all you need to know about his special relationship with them, a fact Sparrow’s book may have delved a little deeper into. It might have been interesting also to expand on the fissures within the black community over Robeson’s acting decisions which were sometimes seen as pandering to the demure field negro stereotype, and his political positions which were seen as too radical. Still, it’s an interesting, informative and timely book with a movie of Robeson’s life being made by director Steve McQueen who made 12 Years a Slave.