Paul Robeson, A Life - Book Review
“Paul Robeson,” historian Joseph Dorinson ruefully wrote in the 2002 introduction to his co-edited collection of essays about him, “is the greatest legend nobody knows.” When the man who was one of the most striking Renaissance people in American history died in 1976, in loneliness and obscurity, his magnificent athletic, scholarly, artistic and political accomplishments were largely erased from national consciousness, stricken from the media and from history books. This tragic void, eerily reminiscent of Stalin-era removal of enemies from photographs and other Soviet documents, was a deep stain on American history, resulting from the worst excesses of McCarthyism from the late 1940s through much of the 1960s.
The long overdue restoration of Robeson’s stellar reputation, fortunately, began shortly after his death, slowly propelling him back to some public recognition. Several books, plays, films and conferences, especially after the 1998 centenary of his birth, highlighting his life and multifaceted activities, complemented such awards and honors as his posthumous election to the College Football Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The belated issuance of a Robeson United States postage stamp constituted an oblique government apology and encouraged people to explore his diverse artistic and political contributions.
The growing literature about Robeson encompasses every feature of his life. Some books and articles are overviews, giving readers an opportunity to understand and gauge the full range of his life and work. Others address particular areas such as his films, music, theater or politics. Jordan Goodman’s new book, “Paul Robeson: A Watched Man,” is an effective and informative treatment of Robeson’s political awakening in the United States and England, and the disgraceful pattern of persecution he suffered, especially during the Cold War years after 1945. Readers who are already familiar with Robeson and seek greater detail about the complex political activities that increasingly became the major focus of his life will find the book especially valuable, though it is also useful for general readers.
Goodman is a British academic who is particularly well positioned to address Robeson‘s political activities in the U.K., especially in the postwar era. He provides informative detail about Robeson’s close associates and contacts in Britain as he worked publicly for peace with the Soviet Union, which resulted in increased surveillance by both British and U.S. intelligence agencies.
A key focus of the book is Robeson’s most controversial political act, his speech in April 1949 at the World Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris. Attended by leftist artists and intellectuals from around the world, this event threw Robeson into a political maelstrom from which he would never recover. Goodman discusses the Congress events extensively, providing the background to Robeson’s presentation there, where, in addition to his songs, he observed that “we,” referring to all black and colonized people throughout the world, had no desire to make war against the Soviet Union.
The reaction in the United States was swift and severe. Both the mainstream media and major elements of the African-American press, as well as the black community generally, accused Robeson of disloyalty to his country and maligning the patriotism of African-Americans by claiming that they would refuse to fight in a war against the Soviet Union. Although the press had garbled Robeson’s words, it scarcely mattered because a wide variety of forces were already conspiring to remove him from political visibility and leadership by attacking him with the anti-communist fervor sweeping the nation.
“Paul Robeson: A Watched Man” is particularly strong in accounting Robeson’s political efforts in the late 1940s through the 1950s, when he became increasingly marginalized and persecuted. He strongly defended the Trenton Six, an egregious case in New Jersey in which six black men were accused of murder and sentenced to death in 1948. Robeson sought to make the case the equivalent of the infamous Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama during the 1930s. This episode adds impressive substance to understanding Robeson’s courageous and enormous commitment to fighting domestic racism. It likewise returns this tragic case to public consciousness about the long racist history of American criminal law.
Goodman also chronicles Robeson’s extensive work against colonialism in Africa, particularly his efforts and leadership on the Council on African Affairs, where he worked with such luminaries as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and various radical and liberal figures from the black and white communities. Robeson was one of the first prominent Americans to call public attention to Africa, including the monstrous apartheid regime in South Africa. His stance drew strong opposition from the U.S. government, further alienating him. As Goodman notes, it was another blow against Robeson in his ultimate blacklisting and persecution.
One of the most intriguing parts of the book concerns Robeson’s former colleague on the Council on African Affairs, the loathsome Max Yergan, who had served admirably with Robeson and who had had a long and impressive record of progressive political activism. By 1948, however, Yergan’s opportunism led him to burnish his anti-communist credentials by turning viciously against Robeson. Later, Yergan’s political turnabout transformed him into a rabid anti-communist cold warrior and apologist for the South African apartheid regime.
Goodman recounts Robeson’s protracted struggle to regain his passport after the State Department withdrew it on the grounds that “the Department considers [his] travel abroad would be contrary to the best interests of the United States.” This was a devastating blow, both emotionally and financially. As Goodman reveals, this action, which the Supreme Court ultimately declared unconstitutional in 1958, further marginalized Robeson in America.
Goodman also explores Robeson’s relationship with the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, a disgraceful feature of the postwar anti-communist hysteria in America. One early episode involved baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s appearance as a “friendly witness” before HUAC in July 1949. Robinson was reluctant to testify and spent most of his time commenting on the difficulties that African-Americans faced in a racially discriminatory society. Robinson was strong in denouncing Jim Crow, but he also rebuked Robeson for his (misinterpreted) comments from the Paris Peace Congress.
Years later, near the end of his life, Robinson expressed regret for allowing himself to be used by HUAC and other conservative forces in the persecution of Robeson. He indicated his increased respect for Robeson’s steadfast commitment in the continuing struggle against American racism. Goodman places Robinson’s problematic testimony in a nuanced historical context, and reveals the influence of Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who brought Robinson into Major League Baseball in 1947. Rickey, who was a staunch anti-communist, clearly helped manipulate Robinson into serving as a believable and respected black celebrity in opposition to Robeson.
The same year that Robinson denounced Robeson before HUAC, one of the most violent reactions against Robeson occurred in Peekskill, N.Y., where he had given an annual concert since 1946. The book describes the horrific events in detail. The local press ran hostile stories about Robeson, and local groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and various veterans organizations, called for anti-Robeson demonstrations because of his radical views and activism.
When Robeson arrived in Peekskill that year, he found a massive mob, many shouting anti-Semitic and racist language. The mob threw rocks and attacked concertgoers. Robeson rescheduled the show and once again, ugly racist language and brutal mob violence, with the active complicity of local police, injured numbers of spectators. Robeson himself barely escaped the carnage. Later, Gov. Thomas Dewey claimed that communist agitators were responsible for the Peekskill riot, a grotesque cover-up of the deeply repressive political atmosphere of the early Cold War period.
The most emotionally compelling chapter of “Paul Robeson: A Watched Man” involves his 1956 appearance before HUAC. Robeson was defiant and eloquent, often pointedly questioning his inquisitors about their questionable motivations and reactionary ideologies. Goodman shows meticulously how Robeson drew on his considerable acting talent to express his righteous contempt for a process that, in its essence, contradicted American ideals and constitutional standards.
What Goodman only alludes to in his book is that Robeson testified before HUAC while he was in the midst of a severe emotional depression. Indeed, his courageous stand before the committee evoked positive responses from the progressive and black press, which lifted him temporarily from the emotional darkness that pervaded his later life. That aspect of Robeson’s life is often underplayed or omitted altogether in the growing literature about his life and work. In fact it is all the more remarkable that Robeson accomplished so much even while fighting and suffering from the effects of debilitating mental illness.
This work is a splendid addition to Robeson scholarship. Though limited in scope, it nevertheless provides powerful insights into Robeson’s remarkable life of political engagement and activism. More ominously, it also reveals the pernicious impact of a social order determined to destroy its most effective and outspoken critics. That lesson should not be lost today.