There have been some distractions on the domestic front chez moi, so this review may not do this marvellous book justice…
Jeff Sparrow’s biography of Paul Robeson is great reading, even if you have never heard of Paul Robeson. The blurb actually says that Robeson is one of the 20th century’s most accomplished but forgotten figures – but surely not? Could this voice really be forgotten?
His performance of ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman’ is electrifying:
But Paul Robeson, superstar of the early 20th century that he was, was not just an extraordinary bass singer. His father the Reverend William Drew Robeson had been a slave and he was ambitious for his son. He saw to it that Paul transcended the institutional racism all around him under the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in America until 1965. Paul became the third ever African-American student at Rutgers University, and he graduated with both academic and sporting distinction. He then went on to enrol at Columbia university, supporting himself with football coaching and – with the encouragement of the girl he married, ‘Essie’ Goode – also with an emerging career as a performer.
Paul’s father did not live to see his son qualify as a lawyer, nor to see that his destiny lay elsewhere:
… [Paul’s] legal career ended after a few weeks, when he asked a stenographer to take a note for him.
‘I don’t take dictation from a nigger,’ she said.
Paul put on his hat and marched out, leaving the office and the profession. (p.65)
(My apologies for the offensive word, it’s in the text).
Jeff Sparrow’s search for Paul Robeson is fascinating: he travels to the places Robeson went, and talks to people who remember the frisson that accompanied his tours. It’s not a hagiography but the reader can sense his awe at the events that marked Robeson’s life and his respect for the man’s achievements. He charts the course that shows that Robeson became a singer and an actor almost by accident. He shows how Robeson struggled with the slave song repertoire he was expected to sing because it reinforced racism, and acknowledges the role of Paul’s wife Essie who saw the possibilities in building a career that would enable him to be a role model and spokesman for his people. By distinguishing himself in the arts, Paul went on to travel the world and found that there was an international movement to improve the lives of working people… like many intellectuals of the era, he recognised the possibilities of communism.
As an international advocate for international peace, workers’ rights, and racial equality, Paul Robeson also performed at fundraisers for the out-of-work coal miners and for the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War. The chapter about the Spanish Civil War is excellent: it’s a very complex piece of history but Sparrow writes so clearly and cogently, I now understand what happened and why better than I ever did before.
I found this clip about Robeson’s visit to the Scottish miners in 1949:
As many Australians will know, Jeff Sparrow is a writer on the left of the political spectrum, but he is troubled by Robeson’s decision to become a committed communist and not to resile from that even after Stalin was denounced. In Russia, Sparrow sees a different Moscow to the one I saw as a tourist in 2012. He traces a ‘topography of terror’ that took him to the Lubyanka Building that housed the NKVD and the KGB; and he visits a museum at a gulag called Perm-36. He connects a Russian father’s refusal to discuss his incarceration in the gulag with Robeson’s father’s refusal ever to discuss his enslavement with his son Paul.
But the obvious comparison raised the issue posed by everything I’d seen at the museum: how could Paul, the child of a slave, a man who dedicated his life to battling oppression, have supported the system responsible for Perm-36?
The question had gnawed at me ever since I first read the Robeson story. And the shadow it cast felt particularly dark, because I knew how tragic the final chapter of Paul’s story had been. (p.253)
Paul Robeson certainly suffered for his principles. His magnificent international singing career gave him fame, great wealth and a celebrity lifestyle but he lost it all during the era of McCarthyism.
During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute. (Wikipedia, viewed 7/3/17)
This clip shows Robeson singing for the workers on the Sydney Opera House site in 1960. He had been invited to Australia by the Australian Peace Council in 1950 but was unable to come because his passport had been confiscated by US authorities. The Australian visit was one of a number of singing and speaking tours after his passport was restored in 1958, to recoup his fortunes after years of being unable to work because of the blacklist.
Despite his achievements, as the final chapter makes clear, Robeson was a deeply troubled man in the last years of his life. He suffered from chronic depression and delusional paranoia, and the primitive treatments for mental illness were not much help to him at all. He felt he’d failed and that he wasn’t worthy of the adulation he received. But Sparrow summarises the merit of Robeson’s life work and relates it to contemporary politics like this:
Paul’s illusions about Soviet Russia had been used, it seemed to me, by those who defended the structural injustices of the United States to obscure his extraordinary presience about some of the most profound questions about American politics.
The Soviet Union that Paul had championed was grotesquely different in reality from the claims he made for it. But that didn’t mean that he was mistaken to agitate against the evils of the America he had known. It didn’t mean he was wrong to suggest that ordinary people could unite against racism and oppression. And it didn’t mean that a better kind of society wasn’t a worthy goal for which to fight. (p.267)
I may not have conveyed in this review how the book gripped me. I read excerpts to The Spouse over breakfast; I neglected the ironing, forgot to water the vegetable patch, and once or twice poor little Amber had to forego her walk because I was busy. Now that’s a book well worth reading!
Author: Jeff Sparrow
Title: No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson
Publisher: Scribe, 2017
Review copy courtesy of Scribe