Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2017

No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson, by Jeff Sparrow

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
ISBN: 9781925321852
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: No Way but This: In Search of Paul Robeson
Or direct from Scribe (with links to buy the eBook as well).

 


Responses

  1. I am almost finished this wonderful book Lisa and like you could barely leave it aside. Jeff is a very good writer and I was so moved by it on so many levels. I believe Paul Robeson was the man of the 20th. century and as a working class lass from Lanarkshire I was familiar with his singing as well as his commitment to the downtrodden of every colour. Oh where are such human beings today? I will pass this book to all my friends and encourage them to read it for the principles that Paul stood for are so quickly being erased and vigilance is imperative if we’re to avoid another surge to the horrors of fascism.

    • I’m so glad you liked it too, I can’t remember being so inspired by both the biography and the biographer.

    • What a beautiful review Lisa, my name is Stogie Kenyatta & I have been touring my one man show on Paul around the world for the last 10 years & would love to bring it your country & meet Jeff Sparrow. I would love to contact him & would be honored for you to check out my website on the show. http://www.paulrobesononemanshow.com

      • Hello Stogie, wow, with your connection to this great singer, I am sure you would love this book.
        I don’t have any personal connection with Jeff, so if you want to get in touch with him, your best bet is to contact the publisher (see the bottom of the review) and ask them to put you in touch with each other. Best wishes, Lisa

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. I heard an interview with Jeff Sparrow last week, and it brought back past stories of Paul Robeson and his life. Like many our age I guess I heard of his through my parents’ love of his singing, and didn’t discover the bigger and more important story of his life until I well into my adulthood. What a man.

    As for Russia, I don’t think he was the only one to be blind to the truth. Hard to let go of a dream, particularly when life in your own country is so tough. And, after all, Stalin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice!

    • Yes indeed. But Sparrow shows that Robeson wasn’t entirely blind to the truth. When he was in Russia he had to make quite a fuss to be allowed to see a friend who’d been arrested, and they conducted a conversation using gesture and scribbled notes because they knew the room was bugged. Robeson raised the issue privately with Stalin, but the man was executed anyway. I’m sure that it would have weighed heavily on Robeson’s mind that things might have been different if he’d raised it publicly using his international status to raise awareness.

      • Thanks Lisa. Yes, I guess it probably would have, knowing what we know about him.

  4. It’s a tremendous story. One of the concerts he gave was in my home region of South Wales where he took part in a festival organised by the coal miners union

    • Yes, there’s a lovely anecdote about how Robeson just kind-of fell in with them when he was travelling back to London and they were going there to protest. The book says he always felt a special affinity with the Welsh miners.

      • That feeling was reciprocated by the miners

  5. Great review Lisa. I’ve always admired Robeson, for his singing and for his politics. I’d been hearing snatches on the radio recently, must have been the Sparrow book tour. A timely biography, very easy for non-establishment heroes to slip into obscurity.

    • Yes, I must around to find that interview with Sparrow, I’m glad the book is getting good publicity.

  6. Lisa, you brought tears to my eyes – wish my dad was alive to read this. If you don’t mind I’ll reblog it on his birthday – March 13th. I grew up listening to this wonderful man’s deep voice and we played him at Dad’s funeral.(Hence the tears). Robeson wasn’t the only one to be conflicted about Stalin but like a lot of others demonised and deserted by their own country he was welcomed in Russia and perhaps tried to reconcile reality with the ideals of the Russian Revolution – an impossible dream! Russia is a country I’ve studied and been fascinated with since childhood. I don’t even want to think of Stalin or Putin – they don’t represent the Russia I want to learn about. What a wonderful example of humanity Robeson was and I’m so glad my Dad talked about him and played his music and put his life story into context for me, which explains the riveting attraction of his voice and depth of feeling he brings to the songs.

    • Thanks, Mairi, I think Sparrow’s book will touch a chord with many people, both for his music and his inspirational life. Yes, feel free to reblog, I’d like everyone to know about this book!

  7. […] Anz LitLovers LitBlog mag ebenfalls die unglaubliche Stimme von Paul Robeson und stellt auch gleich eine Biografie zu ihm […]

  8. Reblogged this on Up the Creek with a pen … and commented:
    In memory of my father who would be 95 today. He loved Paul Robeson and we played Ol’ Man River at Dad’s funeral. I grew up hearing stories about this wonderful man’s life, voice and commitment to social justice.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: