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Paul Robeson: A Life

Posted on Apr 11, 2014

Image by Verso

By Paul Von Blum

“Paul Robeson: A Watched Man”
A book by Jordan Goodman

“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.

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