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Paul Robeson: A Life

Posted on Apr 11, 2014

Image by Verso

By Paul Von Blum

(Page 2)

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.

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