Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Paul Robeson: A Watched Man by Jordan Goodman - Book Review

Paul Robeson: A Watched Man by Jordan Goodman (Verso, 320 Pages, $29.95) presents the trials and tribulations of one of the most controversial and divisive people of the mid-twentieth century. Robeson's career, now nearly forgotten except by those who were caught by either his music and acting or either attracted or repulsed by his radical politics in a period where America was deeply divided over the Communist menace, race, and the concerns of the Cold War. An actor and singer of great promise and early success, Paul Robeson came prominence in the 1930's with his acting in Eurgene O'Neill's Emperor Jones, his singing of “Ol' Man River” in the original production of Jerome Kern's Showboat on Broadway, and his concert career singing before huge audiences. His radio broadcast of “Ballad for Americans” by Earl Robinson on CBS in 1939 was one of the most listened to and admired broadcasts up until that time. His acting the role of Othello brought him to prominence in the theater. He attended Rutgers University on scholarship, where he was graduated as class valedictorian while being named an All-America football player. He then earned a Bachelor of Laws degree at Columbia University, but never practiced law as the allure of performing in concerts, on stage, and in film became his career. During his heyday, he was, perhaps, the best known African-American in the world. He performed widely, especially in London and in the Soviet Union, where he said he felt himself to be a complete human for the first time. He came under surveillance by the U.S. State Department for his radical stance on social and political issues and had his passport removed. The remainder of his story can be seen as a courageous fight against the forces of American conservatism and anti-communism, or a self destructive path to relative isolation and loss of prestige.

Ballad for Americans - Sung by Paul Robeson - Video

I grew up in a home where Paul Robeson's name was held in high esteem. I remember listening to and then memorizing the text of Ballad for Americans, available on four sides of two ten inch 78 rpm records until I finally wore out or broke it. I haunted the record shops around Manhattan looking for a replacement until an aunt of mine gave me her copy. When his great singing voice was re-released on Vanguard Records in 1960, I eagerly bought and listened to it. My mother often spoke of his courage in speaking out against racism and for peace, commenting that his attraction to the Soviet Union was “naive.” But this is hardly the story of Paul Robeson which in many ways carries the triumph and tragedy of a great talent whose voice and acting skills propelled him to a position where his radical politics provided leadership and cost him greatly. Jordan Goodman's Paul Robeson: A Watched Mantells the story of Robeson's struggles against the U.S. bureaucracy during the the most difficult and destructive days of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the career of Eugene McCarthy, and the Cold War. It also details his strength and courage in following his conscience, no matter how much it cost him financially or artistically. He goes to great length to say that, while deeply committed to promoting peace in the world, fighting for the rights of oppressed peoples around the world and African Americans particularly, Robeson himself was probably never a member of the Communist Party. Regardless, much of his political ideology was influenced by international communism. Later, during his period of having his U.S, Passport confiscated by the government, he showed significant discomfort when questioned about Khrushchev's criticisms of Stalin.

Paul Robeson sings Ol' Man River in 1936 Showboat

Robeson's activism became very divisive among Black leadership in the 1940's and fifties. His association with W.E.B. DuBois, simultaneously one of the top scholars and ideological leaders in the early days of the civil rights movement, was opposed by people like NAACP President Walter White and Railroad Porters Union President A. Phillip Randolph, who preferred to take a more conservative and low profile approach to achieving civil rights. Robeson spoke out repeatedly about the futility of asking African Americans to die abroad for the country while being systematically discriminated against at home. He frequently and uncompromisingly mentioned the murders and lynchings in the South and the rigors of Jim Crow. Many African American leaders felt that Robeson had not suffered the effects of discrimination sufficiently due to his long absences from America to live in England and the Soviet Union, which further led to their opposing his positions. Goodman's description of the Peekskill riots, where American veteran's organizations actively opposed a concert by Robeson and Pete Seeger is the best I've read beyond T.C. Boyle's novel World's End. 

Jordan Goodman

Jordan Goodman's books include The Devil and Mr Casement: One Man's Struggle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness and The Rattlesnake: A Voyage of Discovery to the Coral Sea. He has published extensively on the history of medicine and science, and in cultural and economic history. He is an Honorary Research Associate at The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London.

Many readers may find Goodman's very admiring view of Robeson's struggle to be too admiring and apologetic for Robeson's unabashed left-wing radicalism. Robeson emerges as a stubbornly conscience driven man who willingly throws away a promising career as an actor and singer for his commitment to peace, equal rights, anti-colonialism, and the universal struggle for human rights. His steadfast fight to regain his passport and the right to travel abroad was finally rewarded with the return of his passport, but at the cost of his health as well as his career He can stand as either a martyr to the civil rights movement or a man of strength and character who showed others the way. Goodman's writing is filled with details of movement radicals in the U.S. and abroad who were willing to exploit Robeson's fame to their own ends. Robeson's willingness to be used, however, took place with open eyes and a clear view of the world he lived in. His positions were conscious and decisive, not naïve. PaulRobeson: A Watched Man by Jordan Goodman (Verso, 320 Pages, $29.95) presents a carefully written panegyric to Paul Robeson's struggle. It is highly annotated from numerous sources. The book was provided to me by the publisher as a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss: Above the Treeline.