Paul Robeson, the FBI, MI5, and the State Department

Image from book cover. Paul Robeson, in 1942, leads Oakland shipyard workers in the singing of the National Anthem.( Photo: National Archives)

Paul Robeson was a powerful singer and orator whose towering intellect and strong beliefs in the dignity of all mankind may have cost him his reputation and career.

Paul Robeson: A Watched Man
Jordan Goodman


October 2013


Paul Robeson is a great American folk hero. The acclaimed actor and singer became a flash point activist in the '30s. A suspected Communist, a champion of human rights, and an intellectual who had earned a law degree, Robeson could have been content to earn a decent living, collect accolades, and quietly take his place in the hallowed halls of African American history where he would have been seen as a powerful entertainer and orator. Instead, he risked his reputation and his career for his beliefs.

Interest in Robeson emerges about once a decade with biographies and radio profiles, but wide public interest in him never seems to sustain. Even decades after his death he remains the kind of radical whose politics can, for some, overshadow the elegance of his achievements and the principles for which he stood. This new work by Jordan Goodman seeks to rectify some of that problem and demonstrate how Robeson was never an easy figure to pigeonhole. With access to documents from the FBI, MI5, and the State Department, among others, Goodman is able to illuminate several key events in Robeson's life that ultimately led to his public decline and nearly entirely destroyed his career.

Like many of his era, he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and sparred contentiously, refusing to accept defeat in front of those who did not fully understand the gradations of his political beliefs. He found himself unable to leave the United States for the better part of a decade, a reality that placed him at a severe handicap as a performer and was clearly motivated by a desire to quiet his activism overseas. His domestic performance schedule suffered and it was sometimes demanded that he sing but not speak.

Robeson's affinity for Soviet culture was but one point of tension in his career: Having visited the Soviet Union, he declared that he felt more at peace there than he did in his native land, doubtless because of the climate of racism that held throughout America—even in Robeson's native New Jersey. The son of a former slave, the singer/actor would not cease in his fight to be treated with dignity.

But if his statement about the way he was able to let down his guard in the Soviet Union was one concern, yet more troublesome were statements made during the 1949 Paris Peace Conference. (See "What Paul Robeson Said", by Gilbert King, Smithsonian, 13 September 2011.) Although there exist several versions of what Robeson said and a variety of clumsy attempts to soften the blow of his words and/or throw his words to the wolves of hyperbole, what does remain clear was that he was not keen on black Americans taking up arms to protect a nation that had done so little to protect that sector of its population. He would not be alone in this sentiment, but that did not make him seem any less radical or any more appreciated by a government hyper vigilant to the threat of Communism and anything that smacked of allegiance to that ideology.

It's doubtful that Robeson was ever actually a Communist, though he refused to tell HUAC whether he had been or not, knowing that the powerful committee would cripple him one way or another. His admirable belief in free speech and his commitment to the plight of African Americans and his own principles is nothing short of heroic and a powerful reminder of one of the great disconnects in American life—the promise of free speech and freedom of the press, but the near constant threat that either or both of those can be swept away at a moment's notice.

Goodman's research shines through in these pages and his ability as a prose craftsman must also be appreciated; he is able to convey the complexity of the situation in language that is easy to grasp and admire. If there is a criticism to be found of the text and/or Goodman's writing, it is his occasional tendency to focus on the plight and sacrifice some elements of the man. That is to say, in its darkest moments this narrative becomes more about an idea than about the man who has it. And yet when the author turns his attention to the man behind that idea, we can—if only for a moment here and there—feel ourselves in his skin.

A book that is frightening in its contemporary relevancy, Paul Robeson: A Watched Man is a fine example of a well-researched biography capable of reaching both scholars and a popular audience.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.