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.