Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010
Undiscovered No Longer
Review by Paul Von Blum
THE UNDISCOVERED PAUL ROBESON: QUEST FOR FREEDOM, 1939-1976
by Paul Robeson Jr.
John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2010
Review by Paul Von Blum
The first volume of the The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, written by the performer's son, did a marvelous job of restoring Robeson's legitimate reputation as one of the greatest renaissance persons in American history. Effectively drawing on private letters, the unpublished diaries of Paul Robeson and his mother Eslanda Robeson, and the author's own memories, that volume, which chronicled its subject's life from 1898 to 1939, recounted Paul Robeson's magnificent development into a world-class athlete, stage and film star, scholar, linguist, and political activist. It also provided a revealing glimpse into Robeson's private life, including his troubled marriage, his various infidelities, and his problematic parental commitment.
Robeson Jr.'s latest book, a second volume that recounts his father's story from 1939 to his death in 1976, further succeeds in resurrecting his father's reputation following the monstrous blacklisting of the McCarthy era, when his father's sterling accomplishments were in effect stricken from the historical record. This tragic erasure, reminiscent of Stalinist-era removal of "enemies" from photographs and other official Soviet records, has denied millions of Americans the opportunity to discover this multifaceted genius of American cultural and political life.
This second and final volume presents a comprehensive treatment of Robeson's mature life as an artist and activist. Among other topics, it discusses the world-class artistic roles that made him one of the most visible African Americans in U.S. history. The author deals extensively with his father's singing career, including his many decades of concert performances and his stunningly popular radio presentation of Earl Robinson's populist "Ballad for Americans." This performance made Robeson an unofficial voice of America until his blacklisting after the allied victory in World War II.
The book also reports on Robeson's record-breaking performance of Shakespeare's Othello. Reaching a half million people on Broadway and another half million on tour, this play highlighted Robeson's brilliant performance as the tragic "Moor," presenting a thoroughly modern dilemma of an accomplished black man in a fundamentally racist society. Robeson's effort established him as a dramatic actor of the highest stature.
Not surprisingly, this latest volume focuses substantially on Paul Robeson's extensive political commitments. In America, many people, including highly educated laypersons and even scholars, reduce those commitments to his sympathy with the United States Communist Party and the Soviet Union and his leadership role in the 1948 left-wing Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. Doubtless, these sympathies and activities played a major role in Robeson's overall political life, and the book details Robeson's complex involvement with domestic and foreign communism with admirable detail and candor.
Still, that controversial feature of Robeson's life constituted only one facet of a much larger range of political consciousness and activism throughout his life. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson addresses many of his other political struggles, which set a moral tone with powerful implications even for the present. Like his friend Dr. W.E. B. DuBois, Robeson was one of the early leaders in the struggle against American racism. His son chronicles Robeson's major contributions, including his early and vigorous opposition to lynching, his struggles for equal employment opportunities for blacks, and his repeated protests against segregated facilities in concerts, workplaces, the armed forces, and elsewhere.
The author tells a little-known story about how Paul Robeson led a delegation to the Commissioner of Baseball in 1943, seeking to break the disgraceful color barrier to African American participation in the major leagues. Although this meeting yielded no immediate results, it planted the seed that led to Jackie Robinson's entry into the national League in 1947. And he tells of how Robeson's rarely recognized commitment to the most marginalized populations encouraged him to include them in his own concert tours. In 1941, for example, he became the first major concert artist to perform for an audience of prison inmates at San Quentin. Seven years later, he sang for the leper settlement on Molokai Island in Hawaii, an event that moved him deeply and that also reflected the deep humanism underlying his entire political life and work.
He also details Robeson's extensive involvement in the struggle against colonialism in Africa. For example, his was one of the earliest prominent voices to oppose the apartheid system in South Africa.
Paul Robeson revealed great courage in his personal struggle against McCarthyism and its insidious manifestations during the early Cold War era. Unlike many other persecuted artists, radical intellectuals, and other dissenters during those troubled times, Robeson remained defiant, refusing to cooperate with a process that trampled on the Bill of Rights and that disgraced American traditions of fair play and freedom of political expression and belief. The author does his readers a profound service in reproducing substantial excerpts from Paul Robeson's remarkable 1957 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The book details the horrific persecution that Robeson faced in the 1950s, including denial of his passport (leaving him without the major source of his income), systematic blacklisting from concert stages and recording studios, and relentless pursuit by FBI agents. Perhaps the worst of all occurred when he and his supporters were brutally attacked by right-wing, racist mobs at a concert in Peekskill, New York, in 1949. All of this took a profound toll on his physical and mental health, although Robeson never wavered in keeping his political faith through the worst of his ordeals.
This book also provides readers with valuable information about Robeson's extremely close connection with the Jewish community, a perspective especially valuable now in an era of increased tensions between African Americans and Jews. Some examples from the text are especially revealing and diminish the widespread belief that Robeson was an uncritical adherent of Stalinism, including its egregious anti-Semitism. At a Moscow concert in 1949, Robeson sang, in Yiddish, the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song of the Jewish partisans, "Zog Nit Keynmol." His rendition evoked thunderous applause and it was also broadcast to 180 million Soviet people. And after his close encounter with the racist mobs at Peekskill, Robeson paid special tribute to the union guards who protected him, noting that "we Negroes owe a great deal to the Jewish people, who stood there to defend me and all of us yesterday."
The most poignant part of the book concerns Paul Robeson's extensive bout with mental illness in the late 1950s and early '60s, which included substantial medication and more than fifty administrations of electroconvulsive therapy. Robeson Jr. alleges that the CIA may have drugged him during a visit to Moscow and played a role in his ineffective and even destructive treatment in a London hospital. Given what we now know of the CIA during those times, it is certainly plausible, but definitive evidence is unlikely to be discovered. What is remarkable is that Paul Robeson accomplished so much despite his severe depression, even maintaining his strong interest in the growing Civil Rights Movement during that difficult period of his life.
In 1998, the world celebrated the centenary of Robeson's birth. The events that occurred that year helped to restore him to the honor and stature he deserved. The United States Postal Service's decision to honor him with a stamp in the Black Heritage Series in 2004 further contributed to his historical resurrection. With the publication of Robeson Jr.'s second biographical volume, it is now finally possible to say, at least cautiously, that Paul Robeson, that truly remarkable American giant, is undiscovered no longer.
Paul Von Blum teaches African American studies and communication studies at UCLA. He is the author of five previous books in addition to his memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, which will be out in September.
Source Citation: Von Blum, Paul. 2010. Undiscovered No Longer. Tikkun 25(5) 77