Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:
In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)
If you are among those who think the term “Renaissance Man” seems fuzzy and even frivolous when applied to anyone born after roughly 1600, consider the case of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man whose talents and genius extended across an impossibly wide range of activities. In the 1920s and 1930s, Robeson, the son of a former slave, thrilled audiences worldwide with both his singing and his acting. In a mellifluous baritone voice, Robeson gave new vitality to African-American songs that dated to slave plantations. On the stage, his lead role as Othello in the play of that name gave a distinctly 20th century cast to one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters. He also appeared in a handful of films in the 1930s. Before becoming a singing and acting superstar, Robeson had been one of the outstanding athletes of his generation, on par with the legendary Jim Thorpe. Robeson further earned a degree from Columbia Law School and reportedly was conversant in upwards of 15 languages.
Robeson put his multiple talents to use as an advocate for racial and economic justice internationally. He was among the minority of Americans in the 1930s who linked European Fascism and Nazism to the omnipresent racism he had confronted in America since childhood. But Robeson’s political activism during the Cold War that followed World War II ensnared the world class Shakespearean actor in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension, providing a painful denouement to his uplifting life story.
Although Robeson never joined a communist party, he perceived a commitment to full equality in the Soviet Union that was missing in the West. While many Westerners later saw that their admiration for the Soviet experiment had been misplaced, Robeson never publicly criticized the Soviet Union and paid an unconscionably heavy price for his stubborn consistency during the Cold War. The State Department refused to renew his passport, precluding him from traveling abroad for eight years. He was hounded by the FBI and shunned professionally. Robeson had suffered from depression throughout his adult life. But his mental health issues intensified in the Cold War era and included a handful of suicide attempts. Robeson spent his final years in limbo, silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing, up to his death in 1976.
In No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist, seeks to capture Robeson’s stirring rise and crushing fall. The book’s subtitle – “In Search of Paul Robeson” — may sound like any number of biographical works, but in this case encapsulates precisely the book’s unique quality. In nearly equal doses, Sparrow’s work consists of the major elements of Robeson’s life and Sparrow’s account of how he set about to learn the details of that life — an example of biography and memoir melding together. Sparrow visited many of the places where Robeson lived, including Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898; Harlem in New York City; London and Wales in Great Britain; and Moscow and other locations in today’s Russia.
In each location, Sparrow was able to find knowledgeable people, such as archivists and local historians, who knew about Robeson and were able to provide helpful insights into the man’s relationship to the particular location. We learn for instance from Sparrow’s guides how the Harlem that Robeson knew is rapidly gentrifying today and how the economy of contemporary Wales functions long after closure of the mines which Robeson once visited. Sparrow’s travels to the former Soviet Union take him to several locations where Robeson never set foot, including Siberia, all in effort to understand the legacy of Soviet terror which Robeson refused to acknowledge. Sparrow’s account of his travels to these diverse places and his interactions with his guides reads at times like a travelogue. Readers looking to plunge into the vicissitudes of Robeson’s life may find these portions of the book distracting. The more compelling portions are those that treat Robeson’s extraordinary life itself.
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That life began in Princeton, New Jersey, world famous for its university of that name. The Robeson family lived in a small African-American community rarely visited by those whose businesses and lives depended upon the university. Princeton was then considered, as Sparrow puts it, a “northern outpost of the white supremacist South: a place ‘spiritually located in Dixie’” (p.29). William Robeson, Paul’s father, was a runaway former slave who earned a degree from Lincoln University and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. His mother Maria, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family and was of mixed ancestry, died in a house fire when Paul was six years old. Thereafter, William raised Paul and his three older brothers and one older sister on his own. William played a formidable role in shaping young Paul, who later described his father as the “glory of my boyhood years . . . I loved him like no one in all the world” (p.19).
William abandoned Presbyterianism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the oldest black denominations in the country, and took on a much larger congregation in Somerville, New Jersey, where Paul attended high school. One of a handful of African-American students in a sea of whites, Robeson excelled academically and played baseball, basketball and football. He also edited the school paper, acted with the drama group, sang with the glee club, and participated in the debating society. When his father was ill or absent, he sometimes preached at his father’s church. Robeson’s high school accomplishments earned him a scholarship to nearby Rutgers University.
At Rutgers, Robeson again excelled academically. He became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was selected as class valedictorian. As in high school, he was also an outstanding athlete, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and track. A standout in football, Robeson was “one of the greatest American footballers of a generation,” so much so that his coach “designed Rutgers’ game-plan tactics specifically to exploit his star’s manifold talents” (p.49). Playing in the backfield, Robeson could both run and throw. His hefty weight and size made him almost impossible to stop. On defense, his tackling “took down opponents with emphatic finality” (p.49). Twice named to the All-American Football Team, Robeson was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1995, 19 years after his death.
After graduation from Rutgers in 1919, Robeson spent the next several years in New York City. He enrolled in New York University Law School, then transferred to Columbia and moved to Harlem. There, Robeson absorbed the weighty atmosphere the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American culture, thinking and resistance in the 1920s. While at Columbia, Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Goode, known as “Essie.” The couple married in 1921.
Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923 and worked for a short time in a New York law firm. But he left the firm abruptly when a secretary told him that she would not take dictation from an African-American. Given his talents, one wonders what Robeson could have achieved had he continued in the legal profession. It is not difficult to imagine Robeson the lawyer becoming the black Clarence Darrow of his age, the “attorney for the damned;” or a colleague of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 20th century’s legal battles for full African-American rights. But Robeson gravitated instead toward singing and acting after leaving the legal profession, while briefly playing semi-pro football and basketball.
Robeson made his mark as a singer by rendering respectable African-American songs such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that had originated on the plantations — “sorrow songs” that “voiced the anguish of slavery” (p.81), as Sparrow puts it. After acting in amateur plays, Robeson won the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about inter-racial sexual attraction that established Robeson as an “actor to watch” (p.69). Many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance criticized Robeson’s role in the play as reinforcing racial stereotypes, while white reviewers “blasted the play as an insult to the white race” (p.70). An opportunity to star in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on the London stage led the Robesons to Britain in 1925, where they lived for several years. The couple’s only child, Paul Jr., whom they called “Pauli,” was born in London in 1927.
Robeson delighted London audiences with his role in the musical Show Boat, which proved to be as big a hit in Drury Lane as it had been on Broadway. He famously changed the lines to “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’” and “feared of dyin'” to a declaration of resistance: “I must keep fightin’/Until I’m dyin'”. His rendition of “Old Man River,” Sparrow writes, transported the audience “beyond the silly narrative to an almost visceral experience of oppression and pain.” Robeson used his huge frame, “bent and twisted as he staggered beneath a bale, to convey the agony of black history while revealing the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance” (p.103).
The Robesons in their London years prospered financially and moved easily in a high inner circle of respectable society. The man who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities lived as an English gentleman in London, Sparrow notes. But by the early 1930s, Robeson had learned to see respectable England as “disconcertingly similar” to the United States, “albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class. To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them” (p.131).
In London, as in New York, the “limited roles that playwrights offered to black actors left Paul with precious few opportunities to display any range. He was invariably cast as the same kind of character, and as a result even his admirers ascribed his success to instinct rather than intellect, as a demonstration not so much of theatrical mastery but of an innate African talent for make-believe, within certain narrow parameters” (p.107). Then, in 1930, Robeson received a fateful invitation to play Othello in a London production, a role that usually went to an actor of Arab background.
Robeson’s portrayal of Othello turned out triumphal, with the initial performance receiving an amazing 20 curtain calls. In that production, which ran for six weeks, Robeson transformed Shakespeare’s tragedy into an “affirmation of black achievement, while hinting at the rage that racism might yet engender” (p.113). Thereafter, Othello “became central to Paul’s public persona,” (p.114), providing a role that seemed ideal for Robeson: a “valiant high-ranking figure of color, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed” (p.109).
While in London, Robeson developed sensitivity to the realities of colonial Africa through friendships with men such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah, future leaders of independence movements in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively. Robeson retained a keen interest in African history and politics for the remainder of his life. But Robeson’s commitment to political activism seems to have crystallized through his frequent visits to Wales, where he befriended striking miners and sang for them.
Robeson supported the Welsh labor movement because of the “collectivity it represented. In Wales, in the pit villages and union lodges and little chapels, he’d found solidarity” (p.149). Robeson compared Welsh churches to the African-American churches he knew in the United States, places where a “weary and oppressed people drew succor from prayer and song” (p.133). More than anywhere else, Robeson’s experiences in Wales made him aware of the injustices which capitalism can inflict upon those at the bottom of the economic ladder, regardless of color. Heightened class-consciousness proved to be a powerful complement to Robeson’s acute sense of racial injustice developed through the endless humiliations encountered in his lifetime in the United States.
Robeson’s sensitivity to economic and racial injustice led him to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which he visited many times and where he and his family lived for a short time. But a stopover in Berlin on his initial trip to Moscow in 1934 opened Robeson’s eyes to the Nazis’ undisguised racism. Nazism to Robeson was a “close cousin of the white supremacy prevailing in the United States,” representing a “lethal menace” to black people. For Robeson, the suffering of African Americans in their own country was no justification for staying aloof from international politics, but rather a “reason to oppose fascism everywhere” (p.153).
With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Spain became the key battleground to oppose fascism, the place where “revolution and reaction contested openly” and “Europe’s fate would be settled” (p.160). After speaking and raising money on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause in the United States and Britain, Robeson traveled to Barcelona, where he sang frequently. Robeson’s brief experience in Spain transformed him into a “fervent anti-fascist, committed to an international Popular Front: a global movement uniting democrats and radicals against Hitler, Mussolini, and their allies” that would also extend democracy within the United States, end colonialism abroad, and “abolish racism everywhere” (p.196-97).
Along with many progressives of the 1930s, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union to lead the global fight against racism and fascism. Robeson once said in Moscow, “I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up. Here I am not a Negro but a human being” (p.198). Robeson’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a place where a non-racist society was possible “sustained him for the rest of his political life” (p.202). Although he never joined a communist party, from the 1930s onward Robeson accepted most of the party’s ideas and “loyally followed its doctrinal twists and turns” (p.215). It is easy, Sparrow indicates, to see Robeson’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the “drearily familiar tale of a gullible celebrity flattered by the attentions of a dictatorship” (p.199).
Sparrow wrestles with the question of the extent to which Robeson was aware of the Stalinist terror campaigns that by the late 1930s were taking the lives of millions of innocent Soviet citizens. He provides no definitive answer to this question, but Robeson never wavered publicly in his support for the Soviet Union. Had he acknowledged Soviet atrocities, Sparrow writes, he would have besmirched the “vision that had inspired him and all the people like him – the conviction that a better society was an immediate possibility” (p.264).
Robeson devoted himself to the Allied cause when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side fighting Nazi aggression during World War II, “doing whatever he could to help the American government win what he considered an anti-fascist crusade” (p.190). His passion for Soviet Russia “suddenly seemed patriotic rather than subversive” (p.196-97). But that quickly changed during the intense anti-Soviet Cold War that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany. Almost overnight in the United States, communist party members and their sympathizers became associated “not only with a radical political agenda but also with a hostile state. An accusation of communist sympathies thus implied disloyalty – and possibly treason and espionage” (p.215).
The FBI, which had been monitoring Robeson for years, intensified its scrutiny in 1948. It warned concert organizers and venue owners not to allow Robeson to perform “communist songs.” If a planned tour went ahead, Sparrow writes, proprietors were told that they would be:
judged Red sympathizers themselves. The same operation was conducted in all the art forms in which Paul excelled. All at once, Paul could no longer record music, and the radio would not play his songs. Cinemas would not screen his movies. The film industry had already recognized that Paul was too dangerous; major theatres arrived at the same conclusion. The mere rumor that an opera company was thinking about casting him led to cries for a boycott. With remarkable speed, Paul’s career within the country of his birth came to an end (p.216).
In 1950, the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport after he declined to sign an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party. When Robeson testified before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1956, a Committee member asked Robeson why he didn’t go back to the Soviet Union if he liked it so much. Roberson replied: “Because my father was a slave . . . and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (p.228). Needless to say, this was not what Committee members wanted to hear, and Robeson’s remarks “brought the moral weight of the African-American struggle crashing down upon the session” (p.228-29).
Robeson was forced to stay on the sidelines in early 1956 when the leadership of the fledgling Montgomery bus boycott movement (which included a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) concluded that his presence would undermine the movement’s fragile political credibility. On the other side of the Cold War divide, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a not-so-secret speech that winter to party loyalists in which he denounced Stalinist purges. Sparrow hints but doesn’t quite say that Robeson’s exclusion from the bus boycott and Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of the crimes committed in the name of the USSR had a deleterious effect on Robeson’s internal well-being. He had suffered from bouts of mental depression throughout his adult life, most notably when a love affair with an English actress in the 1930s ended badly (one of several Robeson extra-marital affairs). But his mental health deteriorated during the 1950s, with “periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude” (p.225).
Even after Robeson’s passport was restored in 1958 as a result of a Supreme Court decision, he never fully regained his former zest. A broken man, he spent his final decade nearly invisible, living in his sister’s care before dying of a stroke in 1976.
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Sparrow describes his book as something other than a conventional biography, more of a “ghost story” in which particular associations in the places he visited form an “eerie bridge” (p.5) between Robeson’s time and our own. But his travels to the places where Robeson once lived and his interactions with his local guides have the effect of obscuring the full majesty and tragedy of Robeson’s life. With too much attention given to Sparrow’s search for what remains of Robeson’s legacy on our side of the bridge, Sparrow’s part biography, part travel memoir comes up short in helping readers discover Robeson himself on the other side.
Thomas H. Peebles
October 21, 2019