Paul Robeson had myriad talents – football star, Ivy League lawyer, singer, actor, international celebrity, advocate for the oppressed. What went wrong?
The phrase “larger-than-life” is probably over-used nowadays but for this man it is an apt characterization. He had:
- A towering physical presence, a handsome face, and a mega-watt smile.
- An intellect sufficient to graduate with a law degree from Columbia.
- Athletic prowess, having played football at both the college and professional levels.
- A rare vocal gift as a naturally deep bass singer along with acting skills ranging from Shakespeare to Eugene O’Neill.
- A charisma that attracted legions of fans (including several women with whom he had affairs).
- A vision of brotherhood and human progress, not only for his fellow US black citizens but for oppressed people everywhere.
- An aptitude for foreign languages. Over time he used this skill not just for performing opera and folk songs but to actually speak to people in other countries in their mother tongue.
After deciding a career in law was not for him he gravitated toward a life on the stage. Here he is shown singing a signature song in the 1936 movie version of Jerome Kern’s “Showboat“.
He traveled overseas to perform, and at home, he came within the orbit of the Harlem Renaissance which included many of the names we know as contributing so much to our natural culture. The more places he visited the more his eyes were opened to injustice around the world.
However, more than anything else it was the Spanish Civil War (which also attracted authors like André Malraux, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, and Ernest Hemingway to the front lines) that author Martin Duberman sees as the tipping point wherein Robeson decided he had to direct his art toward the political causes he believed in:
Robeson later called the 1938 trip to Spain “a major turning point in my life”—in the sense of intensifying his already well-developed political sympathies. “I have never met such courage in a people,” he told a reporter. He disliked the notion of turning to war to solve problems, but felt the Spanish people could not stand there and “be just murdered.” In his notebook Robeson wrote, “We must know that Spain is our Front Line.… We are certainly not doing anywhere nearly enough. We don’t feel deeply enough.… If we allow Republican Spain to suffer needlessly, we will ourselves eventually suffer as deeply.” He deplored the failure of the Western democracies to aid the Loyalist cause in Spain.
In contrast, Robeson felt, Communists had proved themselves enthusiastic allies in the fight against Franco, and the Soviet Union’s support of the antifascist struggle confirmed for him—and for many others—that it stood in the forefront of the struggle for democratic liberties everywhere.
Both during and after World War II his involvement in a range of domestic and international political causes increased significantly, sometimes to the detriment of both his performing craft and his health. This video shows both a clip from a movie related to the life of Scottish miners (in which Robeson starred as a stranded American sailor) as well as a British newsreel showing him visiting and singing to “real” miners. The song is “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night“, a ballad about an American trade unionist who was allegedly framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915.
Most importantly (and perhaps most tragically) his view of the Soviet Union remained consistent and unapologetic to the end of his life. As the US/Soviet marriage of convenience ended in 1945 Robeson was caught up in the anti-Communist hysteria that swept our nation. Again, quoting Duberman:
Robeson’s stand endeared him still further to those who shared his politics and his principles, but cost him dearly with the multitude of mainstream Americans who had once been among his admirers. By 1960 his career and health had been broken, his name vilified, his honor—even his good sense—assailed, his image converted by a now hostile establishment from public hero to public enemy. Branded a Soviet apologist, kept under close surveillance by the FBI, his right to travel abroad denied by the State Department and his opportunities to perform at home severely curtailed, deserted by most of the beholden black leadership, Robeson became an outcast, very nearly a nonperson. … That a man so deeply loved all over the world could evoke in his own country such an outpouring of fear and anger may be the central tragedy—America’s tragedy—of Paul Robeson’s story.
There are other biographies of Robeson, but I chose Martin Duberman’s book because after some browsing his tome struck me as the most detailed as well the most arms-length in its objectivity about the subject. Duberman may seem like an odd choice since he is best known as an academic historian focusing on LGBTQ topics. His writing style is matter-of-fact and thus a little dry at times, but this actually works well owing to the grandeur, gravitas, and enigma of Robeson’s life.
And as has been the case with other vilified African-American icons like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, the posthumous historical view of Paul Robeson has been much kinder to him than was the case during his lifetime. A US postage stamp has even been issued in his honor.
Personal connection: I first discovered Paul Robeson (1898-1976) owing to the fact that my parents had a collection of albums with him performing in a variety of musical styles – spirituals, folk songs, show tunes, operatic excerpts, love songs – you name it. Some were accompanied by a full orchestra whereas others featured just Robeson and his piano accompanist of many years, Lawrence Brown.