Paul Robeson must be counted as one of the most remarkable Americans of his era, or indeed any era. It was for his singing voice that he was best known but that reflected only a fraction of his talents.
He was a good enough actor to be offered leading roles in a number of films and in theatre productions in the West End of London and on Broadway. He was also an outstanding athlete. All this was achieved in the face of the discrimination that came his way for being an African-American.
The author brings these details out very well. Sparrow follows the chronological details of Robeson’s life but also returns to significant places to explain why they were relevant at the time and how they remain important now. The sections on the US, for example, detail the Jim Crow racism of the early 20th century but also talk about the Black Lives Matter campaign today.
Sparrow revisits Spain, London, South Wales and Moscow, following key episodes that took place in each.
The chapters on Spain and Wales are particularly powerful. Robeson was a supporter of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and travelled to Spain in 1938 to sing for Republican troops. In 1940 he featured in a film, The Proud Valley, about the effect of the 1930s slump on the South Wales coalfields.
These experiences, along with the threat of fascism, confirmed him as very much a man of the left. For the duration of the war, the US ruling class was prepared to tolerate such views in the interests of national unity. In 1946 Robeson was even able to meet then President Harry Truman. The meeting was terminated by Truman though, when Robeson demanded that he act to stop a spate of lynchings.
From this point on things became more difficult. Robeson was summoned before the various “anti-subversive” hearings of the late 1940s and the McCarthy-inspired show trials of the 1950s. He conducted himself with dignity on each occasion but the outcomes were pre-determined. His passport was confiscated and he was unable to perform at home or abroad. What must have hurt him most was that several conservative African-American commentators also denounced him for his supposed “Communism”.
This is an excellent account in a number of ways. Firstly, it rescues a very significant artistic and political figure who is today virtually unacknowledged in the land of his birth. Secondly, the author provides an outstanding analysis of what drew Robeson to Russia. It has become popular to paint anyone who looked to the Soviet Union in the 1930s as either dupes or accomplices of the crimes of Stalin. Sparrow ably demonstrates here that Paul Robeson was neither of these things.
Any reader of Socialist Review will enjoy this book. Make sure you have Robeson playing in the background while you read!