(nb: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss)
Imagine you have a huge talent. You’re a famous actor and singer, and arguably the best-known member of your race on Earth. You have wealth and adulation, and the promise that this will last your whole career.
Now imagine that you spot an injustice going on. Then another. Then another. If you keep quiet and concentrate on your career, your fame and wealth and life of comfort will continue. But if you speak out, if you try to use your renown as a pulpit from which to point out these injustices, there’s a risk you could throw everything away.
What would you do?
Paul Robeson didn’t hesitate to speak out, and it nearly ruined him.
From his protests regarding the Spanish Civil War, to his fervent work to free third world nations from the grips of imperialism, Paul Robeson jumped into the fray. His biggest concern was, naturally, the treatment of his fellow African-Americans still struggling under Jim Crow laws. Lynchings were commonplace in the South, and no one was doing anything to stop them. Robeson spoke out on behalf of labor organization, and demanded—in a meeting with Harry Truman—that something be done to curtail the lynchings.
The torpedo that sank Robeson, though, was a speech he gave in Paris before an international peace organization. The AP reporter covering it wrote that Robeson said that no Negro would ever fight against the Soviet Union. Robeson had been to the USSR, and he was impressed with the equal treatment blacks received there. He spoke glowingly about socialism and equality.
This did not sit well with the various Red Scare era political machinery. Robeson was called before the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) to testify. His passport was cancelled, because his presence overseas was deemed not to be in the best interests of the US. When he was invited to speak and sing at a rally in Vancouver, the US and Canadian border patrols stopped him, even though it was commonplace not to require a passport for the visit. (Robeson ended up singing and speaking from a large truck bed backed right up to the Canadian border. His audience numbered in the thousands.)
His activism and controversy plagued his career. Not only was he kept from performing before his adoring European fans, many US promoters would not book Robeson because he was alleged to be a Communist.
His right to a passport, denied to him for nearly a decade, was finally upheld by the US Supreme Court. At last, he could go overseas. He had an ambitious schedule, but all the travel wore him down, and he was hospitalized. His career, for the most part, was over.
Jordan Goodman’s biography, “Paul Robeson: A Watched Man,” is not a document of Robeson’s career. There are few real details of his rise to fortune and fame, and very little about him as a man. This is a biography of his involvement in efforts to make this world better for everyone. Goodman shows us not only Robeson’s devotion and tireless work for his causes, but that he was hands-on. He didn’t just write a check to ease his conscience. He was there, publishing magazines, writing pamphlets, organizing and attending rallies. Robeson served in whatever capacity he was able.
And the government dogged him all the way. Naturally—having spoken favorably about the Soviet Union—he caught J. Edgar Hoover’s attention, and the FBI followed his actions. Even when he was in England, MI5 kept Robeson under close surveillance. The State Department banned him from travel. He was subpoenaed to testify before Congressional committees.
Paul Robeson never failed to speak his mind, and it cost him his money, his health, and—at times—his sanity.
There are times in this book where Robeson is absent. We’re left behind the scenes with one group or another, organizing a rally or protest, or fighting a legal battle. If there’s a fault with this book, that would be it. Sometimes Robeson’s causes get more attention than the subject himself.
Jordan Goodman took on a difficult task with this book. He wrote a biography of a celebrated artist, and left most of the “celebrated artist” parts out. I think if you asked Paul Robeson, he would tell you that what he did in this book—this work on behalf of his fellow man—was ultimately more important than all the songs and plays in the world.