No Way But This: In search of Paul Robeson
by Jeff Sparrow
Published February, 2017
As the struggles of the twentieth century fade from our shared memory, cultural works devoted to the Anthropocene, zombies and the apocalypse are booming, and young people have little cause to hope their lives will be easier than those of the generations who lived before them. Jeff Sparrow’s remarkable new book, No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, reckons with the struggles and crises of a past generation as they were lived by Paul Robeson.
Sparrow’s project is firstly biographical. He reconstructs key episodes in Robeson’s life in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and Russia. He walks in Robeson’s footsteps, visiting locations and meeting people who illuminate aspects of Robeson’s life and his politics. In taking this approach, Sparrow implicitly affirms Nietzsche’s insight that all knowledge is embodied and perspectival. It also enables him to produce a readable history that makes his own perspective and cultural location visible to the reader. This is important given the differences in time, place, culture and experience which separate the author and his subject.
While readers will learn a great deal about Robeson’s life from this book, Sparrow has a greater purpose in mind. He evokes the imagery of ghosts by way of explanation: ‘I think of it … as a ghost story,’ he writes in the introduction, ‘shaped by places where particular associations form an eerie bridge between then and now.’ As W.E.B. Du Bois suggested in his autobiography, the thoughts and deeds of the dead can be brought back to life and reimagined for new struggles. In writing No Way But This Sparrow seeks to reanimate not only the ghost of Paul Robeson but those of his family, friends and comrades. In other words, this book has an avowedly political goal. It revives Robeson as a model of integrity and bravery – someone who, despite the precarity of his social position, risked his life and career for the ideas of workers’ rights, black liberation, anti-colonialism and international socialism.
In 1943 Time magazine described Paul Robeson as ‘probably the most famous living Negro.’ Two decades later a journalist for The Worker upped the stakes, describing Robeson as ‘the best known American in the world.’ Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling called Robeson ‘one of the greatest men of the twentieth century’. These are extraordinary statements. However, what is more extraordinary is how quickly Robeson has been forgotten. As Sparrow observes, ‘a new generation barely knows his name’. I cannot think of a comparable public figure who enjoyed such global fame, only to be forgotten a few decades after their death. While Robeson’s movies and distinctive singing style might be out of step with contemporary cultural trends, this forgetting cannot be attributed to changes in taste alone. I agree with Sparrow’s conjecture in the Sydney Review of Books last year, when he wrote that Robeson’s present obscurity stems from his ‘political strengths rather than his weaknesses’ and his ‘obstinate refusal to recant or back down.’
Robeson was the son of an escaped slave. He was born in in 1898 and died in 1976. These dates bring into sharp focus the racism that structured Robeson’s life and the proximity of slavery to America’s present. In 1915 Robeson became the third African-American student to be enrolled at Rutgers University. Paul’s father considered his son’s acceptance into Rutgers ‘a defining event in his life’ and one which ‘proved to his own satisfaction that he was not inferior to the whites who denied him equality.’ Robeson finished his undergraduate studies with four oratorical awards and fourteen varsity letters in multiple sports. Coaches and sports writers at the time predicted Robeson could have been one of the greatest footballers of his generation. He was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and his classmates elected him valedictorian. After leaving Rutgers, Robeson studied law at NYU and Columbia University. He practiced only briefly as a lawyer.
Robeson’s talent as a singer was identified by his parents. He sang in the choir in his father’s church. At Rutgers, Robeson sang off-campus for money but was not able to join the Glee Club because performers would customarily mix with female singers after the event. Andrew Eschenfelder, a classmate of Robeson’s, explained this perspective in an interview with Sheila Tully Boyle and Andrew Bunie: ‘social functions where all white, and Robey never forced himself in. As people used to say in those days, he “knew his place”.’
His vocal and acting career took off in the 1920s. Most biographers describe Robeson’s quick success in terms of his strength of will but Sparrow is careful to weave his wife Essie into the narrative. Where some of Paul’s intimates later described Essie as a ‘snob and a social climber, ruthless and grasping and ambitious’, Sparrow is more nuanced. He notes that Essie ‘recognised, well before Paul did, that he’d be profoundly limited as a lawyer’ and that she sacrificed her own talents and ambition to study medicine to keep the pair financially afloat.
Sparrow’s treatment of Essie is part of a broader effort to bring into the light those individuals and communities that made it possible for Robeson to shine. If Sparrow does not always succeed in this task it is because biography is a difficult and perhaps contradictory medium for radical history. Its form risks presenting social movements as the product of individuals or great people who stand apart (and perhaps above) the crowd. Sparrow is aware of this tension and concedes: ‘Today … Paul’s importance could only be explained in individualised terms.’ This might be true, however, at a time when many people struggle to take even basic political action, it is more important than ever that find ways to present history that give individuals a sense of their own role in social progress.
Robeson’s first fame was as a singer. In collaboration with another son of slaves, Lawrence Brown, Robeson reinterpreted spirituals or ‘sorrow songs’ of the American plantations. While Du Bois had praised these songs as the ‘singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people’, other African Americans felt differently. The spirituals took some former slaves back to a time they were trying to forget. Because the songs evoked such strong reactions, news of Robeson’s first concert spread quickly throughout Harlem. On opening night the crowd was overflowing and Sparrow observes that the ticketholders included working people and ‘well-heeled’ members of the white community. Robeson’s ability to give voice to a distinctly black experience, whilst not alienating his white audience, was an important feature of his early career.
Robeson took to the stage not because he was passionate about the performing arts. Rather, the stage was one of the few places where an African-American man could express his creativity. In 1930 he accepted an offer to play Othello in London. The mere recognition of blackness in the context of Shakespeare’s tragedy is significant. ‘The play’ Sparrow writes ‘provided the rarest of roles within the classical canon: a valiant high-ranking figure of colour, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed.’ Moreover, Sparrow contends, it was important that a black actor took the lead role in a play that shows that ‘a black person can be a tragic figure…and [that] a tragic figure by definition is a human figure.’ For many Americans at the start of the twentieth century, this was a subversive idea and fundamentally incompatible with Jim Crow segregation.
Following a successful run in London, Robeson became the first African American to play Othello on Broadway. In action that prefigured aspects of the civil rights struggle, Robeson took up the issue of theatre desegregation and insisted that the theatre company would not perform to segregated audiences during their seven-month tour. Robeson sought to enforce a similar provision against segregation throughout the rest of his concert career in the United States.
In the face of Jim Crow Paul Robeson could have kept a strictly professional public profile and used his rising star to advocate for incremental change. However, this was not in his character and Robeson’s life offers a startling response to questions about the role of artists in times of crisis. He articulated his commitment in a well-known speech delivered in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Robeson saw the Spanish Civil War as a crucial moment in the struggle to stop the spread of fascism. In the middle of a war zone, Robeson expressed his antifascism and called for other artists to join the struggle. The artist, for Robeson, had a distinctive role in fighting fascism because fascism ‘fights to destroy the culture which society has created’ and ‘makes no distinction between combatants and non combatants’. As a result:
[T]he true artist cannot hold himself aloof…The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.
Robeson, of course, did have a choice. His actions in Spain cost him dearly, and so did his association with the USSR, which took shape during the 1930s and developed during the second world war. Robeson described his impression after visiting Moscow in 1934:
I hesitated to come. I listened to what everybody had to say, but I didn’t think this would be any different for me from any other place. But – maybe you’ll understand – I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up. Here I am not a Negro but a human being.
On his many visits to the USSR, Robeson was treated as an honoured guest. Sparrow recounts an anecdote that involved Robeson walking in Pushkin Square. A group of little girls started hugging his knees. Robeson was almost ‘buried beneath a mound of children.’ This may not sound significant but it caused Robeson to reflect that the girls ‘have never been told to fear black men.’
Sparrow is careful to acknowledge that ‘racism flourished under Stalin’ and that ‘those of African descent weren’t a traditional target, simply because there weren’t very much of them.’ However Sparrow does not dismiss the feeling of liberation that Robeson experienced in the USSR. At this time in the United States, African Americans were still being lynched. Moreover, as James Q. Whitman revealed in his recent book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, race laws in America were of profound influence on the anti-Jewish legislation proclaimed at Nuremberg in 1935. According to Whitman, ‘most radical Nazis were the most eager advocates of American practices.’ Moreover, when Nazis rejected American law, it was because they found some provisions too harsh. For example, Whitman notes:
Nazi observers shuddered at the ‘human hardness’ of the ‘one drop’ rule, which classified people ‘of predominantly white appearance’ as blacks. To them, American racism was sometimes simply too inhumane.
With this context we can better understand Robeson’s support for the Soviet Union, even as news of Stalinist atrocities spread. During the Cold War Robeson was targeted by redbaiters in the government and the intelligence community. By 1952 ‘no concert promoter would book him; no theatre producer would let him act.’ Very quickly, Robeson’s recordings ‘disappeared from the shops, the radio no longer played his songs and his movies didn’t screen.’
It was not just conservatives who attacked Robeson. African American leaders and members of the liberal elite also distanced themselves or denounced him. The excommunication of Robeson reached its peak when he was denied a passport to travel abroad in 1950. Robeson spent the next eight years trapped in the United States with little means to express himself or support his family. More than anything it was Robeson’s isolation from the African-American struggle that caused what Sparrow calls ‘periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude’.
Robeson could have denounced the Soviet Union and distanced himself from communist politics. Many others did, some via the platform provided by Richard Crossman in his 1949 book, The God that Failed. Here, people like Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender recounted their seduction by communism, the disillusion they felt and their eventual embrace of liberal or conservative capitalism. At the end of his introductory essay, Crossman thundered: ‘The Devil once lived in Heaven, and those who have not met him are unlikely to recognise an angel when they see one.’ As Edward Said recognised, this is not ‘politics, but a morality play’ — and Robeson refused to play the part. This refusal is most powerfully captured in the footage of Robeson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee or (HUAAC) where he stated: ‘no fascist-minded people’ were going to drive him from a country built on the back of slaves like his father.
‘Being Paul Robeson was never easy,’ writes Sparrow, and throughout this book he links Robeson’s periods of depression to his experiences of rejection and to his encounters with deeply ingrained and systemic prejudice. The most striking moment in this thread of the book occurred in 1961 when Robeson attempted suicide in Moscow. When his guide found him, Robeson was reportedly mumbling: ‘I am unworthy’. Reading this scene, I thought of cultural critic Mark Fisher aka K-Punk, who took his own life in January. Describing his own battle with depression, Fisher wrote:
For those who from birth are taught to think of themselves as lesser, the acquisition of qualifications or wealth will seldom be sufficient to erase – either in their own minds or in the minds of others – the primordial sense of worthlessness that marks them so early in life.
Sparrow contemplates what might have catalysed Robeson’s suicide attempt, wondering what Robeson would have felt as he learned about the horrors of Stalinist Russia and encountered ‘distraught and frantic people begging to escape’. This speculation aligns with the God that Failed narrative: that the USSR was Robeson’s ‘necessary lie’, that it gave him hope that a radically better society was possible. ‘It would have been easy to think that all the sacrifices had been for nothing – and that, worse still, he’d become complicit in something very wrong.’ I was not entirely convinced by these musings and it was one of the few times when I thought that the structure of the book, which culminates in three chapters set in Russia, limited the inquiry and gave too much weight to a time and location.
It is a bold move for an Australian writer and publisher to bring out a book about Paul Robeson. Sparrow is, of course, a fine writer and enjoys a loyal readership. However, it struck me that in offering this book he was not writing for an easily identifiable public. No Way But This is littered with encounters with people who attest to Robeson’s current obscurity and to the erasure of radical history more generally. The book, however, is distinguished by Sparrow’s willingness to address himself to the audience he ‘hopes to bring into being.’ The reason for this, as political theorist Corey Robin has recently argued, is that publics do not simply exist – they are created. Robin provides an example with reference to worker’s movements:
Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — ‘Workers of the world, unite!,’ they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — ‘Workers of the world’ or ‘We, the People,’ even ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ — that a public is summoned into being.
So who is Sparrow’s public? At the start of the book, Sparrow speaks directly to the contemporary literary community. He recalls a sombre moment following a writers’ festival: an ‘isolated coterie scrabbling for crumbs of recognition while the forces of barbarism gathered around us.’ (I sometimes think of academia, where I work, in similar terms.) However, as Robeson’s story unfolds, the audience expands and the ghosts of past struggles unite with those who fight for political emancipation around the world today. By naming and connecting these diverse groups and movements Sparrow opens a space for a new public to be formed. Robeson with his integrity, struggles and flaws provides a powerful model for the kinds of political action we so desperately need if the ‘old yearning for a different kind of world’ is to be realised.
Sheila Tully Boyle and Andrew Buni, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001)
Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary (Pluto Press, 2016)