Paul Robeson's Turmoil and Triumphs

By , Guy Halverson is on the Monitor staff.

PAUL ROBESON, by Martin Bauml Duberman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 804 pp. $24.95. PAUL ROBESON always thought in terms of achievement - whether as an actor, an all-American athlete, a bass-baritone whose music could bring tears to the eyes of his audience, or as a political activist who championed the dispossessed worldwide. Robeson, whose own accomplishments were monumental, has earned a monumental biography.

To say that Robeson is one of the great black Americans of this century is to miss the larger point. His struggles, both in his personal life, as well as his battles with United States foreign policy, his anguish over the state of US race relations, and his search for a just economic system, mirror the political and social turmoil of the US itself between the 1920s and '50s.

Robeson's politics could be enormously off-target, carrying him farther and farther away from the traditions of liberal, democratic America and into an unconscionable defense of Stalinism and Soviet totalitarianism. Soviet slave labor camps, Robeson once told a congressional committee, were filled only with ``fascist prisoners who had murdered millions of the Jewish people and would have wiped out millions of the Negro people could they have gotten hold of them.''

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Robeson knew of Soviet excesses, however, such as Stalin's purges; yet he declined to fault the Soviets, or see such assaults on humanity as suggesting something might be flawed about Soviet Communism itself. Yet Robeson's flirtation with the totalitarians was in part a reaction to the deep injustices that he like so many black Americans felt at home - within the American orbit.

Duberman, a professor of history at Lehman College, City University of New York, based his account largely on family letters, particularly those of Robeson's often-neglected wife, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, called Essie. He also interviewed friends, acquaintances, and associates of Robeson.

Duberman's account is rich in its sense of detail, time, and place. His narrative starts with Robeson's birth in Princeton, N.J., in 1898. Robeson was the son of an ex-slave, who became a Presbyterian preacher. Although Robeson is described by friends in such middle-class communities as Westfield and Somerville, N.J., as always polite, invariably the pleasant and willing participant, he was still an ``outsider,'' Duberman realizes, a child, and then adult, of inner anger and hurt.

His father was unfairly removed from the ministry, causing the family to have to move frequently. But Robeson did not retreat into withdrawal. He insisted on achievement: valedictorian of his graduating class at Rutgers University; twice an all-American athlete; a graduate of the Columbia University Law School. Robeson always felt compelled to prove himself. As he told a black journalist, ``Not simply for art's sake do I try to excel in `Othello,' but more to prove the capacity of the people from whom I've sprung and of all such peoples, of whatever color, erroneously regarded as backward.'' His films remain powerful. I can still recall the first time I saw Robeson, in ``Sanders of the River,'' when my father gathered the entire family to watch a scratchy version of the 1934 English film. Truman was President and Robeson was in political disfavor for his pro-communism when I saw that film. But that didn't matter. Nor did the somewhat racist, pro-Empire imperialism of the movie, which grated on Robeson. He dominated the movie, as he did his other films, such as ``Show Boat,'' and ``King Solomon's Mines.'' And Robeson's stage work, in the Eugene O'Neill classics ``All God's Chillun Got Wings'' and ``The Emperor Jones'' as well as Shakespeare's ``Othello,'' were considered masterpieces. Yet Robeson's greatest public acclaim came from Europe, not the United States, a point not lost on the artist.

If there is a problem with this book, it is that Duberman tends to descend into pathos in dealing with Robeson's untidy personal life. Another problem: Robeson himself kept almost no personal papers or documents. Attempting to fathom Robeson's rationale for any course of action is conjecture at best. Duberman is also perhaps too quick to explain Robeson's political misjudgments in terms of the insensitivity of capitalist and white America. As Duberman himself notes, prominent blacks were as vehement in denouncing Robeson's pro-Soviet biases as were whites. Duberman does not gloss over Robeson's personal shortcomings and marital infidelities.

This biography is for everyone, regardless of color - or politics. Future generations - removed from the political turmoil of the communist/capitalist struggles of this age - will undoubtedly recognize Paul Robeson as one of the unique creative artists of his time.

Robeson passed on in New York in 1976, forgotten and ignored, the strains of ``Deep River'' flooding the Harlem street as his coffin was carried out of Mother A.M.E. Zion Church.

The tragedy is that Paul Robeson was a decent and good man, essentially colorblind, genuinely concerned with the well-being of all mankind. How sad that American society could not have forgiven and forgotten Robeson's political faults. Fortunately, this splendid biography helps to rectify that injustice and - in the process - honors an American original.

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