Marginal Man

Stephen Fender

  • Paul Robeson by Martin Bauml Duberman
    Bodley Head, 804 pp, £20.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 370 30575 2

There are two stories to tell about Paul Robeson – one sad and the other tragic. Both could be constructed from the ample data in this heavy, ill-focused, yet informative concatenation of computerised database, research grant and exclusive access to the subject’s papers. In the first a young Negro of high intelligence, great physical strength and grace, musically talented and gifted with a resonant bass voice, is induced by a dominant white culture to fill various roles – social, professional and indeed dramatic – formulated for blacks to perform. As long as he kept his place, he was rewarded with riches and fame, even public adoration. When he began to break out of his racial stereotype – and further, to challenge the political assumptions on which that culture was founded – he was abused, spied on, hauled before accusatory tribunals, virtually denied a livelihood, for a while even confined to his native country.

The other story is less distinct but even more terrible. It is of a man so variously gifted that he could never settle down to a definite profession or occupation; who (by his own admission) never really worked at his music or acting; whom talent and early fame so uprooted that at first he barely acknowledged the birth of his only son while cheating on his wife in another country; whose politics, though sincere, hard-won and bravely defended, were always constructed and articulated at a distance from their object; whose claim to speak for his ‘people’ was vitiated by his vagueness as to who they were; and who ended as a sort of Kurtzian ‘voice’ cut off as much from the dynamics of the American black liberation movement as from the political culture of his native country.

Robeson never had to endure the poverty, contempt and physical abuse routinely meted out to Southern blacks of his generation, but he suffered insult enough of a more polite kind. It may come as a shock, for a reader conditioned by three decades of agitation and legislation in favour of equal rights for American Negroes, to read of hotels in Boston and San Francisco, as well as Akron, Ohio and Green Bay, Wisconsin, refusing him service because of his colour. Even the august Savoy Grill denied him entry in 1929, though it had allowed him in before. Not ignorant prejudice, apparently, but canny shopkeeping lay behind that decision. American tourists were beginning to figure big in the economy of London hotels, and to make their preferences felt.

It didn’t matter how brilliantly American collegians succeeded in competitions of body and mind (Robeson was an all-American football player and a Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year at Rutgers): they had to be ‘popular’ too. For blacks, especially the tiny minority who got to white colleges in Robeson’s time, this meant not acting uppity. Young Robeson was an ‘amazingly popular boy’ because ‘he had the faculty for always knowing what is so commonly referred to as his “place”,’ said one of his teachers, whose quotation-marks neatly distance him from the regrettable convention even as he reinforces it.

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