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.

But what would Robeson do with all this ability? Again, there are two ways of telling the story. One is that he wanted to practise law, enrolling in the Columbia University Law School in 1919 and entering a prestigious New York law firm three years later, only to discover that his colour would deny him (as he reported in his rather anchored prose) the ‘highest prizes the profession afforded’. Asked to take down a memorandum, a stenographer told him: ‘I never take dictation from a nigger.’ A senior partner in the firm commiserated, but supposed that indeed their white clients would never agree to have him plead their cases before a judge. Shortly afterwards he was offered the lead in the Province-town Players’ production of All God’s chillun got wings, and from then on his career was focused on the stage. Yet it is also true that throughout his years in law school Robeson had dabbled in professional music and drama, taking leading roles in a Harlem production of Simon the Cyrenian and a play about voodoo called Taboo, and singing bass with the Four Harmony Kings in the Broadway musical, Shuffle along. In 1922 he had gone to England to appear in Mrs Patrick Campbell’s production of Voodoo.

There is something diagnostic in those titles, ‘Voodoo’, ‘Taboo’. They sound like perfumes, expressing as they do the same white exotic fantasies of primeval passion. Robeson couldn’t help it if his stage career was confined largely to plays about Negroes written by whites – he had very few other black roles from which to choose – but his very choice of profession was bound to enrol him in one or another species of white condescension Either he would have to reinforce the Uncle Tom figure smiling through his suffering in All God’s chillun and (repeatedly) Show Boat, or unwittingly valorise the sentiments of British Imperialism in the Korda brothers’ film of Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River.

Then there was Othello, also written by a white author, though scholarly opinion differs as to its degree of condescension. Robeson took the title role in three major productions – London in 1930, New York in 1942 and Stratford in 1959 – playing it as the noble Moor tragically (or perhaps ‘pathetically’ would be more accurate) betrayed by his inability to perceive the nastier side of human nature. The result (at least in the last of these productions, which I saw) was a kind of thunderous monotony, unconsciously reinforcing F.R. Leavis’s contention that Othello tends to substitute sonorous, self-advertising rhetoric for self-analysis. Robeson, of course, could not have benefited from Leavis’s interpretation: not only because it appeared too late, but because it presented – or could be taken as presenting – the Negro in an unfavourable light.

The ‘blackness’ of Robeson’s music was even more problematic. He was happy enough to perform songs like ‘John Brown’s Body’ and ‘Old Man River’, written by whites about what the blacks must be suffering, but he thought jazz had been ‘debased’ by white influence. When someone in a Des Moines audience asked for ‘St Louis Blues’, Robeson’s manager responded sniffily: ‘Mr Robeson never sings blues.’ Why not? Because, as he said in newspaper interviews in the Thirties, jazz ‘reflects Broadway, not the Negro. It exploits a Negro technique but it isn’t Negro.’ Jazz ‘is no longer the honest and sincere folk-song in character’. In contrast with the rhythmic complexities of African drummers, ‘Duke Ellington’s hot rhythms seem childish.’ Duke Ellington childish. Well, well. Duberman explains this breathtaking assessment by saying that ‘Robeson was expressing an opinion shared by most “serious” composers of the day.’ Exactly. If any blame attaches to Robeson’s judgment, it is on the grounds of academicism rather than ignorance.

A kind of middle ground between black tradition and white expectations was the spiritual. Though it wasn’t long before they were absorbed into the white repertoire – Ivy-League college glee clubs loved them – spirituals were undoubtedly of Southern black origin. And to Negro audiences it took courage for Robeson to sing them in the Twenties and Thirties. The black bourgeoisie deprecated such performances as a reminder of their Southern background. A music teacher wrote to a New York paper of her ‘humiliation’ at hearing Robeson sing ‘slave songs’. Someone else attacked him for ‘commercialising our backwardness’. Asked by an interviewer how he had been able to render spirituals with such a depth of understanding, Robeson answered that he had unconsciously absorbed the manner of singing from the predominantly Southern rural congregation of his father’s church.

Gertrude Stein took a different view. Spirituals ‘do not belong to you’, she told him in Paris in 1925, ‘any more than anything else, so why claim them?’ And indeed Robeson came very quickly to share her opinion. While he was on a European tour in 1930, a Polish musician convinced him that Middle European folk music had been influenced by Central African melodies through the Moors and Spaniards. Perhaps spirituals were not specific to black American culture either, but were the local vent-holes out of which rushed a sort of proto-cultural folk spirit configured for American consumption?

So he entered the School of Oriental and African studies in London to begin a PhD, soon abandoned, on comparative African linguistics. Almost immediately he was writing in the Spectator on ‘The Culture of the Negro’, by which he seems to have meant the natural (not cultural) force flowing into the human collective and emerging as folk music everywhere from the Uzbek Opera (in which Robeson heard ‘a definite and instantly recognisable’ African rhythm) to the ‘folk-songs’ of the British Isles like ‘David of the White Rock’, ‘Loch Lomond’ and ‘Oh, No, John, No!’ All represented the ‘music of basic realities, the spontaneous expression by the people for the people of elemental emotions’.

Robeson’s early preference of spirituals to jazz, therefore, might not have been a matter just of his musical taste. He may have been unable to respond to any music so definitely fixed in a particular cultural matrix. For whatever interesting music of different kinds has been fashioned by blacks in various parts of Africa, in Brazil, Cuba and the West Indies, none of it is much like that blend of African, French-Acadian and Scotch-Irish influences that is American jazz. Jazz was and is the culture of a nation – hence the disproof of the hypothesis of universal negritude.

This promiscuous supra-nationalism also provides a context for Robeson’s long love-affair with the Soviet Union, a relationship which, like many other passionate attachments, brought some grief in the wake of its exhilaration. Russia after the Revolution seemed to promote the political equivalent of the universal folk construction. Besides, its country people had, like American Negroes, once been slaves. Robson came to believe that ‘many Russian folk-songs seem to have come from Negro peasant life and vice versa.’ He had learned Russian in six months, he told a reporter in 1932, and was now so fluent in the language that he found it ‘a more natural means of expression than English’.

In all, Robeson made 11 trips to the country between 1934 and 1961. The official press described his concerts as ‘brilliant’; he was ‘a “mass singer”, simple, natural and human’. Moscow was full of ‘thousands of well-stocked shops’, Robeson’s wife Essie wrote home in 1937, with ‘books everywhere, outrageously cheap ... ’ Robeson told Ben Davis Jr, the black American Communist, that he wished ‘the Negroes in Harlem and the South had such places to stay in’ as the Russian workers’ homes. The Soviet Government repaid Robeson’s admiration with high-level official entertainment, their best in accommodation, holidays, medical care, a top-people’s school for his son, the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952; but to judge from his huge audiences and the mobs that met him at the airport, he was genuinely popular too. After a noisy party on his last trip there, Robeson slashed his wrists.

Duberman is both tactful and honest in his treatment of Robeson’s suicide attempt, having tried his best to solve the mystery and admitting that he couldn’t come up with much. Whatever the reason, it was not, apparently, that Robeson could no longer square his idealistic vision of the Soviet Union with the terrible truth of the Stalinist regime. Though he had been deeply troubled by the disappearance and persecution of some Jewish friends during Stalin’s ‘anti-Zionist’ campaign of 1949 and had bravely spoken out in their favour at a Moscow concert, he stoutly defended Stalinist Russia abroad, even in the face of those well-known watersheds of leftist Western support, the Moscow Trials, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The peoples of Eastern Europe are ‘master of their own lands’, he proclaimed at a dinner in honour of Vyshinsky in 1949. Summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities just after Krushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes, Robeson said that the Soviet slave camps were full of fascists, and he would not discuss them ‘with the people who have murdered 60 million of my people’.

That remark may hold a clue to Robeson’s state of mind in those awful declining years of his life. Who had ‘murdered’ whom? Who were his ‘people’? He had used the phrase to refer, variously, to American blacks, West Indians, Kenyans, Maoris, Aborigines – everyone, in short, who might be thought to have suffered under various species of white imperialism. He felt for them – passionately, genuinely, bravely. He also presumed to speak for them. That was a mistake. His people would never ‘make war on the Soviet Union’, he told the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris, just after the Chinese Communists had captured Nanking and while the North Atlantic treaty was being finalised. The next day, following a concert in Stockholm, he ‘assured’ the press: ‘Blacks will never fight against the Soviet Union or the People’s Democracies.

There are also two stories to tell, then, about Robeson’s persecution by his other ‘people’, the American nation. Common to both are the outlines of the plot. By a strange alchemical fusion of public opinion (much prompted by the press) and the official agencies of the Federal Government, Robeson went from runner-up in a Gallop survey of America’s ‘ten favourite people’ in 1947 to serving as an object of widespread contempt in his own country. The FBI kept him under constant surveillance; Congressional committees subpoena’d him to the accompaniment of fanfares of publicity; the citizens of Peekskill, New York, rioted against him; the State Department (unconstitutionally) lifted his passport. No detail of his humiliation, however picayune, was left unattended to. When in his absence the Indian Government wanted to celebrate Robeson’s 60th birthday, the American Ambassador, appropriately named Bunker, said it would damage Indian-US relations.

But the question is why it happened. The stronger explanation is simply that the ground shifted under him. Russia went from being ally to enemy of the US in a few short years, punctuated by the subjugation of Eastern Europe, the Communist victory in China, the Korean War, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the formation of Nato. As a result, all friends of Russia, particularly the honest and therefore unrepentant ones, came under suspicion. Even Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, who resigned from the Cabinet in protest at Truman’s Cold War foreign policy, was investigated by the HUAC. The special virulence reserved for Robeson was either motivated by, or justified in terms of, his Paris (and later) claim that blacks would not fight for America against Russia. In saying that, he agitated one of the deepest nerves of the American political culture – a concern that appears in the Declaration of Independence as one of the accusations against the King: ‘He has incited domestic insurrections amongst us.’ It is the old guilty fear that a foreign power would turn the natural resentment of the American black against his captors (in 1775 Lord Dunmore had threatened to free and arm the slaves ‘and reduce the city of Williamsburg to ashes’).

Meanwhile, the ‘people’ whom Robeson could most legitimately have claimed as his own were getting on with the business of black rights in America. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in American public schools. The next year Martin Luther King Jr organised the boycott that would end segregation on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Robeson was bemused, faintly encouraged, but remained frustrated on the sidelines, ‘his pro-Soviet stance’, as Duberman says, ‘regarded as something of an irrelevance, even a hindrance’.

Was he really marginalised by his politics, or by his generation? Both, probably. Certainly his ‘pro-Soviet stance’ and his consequent unpopularity made him unavailable to the immediate tactics of the black liberation movement. But his political deficiencies also stemmed from his being a man of the Thirties. He couldn’t understand that it wasn’t political cells or trade unions around which the American blacks would organise, but their local churches. And this from a man born into one of them. Robeson, moreover, was a hot media-man (his political speeches were much more powerful than his private correspondence, which reads as though it had been written by a committee of professors) who couldn’t have anticipated the persuasive power of the television image – of black people being threatened by police dogs, a fat sheriff keeping a child from going to school. Like those New England Puritans reading about Cromwell’s revolution, he had gone where he thought history would happen, only to find it going on without him in another place.