A Watched Man: Why Paul Robeson's voice spoke for us all

Robeson was and remains important because his conception of justice was based on something as simple as our fundamental right to dignity.

Paul Robeson had a voice that thundered. Image: Getty

Paul Robeson: a Watched Man
Jordan Goodman
Verso, 320pp, £20

One evening in May 1944, Paul Robeson rushed north-eastwards from the Shubert Theatre in midtown Manhattan to a radio studio half a dozen blocks away, still dressed for the stage as Othello. The programme he’d been invited to take part in – a 30-minute broadcast on the contribution of black Americans to the war effort – was sponsored by the Emergency Committee of the Entertainment Industry, an early minority rights group that counted Orson Welles, Lena Horne and Groucho Marx among its members.

A journalist present at the studio when Robeson arrived noted that his mock-Moorish robes had caused him “much . . . embarrassment” – but if he did feel any discomfort, all trace of it was lost in the short distance between mouth and microphone. It was a stirring show. The presenter asked Robeson how “Negro pilots” serving in the US air force in the skies above Germany might greet the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, if they could. In his rich baritone, the actor pronounced: “I think they’d say, ‘We’re carrying on, Abe. We’re in there. You set us marching toward freedom and we’re marching with the world.’”

This story, which I came across in The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello (2011) by Lindsey R Swindall, isn’t included in Jordan Goodman’s new biography but it contains an ironic charge that affected my reading of the book. For here was Robeson being asked to speak on behalf of African Americans and of those in the armed forces in particular; though this broadcast came and went without much incident, a similar statement made by the actor at a communist-affiliated peace conference in Paris five years later proved his undoing. The question of whether Robeson – an open admirer of the Soviet Union – could legitimately represent the interests of “the Negro people” of America became an ideological battleground that for decades divided progressive opinion.

Goodman charts the vast distance, in geopolitical terms, between 1944 and 1949. The postwar settlement in which “the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union sat side by side deciding on the shape of the world to come” was, he writes, a “faint memory” by the end of that decade. In place of friendship was a new tension between the victor nations, as the foundations for the cold war were rapidly laid down. The Truman doctrine’s emphasis on preventing the spread of Soviet influence through military aid allowed Russia initially to claim the moral high ground, branding its various international interventions as part of a “struggle for peace”. Meanwhile, communism’s professed distaste for colonialism and racism appealed to many in the Atlanticist west, from Labour Party members and trade unionists in Britain to US black rights activists such as Robeson.

Paul Robeson was born in New Jersey in 1898, the son of a runaway slave from North Carolina. After a distinguished high school and college career as an athlete, he found fame onstage as an actor and singer (he starred in two Eugene O’Neill plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones); by the 1930s, he was the best-known black entertainer in the world. His swift rise was in no small part due to the success of Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Show Boat – written with Robeson in mind – which has at its heart the song that became his signature tune, “Ol’ Man River”.

As soon as he could, Robeson put his name to work in the service of civil rights and a tentatively Marxist variety of socialism. (“It is only when I went to the Soviet Union that I felt human,” he said in 1949, though it’s unlikely he ever joined the Communist Party.) His show-stopping interventions on the political as well as the theatrical stage won him a wide range of admirers, from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India to Albert Einstein – but they also attracted the unwanted attentions of the FBI and US state department. In his later life, Robeson engaged in a gruelling succession of legal battles with the US government, which had voided his passport in a paranoid plot to silence him.

A Watched Man is a compelling account and it is right to focus on Robeson’s public battles, though one failing is that it bolsters the myth without shedding much light on the man behind it. (We learn little about his wife, Essie; his infidelities with Peggy Ashcroft, Yolande Jackson and others are not even mentioned.) But that’s perhaps an unfair quibble, since Goodman’s principal aim here is to offer a corrective to the apathy of a contemporary world “where civil liberties, won against fierce opposition, are being eroded . . . and where individual movement is increasingly seen as suspicious”.

Robeson was and remains important because his conception of justice was based on something as simple as our fundamental right to dignity. A true American, he had a Whitman-esque belief in the commonality of human experience, regardless of background or race. (“I realised that the fight of my Negro people in America and the fight of the oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle,” he said of his political awakening.) The ability of his politics to contain multitudes made him a icon to rebels in the Spanish civil war, to miners in Britain, to anti-lynching marchers in the American south and to all those who heard in his voice a spirit of defiance undimmed by the persecution of his people – and by “his people”, I mean us all.

Yo Zushi’s album “Notes for ‘Holy Larceny’” is on Pointy Records (£9.99)

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war