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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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser