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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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