The National Catholic Review

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there, L. H. Hartley once famously said. Few lives exemplify this better than Paul Robeson’s. Today, one can go to movies or sports arenas, or turn on the television, and see black actors, singers and athletes followed, even idolized, in huge numbers. But the world in which Paul Robeson grew up and won fame, 60 to 85 years ago, couldn’t have been more different. In those days, blacks were invisible or patronized, disenfranchised and demeaned. If they were present in white society, they were relegated to the status of servitude. Paul Robeson changed all that. In him the public saw a man of such natural ability and sustained, extraordinary achievement that it understood something for the first time: once released from his shackles, a black man could walk the world in seven-league boots, just like any similarly gifted white man.

Oh, there were black men of achievement and influence in the highly public and visible fields of sports and entertainment before Robeson; but those most noticed often paid a terrible price. Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was a great athlete, but his cocky manner and flashy lifestyle turned him into a hated anomaly, ground under by vengeful racists. The great comedian Bert Williams had to blacken his brown face to look like a blackened-up white minstrel in order to be acceptable to his white audiences.

But with Robeson it was different. He became a valuable and celebrated football player at Rutgers when there were practically no other black football players. Charles Gilpin played Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, and Jules Bledsoe sang Kern and Hammerstein’s Ol’ Man River before Robeson, but the latter performed these so well that they became internationally identified with him on both stage and screen. He was so well liked that he played the leading role in O’Neill’s tragic tale of a doomed interracial marriage, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, in 1924 without incident. Perhaps best of all, he stood on concert stages throughout the United States and Europe and sang dignified arrangements of Negro spirituals in his thrilling bass voice, thus introducing audiences in the tens of thousands to one of the cornerstones of black culture in America.

He was able to accomplish these things for two reasons: first, he was a striver, a black man taught from the cradle to work hard, get an education and always be the best at anything he dida credit to the race. Second, he was admonished to be always modest and unassuming about his accomplishments in white society, and cheerful and never mindful of racist slightsto know his place. This behavior, added to his native intelligence, talents and the great physical beauty of his enormous person, made him irresistible. Indeed, almost none did resist, which led to a public success unprecedented for a black man in America.

It was only after this had occurred that a series of events in the 1930’s led Robeson to an understanding of his true identity as a black man with an enlightened social conscience. Once this state of mind took hold and he was no longer willing to bend to the exigencies of established capitalistic white society, disappointment and tragedy ensued.

Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement is the first part of a two-volume, comprehensive biography of this pivotal figure in American history. The authors, Sheila Tully Boyle (a writer who specializes in American studies) and Andrew Bunie (a professor of history at Boston College), have produced a book that is in many places as gracefully written as it is well researched and thoughtful. Like novelists, they set the scene with well-drawn character portraits placed in the context of their historical moment, all in the service of an unfolding tale revolving around the life of one extraordinary individual. The reader wants to know what happens next and comes away from these early chapters with a personal sense of how black people struggled to find recognition and good lives in a world that was not receptive to their hopes.

The middle part, however, dealing with Robeson’s acting and concert career in the 1920’s, when Robeson crisscrossed the country and expanded his horizons to England and France, bogs down. The authors give us far too much detail about programs and reviews. Once the authors have reported that his programs were normally 40 minutes long, because of the limitations of his vocal techniques, and have listed the numbers he always sang, they have done their duty. But after recording over and over that Robeson performed Water Boy, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and Don’t Scandalize My Name, in one city after another, the research begins to seem undigested, and both the writing and the life appear a bit aimless.

But the book picks up again in the 1930’s, when Robeson becomes interested in linguistics, African history, the plight of the downtrodden and the victims of fascism. It was the time he spent in the Soviet Union that changed him most, for it was here, he believed, that he encountered for the first time a society without a trace of racism. When he saw what such a society could be, his previous cravings for material, professional and social success lost their meaning. He wanted only to be a man for and of the people. Both his greatest human fulfillments and his tragic downfall came from what he found in this period. There is nothing worse than to discover a new god, be reviled for it and finally not be able to admit the god has betrayed you. All these things awaited him in the second part of his life.

This book is the result of over 20 years of careful scholarship, considered synthesis and fine writing. It enlightened me on the life of a truly important figure of the last century, and I very much look forward to Tully’s and Bunie’s second volume.

 

Vincent Curcio is general manager of the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Conn.