As is the case with so many public figures, the internet offers no shortage of information on the life of Paul Robeson. Exhaustive and painstakingly annotated biographical wikis, in-depth artistic and political examinations and then – via YouTube and Google’s peculiar ability to skirt modern copyright law – tens of hours of primary and secondary material: not just in the form of samples of the man’s art, or full-length documentaries on his life, but also of his public interventions, including his testimony of May 1948 in front of the US Senate against the passing of the anti-communist Mundt-Nixon Bill, and – even more notably – the audio of his June 1956 hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. All of these documents are remarkable and interesting, just as their availability to anyone with a basic internet connection is an undoubted public good. Yet relevance and meaning don’t arise out of a mass of records. They require a thread, a purpose and a direction. A way to orient ourselves out of the maze that is the story of anyone’s life – let alone a life as large as Paul Robeson’s.
Jeff Sparrow’s No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson is an attempt to offer one such thread, out of the many possible ones. To the extent that it is a biography, it proceeds along a double, parallel track, recounting Robeson’s life at the same time as Sparrow’s own encounters with people who either remembered him or – more frequently – helped the author understand the historical and social circumstances in which he lived. While Sparrow’s admiration for his subject is palpable (and amply justified), the book is never triumphalist or hagiographic – or, worse still, nostalgic – nor are the central claims concerning the relevance of Robeson’s political thought uncomplicated. The book reads rather like the story of a haunting. What is it that moved a white Australian writer to travel the world in search of the ghost of a black American artist? And what did he learn?
Any mention of Paul Robeson, including in a book review, must be dutifully accompanied by a potted list of his achievements: that he was a star athlete in college football and a champion orator; that he graduated with a law degree from Columbia only to become one of the most popular recording artists of his generation, then a film and theatre actor whose credits include revolutionising the role of Shakespeare’s Othello; that he was a polyglot and a self-taught scholar of folk music among other subjects; that he was a champion of civil rights, of socialism, of the struggle against international fascism. That he achieved all of this in spite of being born in dire poverty, and of the horrific levels of racial discrimination that accompanied him even at the height of his fame; and finally that these odds were made even more insurmountable by the political persecution he suffered during the McCarthy era, culminating in calls for his internment, a de facto ban on his ability to perform and earn a living, and the refusal by authorities to issue him with a passport, making him a prisoner of his own country for nearly a decade.
This is Sparrow’s subject: larger than life, barely contained by history. The events that propel him back into our field of vision have to do most immediately with the rise of Trump and a new wave of explicitly racist and supremacist political projects (besides those that never went away), which in turn pose a renewed set of questions on the availability of radical alternatives, and on the political role of art and artists. The echoes are eerie, such as when Robeson was asked to account for his political sympathies in front of Francis H. Walter – the Democratic congressman who drafted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowing the US to ban immigrants on the grounds of their political affiliation, to the eventual inclusion of many prominent intellectuals. On this occasion, Robeson refused on principle to deny belonging to the Communist Party, of which he wasn’t in fact a member, and delivered a thunderous response to the question of why he would not seek asylum in the Soviet Union, since he thought so very highly of it:
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
As this episode exemplifies, Robeson’s story is one of unwavering commitment, a taking of sides that led him to lose his freedom, his fortune and very nearly his life. Yet its lessons aren’t completely straightforward, as the strategic decision by many socialists not to disavow Stalinism – argues Sparrow – produced precisely the outcome that Robeson had sought to prevent: the ‘erosion of the American Left’s moral authority and influence’. This arc mirrors the decline in Robeson’s health – both mental and physical – which resulted in his ultimate withdrawal from public life after one final period abroad, including a tour to Australia and New Zealand; as well as the transition into a new phase in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, to which Robeson was more a witness than a protagonist. But this ending, while sad, was by no means a defeat.
No Way But This grapples with Robeson’s contradictions as well as with the enduring, fierce urgency of his message: that call he made time and again for working people of all races to be allowed to live an ‘abundant and dignified life’. The solidarity that Robeson found outside of the United States – among the miners of Wales and Scotland, or the Republican fighters of Spain, and everywhere he travelled thereafter – forged his mature political consciousness, expanding the worldview of that ‘son of a slave’ born during the Jim Crow era to encompass a vision of global emancipation. Told sensitively and often movingly by a writer awake to the nuances of the political and social contexts in which Robeson moved, it is a story that reverberates today, full of tragedy but also exhilaration and promise. It is the story we need to hear.
No way but this: in search of Paul Robeson is published through Scribe Publishing.
Jeff Sparrow is a former editor of Overland.