THE LIFE of Paul Robeson mirrors 20th-century struggles for black liberation, workers’ rights and international socialism and Jeff Sparrow’s biography — which he describes as unconventional — attempts to bring these past campaigns into the present.
The aim is to to inspire and inform a new generation for whom Robeson is largely unknown and to do that Sparrow travelled the world in Robeson’s footsteps, talking to people who knew or were influenced by him and those engaged in current political struggles.
Robeson’s life was astonishing by any standards. The son of an escaped slave, he was a brilliant scholar and champion athlete. Driven by his father’s insistence that self-improvement would make him a role model for other black people in the US, Robeson later rejected this individualistic approach to effecting social change as it ignored the systemic reasons for the position of black Americans.
Having abandoned a career in law, and becoming the most famous black actor and singer of his time, he began to speak out as an advocate for social justice around the world, supporting the struggles of the south Wales miners and the republican cause in the Spanish civil war.
The labour movement in Britain was a revelation for Robeson because of its solidarity and collective nature and it gave him a greater understanding of the link between the struggles for African-American and workers’ rights.
“It’s from the miners in Wales I fi rst understood the struggle of negro and white together,” he said and the Spanish civil war was as inspirational: “The true artist cannot hold himself aloof... the artist must take sides. He must elect to fi ght for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I have no alternative.”
This stance led him to deliver speeches and fundraising concerts as well as singing for the International Brigades on the battlefield.
Visits to the USSR from 1934 onwards led to a lifelong and unwavering commitment to Soviet socialism, support acceptable in the US during WWII, and he worked tirelessly to defeat fascism, hoping that the liberation of oppressed people everywhere would follow. After the war, with changing US perceptions of the Soviet Union and the rise of McCarthyism, Robeson’s career ended.
Radio stations would not play his songs, nor cinemas show his fi lms and he could not record music nor perform live. His passport applications were rejected for 10 years and his status and popularity made him too dangerous to have a voice at home or abroad.
This witch-hunt culminated in an appearance before The Unamerican Activities Committee in 1956.
When asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, Robeson replied: “What do you mean by the Communist Party? It is a legal party... do you mean a party of people who have sacrifi ced for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity?”
Eventually his career did revive and his political commitment remained intact. He never recanted and never retreated.
Sparrow has eloquently portrayed Robeson as a giant of a man who was prepared to kill off his career for his political beliefs. He emphasises that past struggles should inform today’s — we need not just inspiration to act but affi liation to organise and solidarity to withstand.
While Sparrow’s ruminations on his travels can be lengthy and he states his own political views very clearly, this book is nevertheless an interesting introduction. But Paul Robeson Speaks — his writings, speeches and interviews, collected by Philip Foner — and Here I Stand, Robeson’s own memoir, give a fuller insight into this remarkable activist.