The life of a black celebrity is perilous enough, but the black celebrity who becomes a spokesperson is asking for pure hell. Not only has the outspokenness of those regarded as radicals gotten them into trouble, but as Gary Giddins' recent book "Satchmo" (Doubleday), revealed, even a non-radical like Louis Armstrong could come into conflict with the American secret police for his criticisms of Eisenhower's handling of segregation in the South.
If Paul Robeson had fulfilled the role that American society had prepared for him--that of a patriotic token, lecturing the underclass of his time about their "slovenly" habits and exhibiting by his efforts that with hard work and determination one could achieve anything in this land of opportunity--he'd probably still be around, delighting audiences with his spirituals and playing "Othello" in his old age.
But Robeson broke out of his role. He chose to use his celebrity status as a platform for speaking out against the injustices of the oppressed all over the world, and especially of blacks at home. For his efforts, he was hounded by his enemies into physical and mental breakdown; and, in one of those Orwellian ironies that black life in America accumulates, this man, who was persecuted from the early '40s until his death in 1976, was diagnosed as having a persecution complex.
In 1950, at the height of America's Cold War hysteria, the State Department lifted his passport, lowering an iron curtain on his opportunity to earn a living abroad. Not only did J. Edgar Hoover's FBI become part of the Robeson family, it seems, devoting more resources to the investigation of one black singer,actor and intellectual, during the '40s and '50s, than to investigating organized crime, but even the Communist Party sent an informant, posing as a bodyguard, to spy on Robeson. Though Robeson was sympathetic to some Communist causes, he never joined the Party and was never brought under its discipline. He once refused its order that he be silent.
Robeson's father, the Rev. William Drew Robeson, who had escaped from slavery in 1850, at age 15, was forced out of his New Jersey ministry and into poverty, punished by the white elders of the presbytery for his tendency to speak out against social injustice. In later years, when Robeson himself was subjected to vitriolic abuse from the press and the government, a family friend would comment: "They did it to his father."
Robeson graduated from Rutgers where he excelled as an athlete and in 1921 married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, whose great-grandfather was Isaac Nunez Cardozo, a member of a Spanish-Jewish family, and whose grandfather, Francis Lewis Cardozo, was described by Henry Ward Beecher as "the most highly educated Negro in America."
Despite Duberman's excessive and voyeuristic detail about Robeson's "multiplicity of romantic and sexual encounters," details which degrade an otherwise useful, fine and well-researched biography, Robeson and his wife remained companions until her death from cancer in 1965. A serious rift between the two occurred after the publication of her book, "Paul Robeson, Negro," in which she alluded to his affairs and described him as lazy. (Throughout the book, whenever there's a dispute between Robeson and his wife about a fact, Duberman sides with Essie Robeson.)
A C-student at Columbia Law School, Robeson stumbled into an acting career in 1920, appearing in some dreadful thing called "Taboo," in which, typically, Afro-American religion was subjected to the usual ignorant stereotyping. "Taboo" was written by what Duberman describes as a "fashionable young white socialite" named Mary Hoyt Wiborg, daughter of a wealthy financier, Frank Wiborg. (Throughout his life, Robeson would roam around freely among different classes, from the Australian aborigines, whose treatment he bitterly criticized during his stay in Australia, to the denizens of the English court.) Though Duberman provides testimony from some of the many he interviewed that Robeson regretted his lack of acting and singing training, he received high praise for his performance.
Robeson would be criticized for playing such trashy roles throughout his career. He appeared in "Show Boat," "The Emperor Jones," "Tales of Manhattan" and "Sanders of the River" (which Jomo Kenyatta, one of the performers (!), praised). Robeson hated his film roles and was evidently duped sometimes by the usual promise of control over the script, or perhaps saw himself as paving the way for a succeeding generation of black film actors, who he felt would have it better (to no avail, since some of today's black actors take roles that make Robeson's role in "The Emperor Jones" seem majestic). Even the role of "Othello" was demeaning, Shakespeare's Moor being a little more dignified than "The Emperor Jones" but still a gullible half-cannibal who constantly berates himself for his inferiority to the Venetians and who takes no offense when they call him racist names. At any rate, by the 1930s, Robeson had bitterly denounced both "Sanders in the River" and "The Emperor Jones." Robeson evidently had more freedom when he performed in movies by black film maker Oscar Micheaux and in an experimental film entitled "Borderline." One of "Borderline's" producers was a founder of modern poetry, and a feminist, Hilda Doolittle. In the film, he appeared with his wife, Essie.
Robeson's concert career was as controversial as his film and stage careers. Zora Neale Hurston accused him of corrupting the original intent of the folk song's creators, and of pandering to white audiences. Others, arguing that he limited his range by singing the songs of the black proletariat, urged him to attempt "serious" European music. The ever-culturally conservative black middle class was offended by his songs and by his politics. Some of the most scorching criticisms of his left-leaning views emanated from the black press, but the black press didn't have the power to persecute him as relentlessly as the white press did.
It was the white press that stirred up violent passions against him for appearing in Eugene O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings" opposite a white actress, and it was the white press that created the atmosphere for an ugly civil disturbance which took place in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1947, where Robeson had gone to perform for a benefit. And it was a white American wire service that distorted a key political speech that Robeson made in Paris, a smear that led Robeson's enemies to declare open season on him and NBC to ban him from its air waves.
It could be said that Robeson was a victim of the experiential difference between blacks and whites, a gap which, according to a recent NAACP poll, still exists. The black experience, when not ignored, is arrogantly dismissed as the "paranoid" imputing of conspiratorial views that aren't there. Based upon his often-humiliating experience--especially in the area of public accommodations--and of his observations about black life in the United States, Robeson's version of American political reality was deeply different from that of powerful white men in the government, who considered him ornery for pointing out that the human rights violations, which they hypocritically condemned abroad, also existed at home. He once got into a heated argument with Harry Truman in the White House about such contradictions. Truman responded to Robeson's un-paranoid plea for anti-lynching legislation by ending the interview. Truman later included Robeson in a "gang" that he claimed he'd defeated. Eleanor Roosevelt's view of Robeson was similar to Truman's.
Duberman's book indicates that Robeson could have made it easier for himself had he recanted his support for the Soviet Union, something that he refused to do. His support for the Soviet Union has always baffled many. Robeson was warned by Emma Goldman in the 1930s that the Russian Revolution had its cruel side. And even after the purges, the Soviet Nazi pact, the invasion of Hungary, the revelations about genocide committed by Stalin, Robeson remained loyal, shrugging off every criticism of a country he regarded as an ideal, color-blind worker's paradise. He must have known, after partying with Khrushchev and his friends in their private lodges, that some Communists live much better than others. He was himself a cultural nationalist, but apparently took little note of the fact that the Soviets had attempted to eradicate the cultures of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. One wonders how Robeson would have reacted to glasnost, perestroika, the appeal for Western capital, the experiments with private enterprise, and the mass murders committed by Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Robeson was again permitted to travel abroad thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 1958 for which William O. Douglas wrote the majority decision, declaring that "The passport division had no right to demand that an applicant sign an affidavit concerning membership in the Communist Party." Ill health forced him to return to the United States. During the last years of his life, he was honored by a generation of civil rights workers whose coming his career had anticipated.
The mixed attitudes with which his country viewed the career of Robeson--a man both praised and damned in his native land, and a man who had the courage to articulate in public ideas most confine to their thoughts--didn't end at his death. Last year, in New York, "A Celebration of Paul Robeson" was held. Among the sponsors were American Express, General Electric, ITT, Philip Morris, Mrs. Vincent Astor, and The Rockefeller Group.