TBR: Paul Robeson
I usually don’t do book reviews of books that I read a long time ago, but since we’ve been talking about Paul Robeson, I though I’d make a plug for Martin Duberman’s wonderful biography of Robeson. It’s a long book, but it illuminates a fascinating and complicated man, as well as what it meant to be a successful black man in pre-civil rights America (he was born in 1898 and was the third African-American man ever to attend Rutgers), and the Red scare.
The anti-communist hysteria of the 50s certainly caught up many people who weren’t really communists, but Robeson wasn’t in that category. He may or may not have ever been a formal member of the Community Party USA (he always denied it; Gus Hall claimed he was), but there’s no doubt that he was a communist sympathizer. To his credit, he truly believed in the universal brotherhood of man; to his shame, as Dave noted, he continued to insist that Stalinist Russia was an exemplar of that ideal, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Duberman doesn’t shy away from that failing in Robeson, but he makes a convincing argument for how a proud and idealistic man could avoid confronting a truth that would give aid and comfort to those who had persecuted him for years, and embarrass the people who had stood up for him.
If you didn’t listen to the song I posted last week, go back and listen. His voice is awesome. This is the CD of Robeson singing that I have. It’s an eclectic album that doesn’t quite hold together, but shows off the range of his repertoire. It has his version of Ol’ Man River, as well as the House I Live In, and Joe Hill. It also has him singing Motherless Child, Ode to Joy (in German), a Yiddish folksong, a song from The Magic Flute, discussing how "hello" sounds the same in many languages, and reciting the final speech from Othello.