Paul Robeson Speaks(Review of Philip Foner’s book)

Paul Robeson Speaks: writings, speeches, interviews,       1918-1974

Edited, with introduction and notes, by PHILIP S. FONER (Quartet Books, London 1978). 623pp. £9.50.

In a remote village in the north of Ceylon many years ago, a group of boys, playing truant from school, crowded into the village bakery to look at their first wireless. The owner twiddled the knobs with a flourish, showing his audience how he could bring the world to his doorstep. And suddenly he stopped — at an English song — though he understood not a word. A man was singing what sounded like a song of his people that sounded so much like their own — and he sang as though the big heart of the radio itself would break. And they all fell silent, as though in prayer.

I was one of those boys. The man’s name escaped me then, but I was to stumble across it some years later in an essay by Alexander Woolcott called ‘Colossal Bronze’. And I knew it was him, not just because Woolcott was describing a great singer (‘the finest musical instrument wrought by nature in our time’), but because he was trying to connect the singing to some other quality in the man from which that singing sprang, and which we had all fallen silent to that day in the bakery — a sort of universality that connected us to him and was ‘coeval with Adam and the redwood trees of California’. ‘By what he does, thinks and is,’ wrote Woolcott, ‘by his unassailable dignity and his serene incorruptible simplicity, Paul Robeson strikes me as having been made out of the original stuff of the world … He is a fresh act, a fresh gesture, a fresh effort of creation.’ It was a description that might have been considered extravagant had it not been measured out to the measure of the man himself.

But not since then — and Woolcott was writing in the 1930s when Robeson’s life was barely half-way old,  his endeavours  but half-fulfilled — has anyone captured the size of the man as Philip Foner has done in this monumental work. And he does it not with fabulous language or metaphor, but with a meticulously researched, carefully documented,  clinical  presentation  of  Robeson  through  his  own speeches, writings and interviews. In fact, Foner does not present Robeson so much as allow Robeson to present himself. Even in the introductory essay, where editors are wont to fly the flag of their dis-
position, Foner does not intrude his opinions. Instead, he gives us findings, from the evidence in his book. It is indeed Robeson who speaks,  no other,  and no one can  henceforth say that there  is another Robeson.  Robeson stands defined.  This is the definitive Robeson — not least because, if it is Robeson who speaks, it is Foner who, with scholarly precision and infinite care, provides the notes and references that place Robeson firmly in the politics and history of our time.

Long before black was officially beautiful, Robeson was celebrating the pride of his race and the cultures of his peoples. Long before the Civil Rights movement had taken root or the Black Power movement begun, Robeson was leading the battle against Negro second-class citizenship, challenging repressive laws, protesting the injustices of the courts, demonstrating on behalf of black activists and calling for boycotts, pickets and mass mobilisation. And civil rights did not mean just black civil rights, but civil rights per se. So he took on the McCarthyite HUAC and virtually asked them to get stuffed.

Even before the era of de-colonisation had taken off, Robeson was demanding freedom for the colonies. As co-founder and chairman of the Council of African Affairs (1937-1955) he agitated for African liberation, mounted a vitriolic campaign against Malan and South Africa’s ‘foul creed’ and revived interest in African art and culture. (It is little wonder then that Nkrumah should have offered him the chair in drama and music in the university of free Ghana.)

In the early   1930s Robeson was inveighing against anti-semitism and Hitler. In 1938 he was in Spain denouncing fascism. In the 1940s he condemned American arms supplies to the Dutch in Indonesia and to the French in Indo-China. In 1950 he came out against the Korean war. In 1954, long before the anti-war movement, he likened Ho Chi Minh to Toussaint L’Ouverture as the liberator of his people and demanded that the ‘imperialists be stopped in their tracks’. At the height of the cold war, he urged detente and peace. In the heart of monopoly capital he preached socialism.

But nowhere in the annals of American history, black or white, up to the writing of this book, has Robeson been acknowledged as a political activist. Even the black political movements of the 1960s, though acknowledging their debt toMartin Luther King and Malcolm X have failed to see Robeson as the forerunner of them all. (That he was still alive at the time, though in comparative retirement, makes that neglect even sadder.)

Most writers have been content to write of Robeson as a singer or an actor. (He was also a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, a lawyer and an All-American footballer.) But song, for Robeson, and in particular folk song, was what connected him to his own sharecropper origins and the ordinary peoples of the world — and committed him to their struggles. The song for him was the singer, the artist his art — but singer or artist, he was nothing without the people. For ‘when as a singer I walk on to the platform, to sing back to the people the songs they themselves have created, I can feel a great unity, not only as a person, but as an artist who is one with his audience’. And it is that unity, that wholeness, that Robeson brought to his politics too, so that even song became merely an instrument in the battle, art his weapon. They would ban him from the concert hall and stage, but he could still sing his politics; they would take away his passport, but he could still reach out to audiences across the world — over the telephone. They could  not imprison  his voice,  and when they did, betwixt times,  he wrote — column  after  militant  column  in  his Freedom newspaper. But that did not mean he considered himself a writer, for that too was but an instrument in the struggle.

The purpose of life for Robeson was to be free. But he himself could not be free till all men were free, and that, in concrete terms meant the oppressed and the exploited. So he put his own freedom on the line — for them and, therefore, himself. He was as basic as that, and as universal — ‘a man and a half’ as Ossie Davis put it.