• Paul Robeson was once a box office draw, appearing in King Solomon’s Mines
  • His rendition of Ol’ Man River, from musical Show Boat, made him world famous
  • His father William Drew Robeson was a slave on tobacco farm in North Carolina 
  • White Americans would say ‘Your daddy was probably one of my daddy’s slaves’

Book of the week 

NO WAY BUT THIS: IN SEARCH OF PAUL ROBESON

by Jeff Sparrow (Scribe £14.99)

He died in January 1976. The funeral, attended by Harry Belafonte and the widow of Malcolm X, was held at the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem.

It was not a massively well attended event, however. Paul Robeson was already somewhat forgotten, having vanished from the public stage in 1961 when he was diagnosed with ‘depressive paranoid psychosis’. People today barely know his name.

But in the Twenties and Thirties, Robeson was a Hollywood box office draw, with King Solomon’s Mines and Sanders Of The River.

His rendition of Ol’ Man River, from Hammerstein and Kern’s musical Show Boat, made him world famous.

Paul Robeson (pictured with his wife in 1935) was once a box office draw in the Twenties and Thirties, appearing in films such as the King Solomon’s Mines

Paul Robeson (pictured with his wife in 1935) was once a box office draw in the Twenties and Thirties, appearing in films such as the King Solomon’s Mines

‘A song of defiance’, says Jeff Sparrow in this conscientious and often painful biography, which somehow, through Robeson’s rich, warm, reverberating voice, revealed ‘the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance’.

Whether you were black or white, rich or poor, Robeson’s melodious delivery reminded people of their own childhoods, struggles and homes now left behind.

His father, William Drew Robeson, was a slave and ‘kept in bondage on the tobacco farm’ in North Carolina.

Dressed in rags, he and his fellow slaves were ‘abused at will’, with tortures involving mutilation, burning and ‘stress positions’ in solitary confinement.

William finally escaped from his ‘owner’ to New Jersey, where he became a minister at what was known as ‘the coloured church’ in Princeton.

His flock held menial jobs as servants or cleaners. The white presbyterians expected William to keep the congregation ‘in line’ and he was not to preach against racial injustices.

When he did mention lynching, he was dismissed. He found work as a dustbin man, collecting ashes in a cart, and was determined that Paul, born in 1898, would be educated. Paul never lost his anger about the fact that ‘upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America’, and the bigotry he experienced throughout his life makes shocking reading.

Even when famous he’d be baited by whites who’d say: ‘Your daddy was probably one of my daddy’s slaves. You probably belong to me.’

Even when Paul (pictured in 1949) - whose father was a slave - was famous he’d be baited by whites who’d say: ‘Your daddy was probably one of my daddy’s slaves. You probably belong to me'

Even when Paul (pictured in 1949) – whose father was a slave – was famous he’d be baited by whites who’d say: ‘Your daddy was probably one of my daddy’s slaves. You probably belong to me’

At college he was ‘one of a handful of African-American students in a school of whites’, and at Rutgers University he couldn’t eat in the restaurants, stay in the dormitories, or go to parties, as ‘a black man dancing with white girls was unthinkable’.

A keen player of American football, Robeson was brutalised on the pitch.

‘His nose was broken, his shoulder thrown out, and his body stippled with cuts and bruises.’ The coaches and referees were indifferent.

Proceeding to Columbia Law School, Robeson passed his exams in 1923, though he found it impossible to practise in the profession.

‘I don’t take dictation from a n*****,’ said a secretary. Robeson put on his hat and coat and walked out.

Luckily, he had already developed a passion for drama and singing from church events as a child. Concert bookings and recording contracts were signed and by 1928, Robeson was singing Ol’ Man River in Show Boat at Drury Lane. He was a sensation in London.

NO WAY BUT THIS: IN SEARCH OF PAUL ROBESON by Jeff Sparrow

NO WAY BUT THIS: IN SEARCH OF PAUL ROBESON by Jeff Sparrow

In huge headlines, this very newspaper saluted a ‘Giant Negro Actor’. Robeson, who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities owing to official race prejudice and the ‘colour bar’, was now ‘living as an English gentleman’.

Married in 1921, Robeson and his wife, Essie, lived in Chelsea next door to Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. He sang on the BBC, watched Test cricket, dined at The Ivy, and was presented to the future King George VI.

In 1930, Robeson starred as Othello at the Savoy Theatre. He saw his character autobiographically as ‘a man who would be pushed no further’. For inspiration, he watched panthers at Regent’s Park Zoo.

He also had an affair with Peggy Ashcroft, his Desdemona.

Women swooned over him. The British Press linked him to shipping heiress Nancy Cunard and even Edwina Mountbatten, Countess of Burma — though he and she denied it. His marriage to Essie was rocky, but it survived.

In the West End one evening, Robeson overheard the carousing of a Welsh male voice choir. Men from the Rhondda were in London on a protest march. Robeson was transfixed and joined in with the communal street and pub singing.

In the coming months and years, ‘he forged an intense and remarkable relationship with the men and women of the mining villages of South Wales’.

He visited Pontypridd and the valleys many times, seeing in the miners, who lived in poverty and struggled with thankless tasks, something of American slavery.

The Welsh accepted him unquestioningly: ‘Aren’t we all black down the pit?’ This brings tears to my eyes.

As late as 1957, Robeson was joining in with the miners’ concerts through a radio-link from America to Porthcawl. He couldn’t be there in person as his passport had been cancelled.

Why? Because the Welsh people had awoken Robeson’s political conscience, which was strengthened by his visits to Spain during the Civil War. He also visited the Soviet Union, where he hoped that post-Revolutionary Russia would be a ‘land free of prejudice’.

In this biography of Robeson’s ‘dizzy rise and crashing fall’, his collapse was caused by political naivete. Believing that the Left would abolish racism, he gave to any anti-fascist cause.

 Anything I have to say, or stand for, I have said in public all over the world . . . I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people

He became a key FBI target and by 1952, Robeson’s records were not played and his films were withdrawn. His Communist sympathies implied disloyalty to America, even possibly ‘treason and espionage’.

In 1956, he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. The chairman, Francis E. Walter, was ‘an overt white supremacist’ who wanted to impose racial quotas on migrant entry to the U.S. What chance did he have?

Yet his speech was magnificent: ‘Anything I have to say, or stand for, I have said in public all over the world . . . I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people . . . Because my father was a slave, and what my people did to build this country, I am going to stay here . . . No fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?’

He received his passport back, very grudgingly, a few years later.

Robeson was driven insane by his humanity. He felt ‘a suffocating weight, a smothering set of expectations that he was unable to meet’.

In the Soviet Union there was ‘ghastly repression and violence’, though Robeson was unable to speak about Stalin and the Gulags publicly. His silence on this remains controversial — he didn’t wish to admit he’d been taken in.

Nothing was improving. Robeson made multiple suicide attempts and had 50 courses of electroconvulsive therapy. After playing Othello one final time, at Stratford in 1959, he retired to obscurity.


 



Courtesy: Daily Mail Online

Son of a slave who became a superstar

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