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The Fate of Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

by Martin Bauml Duberman
Knopf, 804 pp., $24.95

He must have been lying to me for five years, steadily…. Paul is not any different from any other Nigger man, except that he has a beautiful voice. His personality is built on lies…. No wonder white people don’t want to let black men into their society.”

Mrs. Paul Robeson, to her diary, October, 1930

Paul Robeson’s was a career whose ascent and decline were alike tethered to his identity as a man of conspicuous color—conscripted to be taken on approval throughout a widespreading acceptance that felt itself particularly kind and an even more general casting-away that felt itself especially wounded.

He seems to have been born to that tentativeness as the child, as he would be the husband, of a mixed marriage. His father, the clergyman, had been a slaveboy escaped from eastern North Carolina; and his mother had been born to the Bustills, a family whose blood mingled its black with Amerind and British Quaker strains, and whose history of modest prominence in Philadelphia ran back to the eighteenth century. Her choice of a partner so much darker than herself had been an abrasion to family pride; and the Bustills would be cool to their Robeson cousins until the fame of the youngest of them eclipsed every prejudice of color.

Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who would occasionally suffer and devotedly die as Mrs. Paul Robeson, had been born to a line grander than the Bustills could ever have hoped to be, since her hemi-demi-semi black grandfather had been treasurer of his state during its Reconstruction and a Jewish cousin would in time be a justice of the US Supreme Court. Eslanda Goode’s mother had married darker and so had she; and yet, dedicated Africanist though she became, her wariness of the taints of a duskier brush was so ingrained as to press her to warn her mother not to take seven-year-old Paul, Jr., “to any nigger beach.”

Martin Bauml Duberman’s abundant virtues as a biographer are of the variety seldom stimulated by the ironic sensibilities. But his explorations have brought forth a rich trove for those otherwise inclined; and the most telling lesson they might sift from these diggings is that Robeson’s life was defined all along by blackness. It may well have been his consolation at the last but it was, in between, the blessing that exalted him as long as he gave satisfaction, and the curse that condemned him almost as soon as he did not.

The Carl Van Vechtens, who had been the most fashionable of the patrons of his youth, visited him in London in 1928 and he repaid their prior hospitalities with a reception at the St. Johns Wood house he had rented from the Countess des Boulletts. The guests included Fred and Adele Astaire, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Ivor Novello, Hugh Walpole, Max, Lord Beaverbook and at least two ladies ennobled by titles much older than his.

The Van Vechtens had been gratified by their protégé’s welcome and dazzled by the grandeurs of his station. But ten years later, when Robeson returned to the States and did not bother to call them, this neglect goaded Carl Van Vechten, whose Nigger Heaven Robeson had once admired, to complain to his wife Fania that “it’s pretty obvious that Paul doesn’t want to see us very much, or most of his old friends.” To arouse a response she tuned all-but-automatically to the chords appointed for those who, having been favored beyond the deservings of birth, have swelled up with misapprehensions about their proper place. “Really,” she wrote, “if it were not for his meagre talent and his great charm he would be just the traditional ‘lowdown, worthless nigger.’ ”

Justice would be happily served if we could with assurance refute any sibyl who, having found her divinations in the smokes of her spite, would scorn as meager the talents that had seemed to her vast when Robeson had been so agreeably employing them to sing to her guests for his supper. But to give Fania Van Vechten the lie direct is not as easy as we would want it to be. Robeson’s presence was, of course, enormous, and his gift outsized; but ridiculous as it was to dismiss his talent, we have no sure way to measure its true proportions.

We get our gifts from nature but we realize our talents with their cultivation. The substantial black artists of Robeson’s generation were, in nearly every instance except his own, conditioned by an enforced and extended apprenticeship, whose afflicting obscurities gave them the chance to refine a style that ultimately won for too few of them the attention of a wider world.

If our eyes were keen enough, the image of Stepin Fetchit might show them not a little about the protracted term beneath the notice of the general public that the craftsman can use for scouring the murk where hide the subtleties that even coarse performers require if they are to stick in our memories. But the profits other black artists so painfully squeezed from the ill-favoring gods never came Robeson’s way; his only misfortune was the luck that arrives too soon.

He seems to have come to his career as Adam did to Eden; and throughout its subsequent progress there can somehow be sensed the operation of a universal conspiracy to preserve an illusion of his Adamism. Disguise though it did the Rutgers Phi Beta Kappa and the Columbia Law graduate, it suited the persona that the good intentions of his time were more than satisfied to keep swinging, like Tarzan on his vine, back and forth between what Duberman identifies as the “stereotype of servile childishness” and the “alternate caricature of simplistic nobility.”

As early as 1920, when he had scarcely begun as the least-schooled practitioner in the Harlem Amateur Players, he gave forth resonances so commanding that there endures the tale that the set designer Cleon Throckmorton was moved to go backstage and urge upon him the title role in The Emperor Jones, which was then projected by the Provincetown Playhouse.

It is said that Robeson asked for a synopsis of the part and was told, “A railroad porter from a lowly background becomes emperor of a tropic island and then, under terror, slips back,” and that he sent his visitors away with the “self aware dignity” of a dismissive, “You may know this kind of person, and Mr. [Eugene] O’Neill may know this kind of person; but I don’t.”

Duberman doubts this story; and his distrust is licensed by its presumption that Robeson would subject a stranger to treatment so uncharacteristically ungracious. But all the same it has some scent of artistic credibility. Brutus Jones was scarcely a symbol that any representative of the New Negro so refulgent as Robeson already was would care to put on display. He afterward told the writer Marie Seton that the role that was his first leap to fame had been repellent to him. Smoothly as they came, there would never be enough of his earthly glories without similar exactions of bits and pieces from his dignity.

Three years after he had turned down The Emperor Jones he had lost most of his hopes for a career in the law undeflected by the disabilities of his color. He had learned that nobody who had found out how much there was that lay beyond his reach could look down on Brutus Jones from heights as towering as, in his innocence, he had used to think them. He accepted the part when the Provincetown Players sweetened their dose by offering it to him in a package with All God’s Chillun Got Wings, whose Jim Harris was so much more appetizing because so much more to be pitied. And, as too often happened, the more primitive the image, the more enduring its effects would be for him; and Jim Harris’s aspirations for the stars were soon forgotten while Brutus Jones’s bitter satisfactions in the mud made Paul Robeson famous.

The world that had been so stingy with his chances at the bar now lavished him with opportunities in the theater, although their scope would in time turn out to be delusive, and some of us may suspect they inhibited the enlargement of his particular genius to dimensions appropriate to its potential.

It gets harder and harder to come by the materials that might remind us of how much Robeson managed to do inside the boundaries for whose confinements social circumstance deserves most of the guilt, although he himself cannot be acquitted from some of the blame. The only record album still listed by Schwann is the survivor of his Carnegie Hall concert in 1958, when his powers had been eroded by sufferings that had extorted not a penny from his dignity but a king’s ransom from his confidence. The exhuberant clamors of the walls that tumbled down before Joshua have departed to distances beyond echo. There is a fragment of Othello’s final speech with no trace in it of those reflective, resigned, and melancholy notes that sound in the head even when we are reading them in a public library.

All that is left is declamation; and we who never saw and can never see his original performance can only wonder whether it was ever more than this, and whether he might not have flourished and withered eternally noble and permanently unfulfilled, the tragic figure who never learned to be a tragic actor and the extraordinary voice that settled for a single tune.

This constricted range was not at all a fault of indolence. Robeson seems to have been an assiduous student of music without ever being comfortably at home as a sight reader, a failure that suggests an intelligence richly nourished by education but underfed by tutoring. He was persuaded that all music flowed from a common folk root; but the folk he had in mind was seldom other than his own, and when he essayed departures from that source, the “Christus Lag” of Bach and the “Lullaby” of Schubert emerged from depths as profound as and widths no broader than “Deep River.” He could only feed—and we were perhaps more content than he may have been to let him feed—on very little inspiration beyond what he had found in his father’s church.

It seems sensible to accept Robeson, with no thought to diminish him, as less a musician than a messenger too possessed by the theme to be distracted by temptations to vary it. The late John Hammond once told me that, when he brought Robeson together with Bill Basie for the “Joe Louis Blues” he had to write out the chords and drum them in. The prescription did not work: Robeson and Basie simply traveled down the paths of each one’s memory; and the result, however far from the true pattern of the blues, abides in the recollection as a superb statement. The younger Robeson had so little taste for blowing or even enjoying the changes that he thought Duke Ellington childish, having perhaps been put off by those “jungle” growlings that could have affronted him as parodies of the African rhythms he was beginning to venerate.*

  1. *

    As time went on he grew to appreciate not just Ellington but Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk too. That late-arriving taste ought not much to have surprised him; Julian Euell once observed that “Ornette Coleman plays field hollers” and the compliment fits as well for Parker and Monk.

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