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Admiring Paul Robeson

In response to:

The Fate of Paul Robeson from the April 27, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I can take no pleasure in Murray Kempton’s praise for my “abundant virtues” as a biographer when it comes in the context of a disparaging essay on the subject of that biography, Paul Robeson [NYR, April 27].

In his 1955 book, Part of Our Time, Kempton devoted a chapter to Robeson (at a time when Robeson was already under siege) which I characterize in my book as “a particularly smooth bit of savagery.” Kempton does not mention that article, nor my characterization of it, though I would have thought he might honorably have taken either as sufficient grounds for disqualifying himself as a reviewer.

Instead he has preferred, 34 years after his original attack on Robeson, to repeat it, this time in the form of a overblown meditation on Robeson’s “fate” which shows no diminution in savagery but a decided increase in preciousness and arch indirection. Kempton’s essential message nonetheless comes through. It is the familiar “liberal” anti-Communist judgment on Robeson: he was a Stalinist and a philanderer, personally agreeable, not very insightful and not very talented (though very, very lucky). It has always been easier for liberals—to say nothing of conservatives—to adopt a dismissive view towards Robeson than to deal with the themes actually central to his life: black liberation and socialism.

The simplistic patronization of a great-hearted and sophisticated black radical can properly be characterized as racism—of the strain often found (in Kempton’s words) in “people otherwise confident that, for them, this cast of mind [is] unthinkable.” Kempton’s attitude towards Robeson is exemplified in the quotation he uses to open his essay. It is from the diary kept by Robeson’s wife, Essie, an entry she wrote in a bitter (and ephemeral) mood shortly after discovering that he was having an affair: “Paul is not any different from any other Nigger man…. His personality is built on lies….” In taking this diary entry out of context and elevating it into an epigraph for his essay, Kempton is implicitly inviting us to take it as a true and essential description—a grotesque suggestion but of a piece with Kempton’s attempted caricature of Robeson.

Filled with controversy as it was, Robeson’s life will continue to be a legitimate subject for debate. But one hopes that debate will not be conducted entirely in the condescending, mandarin tones adopted by Murray Kempton.

Martin Bauml Duberman
The City University of New York
New York City

Murray Kempton replies:

I am at a loss for a means to deal with Martin Duberman’s complaint because it seems to be fueled by the misapprehension that my own admiring assessment of Paul Robeson’s character, courage, and fundamental common sense is to any measurable degree different from his own. It is, however, painful to have him suggest that I acted dishonorably in undertaking to review a work that contained a severe, if brief, reference to something of mine. Pride may be a virtue; but a ridiculous vanity is all else but; and I should be ashamed to be affronted by a judgment with which I had as little reason to disagree as with this one. The book he mentions is so far from sacred writ to me that I sometimes wish, as Melbourne did with Macaulay, that I were as sure of anything as that young man was of everything. It is rather too late in life for me to permit another man’s low estimate of my qualities to affect mine of his. I’ve never had much taste—and have even less now—for reviewing books unless they reward and stimulate me. Paul Robeson met that test splendidly; and I tried to engage it with the seriousness of attention and thought that its author had brought to his subject; and I shall just resign myself to the small wound of the discovery that he didn’t take as much trouble to read me as carefully as I think I read him.

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