“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.*
Robeson began with the same chord and at once triumphed with it and had no encouragement to explore its varieties thereafter; and, lastingly impressive as the results remain, we cannot quite toss away the complaints of the London Sketch when it responded to the 1928 London reproduction of Showboat with a cartoon captioned “Despite ragtime and jazz, poor old Joe sings ‘Ole Man Ribber’ right through the years from 1880 to 1928.’ ”
Peggy Ashcroft, the Desdemona of his first Othello, in London in 1930, remembers her shock when Nellie Van Volkenberg, their director, barked loud enough for the whole company to hear at one rehearsal: “Mr. Robeson, there are other people on the stage besides yourself.” Dame Peggy told Duberman thirty-eight years afterward that, in her recoil “at this gratuitous humiliation of Robeson, [she] decided that Nellie was a ‘racist.’ “
That might have been an unfair surmise because Van Volkenberg’s outburst does not quite permit the inference that her loss of patience with Robeson the person extended to revulsion from Robeson the man of color, a step that by the way seems to have been shamefully easy for people otherwise confident that, for them, this cast of mind was unthinkable. The New York Othello of 1942 was directed by Margaret Webster, who could be off-puttingly pompous in such public manifestations of her enlightenment as, “For the first time in the United States a Negro was playing one of the greatest parts ever written…and [the occasion] was trying to prove something other than itself.”
Even so, when she took offense at a coalesced resistance to her will by José Ferrer, her Iago, Uta Hagen, her Desdemona, and Robeson himself, Webster could write to her mother with a clear conscience about the effronteries she was being forced to bear in order to “get a show out of that big, black jelly-fish and those two conceited little asses and make us all happy and bursting with harmony and enthusiasm.”
In 1928, when Actors Equity suspended Robeson for failure to honor a $500 contract to appear in a “colored review,” because he wanted to appear in Showboat instead, the NAACP’s Walter White wrote him that such evidences of light-mindedness “would react on all of us” and reported that, not long before, a “prominent white person” had explained his reluctance to accept a pledge of White’s own with the observation, “Your people are not strong on keeping their promises, are they? Look at what your friend Paul Robeson is doing.”
All the same the force of Van Volkenberg’s complaint asserts itself in films that too often register a presence too massive and too unpliant to blend comfortably into ensembles. When Brutus Jones sings his farewell to the congregants of the Georgia church of his childhood, there is almost nothing of the boy leaving for wider scenes and almost everything of the man returned from their conquest. Robeson never acquired the skills that enable actors more practiced than he to mingle barely recognizable in the crowd of the company and then emerge from it like thunder.
His range seldom rose beyond the limits of the solo and the duet. His singular charm could reach full expression only in circumstances of intimacy; and since he was untrained in the artifices of its contrivance, he seems to have achieved its effects by establishing a run-of-the-play liaison with nearly all his leading women, a pattern his wife blamed on “pursuing white meat…the curse of the race,” with an anger that, however natural, may have debarred her from considering the alternative explanation. This chase and capture may have had much more to do with his sense of what the occasion required than with any lust to storm the walls of the dominant race. For he followed his impulses into transient conquests of and/or subjugation by Nina Mae McKinney and possibly Fredi Washington, both women of color however lighter than his own.
Robeson achieved his summit in 1940 when the Republicans came close to inviting him to sing “Ballad for Americans” at their national convention. He was still on its plateau in 1946 when the widow of Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s closest coadjutor, asked him to sing at her husband’s funeral.
But the downward slide had already begun, and it ended in 1950 in the dark valley where he could add the last citation on the list of his accomplishments as pioneer—the second Negro named to Walter Camp’s football All American, probably the first Rutgers Negro to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, etc., etc.—and was a leader of another vanguard as, in Duberman’s words, “the first American to be officially banned from television” for the sin of empathy with the Soviet Union.
Robeson thereafter endured a species of internal exile throughout nearly a third of a life that ended in 1975. Duberman has committed roughly 250 of his 800 pages to this fall from the peak to the pit and the sad years that followed; and, although his account is as devoted as it is extensive, it is the least satisfying portion of his narrative, because he is too determinedly resistant to each and every prompting to engage the mystery. For there is a mystery about Robeson’s terminus; and its fascinations reside not in the afflictions of the victim but in the self-will of the hero. Ill-used though he was, we would cheat him of the respect he deserves if we failed to recognize that his was a fate proudly chosen.
Nothing in his prior existence had prepared him for the vehemence of that fate’s blows; but when they fell, he appreciated the might of national purpose behind them so acutely that, when the young Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte sought his company, he warned them “to avoid being seen or connected with him” and risk careers that would in time delight him by spreading through the national consciousness even wider than his own career had done before its ruin.
The lesson he still thought he could most usefully teach an acolyte was to take special care not to be as contentious as he seemed to have become but to be as agreeable as he used to be, and remained, to a degree that would have surprised the spiteful. That agreeable quality belonged in the essence of Robeson’s nature and, even as it confronts us with the most tantalizing of all the locks that bar his riddle’s door, it may be offering us its key.
Robeson owed his first great chance to this agreeableness, which he would never lose in the years when he had put all opportunities to forfeit. Brutus Jones had been played first by Charles Gilpin, who had not before had a part so grand and would never have another even as noticeable; and he had brought to it a rage stoked with the fires of a life experience that Robeson could not match. That disability was fortunate, because his frustrations had left Gilpin’s temperament so fierce and stubborn that The Emperor Jones’s first run had been such an unremitting series of quarrels that Eugene O’Neill would have no more of him.
“I’ve stood for more from him than from all the white actors I’ve ever known—simply because he was colored,” O’Neill wrote in a letter to Mike Gold, sour with Gilpin’s dismissal and radiant with Robeson’s welcome as “a young fellow…full of ambition and a damn fine man personally with real brains—not a ‘ham.’ ”
His career had been launched from the wreckage of Gilpin’s; and he could hardly be blamed if he was then inattentive to the cruel ironies of that circumstance, because he would have a long and happy journey before finding out that one man of color is not often enough given a copy book to write upon unless another has previously spoiled it for himself with too many of the blottings of presumption.
He would never entirely give up taking every new face for as fair as it presented itself as being. Still, open-hearted as he stayed, he could never again be as unaware of the untrustworthy actualities of life as he had been before the term in England, which had been a succession of glittering rewards all turned to dust with a cheat at the end.
He had fallen in love there with Yolande Jackson, a sometime actress with a dubious leasehold in the aristocratic ambiance whose pet he was. Their intimacy had lasted three years when he determined upon divorce and remarriage to her; and then she had suddenly and sickeningly rejected him, having, Eslanda Goode Robeson keenly surmised, “lost her nerve” in the face of “too risky an experiment.”
Long afterward he would recall the time when he was driving with Yolande Jackson and her passion for his person inflamed her into displays wantonly indifferent to what the chauffeur might think. That, Robeson would say, was the moment when he recognized that hers was a class that could not imagine that servants had sentience, let alone sensibilities, and he became finally aware of “the affinity of working people the world over…black and white.”
He does not seem ever to have served up this parable without accompanying it with the demonstration of the native gentility that would invariably identify Yolande Jackson as “Lady so-and-so” and thus manage chivalrously to disguise her identity and gallantly improve her social station.
And so he had departed from England and returned to his again beloved country unshackled from an old fantasy and perhaps too ready to be enchained by another. The Van Vechtens no longer mattered to him; and, if they were correct in inferring the snub, they were profoundly mistaken when they ascribed it to frivolity, for England had taught Robeson, perhaps too lastingly, that there is no social defect more worthy of disdain than a failure to be serious; and who among us, once having lost patience with the Ladies Diana Duff Cooper and Edwina Mountbatten, would have looked to Fania Van Vechten for their replacement?
Robeson had been made at last aware that his color was both ineffaceable and a summons to duty; and he would hence-forth prefer the comradeship of the Communists to the company of the Van Vechtens. Even if we set aside the unwarranted sufferings that would be its consequence, that choice cannot be considered a wise one. There is a good deal of room for adventuring in the directions of seriousness in the vast swath that lies between the errant paths traversed by an ill-tempered and self-struck Fania Van Vechten and a benignly moonstruck Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Even so we should, I suspect, go wrong if we assessed Robeson’s subsequent course as an abandonment of his residence with the sensible for lodging with the utterly foolish. The late Benjamin Davis was his closest friend in the American Communist Party; and, in one of his conversations with Duberman, Angus Cameron remembers Davis observing once that “The Party was wrong when it held that blacks in America were a nation, and also when it held they were not a nation.” The author of Nigger Heaven was hardly so placed as to condescend to any intelligence that could array the ambiguities of the case as neatly and subtly as Davis had.
The puzzle that finally challenges us is not Robeson’s arrival at this particular station but his resistance to getting back on the train and going away, which, so far as we have any license to believe, was sustained unto his last breath. His vision of the Soviet Union, however over-sanguine, was never impenetrable by evidence of its imperfections and even its taints.
Marie Seton has recalled references of his to “dreadful things” in the USSR as early as 1937; and no extreme of the adulation that greeted his return there in 1949 was sufficient to allay a disquiet at being unable to locate so many of his old Jewish friends—disquiet that mounted to an alarm when, having been released from police custody to visit his hotel, the poet Itzik Feffer began their colloquy with “mute gestures” signaling that the room was bugged, that their vocal exchanges should be limited to the social pleasantries, and that weightier matters could be less perilously discussed by passing notes back and forth.
Robeson’s visits to the Soviet Union thereafter seem to have alternated the anticipated bouts of delight with intervals of gloom inexplicable to his hosts. His first attempt at suicide was a slashing of his wrists in the Moscow National Hotel in the spring of 1961; and he would later explain to an East German physician that “people whose parents or whose relatives were in jail had approached him—’Can’t you help me’—this sort of thing had put him into conflict.”
Three months later, after rest and presumed recuperation, he broke down again, and the regimes of a London psychiatric clinic were prescribed for him. When the car that was transporting him there approached a traffic light near the Soviet embassy, a companion on this unhappy journey has since told Duberman, Robeson “thought we were driving in there [and] he started muttering, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing…get down!!’…He was frightened, cowering himself and trying to protect me.” The memory that bore witness to that scene belonged to a woman who was then and apparently still is a devotee of the Old Left and remains “astonished”—as we ourselves may be as well—at a paranoid episode triggered by the symbol of the very faith that had been cherished so long and at so exacting a cost and that would survive in him until he died without a hint of repudiation.
This tormented mixture of loving and fearing the USSR is the final enigma of Robeson; and we are reduced to no better clue for its answer than a remark he made, when, far from settled in his reason, he was talking to Paul Robeson, Jr., who had meant little to him as a child and everything as a man, and explained that he had tried to kill himself because “someone close to me had done irreparable damage to the USSR.”
That is the voice that neither knows nor needs to know wherein it has offended; and we hear sounding from its sorrows the echoes of Job’s “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” Job speaks for all of those who have been wounded not by the blows of God’s enemies but in the hand of God Himself and by a judgment so indifferent to mercy or equity that “If I washt myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean/Yet shalt Thou plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me.”
Such was the Jehovah whose fierce covenant the boy Robeson had heard his father preach; and such may have been the Joseph Stalin to whose altars the man Robeson repaired with a faith that demanded few of the nourishments of self-deception. If he never reached the dead certainty, he seems to have entered upon the lively suspicion that Stalin did not reserve his wrath for the guilty alone, but that “He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked…. He will laugh at the trial of the innocent.”
Robeson may simply have found again and thenceforth clung, if with diminishing serenity, to his God in the image of the Old Testament that directs us to frequently to cherish God for what He is and in spite of what He may sometimes do or be. When we puzzle over the whys and wherefores of the case, we should, I think, do well to take note of how often men in their particular time choose a course not because they are guided there by reason, which is never so fresh and clear as when it is operating post facto like ours, but because they are simply tired and want to go home.
The back church was Christian in creed; but drew on the Old Hebrew for its soul’s true cry. The spirituals pay an occasional tribute to the little Baby Jesus; but their home is Sinai and not the Mount of Olives, and their time is in Egypt’s bonds and the desert’s heat and not the day of Pentecost.
Even those of us, devoted—but let us pray, not complacent—in our commitment to the truth of the Gospels, cannot in common sense overlook the extent to which they are false to the reality of the life around us. It would be curious indeed if they who created the spirituals, and the congregants who were their earliest auditors, enduring as they did the rule of masters cruel at worst and whimsical at best, had been altogether convinced that Peter had assessed the divine will more precisely than Job or that the apostles, who bubbled over with the realization of their visions, were so much wiser observers than the Old Testament prophets, who dared to the peevish about the postponements of their own dreams.
Robeson had carried the spirituals about with him as the stock of his trade and art; and since they were the most intimate of his intellect’s inspirations, they were bound to be the resource for its most prolonged reflections. If he had grown weary and aching for home and was by now too sophisticated to return to his childhood’s church, we need not wonder that, for its substitute, he settled upon the Soviet Union, the ark of another covenant whose Jehovah also had his “fan…in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with an unquenchable fire,” and, in both cases, with a distressingly coarse touch for distinguishing the chaff from the wheat.
The America that he had trusted so long in his innocence responded to the loss of that illusion, with a meanness of spirit whose excesses reached their ultimate pitch when the 1950 College Football “listed a ten-man All American team for 1918,” having excised Robeson’s name as conscientiously as Rutgers removed his picture from the gallery of alumni warrior heroes that ornaments its gymnasium.
His essential good nature insured him nonetheless against cankering by bitterness toward white people; but even so, another tug toward his first youth suggests itself in the friends to whom he was drawn closest in age and isolation and who were not only Communists but, with few exceptions, black Communists, and most significantly, as he might have felt himself, beached remnants of the tide of the New Negro’s Renaissance in the Twenties. They had mostly been born to the more elevated castes of color: Benjamin Davis’s father had been a Republican National Committeeman from Georgia; and Revels Cayton’s grandfather had been the United States senator from Mississippi in the pre-reconstructed South.
The one among them Robeson had most cherished as guide and teacher was Max Yergan, executive secretary of the Council on African Affairs, the center of Robeson’s first joint endeavors with the left. In the winter of 1948, Yergan commenced the strayings from the Party that would in time land him quite pathetically in the company of US Senator James Eastland as a propagandist for the Katanga of Moise Tshombe.
The Communist majority on the council’s board extirpated Yergan’s heresy by accusing him of financial irregularities. Robeson’s quick acceptance of these charges seems odd; of all those present at the table, he had the best reason to be familiar with imputations of boodling as a device for disposing of troublesome men of color, however innocent. His own father had been the minister of a black Presbyterian church in Princeton; and, when he began to afflict their white overseers with his complaints against the poor lot of his congregation, he was visited with charges of ” ‘great carelessness’ in keeping business records” that, for all their want of substance, were eventually effective enough to force his ouster. Mrs. Paul Robeson’s grandfather was state treasurer of South Carolina until 1877, when its Democrats contrived to unseat him with a specious indictment and conviction for “embezzlement.” This sort of thing is indeed so commonplace an instrument for purging black nuisances that even W.E.B. Du Bois employed it to push Marcus Garvey toward federal prison for marketing stocks about whose worth he was as guileless as anyone who bought them.
And yet there is no evidence that Robeson, for all his experience with prior injustices in the same key, paused to wonder if his comrades on the Council of African Affairs spoke fairly when they cried fraud against the apostate Yergan. There is a passage, dimly remembered, in Silone’s A Handful of Blackberries when the hero tells an old peasant woman about his loss of faith in communism, and she replies that he has traveled a long way to find out that the world is round.
And so it is; but not many of us can accept that dreariest of revelations; and perhaps Paul Robeson was, at the end, one of those of us who turn back to our youth because it asserts itself in clouded memory as purer and freer of spite than pretty much everything we have met since. It wasn’t of course; but what else are we old men to do?
April 27, 1989
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. ↩