PAUL ROBESON A HEROIC FIGURE AND MARTIN DUBERMAN’S FAILED BIOGRAPHY

Paul Robeson was one of the extraordinary figures of our time. He was a man of exceptional intellect and perception, unshakable courage and boundless love for and generosity towards African Americans, working people and the colonized masses. His life and work achieved world historic significance. The son of a slave, the youngest child in a family of five, Robeson’s life work drew upon both his African and African American cultural roots. His accomplishments are breathtaking. Paul Robeson was a scholar, athlete, Phi Beta Kappan, linguist, Africanist, civil rights fighter, peace activist, working class partisan, actor and singer. As Ossie Davis commented, he was the crystallization of socialist man; the embodiment, as it were, of the human being of the future. He was a learned and civilized human being, an internationalist and a revolutionary. He learned over twenty-five languages from linguistic groups as varied as Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Zulu, Yoruba, Egyptian and German. Emma Goldman, said he spoke Russian like a Russian. Learning languages was indispensable to Robeson’s larger scientific pursuit of the universal foundations of what he considered a single world civilization. His deepening appreciation of the folk heritage that is common to all national cultures, led him, ineluctably, to a more profound respect for the enormous achievements of African and African American civilization. Hence in the early 1930’s when asked what he wanted to be, he replied, “I want to be an African”. He became a partisan of the Bandung, or Afro-Asian solidarity movement. And would in his famous book Here I Stand call for Black Power as indispensable to the African Americans struggle for freedom.

Paul Robeson increasingly discovered that human cultures are not solely, or necessarily only the product of nations. He sought out the inevitable class foundations of national cultures. Robeson was drawn, therefore, to folk culture as the common underpinning of world civilization. Folk culture was for him the necessary material foundation of so-called high culture or “classical” culture, which almost inevitably had been appropriated by the ruling classes. Robeson believed, moreover, that for humanity to realize its true potential and occasion a renaissance of world civilization, the scourge of racism and imperialism would have to be eliminated from human history. The logic of this understanding drew him inevitably to the struggle for human emancipation. Having grasped the fundamental essence and global dimensions of oppression he never retreated from the struggle against it. For Robeson it was not enough merely to interpret the world, he dedicated his life to its revolutionary transformation. In February of 1999 the Public Broadcasting System aired a major documentary on the life and work of Robeson. It presented Robeson and especially his wife and comrade in arms Eslanda Goode Robeson in a truer light. For this reason I wish to revisit the only major biography of Robeson currently available; Martin Duberman’s 1989 804-page book titled simply Paul Robeson.

Martin Bauml Duberman’s biography of Paul Robeson is important if for no other reason than the significance of its subject. In the last instance, however, Duberman’s effort fails to grasp Paul Robeson and the meaning of his life. Duberman is the first historian given full access to the Robeson estate, which consists of some fifty thousand documents. He claims to have interviewed close to 135 people.

Methodologically Duberman’s work is a pscho-biography. In this respect Duberman attempts to construct a psychological portrait of Robeson; to disclose, what the author considers the “inner Robeson”. The “inner Robeson” is for Duberman a tangle of pscho-sexual contradictions. Thus a major organizing theme of this work is an attempt to “recreate” Robeson’s sexual life. The primary evidence for this recreation is hearsay and gossip. The point, however, is that much of this is fictionalized . In the end the historically significant is intertwined with and often takes a back seat to the purely trivial. Duberman creates a mind body duality where in the end Robeson’s mind and intellect are the victims to his uncontrolled passions. Robeson is ultimately rendered pathetic, tragic and dogmatic. Never is the reader able through this maze glimpse the vital core of Robeson enormous genius. Not once does Duberman even suggest the scientific rigor that guided Robeson’s study of areas as varied as harmonic theory and world politics. Finally, Duberman is silent concerning Robeson’s fresh discoveries and contributions to the scientific understanding of world cultures, history and music. Robeson emerges from Duberman’s book as a man far less than he was in real life. Indeed, he is reduced beyond recognition. Yet, in the final analysis, the book breaks little new ground in the study of Robeson’s life.

Duberman lack of professional competence in any of the areas that are significant to Robeson’s life from the beginning fated the book to failure. Furthermore, his stance as an ideological adversary of most of what Robeson stood for gives the book an adversarial, almost put down quality, rather than an objective and fair-minded investigation of this great man’s life, work and commitments He had done nothing in the areas of twentieth century African American history, labor history, African history, African American aesthetics, or the history of the Communist Party or the left. Duberman’s professional concern and competence had been with sexual history.[ see Radical History Review, Fall 1988] He , therefore, tailored this biography to what he knew and his principle interests. This may have been good for Duberman , but it obscures Robeson.
In dealing with the 1920’s-the height of the Garvey Movement and the Harlem Renaissance period–we learn little of Robeson’s relationships with that brilliant constellation of African American artist, writers, intellectuals and musicians that helped redefine the American intellectual and artistic landscape. Little or nothing is said of the philosopher Alaine Locke, poet Langston Hughes, anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, poet Nicolas Guillen, Africanists and historians Leo and Oscar Hansberry, muscian/composer Louis Armstrong, dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith. Although Duberman develops Robeson’s relationships with the revolutionary and socilaist poet Claude McKay and NAACP leader and intellectual Walter White, he presents Robeson primarily in the context of his relationships with white patrons of the Black arts movement, like the Van Vechtens and the Knopfs. Of Robeson’s contemporaries in the popular and jazz fields of the 1940’s, ’50’s and ’60’s, such as Lena Horne, Billy Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillesspi, Thelonius Monk and Billy Eckstine little or nothing is said. The sense is left that Robeson’s relationships with African Americans were superficial with few organic social, cultural and intellectual links among Robeson and leading African American thinkers.

Of Robeson’s early political associations Duberman’s scholarship is especially arid. William L. Patterson, the pioneering civil rights fighter and leader of the Communist Party, was an intimate political and intellectual associate of both Eslanda and Paul Robeson from the early 1920’s. However hardly anything of this relationship is developed. Patterson appears briefly in the beginning and is missing from the book until the 1950’s. Benjamin Davis Jr., the Morehouse and Harvard educated lawyer and leader of the Communist party, was considered by Eslanda and Paul among their dearest friends. Robeson once remarked that he would even have given his life for Ben Davis. Yet Duberman reduces Ben Davis to nothing more than a political water boy, consigned to communicating the “party line” to Robeson. W.E.B DuBois, a major intellectual figure of the twentieth century, considered Robeson like a son. DuBois and Robeson shared common intellectual, scholarly and political concerns, commitments and projects. Yet again this relationship is presented in a most superficial manner. Of Robeson’s relationship to the Garvey movement, the African Blood Brotherhood, the early African American socialists etc. nothing is said.

Duberman also fails to trace the roots of Robeson’s socialist ideas and working class partisanship. Historian and Robeson scholar Sterling Stuckey argues that Robeson’s contact with the British trade union movement was the occasion for his earliest systematic study of socialism and that from these contacts emerged Robeson’s life long commitment to the working class movement and socialism.
Concerning Robeson’s contacts with the London based African students movement Duberman scholarship is thin. Previous scholars have considered this a rich source for tracking Robeson’s early anti-colonial sentiments. It was here that he developed his deep and life long interest in African civilization. With respect to Robeson’s links to leaders of the African liberation movement like Jomo Kenyatta, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah Duberman’s scholarship is silent.

Duberman casts Robeson’s support for socialism and the Soviet Union in mainly subjective and emotional terms. The author suggests that Robeson was at times naive and blind concerning the Soviet Union. However Robeson scholars have suggested that he viewed socialism as the historical alternative in our epoch to colonialism, national and class oppression. Philip S. Foner and others point to his high regard for the Soviet people’s support to the anti-colonial and anti-fascist struggles. Robeson never forgot the boundless suffering of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazism ; nor their enormous support to the Chinese revolution. In his own writings and speeches, and especially in Here I Stand, Robeson evidenced an understanding of the Soviet Union that was unalterably linked to history. Robeson, therefore, did not view the Soviet Union or its leadership as perfect or infallible. He, therefore, viewed socialist transformation in the Soviet Union as an entire epoch, rather than a single event. Duberman, wrongly contends, that Robeson adopted an expedient silence with respect to the disclosures of Stalin’s violations of socialist legality and norms, and the crimes that emerged therefrom. As with much else in the book Duberman presents no historically valid evidence for such a contention. Yet Duberman uses this contention as an ideological stick to beat the left generally and Robeson particularly. Duberman condemns Robeson for not distancing himself from the struggles for peace and socialism. Robeson biographer Lloyd Brown points out that Duberman goes as far as to use anti-Soviet and Zionist sources concerning his account of the situation of the Jewish poet Itzik Feffer. These sources had sympathy neither with Robeson, world peace or the Soviet Union. Duberman’s point is to paint Robeson as on the one hand dubbed by the Soviet Union and on the other as compromised on the Jewish question and human rights generally. Neither is the case. In fact the entire episode appears to be a total fabrication. [see Lloyd Brown, “Robeson, Scholarship and Slander: Response to Martin Duberman’s Biography of Paul Robeson” in Jewish Affairs, April 1989]

Duberman presents the Communist party and individual communist in a perverse and distorted manner. The CP is portrayed as a dogmatic and rigid sect that after the 1940’s narrowed Robeson’s base and ultimately attempted to control him. Although Robeson did not hold this position and fervently rejected it, Duberman arrogantly puts it forth. Henry Winston is said to have urged Robeson during the height of the McCarthy period to “stick to singing.” The source for this is Paul Robeson Jr. No attempt is made to seek further corroboration. Besides distorting the character of Henry Winston, what is manifested is Duberman’s anti-communism. Duberman makes other unsubstantiated claims concerning Robeson’s relationship to the Communist Party. It is claimed that Robeson got along with the “centrist” Eugene Dennis, but was estranged from William Foster, Henry Winston and William Patterson. Once again the sole source is Paul Robeson Jr. and no other evidence is presented of what had to be complicated political and ideological relationships. At the same time Duberman reduces Paul Robeson’s ceaseless fight against anti-communism, McCarthyism and the Cold War to Robeson’s loyalties to his friends on the left. Are we to believe that Robeson was so politically naive? Were there not deeply held principles involved? Can Robeson’s politics be explained in a more complex way, which would suggest that Robeson was a major and mature political actor on the world stage? The point is that Robeson maintained a principled relationship with the leadership of the Communist Party. These relationships were maintained on the basis of mutuality and respect. The problems with the Communist Party are Duberman’s not Robeson’s. This while Robeson maintained a critical attitude to leaders and pollicies of the Party that he disagreed with; as was the case with leaders of the civil rights and labor movements. Rather than truthfully developing the historical record, Duberman attempts to work out his own biases, his politics and his problems in the context of a Robeson biography and make them appear to be Robeson’s. In this respect, Duberman continues the anti-Communist and racist attacks that Robeson endured throughout the Cold War.

Duberman presents what can only be considered a racist and sexist portrait of Eslanda Goode Robeson, Paul’s wife and comrade in arms of over forty years. She is portrayed as jealous, self-seeking, petty, haughty, as well as a financial and emotional drain upon Robeson. Her intellect, politics, courage and life-long collaboration with Robeson are rendered of no significance. Historian Gerald Horne describes Duberman’s treatment of Eslanda as “misogynist”. Duberman draws selectively from Eslanda’s extensive diaries and correspondence and presents an inaccurate and demeaning picture of Paul’s and Eslanda’s relationship. As far as Essie’s character and personality are concerned we hear little of substance from the Robeson’s closest friends and associates. We learn nothing of her politics and ideas and their contribution to Robeson’s thinking. Nothing of her collaborations with Pearl S. Buck, only passing mention of her anthropological studies in Africa . We learn nothing of her fight to free Ben Davis and other imprisoned communists, or of her joint effort with Claudia Jones in these campaigns.

In the last instance, the Duberman biography undermines the integrity of the historical record as it concerns Paul Robeson. In the Review of Radical History,[Fall 1988] Duberman candidly admits a lack of professional scholarly involvement with studies of Robeson prior to being chosen by Paul Robeson Jr. to do this biography. What then were Duberman’s motives? Clearly there are ideological ones. Duberman places his ideological positions against those of Robeson. In so doing he attempts to belittle Robeson’s politics. Secondly, Duberman reduces Robeson’s significance in history. Creating a fictionalized psychosexual history of Robeson does this. Thirdly, Duberman uses this biography to distort the history of the Communist Party and to continue a Cold War portrayal of the Soviet Union. Duberman leaves us with a tangle of inaccuracies and distortions. It is to be hoped that the Robeson estate now housed at the Moorland -Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, as well as the archives in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic, will rapidly be made available to serious and committed scholars so that a rich and accurate scholarship worthy of Robeson can grow and be enriched by new generations of historians and social scientists.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Black Intellectual, Political and Ideological Issues, BOOK REVIEWS. Bookmark the permalink.

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