Paul Robeson: a Watched Man, By Jordan Goodman, book review: When a voice of the people was cruelly silenced
Thursday 27 March 2014
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When this book was scheduled for publication, no one could have guessed its publication would be against the backdrop of an international row about surveillance, Edward Snowden having blown the lid on the workings of America's National Security Agency and its cosy relationship with GCHQ.
As London-based academic Jordan Goodman shows, it was ever thus – though the spying game was harder work in the 1940s and Fifties. Its effects were no less ruinous, however, and the consequences for the singer and actor Paul Robeson – a left-wing idealist and communist sympathiser, as many were in the years either side of the Second World War – were devastating. The extent of US paranoia and the complicity of British governments in helping identify "political meddlers" remains unchanging. Only the "enemies" are different.
Robeson, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance – the grandson of slaves, a Columbia law graduate who played semi-pro football – was to Uncle Sam "a political meddler". Tall, handsome, with a voice like treacle, he was widely admired, a hero to working people everywhere, including the Welsh miners, and of course to "the Negroes", who'd fought on equal terms with white soldiers in the Second World War but came home to find their daily lives unchanged.
Robeson had visited the Soviet Union in the Thirties and observed that he felt "not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life". When Robeson, speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Paris Peace Conference (perceived as a communist front) in April 1949, was quoted by an Associated Press reporter as having said that "the Negro people of America" did not want a war "which would send them back into a new kind of slavery", the die was cast.
Exactly what Robeson said in Paris was never clear, but it created a furore across the Atlantic from which the great polymath would never recover. Robeson stood accused of disloyalty to his own people and to his country.
What he'd said, inter alia, was that "Negroes would fight for peace". Robeson was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Next, he was deprived of his passport. If Robeson would sign an affidavit saying he was not and never had been a member of the Communist Party he could have it back. Robeson refused.
Eventually, he was allowed to travel but by then he was a broken man. When he died in 1976, Robeson's voice had been silent for more than a decade. Jordan tells a story of a shameful period in American history, of the persecution of a man whose only crime was idealism.
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