A gripping book on Paul Robeson not only shows up the greatness of the man but underscores the dangers of state surveillance – a lesson to heed today.
When I lived in Brixton, South London in the early 1970s, I used to drink in an Acre Lane pub named after an imperial admiral, the favourite meeting place for local Jamaicans. One of them, a retired bus driver named Reg, told me once about a street concert he remembered as a young man in Kingston in 1948, during Paul Robeson’s first visit to the island. ‘There were thousands of us there at Half Way Tree, men and women’, he remembered. ‘All of us were waiting for him to sing, there, in the middle of the city. Usually there was a storm of noise, and now, you know, you could hear a pin drop. And when he began to sing, “Go Down Moses” it was, so big, so deep, so powerful, we felt we were one with him.’ And even as he spoke, a tear seeped from his eye.
I can never read anything about Robeson, or hear his voice on record, without remembering Reg’s words. And they came back to me with a huge vividness when I read Jordan Goodman’s compelling and finely written account, Paul Robeson: A Watched Man. And in an era where the notion of ‘celebrity’ is promoted as all-important, this story of Robeson’s decades-long struggle with the US State Department, the FBI, the House Un-American Committee and the scourge of McCarthyism, MI5 in Britain and the full onslaught of the secret state in the world’s richest and most powerful polity, has a particularly incisive contemporary relevance.
In the immediate pre- and post-war years, Robeson was one of the world’s most famous people, a singer and actor who used his fame to join and stand side by side with the struggling peoples of the world wherever they moved to throw aside their shackles and oppressors, from the American South to India, Spain, the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Wales, Korea or South Africa. Robeson’s universal song was as a sonic beacon to the world. Yet in Goodman’s book he is also the clearest sounding board of Cold War politics: ‘The ideological struggles of those years’, he writes, ‘were embodied in Robeson himself and in people’s attitudes to him. Through him we can gain a unique view of this moment in history.’
In his moving preface, Goodman remembers when, in 1956 as a 7-year-old boy in Toronto, his mother, who very rarely went out, left him with his sister to hear Robeson at the Massey Hall, with 2,800 other people. ‘My purpose in life’, he declared that night, ‘is to fight for my people so that they shall walk this earth as free as any man’.
A Watched Man is as much a biography of the relentless grip of the US state on one man as it is of Robeson the internationalist, and it is particularly sharp in its descriptions of Robeson’s years of state-denied travel and his forbidden passport, when he had to sing concerts through telephones or stand on an open truck in May 1952 under the Peace Arch in Blaine, Washington State, one foot from the Canadian border, and to thousands of Americans and Canadians sing ‘Joe Hill’, ‘No More Auction Block for Me’, ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’ and ‘Ol’ Man River’. You can buy the record and still hear his momentous notes.
Goodman’s gripping book is not only the narrative of a particular long-passed epoch. It also speaks for today and the enormously heightened powers of the state to track, control, nullify and crush its critics, whistleblowers and revealers with a sophisticated technology of fear and pursuit. And like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, Robeson never gave up, living the spirit of the new words of the final chorus of ‘Ol’ Man River’ with which he replaced the original maudlin lyrics: ‘I must keep strugglin’ until I’m dyin”, which moved my old neighbour Reg in the open air of Kingston, Jamaica, all those decades ago.