Picks and Pans Review: Paul Robeson

updated 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Martin Bauml Duberman

Paul Robeson was more than merely one of the first black American entertainers to cross over into the white culture. Robeson used his gifts for song and oratory, raising his voice worldwide and calling attention both directly and indirectly to racial conditions in the U.S.

This biography is informative and often powerful in outlining the political tragedy-travesty of the American government's treatment of one of its most talented citizens. Robeson was systematically hounded by the State Department and the FBI—Duberman had to sue the FBI in 1985 to gain access to its files on Robeson even though the actor-singer had died nine years before. In researching Robeson's reactions to the furor that constantly surrounded him, however, the biographer was handicapped by Robeson's antipathy to keeping personal records. For personal insights, the book relies heavily on interviews and diary entries made by Robeson's wife of 44 years, Essie, which do allow Duberman to write that Robeson's "polite exterior was no accurate gauge of the intensity of his inner feelings—now and then the geniality gave way and the rage poured out."

Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., in 1898. His mother died when he was 5; his father was a minister who, despite the strict Jim Crow segregation practiced in Princeton, taught his son that blacks were the equals of whites. Robeson became an all-American football player at Rutgers and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1919. His career as an actor began in a Harlem YMCA theater group and led to Broadway, the 1936 film version of Show Boat (Robeson's "Ol' Man River" remains a landmark in movie musicals) and Othello in London and on Broadway. But while in the late 1920s he was already able to command a one-night fee of more than $1,000, he still could not buy orchestra seats in any white New York theater. By the 1930s, Robeson's travels, highlighted by a two-week stay in the Soviet Union in 1934, made him an international figure and more inclined to pro-Soviet sentiments and vocal antipathy to American racism. That stand, and Robeson's association with various leftist groups and individual members of the Communist Party, led the FBI to begin monitoring his movements—and it kept on monitoring them for more than 30 years. In 1950 the State Department joined in, refusing to issue Robeson a passport unless he signed a statement saying that he was not a Communist Party member. Robeson refused, and for eight years he rarely performed in public. (Robeson finally signed a document denying Communist allegiance in the early '60s, but it didn't affect his career; by that time he was suffering from various illnesses and had little strength to travel.)

Throughout his 550 pages, Duberman is careful to place in political context the shifts in Robeson's popularity as an artist. Duberman's attentiveness to the bias betrayed in the press is trenchant too. (He says the Associated Press once flagrantly misreported a Robeson speech, making him sound vehemently anti-American.) A reader can finish this book uncertain about what motivated Robeson, but there seems little doubt that he was treated shamefully by his government and his fellow Americans. (Knopf, $24.95)

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