No Way but This: In search of Paul Robeson
Jeff Sparrow, Scribe, 2017, ISBN 978-1-925321-85-2, 292pp
I have remarked in a previous review that I shall die happy when I have read every book in the world. There are too many to read. Nonetheless I will continue to try to read them all. But in doing so, there is a problem and that is how to decide what one will read. I have also remarked in these columns that one of my criteria is whether I like the cover. But a far better way of selecting what to read is not to select it at all. In the current case, a friendly neighbour thought I would enjoy this book.
I remember attending the retirement party of my first boss. We had all chipped in for the obligatory retirement present. When he delivered his valedictory address he remarked that a present should be something that you would never buy himself. He gestured toward a pair of large china leopards, presumably designed to adorn a fireplace and which, to my eyes were truly hideous. But his words have always stayed with me. I would never have bought this book but I am delighted that my neighbour lent it to me. She was right; I did enjoy it.
I knew who Paul Robeson was because I recall my father liked him and I think most people have heard him sing “Ol’ Man River”. He has a deep bass baritone which, whether you like what he’s singing or not, is nothing short of remarkable. “Ol’ Man River” was about the only song of his that I knew but I found a huge collection on Spotify and listened to some of those referred to in the book. I had also thought that he was a singer; I had not realised that he was an accomplished athlete (he was a footballer (American of course)), a lawyer (though he practised only long enough to have a stenographer tell him that she didn’t “take dictation from no nigger”) and a civil rights activist.
Jeff Sparrow, the author of this book, is an Australian writer. It doesn’t take more than a few pages to realise that he is on the left wing of politics and it is this that underlines his sympathy with and for his subject. The book’s introduction describes a clip of Robeson singing, in 1960, at Bennelong Point during the construction of the Sydney Opera House. You can find the clip on youtube here. He is, as Sparrow points out “a celebrity black artiste performing on a rough building site to white men puffing on cigarettes and brushing away flies.” He sings “Ol’ Man River” and “Joe Hill” (who Robeson says was “framed on a murder charge but his spirit still lives in the hearts of all America workers”).
The title of the book led me to suppose that it was a book about Paul Robeson and in a way, that is what it is. But this is more a book in which Paul Robeson features. Sparrow travels to many of the places that Robeson travelled and creates a backdrop in which he then places Robeson. Occasionally Sparrow’s narrative becomes discursive. At one point, he meets a woman called Elena who, he tells us, now teaches callisthenics developed by the twentieth century mystic G I Gurdjieff. He tells us that he knew something of Gurdjieff from studying the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. This information is utterly superfluous to the tale he is telling, it does not even add local colour to his picture. Yet somehow it doesn’t get in the way of the narrative.
Sparrow’s backdrop is a social history. He tells of Robeson’s upbringing in a racially segregated America, of the trials and tribulation of his father and of how Robeson succeeded nonetheless. Robeson spent much time in the 1920s in the UK where there was little obvious racial segregation but there was segregation of a different kind; class segregation. He spent time in the then USSR, in particular in Moscow and for a while his son was enrolled in the prosaically named School No. 25. He travelled to Spain during the civil war in the 1930s where, of course, he was fêted by the Republicans. All this travelling around led to him being mauled by the United States’ most shameful of political processes; the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthyism was a reflection of the United States’ abject fear that communism might actually work. Robeson’s passport was revoked and he could not find work. Eventually, of course, McCarthy was discredited and died an alcoholic in 1957. Robeson lived on until 1976 dying at the age of 77 in Philadelphia. All this means that I enjoyed this book perhaps less because of an interest in its subject than because the backdrop that Sparrow paints has pointed out future reading. I do not know enough about the Spanish Civil War. I do not know enough about McCarthyism. And that, I think, is the point of reading. It is of course partly to satisfy the quest for knowledge and information but it is, for me, equally about realising how little I know about the world. For me the beauty of this book lays less in what it told me about Paul Robeson’s life (not a lot really) and more in what it told me about the world he lived in. I need to read more stuff like this and, at the risk of being patronising, so too do you