“This portrait of Robeson is a compelling read – it is both a detailed, engaging biography and a travelogue full of astute insights on race and politics today.”
The author, Jeff Sparrow, first developed a keen interest in Paul Robeson (1898-1976) whilst working in a trade union secondhand bookstore in the late 1990’s. Books on Robeson and Robeson’s memoir (Here I Stand), kept appearing amongst the libraries donated to the store from the deceased estates of stalwart Lefties, and his curiosity was sparked. Why would this man, whom he knew as the fine singer of ‘Ole Man River’ in Showboat, be of such interest to a previous generation of left wing thinkers?
He discovered that Robeson was a leading civil rights activist, a committed communist, and he had used his magnificent voice and powerful oratory to inspire oppressed blacks, ethnic minorities and poor workers throughout the world. He was also a champion professional footballer (the greatest of his generation), a prize-winning graduate from Rutgers, then a graduate in law from Columbia Law School, and a world renowned stage and film actor. Sadly, he also suffered from a manic depressive illness which first appeared in his thirties and at other times of great stress in his life, and also resulted in several suicide attempts. His passion for social justice took him from Harlem to mining towns in Wales, to Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil war and to Stalin’s Russia. The more Sparrow discovered, the more he wanted to know about this extraordinary man – what motivated him and why he stayed firmly committed to communist ideology even after the facts of the Great Terror under Stalin were known.
So he retraced Robeson’s steps, visiting his birthplace in Princeton and then everywhere he subsequently lived, interviewing people who had had some connection with him, and also discussing current race relations and life under the current political system. The fact that Paul Robeson was admired and loved by so many made his task easier, as people were only too happy to share their experiences and memories of the great man.
He describes this fascinating journey chronologically, and has amassed an enormous amount of information which is beautifully presented with clarity and a fondness and respect for his subject that is very appealing. It is a very personal account with his own reflections on Robeson’s actions and ideology very much a part of the narrative. What he learnt about current race relations in the United States, and the legacies of fascism and communism in Spain, Europe and Russia makes for very interesting reading. In particular his views about Putin and his ideology of power are very pertinent today.
So the book is both a thoughtful travel diary from a keen and curious observer and a compelling biography. I liked his style of writing – he makes it surprisingly easy to digest a mass of details and his humanity and sensitivity is ever present. I learnt a great deal from this insightful book.
Jeff Sparrow (b.1969) is an honorary fellow at Victoria University and immediate past editor of the journal Overland. In his student days he was actively involved in the International Socialist Organisation and he was the co-author of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within (both with sister, Jill Sparrow). He also wrote Communism: A Love Story, Killing: Misadventures in Violence and Money Shot: a journey into porn and censorship. He contributes regularly to many publications, including The Guardian, and is a member of the 3RRR Breakfasters radio team.