A GIANT OF A MAN needs a great book to tell the story – and this is it. Many have an impression of Paul Robeson: prodigious singer, political activist, a man who sailed too close to Stalinist Russia, lauded by Welsh miners and freethinkers. But apart from being brilliantly entertaining, why should anyone read this book?
Robeson’s father was born a slave. This political travelogue, wrapped effortlessly around the story of Robeson’s life and times, begins as it should with the Robeson family and the descendants of their slave masters. The conversations of these genteel white folks, apologists for a system that legalised every form of public and private terror against people of African descent, have echoes of conversations I have been party to as attempts to whitewash the history of black exclusion and oppression continue to this day, including on the left. And this is the significance of this book. For while, thank goodness, much has changed, Jeff Sparrow’s masterful narrative, points towards how much remains the same.
No Way But This pulls no punches. According to the author, American cities remain as, or more, segregated than in Robeson’s life. Lynchings may have ceased but ‘police terrorism’ ensures blacks understand their place.
Yes, slavery is abolished but imprisoning blacks is increasingly profitable, aided by President Clinton who slashed money for public housing (disproportionately benefiting blacks as among the poorest) while increasing funding to the privatised prison service by $19bn. Prison you see, like slavery, has become a central part of the African American story. If you think Britain is immune, check out the most recent findings of David Lammy’s report on the criminal justice system - https://www.gov.uk/ government/organisations/lammy-review - or Labour’s Shami Chakrabarti inquiry - http://www.labour. org.uk/page/-/partydocuments/ ChakrabartiInquiry.pdf - and consider the ways people of African descent remain excluded and oppressed at all levels of British society, including in the labour movement.
Foreshadowing Paul’s later life, we follow Robeson’s father, a talented man, brought low because he refused to be complicit with his own oppression. Perhaps Robeson’s father’s greatest gift to his son Paul – a sense of pride – was both a burden and a strength, enabling Robeson to stand tall against physical beatings, for example at the Ivy League Rutgers College where he was the first African American to gain entry, as well as the emotional pummelings he was subject to as a victim of McCarthyite witch-hunts. Robeson never bent the knee, and he, like blacks then and now who put their head over the parapet, would pay the price.
Robeson’s experience in England is revealing. Apparently accepted as an English gentleman, Robeson is initially exhilarated, lauded in his role as Othello and intoxicated by his affair with a white, upper class woman. But when reality hits, the ensuing emotional fallout gives a hint of the pressures which will, in the end, close in. What saves Robeson (this time) is his relationship with the British working class, as exemplified by a mill worker’s observation, “While your father was a slave, mine was a wage slave in the Manchester mills”. For Robeson, solidarity was all. Coming to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Robeson’s relief at not being treated as a ‘nigger’ goes some way to explaining his infatuation with Stalin’s Russia. Racism in Russia was aimed at Jews, not blacks. In addition, Paul arrived in the ‘good years’. While the Great Depression was raging elsewhere, the economy of USSR appeared to be avoiding the slump. For a black man, Russia appeared to offer proof of a world that might be possible.
Robeson was an internationalist. He understood that the Spanish Civil War was a precursor of worse to come, not a diversion from the struggle for real emancipation. The obvious link between the white nationalism of fascism and the ‘Jim Crow’ race laws made Robeson sure that negroes should be involved in international struggle. Sparrow’s rendition of the Spanish Civil War is both salutary
is on the Editorial Board of Labour Briefing and was until recently Vice chair of Momentum