Robeson’s Choice


“That Mr. Robeson should be stripped to the waist is my first demand of any play in which he appears,” wrote the drama critic for the London Graphic in what Duberman calls “a fine display of homoeroticism,” and women felt the same way about him. Robeson had “many, many, many women,” the actress Uta Hagen (who was one of them) recalled, including Peggy Ashcroft, his first Desdemona, but not, according to his biographer, the two Englishwomen most prominently rumored to have been his lovers—Nancy Cunard and Edwina Mountbatten. In 1932 another Englishwoman, whom he had courted for three years and planned to divorce Essie in order to marry, abruptly turned him down, apparently because her father would not hear of her marrying a black man.

Shortly thereafter Robeson began to manifest a new interest in his own African heritage and in the Soviet Union, which he persuaded himself was entirely free of the racism evident everywhere else on earth. “Here,” he said in Moscow in 1934, “for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity.” After that he rarely strayed from the Soviet path, and his devotion to the struggle for equality in America was always tangled up with the fate of international socialism everywhere else. “Despising American racism and viewing the Soviets as the only promising counterbalancing force to racism,” Duberman writes, “Robeson was inclined to look away when the USSR acted against its own stated principles, to look away fixedly as the perversions multiplied over the years, discounting them as temporary aberrations or stupidities ultimately justified by the long view. . . .”

Robeson said nothing about Stalin’s purges, even when old friends disappeared and his Jewish accompanist was refused entry to the USSR. He applauded the Nazi-Soviet pact, dismissed the Hungarian revolution as a fascist uprising, even argued that while the Smith Act was unconstitutional when applied against communists, it was just what Trotskyists deserved. “Paul is inclined to be a bit arrogant sometimes when people don’t agree with him,” his wife once admitted in private, “especially politically. Not in any other field, as I think of it now. Only politically.”

A mob stormed him in 1949 after he was quoted as saying American blacks would never fight against Russia.

Nothing Robeson ever did or said abroad can excuse the appalling treatment he received at home during the early Cold War years. After he had been quoted as saying American blacks would never fight against Russia, a mob stormed him at a Peekskill, New York, concert in 1949. Theaters closed their doors. Networks blacklisted him.

For eight years the State Department denied him the right to travel because he refused on principle to say whether he had ever been a member of the Communist party (according to Duberman, he never was). The FBI dogged his footsteps, tapped his telephone. In a move that Stalinist historians might have envied, the editors of College Football, a record book published in 1950, listed only ten members of the All-American team for 1918 rather than have Robeson’s name subvert their pages. He refused to bend. Why didn’t he stay in Russia, where he belonged, Congressman Gordon Scherer demanded at a Washington hearing. “Because my father was a slave,” Robeson thundered back, “and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”

It was, and he paid a fearful price for that clarity. In 1955, as the FBI turned its unwanted attentions upon Dr. King, Robeson began to show signs of manic depression. When on the upswing, he could not be dissuaded from talking about his “discovery” that the universality of the pentatonic scale (the five-note harmonics of the piano’s black keys) was proof of the essential oneness of all peoples. When on the way down, he slashed his wrists, tried to drown himself, wandered away from home. Neither drugs nor intensive electroconvulsive therapy could permanently restore his equilibrium. Nor could the 1958 publication of Here I Stand, a slim manifesto affirming that his first loyalty was to his own community and to winning back the black masses whose hero he once had been. The new generation of students sitting-in and freedom riding and registering voters all across the South had barely heard of him.

A psychiatrist who saw him a few times during his last years remembered above all Robeson’s profound sadness. He was “an ‘innocent,’ in the best sense,” Duberman reports him as concluding; “his motivational spring was ‘compassion, not ego,’ and therefore he felt devastated when others, less ‘purely’ motivated, cast him aside; he was a man ‘fundamentally puzzled’ at how his humane instincts and vision had run aground.”

Essie died of cancer in 1965. Robeson lived on for another decade, a haunted, isolated invalid, looked after by his sister and by the son he had once been too preoccupied to spend time with. He died in 1976 at the age of seventy-seven.