No Way But This review: a rambling search for Paul Robeson
Jeff Sparrow traces Robeson’s journey from the deep south to music and acting stardom to anti-racist activism, but can’t quite seem to keep the narrative on track
Paul Robeson in a protest march outside the White House calling for the image of Jim Crow to be removed from the American dollar bill. Photograph: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson
Australian author, journalist and broadcaster Jeff Sparrow doesn’t have to work too hard to sell Paul Robeson as one of the original black power martyrs. The son of a former slave, Robeson – a supremely gifted vocal stylist and actor (his Othello was a landmark performance) with movie-star looks and physique – hauled himself out of the Jim Crow south to further distinguish himself as an athlete, intellectual, political activist and underdog advocate. These days his legacy is often neglected, but, in his time, he was almost always the best thing about the various film and theatrical productions in which he appeared (few would remember Show Boat if not for Robeson’s Ol’ Man River cameo).
His was an epic journey from North Carolina to Princeton to Harlem when it sizzled (and where he found his voice as an interpreter of African-American spirituals), to the snooty salons of London’s West End, the devastated mining pits of Wales, the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War and the postwar Soviet Bloc. Robeson was a cultural force to be reckoned with, chafing against discrimination and racial typecasting, aligning himself with black revolutionaries and busted-union miners alike.
And the political establishment certainly reckoned with him. The FBI effectively killed his career for refusing to denounce the Communist Party, and Robeson was blacklisted even as Time magazine declared him “probably the most famous living Negro”. He could not record, radio would not play his songs, venues would no longer book him, cinemas would not screen his movies. Worse, he was denied a passport, effectively kept marooned and unemployed in the country of his birth. The immense strain of it all culminated in a mental breakdown, several suicide attempts, extensive drug treatments and a staggering 50-plus courses of electro-convulsive therapy.
Despite the number of previously published Robeson biographies, one might expect such a life to demand a substantial and in-depth reassessment. But Sparrow’s book is a hybrid, non-definitive beast, dispatching vast tracts of its subject’s career in relatively bite-sized chapters (discounting the index, the finished work runs to 270-odd pages).
Stranger still, No Way But This is as much first-person travelogue as biography. There’s no questioning Sparrow’s commitment to the project; he’s travelled extensively in order to map his subject’s journey, interviewing numerous descendants of Robeson and people with whom he worked. But often the text is padded with suppositions and hypotheticals (“What had it been like to simultaneously confront a radical culture and a radically different social system? How, as an outsider, did you distinguish between the two?”) and the kind of travel writing that wouldn’t be out of place in a tourist guide.
In fact, there are many more passages addressing Sparrow’s own experience of modern-day Moscow than pivotal events such as Robeson’s visit with president Harry S Truman to protest race killings – a meeting so fraught with tensions the secret servicemen on duty braced themselves for violence – or, later, Robeson’s own career crucifixion at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked if he thought so highly of Russia, why didn’t he simply live there, Robeson replied: “Because my father was a slave, 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.”
So, No Way But This is less a biography than a work of selective archeology, a combing through the debris. And while there is justification enough to draw numerous parallels between Robeson’s era and the present-day Black Lives Matter movement – protests against police brutality, racially motivated killings, and the slavery of young black males incarcerated in a billion-dollar prison system for petty crimes and fit-up jobs – too often retro-perspective dominates the narrative.
Welsh miner caste
This is not a book without merit. There are fascinating accounts of the kinship between the black American underclass and the Welsh miner caste, not just through a shared experience of oppression, but through music. Welsh choristers’ harmonies resonated with Robeson’s own father’s church background. “It’s from the miners in Wales,” he said, “I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.”
But overall, we get relatively little insight into the psychology of the subject, which is surely the point of the exercise. Often Sparrow seems unsure of whether he is writing a biography, a hagiography (the often uncritical, fan-like nature of the prose) or a book about Russian history. Ultimately, No Way But This is a worthy but somewhat confused work.
Peter Murphy is the author of John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber & Faber).