Conversation: Paul Robeson
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RAY SUAREZ: The book is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939,” the first of a two-volume biography about the singer, actor, and activist by his son, Paul Robeson, Jr. The book traces the early career of an early black American superstar, all-American football player, and international singing star renowned on stage and screen. Paul Robeson, Jr., Welcome.
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
RAY SUAREZ: For many in the audience for whom maybe the name is familiar but they can’t necessarily place the man, tell us who Paul Robeson was.
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: One of the early pioneers in the concert field, theater and film, as a black actor and singer — also a star black athlete, scholar athlete — I would say one of the most extraordinary and dominant cultural figures, both in the U.S. and worldwide, this century. Of course his career spanned from 1917-1918, when he was an all-American football player until about 1950, when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, so that for 50 years he sort of has been in obscurity. And that’s why so few people, relatively, know about his achievements.
RAY SUAREZ: But wasn’t it also that unwillingness to stop talking about politics, to hide his own convictions? Didn’t that handicap him in a way that leaves us sort of with a truncated Robeson? Instead of ending the last century looking at him as one of the greats, we have to search our memory for who he was?
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: That is ironic. It’s also ironic because he’s better known in half a dozen other countries than he is here, including the United Kingdom, Russia, China, India, and lots more. What was fascinating at a major exhibition about his life in New York City, a Queens… A group of Queens school kids, high school kids, was touring the exhibition, and it was two Russian kids and a Chinese kid who were explaining to the African Americans who Paul Robeson was. So there is an extraordinary juxtaposition, which brings me back to the McCarthy era. I think there is little understanding today of the degree and intensity of cultural and political suppression in that decade from about the beginning of the Cold War until 1955-56.
RAY SUAREZ: But also during the earlier years of your father’s public life, I think a reader of the book is struck again and again by how much race shortened the horizon of talented people; no matter how much they would rail against it, fight to break the bonds, it was tough. If you think about somebody being an all-American, a phi beta kappa, a recording star, a movie star, a stage star, and yet still being hemmed in by race, that kind of America is forgotten to us in a lot of ways today.
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: In a way — certainly in that way. What’s interesting in my father’s case is that for 12 years, as I described in the book, from 1927-1939, he was based in London and traveled all over Europe, learned a dozen languages, absorbed cultures from all over the world. It broadened his perspective enormously and enabled him to grow on all levels as an artist in a way he couldn’t have if he had been solely restricted to the United States. And when he came back to the U.S. in 1939 permanently, he came back with this wonderful arsenal of equipment, and also a spiritual centeredness in the sense that he was no longer carrying the black man’s burden; that is, he knew that there were white people of goodwill everywhere, and that all white people were not the same, and that many “white cultures” had elements of Africa and Asia in them, so that with this immensely broadened horizon he was able to cope with racism, still segregation then in this country, on a level that most other African Americans couldn’t possibly do because they hadn’t had the experience. I, in part… part of my education as a child was abroad. I had the same experience. That is, I was… the burden of having to look at all whites with suspicion was just removed. It doesn’t mean that you lose your wariness when it’s appropriate, but you don’t carry this terrific burden if you have to distrust every white face. And most African Americans certainly in those times never had that opportunity. Those who did again were able to expand as both personally and artistically because they were relieved of that immense pressure.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a burden for a biographer in being Paul Robeson, Jr.; having to be true to the biographer’s task and show a man, warts and all, and also have him be your pop?
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: Yes. You touch on a… on an important point. That’s why I waited so long to do the book. I felt I had to achieve a certain distance, not just in time, but in… not an emotional connection, but in degree of objectivity, so that I could make this book– and I hope I succeeded– more his book than mine; to show him as himself, for himself, in real time, in his own context, rather than to make it my vision of my father; and that’s difficult to do. That’s why I took so long before I attempted it. I thought long and hard about the very subject you raise, and that was the most difficult part to do well.
RAY SUAREZ: Isn’t familiarity also a burden, though; stories that you think you know, and you’re mining the archive? Were there any surprises about your own father?
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: Not really. There were some fascinating details that I uncovered, but in terms of who he really was, his character, not only my own recollections but over the years I’ve probably talked to at least a hundred people who were quite close to him at various times in various ways. And it’s the composite of all that that revealed virtually everything of significance about him to me. It’s the specific and contextual things that I was able to put together in this book, adding my own recollections to it, that hopefully gives the reader more insight than normally could be given. By the way, he was a great guy to be around. In other words, he was a friendly person, the life of the party. One enjoyed his company, things like that. He wasn’t always a serious, you know… well, he was always public-image serious and dignified because of the stereotypes he was combating. But he was a fun guy. He could be very, very funny and playful, and that comes through in various places of the book.
RAY SUAREZ: Now that America has changed and your father’s been dead about a quarter of a century, is America ready to reembrace Paul Robeson for who he was?
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: I think they always were. I really believe that if they can see and hear him, and now there’s video and audio, which is the most effective of all, and now if they can read his story in context; that once he’s able, in a sense, to present himself, he doesn’t need any help, in that he’s very compelling and that people will embrace his legacy and him, you know, after his death as they did during his lifetime. I think whenever he was able to make contact with people directly, even at the times when many people were taught to be totally hostile towards him, to hate him, any time he actually came in contact with them, interestingly enough, he generally won them over because he was such a compelling personality and he was pure in the sense that he conveyed what he really felt. So agree, disagree; that’s him. That’s the genuine article.
RAY SUAREZ: Paul Robeson, Jr., Thanks for being with us.
PAUL ROBESON, JR.: Thank you.