Martin Duberman

Paul Robeson … All American

VTR Date: April 1, 1989

Guest: Duberman, Martin


Host: Richard Heffner
Guest: Martin Bauml Duberman
Title: “Paulo Robeson … All American”
VTR: 4/1/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Forty-one years ago, when I first went to teach American history and political science at Rutgers, it wasn’t yet the great state university it has become. But it was – quite importantly for me – Paul Robeson’s college, where the extraordinary Black actor and singer had first made his mark before going on to Columbia Law School and then a world stage … had made it academically, elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and athletically, twice on all-American football teams.

Perhaps what I remember most at the time, however, was Robeson’s great “Ballad for Americans”, having heard it played again and again at school assemblies in the late 1930’s as quintessentially an expression of hope and faith and belief in American the beautiful … “Of thee we sing”.

“Our country’s strong, or country’s young – and her greatest songs are still unsung”. Wonderful, inspiring words, magnificently presented, heard with a patriotic fervor hard even just to recall today. Yet a decade later many Americans felt that Robeson had in essence repudiated them … and in turn they repudiated him.

Now this strange odyssey is our subject today … as it is of a massive new Alfred A. Knopf biography: “Paul Robeson”, by my guest today Martin B. Duberman, and I wonder about the controversy that has accompanied any reference to Paul Robeson for some years now. Has it accompanied the publication of your book?

Duberman: It has, somewhat to my surprise. I thought maybe, at least, some old scores had been forgiven and forgotten, but no. There’s been a real division, again to my surprise, between some of the White reviewers and almost all of the Black reviewers. By which, put most simply, some of the white reviewers, especially those who write for the organs of the empire, Time magazine, Newsweek, etc., they continue to red-bait Robeson.

Heffner: What do you mean “red-bait”?

Duberman: Well, they’re fixated on the notion, most incorrect, that Robeson was a Stalinist. That regardless of the twists and turns of Soviet policy, Robeson always dutifully followed those twists. And I make it very clear in my book that he did not, and I suppose it’s naïve of me t think that most reviewers will, in fact, read the book they’re reviewing. I suspect some of them have read it, but people see what they want to see, and they look right by that part of the book.

Heffner: But suppose we set aside the question of Stalinist or not, suppose we deal with question of his sympathies for the Soviet Union, and his increasing lack of sympathy for what had happened in this country. Would that be a matter of red-baiting then in your estimation, to make that distinction? Forget about Stalinist or not Stalinist.

Duberman: Yes.

Heffner: But just see him as someone who at a certain point in his life became absorbed in the Soviet Union and disenchanted with this country. Is that unfair?

Duberman: No, and to say that is , of course, not to red-bait. I say that in my own book. I think so long as it’s accompanied by some effort to understand why he was attracted to the Soviet Union, and I think the essence of that …

Heffner: Tell me.

Duberman: Okay. Is that in the 1930’s when he made his first trips to the USSR, what he saw there, and nobody in the early 30’s was seeing anything more than this, we didn’t know about the purges, and we didn’t know about their full extent until Krushchev told us in the mid-50’s. What Robeson saw in the early-mid-30’s was the Soviets handling their so-called national minorities problems in a way that very much appealed to him. They handled it essentially with a two-pronged attack. First of all, they were encouraging ethnic and racial and regional minorities to maintain their traditions in all of their integrity, and simultaneously they were offering full citizenship to every citizen of the Soviet Union. The contrast … and the appeal of that by the way was not simply to Robeson, it was an appeal common to Western intellectuals in those years. What Robeson was seeing in his own country in the 1930’s was Blacks being widely lynched for minimal or often for no provocation. And also, what he was hearing in his own country was the official rhetoric of “we are the great melting pot. We bring people of diverse backgrounds to our shores and we melt them down into this new thing called the American”. What Robeson knew was that what we are supposed to melt down into in fact is the old-fashioned WASP and the WASP’s values. And Robeson didn’t want to be melted down. He had come deeply to admire African culture with its emphasis on the collectivity and on the spirit, and he wanted to maintain his African-American heritage, but he also wanted all the privileges of first class citizenship. So it seemed to him that the operative formula in the Soviet Union was far more appealing than what he was seeing in his native land.

Heffner: then how do you explain what I remember most of all about Paul Robeson which was “Ballad for Americans”?

Duberman: Well, what I remember about that is overwhelming irony. Robeson was chosen in 1939 to sing this super-patriotic ballad at a time when he still couldn’t get a meal in a restaurant or an accommodation in a hotel. Earl Robinson, who accompanied, who wrote “Ballad for Americans” and accompanied Robeson at some of its performances, told me that when they went to the Hollywood Bowl, Robeson drew the largest crowd the Bowl had ever seen. This is something like 1940, and the Hollywood Bowl Association had a little breakfast in order to celebrate the event. And when Earl Robinson went to the breakfast, Paul Robeson was nowhere to be seen, and he was puzzled by this. And afterward he said to Robeson, “I was surprised not to see you at the breakfast. I suppose you were too busy”. And Paul very laconically said, “No, not too busy, not invited”.

Heffner: But, look, you say “irony”. Does that mean that the words had no meaning other than ironic to Paul Robeson?

Duberman: I think they had some meaning. I think in those years, from roughly 1939 to 1945 when Franklin Roosevelt died, I think Robeson felt more closely allied with the powers that be. He had some real faith that Roosevelt and the new Deal were going to make good on what, up to then had been paper promises of equality. And, indeed, there had been some real advances under the New Deal in extending to Black Americans some of the advantages of the system.

Heffner: But, but … go beyond that because I was interested, I particularly looked for what you would write about “Ballad for Americans”. Was there no … was there no discussion about the words and the meaning on Robeson’s part? Was there nothing that we can identify that would indicate whether this was simply the supreme irony? And I say that, you know I’m pressing you because as a kid those words, that ballad, meant s very much to me.

Duberman: It meant a lot to me, too. I mean I was nine years old at the time. I think many Americans were stirred by it, the lyrics of it. I can’t quote them to you, but I recall that the lyrics were so various that people could come in in a way on their own terms. One group might be stirred by one set of lyrics, and another by a more jingoistic set.

Heffner: Yet Robeson seemed to be saying there was a tradition or there is a tradition, “don’t let them take that from us, it is the tradition of the great men in our past, and the great ideas of the past, don’t let the bad men take that from us, that is not really America”. What is really America, and then those wonderful names and the names of the Presidents and the names of the great people in this country,. Seeming to say that at bedrock this country was right, this country wasn’t simply right or wrong, my country, this country. He identified with the kinds of ideals you say he later found in … more prominently in the Soviet Union.

Duberman: I think up t Roosevelt’s death it’s possible to describe Robeson as a patriot, somebody who did, indeed, deeply believe in the American experiment, in American principles even if not in American practice. What happens when Truman becomes President is … well, several things happen. There’s the onset of the Cold War in rather short order. But also in 1946 Robeson lead a delegation to the Oval Office in which he asked Truman to support federal anti-lynching legislation, that doesn’t seem a very extremist request. Truman got angry at him. Truman said “You don’t seem to understand that the moment is not opportune. You don’t seem to understand that I have to consider the Southern wing of my own party, and you don’t seem to understand that the United States and Great Britain together represent mankind’s best hope”. Robeson took exception to that. He said “How can you call Great Britain part of our best hope when, in fact, Great Britain, even at the moment is attempting to deny freedom to the millions in India”? At that point Truman got furious, told Robeson the interview was over, and thereafter it was a slow decline, culminated in 1950 when the State Department removes Robeson’s passport. So, what I see in Robeson’s life is a man who did maintain considerable faith in the American experiment so long as it was reasonable to maintain that faith. I mean it wasn’t Robeson who deserted idealism, it was the country … the country changed around him.

Heffner: Do you think it is unreasonable today to have the faith, the hope that Robeson, in his early years had?

Duberman: I think it’s difficult to maintain that faith today. I think we’re looking increasingly at two Americas. Only a few weeks ago on the front of “The New York Times”, rarely quick t reveal such information, came the news that the privileged few are getting ever-richer, and our poorest citizens are getting ever-poorer. If we look simply at the world of African-Americans we can see the same kind of phenomenon. Yes, there has been progress since the Civil Rights Movement, but that progress seems to have been largely confined to what … the upper twenty percent of the African-American population? We do have more Blacks holding office, we do have more Blacks going to college, we do have more Blacks being let in at the lower echelons of management and universities. But, the lot of the average Black American seems to have gotten considerably worse, and by almost any index of measurement.

Heffner: Do you think it would be unfair then to suggest that what informs this controversy which we started talk about … about the book and abut Paul Robeson is not a matter s much of red-baiting, as a difference in approach t whether social justice is being achieved in this country?

Duberman: yes, in a real sense. I don’t think many Americans are still willing to heasr Robeson’s full message. I don’t think they’re willing to hear his full, deep commitment to Black liberation on the one hand, and to socialism on the other. We continue, most of us, that is, to believe that the race problem either has significantly resolved itself, or very shortly will, and I think that’s unrealistic. I think if Robeson came back today his message still would not b e well received. Because the essence of the message still is that there is still altogether too much suffering in our country, and in the world, and the suffering is not necessary. The suffering is the result of institutionalized racism and it’s the result of a capitalist ethic which breeds the notion of “each at war with all”. People still don’t want to hear that. They rather believe that essentially all’s right with our world, and to the extent it isn’t right, it will right itself in time.

Heffner: Well, we’re … I won’t say we’re all amelioratists, but that certainly is the tradition, the reform tradition in this country, the assumption that strange, catastrophic, cataclysmic changes does not need to take place. Do you reject that idea, too? Do you reject the notion that I in ameliorism or the faith in slow, successive steps toward the kind of community that Roberson wanted to achieve?

Duberman: I don’t personally believe in a violent strategy, for example, and short of a violent strategy … I think a violent strategy is self-defeating, there’s no way that it could succeed. But, short of that kind of upheaval through force of arms, I don’t see the kinds of changes taking place through so-called gradualism or ameliorism that the ills of the country in fact require.

Heffner: Then where does that leave us?

Duberman: I think it leaves us feeling rather depressed; I mean those of us who care about the country and want to see the needed issues dealt with, and the needed changes made. I don’t think at the moment there’s large ground for hope that some of our basic ills are, in fact, going to be dealt with.

Heffner: The tradition of Robeson, where is it today? Who carries the torch?

Duberman: To some extent, only to some extent I hear some of Robeson’s words in the occasional speech of Jesse Jackson. Jackson is still trying to win votes and possibly gain office, and s he necessarily has to tailor his message to the mainstream, which means we only occasionally hear him saying things like “Too few people in this country control too much of its resources. We have to some extent and through some device re-distribute the income and the privilege”. We do hear him saying that and we don’t hear almost anybody else saying it, so I would say that to that extent Jesse Jackson is a natural heir of Paul Robeson’s.

Heffner: You must find enormous frustration in your subject being so far out of the mainstream of American life, and you sort of define him that way, as out of the mainstream, away from the ameliorist tradition, away from the reform tradition. Is that an unfair observation?

Duberman: I don’t think I feel any more frustration in regard t writing Robeson’s life then I feel in being part of any group which is different and therefore marginalized. America has never treated its radicals well regardless of what the issue at debate happens to be.

Heffner: Less well now, do you think?

Duberman: I think less well at the moment. I think certainly in the 60’s and the 30’s, just to give two examples that obviously pop into my mind, our radicals were more honored. Not only that but it was seen that the margin did have something to tell us, even if we didn’t want to adopt the policy of the radical wholesale, we nonetheless could profit to some extent from the insight and even from the actual strategy suggested for change. These days, no I don’t see that at all. I mean for heaven’s sakes, when George Bush is using liberal as if its’ a dirty word, nobody is going to stand up and say a good word for a radical.

Heffner: And the conflict between the liberal and the radical traditions which certainly surfaced in Robeson’s life. Was Robeson more accepting of the liberal tradition?

Duberman: Robeson always felt that the Black Movement to focus on that, did need White allies. He was never a segregationist; he was never a Black Nationalist with a capital “N”. But Robeson unlike, say, the NAACP or before Booker T. Washington, Robeson did not seek his White allies within the camp of the powers-that-be. He did not look to White philanthropists or power-brokers or politicians or bankers. He looked instead for White allies among the class of radical socialists, for people, in other words, who, like himself felt that the system needed considerable renovation, that it wasn’t going to be enough to tinker around the edges if we were going to deal with some of our central national problems.

Heffner: A decade ago, the play that was written about Paul Robeson was, in a sense, driven off of Broadway or off of Off-Broadway by those who felt that it had not been fair in dealing with Robeson. About a year ago it came back…

Duberman: Yes.

Heffner: There was almost no protest. How do you account for that?

Duberman: It’s a good question. I’m not sure I can, but I know when I saw the play ten years ago, and this was before I began work on the book, I stood up and booed. I felt that it grotesquely trivialized Robeson as a political person. Indeed, it portrayed him as something of an apologistic for his own political history. When it came back about a year ago, I was asked t review it, and I said “there’s no point, because it’s undoubtedly the same play, and indeed, it turned out to be”. And yet, as you say, it was received quite differently. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why there wasn’t more protest, especially among those Black artists who had earlier lead the struggle against the play. My own view is that the play should never have been censored. No attempt should ever have been made to close it, not only on free speech grounds which are serious grounds enough, but also because it did help, at least, bring Paul Robeson’s name back in to public awareness, and ten years ago when the play was written, very little was being said about the man. He was essentially a forgotten person.

Heffner: It’s fair for you to say “I don’t know”. I asked you the question, you say “I haven’t puzzled that out”, but if we were to reason together, where would we go? Would we say that those who protested, those names, and they were major, major names who a decade ago said “No” …

Duberman: Indeed.

Heffner: …was it simply a matter of organization then, that they had been organized, and you can always get people, or frequently get people to sign their names to a petition to take a stand and maybe today there wasn’t, or a year ago there wasn’t that kind of organized protest? Or could there e something else? We’ve just fallen y the wayside, the ideas that informed that protest a decade ago have just fallen by the wayside.

Duberman: I think something like that maybe operative. This is off the top of my head. I may change my mind in an hour, but I think perhaps the lack of protest this time around reflects a general sense of hopelessness, that “All right, here’s yet another caricature version of a great radical American, but what’s the point of protesting, I mean there is so little hope available that the powers-that-be can be moved, that the society can be changed, that our needs can be met. The hell with it, let’s let it go through. Protest isn’t going t matter anyway”. I mean in general in our society we don’t see protest, whether it’s about a play that caricatures Robeson or whether it’s about any of our national ills.

Heffner: You’re a playwright. Can there be anything other than caricature in dealing with a figure as major, as political, as intense as Robeson if you’re talking abut the theater or film or television?

Duberman: I think if you’re talking about film, it’s very difficult to go very deep. Whether it’s Robeson or any other historical figure of complexity. The theatre, I think can do more, if for no other reason than that it relies more on words. I mean it’s not relying on visual surface, it can attempt to discuss substantively some of the issues or traits of a life. Finally, I remain, you know, a fan of the printed word. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, you know, as I read your biography of Robeson, I couldn’t help but think about that as the reason. You hadn’t chosen to write a play, you hadn’t chosen to write a television or movie script, God help us.

Duberman: (Laughter)

Heffner: You used the printed word, and not a caricature. I had the sense that the real person was here. And I just wondered … that’s why I asked you the question, almost in passing, wondering whether as a playwright you would think that other forms of creative endeavor cannot accomplish what you can accomplish with the printed word.

Duberman: I agree with that. I mean to discuss … Robeson was an immensely complicated human being who travelled in many worlds, and to discuss in depth any of his worlds, for example, his relationship with the Communist Party of the United States. It takes an awful lot of analyzing, takes an awful lot of detailing, and you can only do that in a book, or to some extent, in a longish article, but you can’t do very much with that on the stage, and you can do almost nothing of that in a film.

Heffner: Is his voice still heard today? I don’t mean his philosophy .l.. Is his vice, the performance that he offered?

Duberman: Very little. My understanding of it … I just heard that there’s been a CD issued from London. I haven’t myself seen it yet, but until that point, as far as I know there were two cassettes available. Vanguard cassettes, they have been kept in circulation through the devotion of Rose Rubin because she was a personal friend of Robeson’s. She tells me that it’s hardly a successful, commercial venture to keep those cassettes alive. So I think it’s difficult to hear his voice. You can still occasionally see some of his films. I … especially on Channel 13 where they’re repeated now and then. I find almost all the films myself a considerable embarrassment.

Heffner: Why?

Duberman: For the same reason that Robeson finally decided to quit making films, because he was never offered anything more than a stereotype to play. Because of the strength and the dignity of his own personality, usually he broke through the stereotypes, but nonetheless they were stereotypes and when he quit Hollywood in 1942, he said “If they’ll let me play a human being, I’d be glad to make movies again”. And ironically, though he did Othello on Broadway the following year, nobody ever offered to make a movie of Paul Robeson playing Othello.

Heffner: Do many people remember Robeson? You have the occasion, you’ve just written a great tome. Is it understood that this was a man who loomed large in our social history?

Duberman: Probably the best examples are my own classes. Seven years ago when I started the project and began to talk about Robeson, in a seminar of twenty maybe one or two of the students, and I teach mostly minority students, maybe one or two of them had ever heard the name and those one or two, when pressed, would day, “Oh, yeah, the Black traitor”. Or “Oh, yeah, the Communist”. Now maybe seven or eight out of twenty. So I think his name is in wider circulation today than it was.

Heffner: And will be, thanks to your book, “Paul Robeson”. Thank yhou so much for joining me today, Professor Duberman.

Duberman: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope yu’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.OL Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.