Review of “Paul Robeson” by Eloise Greenfield (Ages 6-11)

This book for children on Paul Robeson does a fine job for the most part in summarizing the main accomplishments of Robeson’s life. He excelled in sports, academics, acting, and singing. He had wanted to become a lawyer but was prevented from doing so because of racism. The book doesn’t shrink from addressing some of the hard facts of Robeson’s life. But there are still some glaring omissions.


Greenfield explains Robeson’s involvement with Communism in this way:

“Often Paul went to large peace meetings held by communists. Communists believe in a different kind of government than the one in the United States. Many Americans did not like communists and were afraid they would make the United States a communist society.”

I believe this short paragraph raises more questions than it answers and doesn’t do justice to Robeson’s involvement. It does not clarify what Communists believed and why some Americans were opposed to them.

Robeson never joined the Communist Party. But he did believe that Soviet society was committed to a vision of racial equality. As he pointed out to the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California in 1946, if they wanted to talk about such matters as lack of freedom of speech [among Communists], they might better turn to the American South, where blacks were being ‘shot down’ for speaking their minds, and for asserting their right to the supposed guarantees of American citizenship. [Lynching was again becoming a significant problem in the South following the return of black soldiers from World War II.]

Robeson took the position that Langston Hughes, Robert Williams, and other black activists held after the war: i.e., how could they be asked to fight for freedom and civil rights overseas, and then return home to find they were not granted the same freedoms and rights? Communism professed the aim of doing away with this hypocrisy. [The hypocrisy of the Soviet regime itself was not known until years later.] But following the “hot” war of World War II, the United States became involved in a bitter “Cold War” against the Soviets. The “speaking out” that Robeson and others did was viewed by some in the American government as giving “ammunition” to the Communists and therefore aiding and abetting them. The substance of what they said was not addressed.

Paul Robeson, 1942

Paul Robeson, 1942

Thus, I think it is important to state (a) what Communism was and what it (allegedly) stood for; and (b) why so many American blacks were drawn to Communism. When Robeson discovered that Communism was not what he had thought, he became an avowed “internationalist” and self-defined African. “Above all,” he said, “I must be among the Negro people . . . and be part of their struggles for the new world a-coming. . . .” In other words, Robeson’s desire was for black civil rights and an end to American hypocrisy about it, not for another system of government.

This is not to say all of these issues constitute material for a children’s book that serves as an introduction to Robeson’s life. But if I were a small child who was saluting the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day, I would want to know why this man we are supposed to admire was attending meetings for a different form of government. I would want children to know that Paul Robeson was the bravest sort of man, who spoke out at a time when Americans were losing their livelihoods for questioning what the government was doing in suppressing communism and what it was not doing in protecting civil rights. I see no reason why children cannot hear about Jim Crow and the McCarthy Era in recent history.

Given the paucity of information on Robeson, however, my quibble is relatively small in relation to the need for people to know more about this great man.

Illustrations are by George Ford.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2009


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5 Responses to Review of “Paul Robeson” by Eloise Greenfield (Ages 6-11)

  1. Marie says:

    Tackling something like Communism in a kid’s book is a pretty daunting task. it’s tough because obviously the author felt like she couldn’t ignore it, but then the treatment could be viewed as insufficient. A lot of American communists and sympathizers lost faith when the Stalinist atrocities and other things came to light; tough to know how to handle that in a book for kids.

  2. Margot says:

    I just love your posts like this. I learn so much from them – all the angles in and out of the story. Paul Robeson’s name is familiar to me but I didn’t remember all the details. This is a good reminder of that time period that few today are aware of.

    I notice that this is suggested for 6 to 11 year olds. I’m relating this to my granddaughters who are 10 and 4. I don’t think the 10 year old would have been able to understand this at 6 or 7. But I know from 8 on she has grasped many of the hypocrisies of then and now. She and I have had many stimulating conversations. She loves to ask why and seems to enjoy getting angry about injustice. It makes her Nana’s heart glad. I will suggest this book to her parents.

  3. Ladytink_534 says:

    Hm. Learn something new every day! The name was familiar but I wasn’t sure why. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Nicole says:

    It’s good to have these books as a starting point. At least if they can pique interest then further research can be done. I love the additional information that you gave in your review.

  5. Doret says:

    I’m with Margot, love all the xtra info. I recently read Whitehead’s John Henry Days, there is talk of and about Paul Robeson. I was glad I read Greenfield’s bio before, it gave me a better understand of Robeson allowing me to appreciate Whitehead’s inclusion of Robeson in his novel that much more.

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