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, 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 wanting to do away with this hypocrisy. [The excesses of the Soviet regime were 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.
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.
Published by Lee & Low Books, 2009