Paul Robeson: A Watched Man

Paul Robeson: A Watched Man

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by Jordan Goodman

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In his heyday, Paul Robeson was one of the most famous people in the world; to his enemies he was also one of the most dangerous. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the African-American singer was the voice of the people, both as a performer and as a political activist who refused to be silenced.
Having won fame with hits such as “Ol’ Man


In his heyday, Paul Robeson was one of the most famous people in the world; to his enemies he was also one of the most dangerous. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the African-American singer was the voice of the people, both as a performer and as a political activist who refused to be silenced.
Having won fame with hits such as “Ol’ Man River” and thrilling London and New York theatregoers with his legendary performance in Othello, Robeson established himself as a vocal supporter of Civil Rights and an opponent of oppression in all its forms. He traveled the world, performing in front of thousands to deliver a message of peace, equality and justice that was as readily understood on the streets of Manchester, Moscow, Johannesburg and Bombay as it was in Harlem and Washington, DC.
The first new work on the leading African-American singer for over a decade, Paul Robeson: A Watched Man is a story of passionate political struggle and conviction. Using archival material from the FBI, the State Department, MI5 and other secret agencies, Jordan Goodman reveals the true extent of the US government’s fear of this heroic individual. Robeson eventually appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he spiritedly defended his long-held convictions and refused to apologize, despite the potential damage to his career.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Many books published on controversial African-American entertainer-activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976) have explored his extensive campaigning on behalf of the poor and oppressed, but none of the publications revealed the fact that he was closely monitored by various global intelligence agencies. Goodman (The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man’s Struggle for Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness), a writer and researcher, corrects that oversight with an exhaustive look into why the superpowers feared Robeson’s political clout in the postwar era, nervous that his communist views could inflame the colonized and disenfranchised through the world. Drawing from confidential files of the FBI, State Department, MI5, and KGB, Goodman shows the determination of those agencies to neutralize Robeson’s firm resolve and celebrity, with the activist quoted as saying, “I am a radical and I am going to stay one until my people get free to walk the earth.” Goodman’s account of Robeson’s struggle against those who wanted to silence him is comprehensive, well-documented, and useful for anyone studying the McCarthy era. Agent: Will Francis, Janklow & Nesbit. (Oct.)
Library Journal
The first new book on the legendary activist and performer in over ten years, this biography reveals the extent of the surveillance ordered on Paul Robeson by the U.S. government by drawing on materials from the FBI, U.S. State Department, and MI5. (LJ 9/15/13)
Kirkus Reviews
The story of the U.S. government's persecution of entertainer and peace advocate Paul Robeson. In his latest work, Goodman (The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man's Battle for Human Rights in South America's Heart of Darkness, 2010, etc.) recounts the life of Paul Robeson (1898–1976), "one of the most famous African Americans of the twentieth century." Though he was initially most well-known for his rendition of "Ol' Man River," among other tunes, Robeson soon began employing his voice not merely for entertainment purposes, but also to share with the world the truth of America's social injustices. While in Paris, the communist-leaning Robeson remarked that it was "unthinkable" that African-Americans "would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations." His remarks were poorly received back in America, where both the African-American and white presses placed Robeson squarely in their cross hairs. The U.S. government was equally perturbed by what they deemed to be his disparaging remarks; as a result, Robeson soon found his passport revoked. Newly grounded, the controversial figure remained a lightning rod for civil rights, and much to the government's chagrin, all attempts to silence him only managed to further the reach of his voice. "They can keep me from going overseas," Robeson remarked in a 1957 Ebony interview, "but they can't keep news of Emmett Till and Autherine Lucy from going over." Goodman's meticulous research provides the underpinnings for a compelling story, though his propensity for the tangential often distracts more than contributes. While Robeson's story is indeed engaging, the author's inability to bring the man to life keeps his carefully researched work from hitting the perfect note. A fact-driven, scholarly account that lacks slightly in narrative drive.

Product Details

Verso Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.38(d)

Meet the Author

Jordan Goodman previously taught at the University of Manchester and is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. He is the author The Rattlesnake: A Voyage of Discovery to the Coral Sea and The Devil and Mr Casement. He lives in London.

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Paul Robeson: A Watched Man 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For people who know a lot about Paul Robeson this book might be a disappointment.   However,  I did not so I found the book interesting and it made me want to know more about Paul Robeson.   He seems to have been a truly brilliant person.  He was a performer (both actor and singer), lawyer, civil rights activist and a professional football player.   In addition, he was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. While the book focused on his politics, I think more mention should have been made about his status as an artist because gave his politics more stature. I saw Paul Robeson as being a shade-of-grey character in terms of his treatment by the US.   I am sure the US government/FBI has persecuted individuals for being Communists where  there was none or very minimal justification for this treatment.    However this was not true of Paul Robeson.   He had a lot of sympathy for the Soviet Union and many Communist friends.  He traveled to the Soviet Union and said it was the country where he felt most like himself. One of my disappointments of the book was that the author does not appear  to have interviewed people who knew Robeson.   The author appears to have relayed exclusively on written sources.     Also with the end of the Cold War many sources probably are available from the  former the Soviet Union on Paul Robeson and his role in the Communist party. This being said it does seem like the US was wrong in denying him a passport on political grounds and the State Department abused its authority in denying individuals passports because of suspicions of Communism. Robeson was a product of his times.  Many intellectuals, artists, reformers of the  1930's and 1940's were attracted to Communism and saw the USSR as being t he new Holy Land (to be honest this seems a strange anyone ever felt this way now).    I had relatives who were Communists at the time.   I can remember times in the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies when many people still did not realize how repressive the former Soviet Union was.    However, I think Goodman could have dealt more about Communism in both the US and Great Britain (where Robeson spent a lot of time) during the 1930s and 1940s  and its relationship to Socialism and the Left.    In summary I found the book Paul Robeson: A Watched Man an informative and highly readable book.   However, I think some readers may be disappointed in that I think the book does not have as full a scope of the subject matter as a really outstanding book on the subject matter should have.