An Australian journalist and author walks in the footsteps of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the gifted, celebrated, and controversial athlete, singer, actor, and social activist.
Sparrow (Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship, 2012, etc.) begins with a mention of Robeson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 and then retreats to commence his chronology, returning us to a fuller account of that appearance more than 200 pages later. The author offers a pleasing, engaging mix of biography, social history, in-the-footsteps research, and personal reflection. His approach is to tell us a bit about what Robeson was up to and then travel to key locations to visit significant sites and interview knowledgeable people. Throughout, he chronicles his visits to places in the United States, the U.K. (including Wales), Spain, and, of course, Russia. Robeson’s “ongoing faith in the Soviet Union” was, as Sparrow shows us, the principal reason for the swift decline of his enormous popularity in America, a place where he made a small fortune because of his singing (“Ol’ Man River,” from Show Boat, the most popular song he performed) and acting (his performances in the title role of Othello—a line from it supplies the title of Sparrow’s book—were invariably sold out). The author also enlightens us on his subject’s active sex life—though Robeson managed to stay married for decades to his wife, Essie—and about his increasing involvement in the politics of freedom, which began with anti-bigotry causes in the U.S. and anti-fascism work during the struggles in Spain. Unfortunately, when his humanitarian hopes for the Soviet Union did not align with the fierce anti-communism at home, it all imploded. For years, he lived in the U.S. a virtual prisoner because he could no longer secure a passport.
A lucid, thought-provoking tribute to Robeson by an author determined to stand where Robeson stood and imagine what he thought.