The radical politics and intersecting careers of two African-American icons.
At the outset of World War II, only a handful of black Americans were as internationally prominent as Paul Robeson, an actor/singer of extraordinary power, and W.E.B. Du Bois, an uncommonly influential intellectual. Famed for their professional achievements and their civil-rights activism, both men held radical political beliefs that eventually diminished them as spokesmen for their race, alienated other African-American leaders and aroused the fears of the white establishment. During the Cold War, the federal government subjected both to FBI surveillance, revoked their passports, prosecuted Du Bois under the Smith Act and dragged Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Rightly decrying the overheated political atmosphere that labeled both men national-security threats, a charge that seems laughable today, Balaji (House of Tinder, 2003) less persuasively condemns William H. Hastie, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and other mainstream civil-rights activists who failed to vigorously defend Robeson and Du Bois. Both men, after all, strenuously believed the Soviet Union had successfully eradicated racism and class division, thought Marxism the best hope for newly liberated African nations, turned a blind eye to the show trials and mass murders of Stalin and Mao and found more hope for their people in the pages of Das Kapital than in America’s founding documents. It never occurs to Balaji that, in their final incarnations at least, Du Bois and Robeson could well be judged historically and morally wrong in crucial ways, and that civil-rights leaders had some justification for believing they would drag the movement over a precipice. Readers may grant both men the courage of their convictions and admire their many genuine achievements without buying wholesale the political perspective so uncritically recounted and adopted here.
More agitprop than careful analysis: precariously conceived, awkwardly argued and sloppily written.