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Writing Robeson

By Martin Duberman, The Nation, 28 December 1998

It was Paul Robeson Jr. who invited me, back in 1981, to be his father's biographer. He had offered me exclusive access for seven years to the vast family archives long closed to scholars, and had stressed at our very first meeting that he wasn't looking for a "Saint Robeson" but rather a tell-it-like-it-was account that would make his father an accessible human being rather than a pedestalized god.

Impressed, flattered and eager as I was to accept Paul Jr.'s offer, it also puzzled me. "You can see that I'm white," I said to him during that first meeting, "but do you also know that I'm gay, and that I've been actively involved in the gay political movement for years?" He casually replied that he did, that he had had me "thoroughly checked out." He had become convinced that I was the right biographer for his father because (as I recorded his words in my diary) of my "nuanced prose," my "complex understanding of personality," my left-wing politics and my experience in the theater.

Since I was not the only historian with left-wing views who wrote "nuanced" prose, I remained skeptical that Paul Jr.'s stated reasons for inviting a white gay activist to become his father's biographer exhausted the range of his motives. But wanting to believe him, I kept my skepticism to myself and accepted his invitation.

I did set one condition. I told him that I could comfortably undertake the biography only if we drew up a legal agreement in which he formally gave up all control over what I might ultimately choose to write. No self-respecting scholar, I explained, could work with someone looking over his shoulder__and especially not a son, deeply invested emotionally, and with his own pronounced views and agenda. Paul Jr. said he had expected me to set those conditions and was willing to sign such an agreement. "As we move ahead," he added with a sly grin, "I'll doubtless backslide." (Oh Lord, would he backslide!)

And so we were launched. Paul Robeson Jr. had given me the necessary assurances, had insisted he wanted a wholly truthful__not a plaster cast__portrait, and was soon, moreover, introducing me to some of his father's closest friends. But as I set to work on the mountainous source materials, a sense of unease lingered. Was this, I asked myself, a case of bizarre miscasting, a grotesque mismatch of author and subject__as some were quick to charge as soon as the project was publicly announced?

To quiet my discomfort, I tried putting the issue in a larger context: What, after all, are the essential qualities in a given biographer that heighten the chances for understanding a given life? Who is best qualified to write about whom__and why? Are there certain unbreachable guidelines that must be followed, certain fundamental boundaries that must not be crossed? Do we want to argue, for example, that no man should attempt to write about a woman, no younger person about an older, no adult about a child, no straight person about a gay one, no white person about a person of color (or vice versa)?

Even the most committed essentialists, I feel sure, would balk at strictures this severe: We have become too aware of how reductive the standard identity categories of gender, class, race and ethnicity are when trying to capture the actual complexities of a given personality. (Paul Robeson cannot simply be summarized as "a black man," nor Martin Duberman as "a gay man.") Besides, many people have overlapping identities that compete for attention over time; and how we rank their importance in shaping our personalities can shift, which in turn leads to a re-allocation of political energies.

But why is the assumption so widespread in the first place that a matchup between author and subject in regard to standard identity categories is the best guarantor of understanding? Indeed, why do we lazily assume that these categories are, in every case, the critical ones, while ignoring any number of other commonalities between biographer and subject that might provide critical insights__matters such as having been raised in comparable family or regional cultures or sharing similar psychologies of self, professional experience or religious affiliations.

Which of the affiliative links, standard or otherwise, between biographer and subject are likely to prove the most trenchant pathways to understanding? Perhaps__heresy!__the answer is none, or none that can be presumed in advance to guarantee access into the furthest recesses of personality. Perhaps what will turn out to matter most is that which is least visible and hardest to define: something to do with an elusive empathy of the spirit between biographer and subject, a shared if shadowy sense of how one should best navigate through life, treat other people, leave a mark and make a contribution without succumbing to self-importance__or self-destruction. How one positions oneself in the world will always reflect to some degree the seminal experiences and indoctrinations of class, race and gender, but may also, perhaps even to a greater degree, float above them, wondrously unanchored in categorical imperatives, mysteriously untraceable in derivation.

The simplifications currently at work are easily enumerated. Whether, for example, one defines "working class" in terms of income, job status or educational level, it should be obvious that not all working-class people have had an interchangeable set of experiences; being on an assembly line cannot be equated with cooking hamburgers at McDonald's, nor illiteracy with a high school education, nor life in a trailer park with life in a slum. A historian with a "working class" background cannot assume that that fact alone will open the gates of understanding to his or her working-class subject.

As for race, surely whites now realize that there is no homogeneity of lifestyle or opinion among members of a minority group. African-Americans, for example, vary widely in their views on everything from parenting to education to politics to white people. As for gender, the mere fact of being a woman would not in itself prepare a university-trained PhD doing the biography of, say, Grandma Moses, to understand a rudimentary rural life, the techniques of primitive painting, the process of aging or the morass of celebrity-hood.

To take as a given that no white person is able (or morally entitled) to write about someone black can itself be seen as a form of racism__a particularly simplistic form, for it is based on the insidious assumption that fellow-feeling hinges on the color of one's skin and that an individual's character can be accurately prejudged on the basis of his or her membership in a particular group.

Since no biographer can duplicate in his or her person the full range of the subject's experience__or exactly duplicate any of it__every biographer will be found wanting in some areas. And, yes, the disability can sometimes be directly linked to racial (or class or gender) dissonance. I do not doubt, for example, that as a white person I failed to capture some of the nuances of what it meant for Robeson to grow up in the black church (his father was a minister). Yet, oppositely, my own second career in the theater gave me a background few if any scholars could bring to bear in evaluating Robeson's stage experience.

Which brings us to the "gay issue." Soon after my biography of Robeson had been published, in February 1989, I was in San Francisco on the final leg of the book tour. Between the usual signings and readings, I made time to pay a return visit to Lee and Revels Cayton. Both had been helpful during the seven years I spent on the biography, and Revels, a radical veteran of the trade union wars and one of Robeson's closest friends, had at several points given me crucial information and advice.

I had sent the Caytons an early copy of the book, and Revels greeted me with a bear hug, effusive with congratulations for having "gotten it right." Later, over coffee, he made a comment that startled me: "you know, I've been thinking about it and I believe that only a gay man could have understood Paul's sex life."

I had been thinking about that too__for a long time__and thought I knew what Revels meant: Most heterosexual scholars, a conservative breed not known for their erotic capers, would be likely to share the mainstream view that lifetime, monogamous pair-bonding is the optimal path to human happiness__not to say moral decency. That assumption, in turn, would incline them, when confronted with the unconventional erotic history of someone like Robeson, to evade, minimize, condemn or apologize for his robust sexuality.

A legion of heterosexual scholars strenuously believe in their hearts, not merely in their public pronouncements, that sexual "restraint" is one of the admirable moral cornerstones of our national character. (It took DNA, remember, finally to break down their adamant denial of a sexual liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.)

Confronted with Robeson's many sexual adventures, such scholars would most likely characterize them as "womanizing" or "Don Juanism." Additionally, they would probably "explain" the fact that Robeson's most intense, long-lasting affairs were nearly all with white women by regurgitating hoary, simplistic formulas about his need to prove himself to the white world__or to work out his anger toward it.

By the time I visited the Caytons, Revels's view that most heterosexual scholars would react uneasily to Robeson's sexuality had already been borne out in some of the early reviews. The critic in the San Francisco Chronicle had referred to Robeson's "compulsive womanizing." The Village Voice reviewer had wondered about "the unquenchable need that lay behind his behavior." Ishmael Reed, while praising my "fine" biography, had taken me to task for the book's "excessive and voyeuristic detail" about Robeson's romantic and sexual encounters. And Paul Robeson Jr. would soon issue a formal statement, printed in the Amsterdam News, characterizing my biography as "prurient." When I later told Revels about that, he shook his head in disbelief, chuckling over what he called my "restrained" account of Robeson's erotic activities.

Was Revels Cayton right in seeing my homosexuality as an asset in writing Robeson's biography, or was it__as many more have asserted__an offensive liability? Lloyd Brown, who collaborated with Robeson in the fifties on his autobiographical manifesto, Here I Stand, has been among the more publicly outraged. When my editor at Knopf sent Brown an early copy of the biography, he wrote back that I was "a sick writer" whose "homosexual values" were asserted throughout the book. Down to the present day, Brown continues to denounce my "preoccupation with the bedroom aspects of Robeson's life."

One of the ironies in all this is that my biography is, if anything, a rather truncated__one might even say chaste__rendering of Robeson's highly charged erotic life. Only Robeson's half-dozen significant romantic attachments are discussed in any detail, and his many short-term encounters are barely mentioned. Nor do I ever describe, let alone itemize, his actual sexual behavior__his preferences and performances in bed.

Moreover, as I made clear in the biography, Robeson's wife, Essie, had early on understood that her husband was not cut out for monogamy and domesticity; wanting to remain Mrs. Robeson, she had made her peace with his extramarital pleasures. That Essie was knowledgeable about Paul's sexual adventures would not, of course, make them more palatable to traditional moralists__including many churchgoing African-American adherents of mainstream sexual mores.

White conservatives, long since enraged at Robeson's political militancy, gleefully latch on to his erotic history as an additional weapon in portraying him as a "moral transgressor." For white racists, moreover, Robeson's exuberant sexuality can usefully be made to play into the longstanding, vicious stereotype of the black man as a "rampaging lustful beast." That almost all of Robeson's major affairs were with white women, finally, can be used to diminish his stature even among those who otherwise deeply admire his unyielding struggle againt racism and colonialism. (After my biography was published, Paul Robeson Jr. claimed that I had deliberately omitted a "list" he had given me of his father's black female lovers. If there is such a list, I was never shown it. Besides, the evidence of Paul Sr.'s preference for white lovers is overwhelming and incontestable.)

The biographer's job is to tell the truth__to the extent that inevitable gaps in the evidence and subjective distortion will allow for it. The biographer is not responsible for how others manipulate that truth to serve agendas of their own. Those who despise Robeson's socialism will always manage to find grounds for justifying their hostility; neither the inclusion nor the omission of evidence about his sexual life will dislodge their underlying animus toward his politics.

Yet even some who feel deeply sympathetic to Robeson's politics experience discomfort over his troubled marriage and his frequent extramarital affairs__and especially traditional socialists of the older generation, for whom economic, not sexual or gender, liberation remains the one legitimate issue of abiding importance.

This discomfort needs to be directly addressed, along with the underlying assumption that feeds it: namely, that monogamous, lifetime pair-bonding is, for everyone, the only defensible, natural, moral path. But how much sex is too much sex? Does the answer hinge on the number of different partners involved, the number of encounters with the same partner, particular configurations (three-way or group sex, say) or particular sexual acts (anal intercourse, say, or sadomasochism)? The answers will hinge on individual assumptions about what is "normal," "healthy" or "moral." In this country numbers alone are likely to settle the argument: The higher the figure, the more brows start to furrow__even when we are talking about consenting adults.

We need to take a closer look as well at what most people in our culture mean when using the designation "womanizer"__the charge Robeson's detractors most often level at him (that is, when they are not denouncing his "Stalinism"). Three definitions currently predominate: A "womanizer" is someone whose self-regard hinges on multiple conquests; is someone incapable of love and, to disguise that fact (not least from himself), pursues multiple sexual encounters; and, finally, is someone who treats his partners as exploitable objects, to be used disdainfully and discarded cavalierly.

None of those definitions, I would submit, apply to Paul Robeson. That is the overwhelming testimony of both his lovers and his psychiatrists. Every woman I spoke to who had been involved with Robeson for an extended period emphasized that he treated her as an equal, not a mere convenience or appendage. He could be difficult, neglectful and secretive, but was much more often tender, considerate and loving. As if in confirmation, one of Robeson's psychiatrists described him to me as a man whose "motivational spring was compassion, not ego."

And so when I hear Robeson described as a "womanizer," I've learned to take it as a rule of thumb that I'm listening to someone who despises the man politically and wishes to discredit him__as nothing can do more powerfully in our sex-negative culture than the accusation of "philanderer."

Unless it be, of course, to spread rumors that he was to some degree erotically involved with men. Such rumors, as I learned to my astonishment, were already in circulation when I began Robeson's biography. In a 1981 issue of the left-wing magazine WIN (now defunct), an article on Robeson had referred to his bisexuality as if it were a well-established fact. Some years later The Advocate (a national gay magazine) printed the claim that Robeson had "recently [been] revealed to have been gay." I protested both pieces and in the biography wrote that, "I had found absolutely no evidence of Robeson's erotic interest in men."

While I was working on the book, the candidate most often urged on me as Robeson's male lover was the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. When I discussed that possibility with, among others, Zina Voynow, Eisenstein's sister-in-law, she scoffed at the notion of such an affair__though she did not, as some of his biographers have, deny Eisenstein's homosexuality.

Nevertheless, even after my biography was published, the rumor surfaced yet again (in a 1990 article by one Hugh Murray) that insisted__at length, and based on a fatuous twisting of suspect scraps of "evidence"__that the matter of Robeson's bisexuality remained "an open question." It does not. Barring the (almost unimaginable) surfacing of new evidence to the contrary, Robeson was__as I wrote in the biography and as I have repeatedly said in response to ongoing queries__singularly, rigorously, contentedly heterosexual.

For merely insisting on scholarly standards of evidence, I expected no medal for Meritorious Resistance to Political Correctness. But I was surprised that among the several critics who denounced Robeson as "oversexed" and my biography of him as "prurient," only one__in Commentary, no less__so much as mentioned that my book had put to rest the longstanding rumors of Robeson's bisexuality. Not even the Commentary reviewer thought to mention that I had done so as a gay man who might have been expected to maximize every remote innuendo or shard of evidence that could have left open the opportunity to claim Robeson for Our Side.

When nongays credit anything of value in the gay perspective__and only a few leftists ever do__they usually cite its iconoclasm, its insistent challenge to "regimes of the normal," especially in regard to gender and sexuality. In writing Robeson's biography, iconoclasm stood me in good stead. Yet ultimately I came to feel that it was less important in helping me get beneath the layers of his personality than what I would call our shared status as outsiders__outsiders who to a significant degree had been "let in," had been treated by the mainstream as an acceptable representative of an otherwise despised group.

Years into researching the book, I continued to mull over the question of whether I was an appropriate biographer for Robeson. I finally came to the conclusion that a strong argument could be made__just as Revels Cayton would later suggest__that far from disqualifying me as an effective interpreter of Robeson's life, my being gay had in fact given me some important advantages. Here is how I ultimately summed it up in a diary entry:

Like Robeson, I know about the double-bind of being accepted and not accepted.

I know about the outsider's need to role-play (the uses of theater offstage).

I know about the double-vision of the outsider who is let inside; about being a "spy" in the culture.

I know some of the strategies for concealing pain, including from oneself.

I know about the exuberant investment of hope in a "liberation" movement__and the attendant despair when it falls short.

I know about the seductive double-talk employed, when considered serviceable, by the white male power structure.

I know about the tensions of trying to be a "good" role model.

I know about the conflict between the yearnings of lust and the demands of a public image.

I know about the tug-of-war between the attractions of career and of doing "good works."

I know about the disjunction between the desire to be liked (and knowing one has the necessary social skills to accomplish that) and feeling disgust at the neediness of the desire.

I know about stubbornness__and about the need to sometimes play the supplicant.

I know about the counterpulls of feeling gregarious and longing for__requiring__solitude.

I know about concealment.

I know about buried anger.

I know about politeness substituting for anger, about anger eating up one's vitals, distorting one's judgment.

I know about loneliness.

Once the biography was published, it came as an enormous relief to me that many African-American intellectuals__including Herb Boyd, Nathan Huggins, David Levering Lewis, Nell Irvin Painter and Arnold Rampersad__hailed it. The review that perhaps pleased me most was Painter's. Some years earlier, she had rather sharply attacked me and other white historians (during an American Historical Society panel on "Black Biography") for "wrongheadedly" undertaking biographies of African-Americans. Yet reviewing my biography in the Boston Globe, she reversed fields, writing that the book especially "rates high marks for having seen much that white biographers of African-American subjects frequently disregard, notably anger and strategies for its management...."

Nell Painter did not suggest that my being gay might have been importantly connected to my ability to see "much that white biographers...frequently disregard." But after years of inner debate, I have come to hold that view decisively. To whatever extent my biography of Robeson does represent an empathy of the spirit, I believe the sensitizing factor of critical importance was precisely my homosexuality.

Martin Duberman is the Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY's Lehman College and the Graduate School. This essay will appear in Dangerous Liaisons: Blacks, Gays, and the Struggle for Equality (New Press), which is edited by Eric Brandt and will be published next June.