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 apologise, despite the potential damage to his career.
This month sees the UK cinema release of Steve McQueen’s brilliant and brutal new film, 12 Years a Slave. McQueen has been vocal in condemning cinema’s wariness in confronting the subjects of slavery and race, and his film has galvanized a new interest in the unspeakably ugly period in American history.
Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 documentary, 12 Years a Slave takes an unflinching look at the story of a free black man from New York who is abducted and sold into slavery.
Verso has long held a commitment to telling similar stories, and we now present a selection of books as the essential starting point for those looking to learn more about the roots, events and legacies of slavery and racial tensions in America and the world.
In the Presence of Greatness
Toronto, February 11, 1956
In 1956, my parents, my younger sister, and I were living in Toronto. One day in early February, my mother told me and my sister that later in the week, she would be going out for the evening and our father would be taking care of us. Neither of us really understood what she meant, because this had never happened to us before, certainly not in the two years since we had come to Canada from Europe. Our mother was always there. What could be so important?
She was going to a concert, she told us. She said that the singer (his name, if she told us, meant nothing to me) held very special feelings and memories for her. In her mind she could hear his deep warm bass voice. She had heard him on the radio in Poland before the Nazis shattered her world. She knew what he looked like from photographs, but she had never seen him in person. It was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her, and for most of those in the audience.