Jeff Sparrow at Sydney Review of Books:
‘Robeson’s sterling success on athletic battlefields,’ says Horne, ‘unsettled the rudiments of white cum male supremacy, paving the way for desegregation.’ Robeson came to agree. In the fifties, when he wrote his memoirs, he consciously exaggerated his own physical clashes on the football field. As he explained to his son, ‘it’s good and healthy in today’s America for white people who view me as their favourite Negro to understand that I might deliberately kill a lyncher.’
In 1940 Robeson sang a tribute (with music by Count Basie and lyrics by Richard Wright) to the legendary fighter Joe Louis. As Mike Marqusee says, ‘King Joe’ presents Louis as ‘a creation of black America’ – a political as well as sporting hero.
But that all came later. In the twenties, the young Robeson was appalled at the invitation he take up prize-fighting, a sport associated with thuggish criminality. ‘I would have done anything rather than that,’ he later said. ‘Anything!’ Yet he soon encountered the restrictions that Ali spoke of, the racist boundaries limiting the options of talented African Americans. Though he graduated with a legal degree from Columbia, he abandoned his practice when a stenographer told him, ‘I never take dictation from a nigger’.