Element. Vibration. Hologram. Play. Installation. Environment. Frequency.
Though these words arrive as nouns, as forces that shape the movements which compose Shana L. Redmond’s Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson, they perform as verbs and adjectives, effacing prescriptive grammars in order to enamor readers that Paul Robeson, like his younger contemporary Malcolm X, “loved us so.”1 Ironically, at the moment of this writing, footage of Robeson, from a 1960 interview on the Australian television show Spotlight, has surfaced on social media: “…I’m an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent, no question about it, no question about it. I’m an Afroamerican and I don’t use the word ‘American’ ever loosely again.”2 The inflective quality of Robeson’s “Voice” (11) in this clip highlights how Redmond personifies the possibility of his inanimate object to dance, and further genealogizes how such an instrument has characteristic and nomenclatural resonance with another child of New Jersey (110), namely Whitney Houston. Nevertheless, conceding early on that her text is not a biography (8), Redmond requests that readers disavow convention; in my estimation, then, one can relate to the monograph as an opera. If the metaphor sings true, Redmond herself, akin to Leontyne Price, vocalizes as a lyric soprano who flirts in coloratura.
Redmond first elements Robeson by atomizing him, rendering him the anachronistic muse of Frederick Douglass (xi-xiii). This particulate motility in “A Preface” foreshadows how Robeson vibrations in “An Introduction.” That is, Robeson redefines the stasis and frenzy of molecules revealed in the solid, the liquid, the gaseous insomuch as “[h]is body, as a solid, rigid mass, was, according to the science, able to move freely through space with at least six degrees of freedom: three translations and three rotations” (3). Robeson—elementary, vibratory—proffers something about matter(s) in black life.
Hortense J. Spillers offers a complementary theory to Redmond’s reading of Robeson hologramming himself in Chapter 1. Coincidentally ruminating on “all the things you could be by now,” Spillers indexes the potential of “‘send go’…an equivalent in the semiotic/philosophical discourse as the mark of substitution, the translated inflections of selves beyond the threshold of the fleshed…”3 Robeson holograms when under the weight of exilic gravity, he sends goes his Voice/essence as it “travels…to communities in all reaches of the globe” (17), whether it is the Bandung Conference (22-28) and South Wales (29-33), or posthumously in New York in the cause of a free South Africa (33-38). In a similar vein, Chapter 2 allows Redmond to play as Robeson plays: “His work as a theorist, actor, and subject of play—which includes study, rehearsal, and performance—is revealed in his musicianship, athleticism, and stagecraft as well as his multiple reanimations as a one-man show” (41). These intimations constitute him as an aesthetic army of one, an object for various modes of sport. Regarding his specific replication for the stage, Redmond elaborates how the singularity of these theatrical projections of Robeson elides his multiplicity: the portrayal of him as foil in Jackie Robinson’s fictitious Meeting with Mr. Rickey (45-54); or his acclaimed turn as “Joe” in Show Boat birthing referents which calculate silence as paramount to the soniferousness of his Voice, displays that showcase his likeness, busted in effigy, as opposed to the boom of his acoustemological heft (54-71). Redmond strives to intuit Robeson as one of the many Weheliyan “‘sounds of blackness’” (24).
Chapters 3 and 4 convene interpretations of Robeson as a precursory embodiment of “The Anthropocene (anthropo, or man, and cene, or new)” in the framework of black study.4 The former chapter chronicles how Robeson is installationed artistically. Opening with a meditation on a presumably destroyed nude sculpture of him (72-75), followed by how he spurs curatorial wonder, alongside the national songbook and alternative music, in Wales (76-87), the chapter ends under the auspice of disembarkation. According to Redmond, Robeson “transition[s] not into a parcel”—as mailed through a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, a humming crate à la Henry “Box” Brown by Glenn Ligon, and redacted surveillance by Steve McQueen (87-94)—“but into the currency of its movement: postage” (94). Robeson, stamped, arrives as a cypher for an entity handled with care, postmarked and enveloped (94-101). The latter chapter examines environment Robeson whereby his being camouflages with myriad landscapes. Commencing with his galactic grounding, Redmond imbues readers with her firsthand lived experiences of Robeson as revealed in travel, globetrotting from Los Angeles (The Hollywood Walk of Fame) to Philadelphia (his final home-cum-museum and the larger-than-life-but-not-big-enough mural) to Princeton and New Brunswick (his respective birthplace and alma mater, Rutgers) (102-117). She completes the chapter by discerning Robeson as atmosphere (123), what Maya Angelou opines as “A Rock [which is to say Mountain], A River, A Tree” (117-129).5 His environmenting further conjures the Spillers-Redmond syncopation insofar as the Anthropocene, by way of Robeson, has been heralded by blackness in theory and praxis: “…if by substitutive identities—the ‘send go’—we mean the capacity to represent a self through masks of self-negation, then the dialectics of self-reflection…come together at the site of a ‘new woman’/‘man.’”6 Robeson as “new black man” is not someone we have been waiting for—he has always already been here.
To conclude, a moment of transparency modeled after “A Continuation…Frequency” (130-140): I, too, have walked that Walnut Street, though the circumstances of my wandering were a bit different. A beneficiary of Robeson’s genius, I was preparing to complete my undergraduate matriculation at the University of Pennsylvania when I received the Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement; ahead of its receipt, I serendipitously walked past the Robeson House in West Philadelphia. Under ostensible duress when bestowed this senior award, for reasons unnecessary to explain here, during my valedictory speech, I quoted advice provided by my mother to quell my unease:
“Don’t let the work you’ve done be diminished by the work others haven’t.”
It seems that through Paul Robeson, Shana L. Redmond is in alignment with Maxine Foster-Durham—this text accounts for a life that has often been diminished by assessing a legacy worthy of our deference. That is, indeed, everything, man.
Ossie Davis, “Eulogy for Malcolm X—Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, New York City – February 27, 1965,” American RadioWorks, http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/odavis.html.
@UrOrientalist, Twitter, April, 21, 2020, https://twitter.com/UrOrientalist/status/1252634065737519106.
Hortense J. Spillers, “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now, If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race,” boundary 2, 23:3 (Autumn 1996): 115.
Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, “Evidence: Making a Geologic Turn in Cultural Awareness,” in Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life, eds. Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (New York: Punctum Books, 2013), 20.
Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning (New York: Random House, 1993).
Spillers, 116 (emphasis mine).