Two giants taken down by politics

During the Age of Jim Crow, African-American giants W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) and Paul Robeson (1898-1976) anguished over the fate of millions of working class blacks, including convict-lease prisoners, sharecroppers and indigent laborers. Journalist Murali Balaji's splendid "The Professor and the Pupil" explores the two men's commitment to human rights -- not just in the South, but worldwide -- their leadership of the American Left, and their alienation from mainstream politics during the Cold War. "Politics made both men," Balaji concludes, "and ultimately destroyed them."

Balaji interprets DuBois and Robeson's 40-year relationship as one quite literally between teacher and student. Robeson, the world-acclaimed actor and singer, deferred to and respected DuBois as a philosopher and academic but also as an activist. Over time both men admired the Soviet Union and the emergence of Marxist-inspired independence movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

DuBois and Robeson embraced socialism, black pride and nationalism of the oppressed only after they had become convinced that capitalism and self-determination failed to uplift the masses. "We as colored Americans," Robeson remarked in 1940, "use little logic if we do not see the basic struggle in the world today. It includes people of every color." Soon after World War II, DuBois wrote that "war will not disappear until colonialism and quasi-colonialism under the form of investment and industrial control is utterly overthrown."

Balaji highlights the price that DuBois and Robeson paid for their political activism. Robeson's criticism of white racism, his endorsement of radical socialism, and his fondness for the Soviet Union led to unfounded charges that he was a member of the Communist party. In 1950, the U.S. State Department impounded his passport. Accusations of his alleged communism virtually destroyed Robeson's brilliant career as an entertainer.

Balaji correctly notes that by the 1940s DuBois had become radicalized and embraced socialism. In 1951 the government indicted DuBois as a "subversive" under the 1940 Smith Act. In 1961 he officially joined the American Communist Party and moved to Ghana. Two years later, DuBois renounced his U.S. citizenship.

For all their activism, DuBois and Robeson regrettably had little impact on the lives of poor black laborers virtually enslaved in the prison farms, chain gangs, and other hellholes of the supposedly New South.