Little Catfish lives on a street without much beauty: only one old tree, a couple of struggling businesses, and The Regal, an old theater turned community center that’s struggling, too. But Little Catfish begins to listen to Mr. Odell tell stories of the glory days of the theater when luminaries such as Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, and especially Paul Robeson came to The Regal and performed there. The stories inspire Little Catfish, and even some of the older, tougher boys, and Mr. Odell and others begin to have a vision for the street and the community and a plan to revitalize it.
The Tallest Tree is a children’s biography, perhaps even hagiography, woven into a fictional account of inner city community reclamation. It’s a book about Paul Robeson and about the need that all children and indeed all people have for heroes. Unfortunately, Robeson is a flawed hero who, because of the racist treatment he received in his own country, was a defender of Stalin’s regime and a member of the Communist Party of the USA (although he denied such membership during his lifetime). In retaliation for Robeson’s political views and his outspoken activism in the civil rights movement, U.S. State Department denied him a passport. The book mentions this injustice, but fails to say anything about Robeson’s flawed judgement in supporting Stalinism.
I think it’s interesting the way we all tend to want to idealize our heroes, especially when we’re talking to children. When we as Christians talk about Biblical heroes —David or Joseph or Abraham—we tend to gloss over the imperfections of our heroes and magnify their greatness. And with secular heroes we do the same: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of them could do no wrong, at least in the children’s version of the story. Do we really think that children are unable to deal with ambiguity and imperfection? Or is it better to start children out on the edited version and let them deal with their heroes’ weaknesses later on with more maturity and insight?
However that may be, this book could serve to spark an interest among children who are looking for their own heroes, an interest in researching the history of our nation and of the civil rights movement in particular. The book includes lots of information on Robeson’s life and a list of resources that will give more information about him and his times. It also tells a good story, and that’s worth a great deal. And Paul Robeson was a talented and influential man despite his blind spots.
Robeson was particularly known as a singer for his renditions of Negro spirituals. Here’s a sample, Paul Robeson singing “Go Down, Moses”: