More than one hundred biographies and monographs of Einstein have been published, yet not one of them mentions the name Paul Robeson, let alone Einstein’s friendship with him, or the name W. E. B. Du Bois, let alone Einstein’s support for him. Nor does one find in any of these works any reference to the Civil Rights Congress whose campaigns Einstein actively supported. Finally, nowhere in all the ocean of published Einsteinia – anthologies, bibliographies, biographies, summaries, articles, videotapes, calendars, posters and postcards – will one find even an islet of information about Einstein’s visits and ties to the people in Princeton’s African American community around the street called Witherspoon.
One explanation for this historical amnesia is that Einstein’s biographers and others who shape our official memories, felt that some of his “controversial” friends, such as Robeson, and activities, such as co-chairing the antilynching campaign, might somehow tarnish Einstein as an American icon. That icon, sanctified by Time magazine when it dubbed Einstein the “Person of the Century,” is a myth, albeit a marvelous myth. In fact, as myths go, Einstein’s is hard to beat. The world’s most brilliant scientist is also a kindly, lovably bumbling, grandfather figure: Professor Genius combined with Dr. Feelgood! Opinion-molders, looking down from their ivory towers, may have concluded that such an appealing icon will help the great unwashed public feel good about science, about history, about America. Why spoil such a beautiful image with stories about racism, or for that matter with any of Einstein’s political activism? Politics, they argue, is ugly, making teeth grind and fists clench, so why splash politics over Einstein’s icon? Why drag a somber rain-cloud across a bright blue sky? Einstein might reply, with a wink, that without rain-clouds life would be very, very short. Or he might simply say that a bright blue sky is a fairy tale in today’s war-weary world.
Yet, despite Einstein’s clear intention to make his politics public – especially his anti-lynching and other antiracist activities – the history-molders have seemed embarrassed to do so. Or nervous. “I had to think about my Board,” a museum curator (who doesn’t want his name used even today) said, explaining why he had omitted some of the scientist’s political statements from the major exhibition celebrating Einstein’s one hundredth birthday in 1979.
When it came to how to handle Einstein’s ashes or his house on Mercer Street, everyone involved meticulously adhered to his wishes. But when it involved his ideas, and especially his concerns about what he called America’s “worst disease,” the fact that Einstein wanted his views made as public as possible seems to have slipped past his historians.
Readers may judge for themselves how much of this oversight is due to forgetting and how much may be due to other motives (including, perhaps, disagreement with Einstein’s point of view). It is not so much the motive for the omission, but the consequence that concerns us. Americans and the millions of Einstein’s fans around the world are left unaware that Einstein was an outspoken, passionate, committed anti-racist. “It is certain – indeed painfully obvious – that racism has permeated US history both as idea and practice,” as the historian Herbert Aptheker states. “Nevertheless,” he adds, “It always has faced significant challenge.”
Racism in America depends for its survival in large part on the smothering of anti-racist voices, especially when those voices come from popular and widely respected
individuals – like Albert Einstein. This book, then. aspires to be part of a grand un-smothering.