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Robeson, Paul

Paul Robeson

Singer, actor, activist

Racist Incident Soured Law Career

Found a Moral Cause in Song

Went to the Soviet Union

Would Not Denounce Communism

Pariah Status

Selected writings

Selected discography

Sources

Paul Robesonsinger, actor, civil rights activist, law school graduate, athlete, scholar, author was perhaps the best known and most widely respected black American of the 1930s and 1940s. Robeson was also a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union, and a man, later in his life, widely vilified and censored for his frankness and unyielding views on issues to which public opinion ran contrary. As a young man, Robeson was virile, charismatic, eloquent, and powerful. He learned to speak more than 20 languages in order to break down the barriers of race and ignorance throughout the world, and yet, as Sterling Stuckey pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, for the last 25 years of his life his was a great whisper and a greater silence in black America.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, Robeson was spared most of the daily brutalities suffered by African Americans around the turn of the century. But his family was not totally free from hardship. Robesons mother died from a stove-fire accident when he was six. His father, a runaway slave who became a pastor, was removed from an early ministerial position. Nonetheless, from his father Robeson learned diligence and an unshakable dignity and courage in spite of the press of racism and poverty. These characteristics, Stuckey noted, defined Robesons approach in his beliefs and actions throughout his life.

Racist Incident Soured Law Career

Having excelled in both scholastics and athletics as a youth, Robeson received a scholarship to Rutgers College (now University), where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and chosen valedictorian in his senior. He earned varsity letters in four sports and was named Rutgers first All-American in football. Fueled by his class prophecy to be the leader of the colored race in America, Robeson went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University, supporting himself by playing professional football on the weekends. After graduation he obtained a position with a New York law firm only to have his career halted, as was recalled in Martin Baulm Dubermans Paul Robeson, when a stenographer refused to take down a memo, saying, I never take dictation from a nigger. Sensing this episode as indicative of the climate of the law, Robeson left the bar.

While in law school, Robeson had married fellow Columbia student Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who encouraged him to act in amateur theatrical productions. Convinced by his wife and friends to return to the theater after his departure from law, Robeson joined the Provincetown Players, a group associated with playwright

For the Record

Born Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson, April 9, 1898, in Princeton, NJ; died of a stroke, January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, PA; son of William Drew (a clergyman) and Maria Louisa (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Bustill) Robeson; married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, August 17, 1921; children: Paul Jr. Education: Rutgers College (now University), A.B., 1919; Columbia University, LL.B., 1923.

Admitted to the Bar of New York; employed in a law firm, 1923; actor; stage appearances include Simon the Cyrenian, 1921, All Gods Chilluan Got Wings, 1924, Show Boat (musical), 1928, Othello, 1930 and 1943, and Toussaint LOuverture, 1936; films appearances include Body and Soul, 1924, The Emperor Jones, 1933, Sanders of the River, 1935, and Show Boat, 1936; singer; recording and performing artist.

Awards: Badge of Veterans of Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1939; Donaldson Award for outstanding lead performance, 1944, for Othello; American Academy of Arts and Letters medal, 1944; NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1945; Champion of African Freedom Award, National Church of Nigeria, 1950; Afro-American Newspapers Award, 1950; Stalin Peace Prize (U.S.S.R.), 1952; Peace Medal (East Germany), 1960; Ira Aldridge Award, Association for the Study of Afro-American life and History, 1970; Civil Liberties Award, 1970; Duke Ellington Medal, Yale University, 1972; Whitney M. Young, Jr., National Memorial Award, Urban League of Greater New York, 1972. Honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Hamilton College, Morehouse College, Howard University, Moscow State Conservatory, and Humboldt University.

Wright Eugene ONeill. Two productions in which he starred, The Emperor Jones and All Gods Chillun Got Wings, brought Robeson critical acclaim. Contemporary drama critic George Jean Nathan, quoted by NewsweeKs Hubert Saal, called Robeson thoroughly eloquent, impressive, and convincing.

Thus Robeson continued on the stage, winning applause from critics and audiences, gaining an international reputation for his performances on the London stage, and eventually extending his acting repertoire to include films. His stage presence was undeniable, and with the musical Show Boat and Shakespeares Othello, Robesons reputation grew even larger. In Show Boat he sang the immensely popular OI Man River, displaying a powerful, warm, soothing voice. Robeson, realizing his acting range was limited both by the choice of roles available to him as a black performer and by his own acting abilities, turned to singing full time as an outlet for his creative energies and growing social convictions.

Found a Moral Cause in Song

Robeson had been giving solo vocal performances since 1925, but it wasnt until he traveled to Britain that his singing became for him a moral cause. Robeson related years later in his autobiography, Here I Stand, that in England he learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind. Consequently, he began singing spirituals and work songs to audiences of common citizens and learning the languages and folk songs of other cultures, for they, too, were close to my heart and expressed the same soulful quality that I knew in Negro music. Nathan Irvin Huggins, writing in the Nation, defined this pivotal moment: [Robeson] found the finest expression of his talent. His genuine awe of and love for the common people and their music flourished throughout his life and became his emotional and spiritual center.

Continued travels throughout Europe in the 1930s brought Robeson in contact with members of politically left-leaning organizations, including socialists and African nationalists. Singing to, and moving among, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the working classes, Robeson began viewing himself and his art as serving the struggle for racial justice for nonwhites and economic justice for workers of the world, Huggins noted.

Went to the Soviet Union

A critical journey at that time, one that changed the course of his life, was to the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson author Duberman depicted Robesons time there: Nights at the theater and opera, long walks with [film director Sergei] Eisenstein, gala banquets, private screenings, trips to hospitals, childrens centers, factories All in the context of a warm embrace. Robeson was ecstatic with this new-found society, concluding, according to New York Times Book Review contributor John Patrick Diggins, that the country was entirely free of racial prejudice and that Afro-American spiritual music resonated to Russian folk traditions. Here, for the first time in my life I walk in full human dignity. Diggins went on to assert that Robesons attraction to Communism seemed at first more anthropological than ideological, more of a desire to discover old, lost cultures than to impose new political systems. Robeson convinced himself that American blacks as descendants of slaves had a common culture with Russian workers as descendants of serfs.

Regardless of his ostensibly simple desire to believe in a cultural genealogy, Robeson soon become a vocal advocate of communism and other left-wing causes. He returned to the United States in the late 1930s, Newsweeks Saal observed, becoming a vigorous opponent of racism, picketing the White House, refusing to sing before segregated audiences, starting a crusade against lynching, and urging Congress to outlaw racial bars in baseball.

Would Not Denounce Communism

After World War II, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union froze into the Cold War, many former advocates of communism backed away from it. When the crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin became publicforced famine, genocide, political purgesstill more advocates left the ranks of communism. Robeson, however, was not among them. National Review contributor Joseph Sobran explained why: It didnt matter: he believed in the idea, regardless of how it might be abused. In 1946 the former All-American explained his loyalty to an investigating committee: The coach tells you what to do and you do it. It was incidental that the coach was Stalin. Robeson could not publicly decry the Soviet Union even after he, most probably, learned of Stalins atrocities because the cause, to his mind, Nation contributor Huggins theorized, was much larger than the Soviet Union, and he would do nothing to sustain the feeding frenzy of the American right.

Robesons popularity soon plummeted in response to his increasing rhetoric. After he urged black youths not to fight if the United States went to war against the Soviet Union, a riot prevented his appearing at a concert in Peekskill, New York. But his desire was never to leave the United States, just to change, as he believed, the racist attitude of its people. In his autobiography Robeson recounted how during the infamous McCarthy hearings, when questioned by a Congressional committee about why he didnt stay in the Soviet Union, he replied, Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

In 1950 the U.S. Department of State revoked Robesons passport, ensuring that he would remain in the United States. He was black-listed by concert managers his income, which had been $104,000 in 1947, fell to $2,000and he was removed from the list of All-Americans, Saal noted in Newsweek. Americas highest prize, its honor, was removed from him. His career died.

Pariah Status

Robesons passport was restored in 1958 after a Supreme Court ruling on a similar case, but it was of little consequence. By then he had become a nonentity. When Robesons autobiography was published that year, leading literary journals, including the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune refused to review it. Robeson traveled again to the Soviet Union, but his health began to fail. He tried twice to commit suicide. Pariah status was utterly alien to the gregarious Robeson. He became depressed at the loss of contact with audiences and friends, and suffered a series of breakdowns that left him withdrawn and dependent on psychotropic drugs, Dennis Drabble explained in Smithsonian. Slowly deteriorating and virtually unheard from in the 1960s and 1970s, Robeson died after suffering a stroke in 1976.

During his life Paul Robeson inspired thousands with his voiceraised in speech and song. But because of his singular support for communism and Stalin, because his life in retrospect became a pathetic tale of talent sacrificed, loyalty misplaced, and idealism betrayed, according to Jim Miller in Newsweek, Robeson disappeared in sadness and loneliness. His life, full of desire and achievement, passion and conviction, the story of a man who did so much to break down the barriers of a racist society, only to be brought down by the controversies sparked by his own radical politics, New York Times Book Review contributor Diggins pronounced, is at once an American triumph and an American tragedy.

Selected writings

Here I Stand, Othello Associates, 1958, Beacon, 1971.

(Contributor) Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, Freedomways, 1971, Dodd, 1985.

Paul Robeson: Tributes, Selected Writings, edited by Roberta Yancy Dent, The Archives, 1976.

Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974, edited by Philip S. Foner, Brunner, 1978.

Columnist for Peoples Voice, 1940s; editor and columnist for Freedom, c. 1951-55. Contributor to periodicals.

Selected discography

American BalladeerGolden Classics, Volume 1, Collectables.

Man & His Beliefs Golden Classics, Volume 2, Collectables.

Historic Paul RobesonGolden Classics, Volume 3, Collectables.

Collectors Paul Robeson, Monitor.

Essential Paul Robeson, Vanguard.

Favorite Songs, Volume 1, Monitor.

Favorite Songs, Volume 2, Monitor.

Live at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard.

Paul Robeson, Pearl.

Paul Robeson Sings Ol Man River & Other Favorites, Angel.

The Odyssey of Paul Robeson, reissue, Omega/Vanguard Classics, 1992.

Sources

Books

Duberman, Martin Baulm, Paul Robeson, Knopf, 1988. Robeson, Paul, Here I Stand, Beacon, 1971.

Periodicals

American Heritage, April 1989.

Commentary, May 1989.

Nation, February 7, 1976; March 20, 1989.

National Review, May 19, 1989.

New Leader, February 20, 1989.

Newsweek, February 2, 1976; February 13, 1989.

New York Review of Books, April 27, 1989.

New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1973; February 12, 1989.

Smithsonian, October 1989.

Time, February 2, 1976; March 13, 1989.

Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 1958.

Rob Nagel

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Robeson, Paul

Robeson, Paul 1898-1976

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Paul Robeson, an African American actor, singer, and social activist, was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, and died on January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the 1930s and 1940s, Robeson gained international renown as a concert singer and stage actor. His embrace of the Soviet Union and communism, however, especially during the formative years of the Cold War and the backlash against left-wing causes during the 1950s, effectively ended his artistic career and contributed to his physical decline.

Robeson was the youngest of five children. His father, William Drew Robeson, was born a slave in North Carolina, but he escaped and went on to become a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, until he was forced to leave his congregation over a major dispute. Robesons mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, hailed from a prominent Philadelphia family and became a schoolteacher. She burned to death tragically in a house fire when Robeson was only six years old, an experience that undoubtedly affected the youngster.

Between 1916 and 1919, Robeson attended Rutgers College in New Jersey as the only African American student. While there, he gained both academic and athletic distinction, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa and twice named an all-American football player. Between 1920 and 1923, he attended Columbia Law School in New York City, playing professional football on weekends and acting to pay the bills.

It was at Columbia University that Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Cardoza Goode (18961965). Her grandfather, Francis L. Cardozo (18371903), was trained as a teacher, minister, and carpenter, and served between 1868 and 1872 as the first black person elected to state office in the history of South Carolina. Robeson and Eslanda married in 1921 and had their only child, Paul Robeson Jr., in 1927. Eslanda went on to become an anthropologist and journalist, as well as her husbands manager and life-long partner until her death.

After graduating from law school, Robeson turned his back on a legal career because of the limited opportunities afforded qualified African Americans. This decision was to prove momentous because it resulted in the launching of one of the most gifted and committed artistic lives of the twentieth century. Robesons career embraced theater, music, and film. During the early 1920s, he worked with the Provincetown Players based in Greenwich Village and earned praise for his roles in playwright Eugene ONeills The Emperor Jones (1920) and All Gods Chillun Got Wings (1924). In 1930 he appeared opposite renowned British actress Peggy Ashcroft (19071991) in a London production of Shakespeares Othello and in 1932 a Broadway version of Jerome Kerns musical Show Boat (1927). Despite his glittering stage success, not everyone was impressed. The Trinidadian writer and activist C. L. R. James (19011989) saw Robeson play Othello on Broadway in 1943 and declared: Robeson was rotten. He is a magnificent figure, a superb voice, and, as usual with him, at moments he is overwhelming. But in between his lack of training, his lack of imagination, were awful (1996, p. 90).

Robeson also gained fame as a concert singer and recording artist. Both Robeson and his longtime pianist and arranger Lawrence Brown (18931972) played an important role in performing and disseminating African American spirituals and folk songs throughout the United States and Europe. As such, the duo belongs to a black Atlantic musical tradition stretching back to the Fisk Jubilee Singers of the 1870s. It is important to note, however, that their recorded spirituals revolutionized such music by allowing the voice to be free from the performer.

Robesons third artistic arena was film. During the 1930s, the film industry embarked upon a major transformation with the advent of sound and mass audiences. Robeson appeared in about a dozen American and British films between 1933 and 1942, including The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Show Boat (1936), and The Proud Valley (1941). Although his characters often challenged existing racial stereotypes portrayed on the silver screen, these films also reinforced stereotypes about subservient and comedic black people and the benefits of Western colonialism. Robeson later expressed regret over some of these films, a regret the modern viewer can appreciate.

Between 1927 and 1939, Robeson and Eslanda sojourned in Europe. These were important years for Robesons development as a black artist because they exposed him to the international communist movement, as well as Pan-African and anticolonial politics. While living in London, Robeson and his wife undertook the study of African history, politics, and languages. At the same time, Robeson participated in the West African Students Union and became acquainted with a younger generation of Caribbean and African leaders, such as C. L. R. James and George Padmore (19031959) of Trinidad, Jomo Kenyatta (1890?-1978) of Kenya, and Nnamdi Azikiwe (19041996) of Nigeria. It was this milieu that encouraged Robesons return to Africa. This spiritual rather than physical return encouraged Robeson to espouse a set of universal values that included, rather than derided, the importance of African culture to world historical development. It was a position familiar to many black abolitionists of the nineteenth century and recognizable in some of the more sober statements of modern Afrocentrists.

The other important component of Robesons political development concerned international socialism. The Great Depression had destroyed many peoples lives and corroded their faith in capitalist democracies. In contrast, the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) promised a more equitable distribution of resources, constitutional guarantees of the equality of all people regardless of nationality or race, and international solidarity. In 1934 Robeson made the first of numerous visits to the USSR, eventually learning Russian and schooling his son there for several years. At the same time, Robeson became involved in socialist and pacifist causes, including performing benefit concerts for Republican troops fighting against the fascist takeover in Spain. Although some black radicals, such as Padmore and Richard Wright (19081960), saw irreconcilable differences between communism and Pan-Africanism, others like C. L. R. James and Robeson envisioned new connections between the two ideologies.

On his return to the United States, Robeson continued his artistic endeavors, as well as his commitment to numerous left-wing and antiracist causes. In the gathering hysteria of the cold war, however, Robeson was to experience serious state and civil obstacles. Although never a member of the Communist Party, officials in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C., accused Robeson of being a communist. In 1950 the U.S. State Department revoked his passport, keeping it until 1958. An invitation for him to appear at a musical festival in Peekskill, New York, sparked white vigilante violence and resulted in scores of injured people, while both Broadway and Hollywood blacklisted him. Despite this, Robeson continued performing at black churches and small functions sponsored by radical groups. He also continued his radical politics. In 1951 Robeson, on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress, submitted a petition to the United Nations titled We Charge Genocide, detailing 153 killings, 344 crimes of violence, and numerous other human rights abuses against black citizens in the United States during the previous six years. This tactic of exerting international pressure on the United States stretched back to the proposed building of an antislavery wall, a project advocated by Frederick Douglass (18181895) and others during the mid-nineteenth century.

After regaining his passport, Robeson and his family moved to Europe. The persecution and blacklisting, however, began to take its toll. Robeson moved in and out of hospitals in the Soviet Union and Europe, and in 1961 he had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In 1963 the Robeson family returned to the United States. After Eslandas death in 1965, Robeson moved to Philadelphia to live with his sister. A year later he made his final public appearance at a benefit dinner for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. During a seventy-fifth birthday tribute at New Yorks Carnegie Hall, which he could not attend because of ill health, Robeson sent a message declaring that he was as dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace, and brotherhood.

Scholars have debated Robesons historical significance. Was he an idealist whose adherence to the Communist Party made him, in the words of critic Harold Cruse, a great potential spokesman with a misdirected and ineffective political line (1967, p. 297)? Or was he an important radical social democrat who played a critical role in propagating popular front culture from the 1930s through 1950s as argued by Michael Denning (1996)? Or was he, as Sterling Stuckey (1987) claims, primarily a black cultural nationalist who brilliantly fused African and black American cultural activities? Interested readers, especially young artists, should read, hear, and see more about Robesons remarkable life and make up their own minds. Paul Robesons true significance concerns his obvious artistic talent; his consistent support for antiracist, anticolonial, and international liberation struggles; and his commitment to a radical political and cultural tradition. In todays world, we can imagine Robeson challenging the iniquities of globalization, demanding peace in the Middle-East, and insisting on racial justice for all.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights; Cold War; Communism; James, C. L. R.; Pan-Africanism; Racism; Slavery; Theater

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cruse, Harold. 1967. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrow.

Denning, Michael. 1996. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London and New York: Verso.

Duberman, Martin. 1988. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf.

Grimshaw, Anna, ed. 1996. Special Delivery: The Letters of C. L. R. James to Constance Webb, 19391948. Oxford, U.K. and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Robeson, Paul. 1958. Here I Stand. New York: Othello Associates.

Robeson, Paul, Jr. 2001. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artists Journey, 18981938. New York: Wiley.

Stuckey, Sterling. 1987. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press.

J. R. Kerr-Ritchie

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Robeson, Paul

ROBESON, Paul



Nationality: American. Born: Paul Leroy Robeson in Princeton, New Jersey, 9 April 1898. Education: Attended Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (All-American football player), B.A., 1919 (Phi Beta Kappa); Columbia University Law School, New York, graduated 1923; admitted to the New York Bar, and joined New York law firm, 1923. Family: Married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, 1921 (died 1965), son: Paul. Career: Professional football player while attending law school; 1921—professional debut on Broadway in Taboo; 1922—English debut in the same play, retitled Voodoo, in Blackpool opposite Mrs. Patrick Campbell; 1924—on stage in New York in The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings; 1925—film debut in Body and Soul; first professional singing tour; 1930—in stage play Othello: later appeared in the play on Broadway and on tour, 1940; 1950–58—after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, passport revoked; 1958—farewell concert, Carnegie Hall, New York; in poor health from 1959 until his death. Awards: Stalin Peace Prize, 1952 (received 1958); admitted to Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1974; inducted into College Football Hall of Fame, 1995. Died: In Philadelphia, 23 January 1976.


Films as Actor:

1925

Body and Soul (Micheaux); Borderline (MacPherson)

1933

The Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy) (as Brutus Jones)

1935

Sanders of the River (Bosambo) (Z. Korda) (as Bosambo)

1936

Song of Freedom (Wills) (as John Zinga); Show Boat (Whale) (as Joe)

1937

King Solomon's Mines (Stevenson) (as Umbopa); Jericho (Dark Sands) (Freeland) (as Jericho Jackson); Big Fella (Wills) (as Joe)

1940

The Proud Valley (Tennyson) (as David Goliath)

1942

Native Land (Hurwitz and Strand—doc) (as narrator); Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier) (as Luke)

1954

Das Lied der Ströme (Song of the Rivers) (Ivens—doc) (singing voice only)




Publications


By ROBESON: books—

Here I Stand, New York, 1958.

Paul Robeson, Tributes, Selected Writings, edited by Roberta Yancy Dent, New York, 1976.

Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918–1974, edited by Philip Fowler, Larchmont, New York, 1978.


By ROBESON: article—

"The Culture of the Negro," in Spectator, 15 June 1934.

On ROBESON: books—

Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Paul Robeson, Negro, New York, 1930.

Graham, Shirley, Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World, New York, 1946.

Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Paul Robeson Goes to Washington, Salford, Lancashire, 1956.

Seton, Marie, Paul Robeson, London, 1958.

Salk, Erwin, Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, New York, 1965.

Hoyt, Edwin, Paul Robeson: The American Othello, Cleveland, 1967.

Brown, Lloyd, Lift Every Voice for Paul Robeson, New York, 1971.

Hamilton, Virginia, Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man, New York, 1974.

Wright, Charles, Labor's Forgotten Champion, Detroit, 1975.

Brown, Lloyd, Paul Robeson Rediscovered, New York, 1976.

Gilliam, Dorothy, Paul Robeson, All-American, Washington, D.C., 1976.

Nazel, Joseph, Paul Robeson: Biography of a Proud Man, Los Angeles, 1980.

Robeson, Susan, The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Portrait of Paul Robeson, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1981.

Dyer, Richard, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, London, 1987.

Duberman, Martin Bauml, Paul Robeson, New York, 1989.

Larsen, Rebecca, Paul Robeson, Hero before His Time, New York, 1989.

McKissack, Pat, Paul Robeson: A Voice to Remember, Hillside, New Jersey, 1992.

Holmes, Burnham, Paul Robeson: A Voice of Struggle, Austin, Texas, 1995.

Anthony, others, Paul Robeson: Bearer of a Culture, New York, 1998.

Davis, Lenwood, A Paul Robeson Handbook: Every, Kearney, 1998.

Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, New York, 1998.

Stewart, Jeffrey C., Paul Robeson: Artist & Citizen, Piscataway, 1998.

Reiner, Carl, "How Paul Robeson Saved My Life": And Other Mostly Happy Stories, New York, 1999.


On ROBESON: articles—

Hutchens, John K., "Paul Robeson," in Theatre Arts (New York), October 1944.

DuBois, W. E. B., "Paul Robeson, Right," in Negro Digest, March 1950.

Mieirs, Earl Schenk, "Paul Robeson: Made by America," in Negro Digest, October 1950.

Rowan, Carl T., "Has Paul Robeson Betrayed the Negro?," in Ebony (Chicago), October 1957.

Pittman, John, "Mount Paul," in New World Review, February 1962.

Fishman, George, "Paul Robeson's Student Days and the Fight against Racism at Rutgers," in Freedomways, Summer 1969.

Cripps, Thomas, "Paul Robeson and Black Identity in American Movies," in Massachusetts Review, Summer 1970.

Weaver, Harold D., "Paul Robeson: Beleaguered Leader," in Black Scholar, December 1973-January 1974.

Current Biography 1976, New York, 1976.

Obituary in New York Times, 24 January 1976.

Stuckey, Sterling, "'I Want to Be African': Paul Robeson and the End of Nationalist Theory and Practice," in Massachusetts Review, Spring 1976.

Ward, Geoffrey C., "Robeson's Choice," in American Heritage, April 1989.

Sorel, Nancy Caldwell, "Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft," in Atlantic (New York), May 1992.

Cunningham, John, "A Second Look," in Cineaste (New York), June 1996.

Thompson, Cliff, "We Hardly Knew Ye: Four Early Films of Paul Robeson," in Cineaste (New York), July 1998.


* * *

Paul Robeson's life story, of which his film career was a small and sadly underdeveloped component, is one of the great inspirations and tragedies of modern American history. An actor and singer of great presence and power, Robeson tried, often in vain, to find dignified roles for a black man in both American and British studios. With the exceptions of the African-American pioneer director Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul, the avant-garde Borderline, and the British Big Fella he was cast as either a subhuman or a super-leader with whom no one could identify. Nevertheless, Robeson was America's Twentieth-Century Renaissance man: All-American athlete at Rutgers, Columbia law school graduate, political activist, bass-baritone, public intellectual, linguist, and actor. Born in 1898, he became famous in the mid-1920s for his roles in two Eugene O'Neill plays, All God's Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. He repeated the latter role in the 1933 independently produced film version, and the play itself anticipates Robeson's film career in several ways.

Like Robeson himself, Brutus Jones embarks on a journey of self-discovery. This southern black laborer becomes first a criminal and then the despot of a Caribbean Island. The transformation repeats itself through Robeson's film career: severing ties with one world, he must adopt a new persona in another. Two years after making The Emperor Jones, in the Korda-produced Sanders of the River, Robeson played a petty thief who has left Liberia and, by kowtowing to the British imperialists, becomes an African chief. In Song of Freedom he portrays an English dockworker who, after becoming a famous singer, retraces his ancestry in an African village. Another transformation occurs in King Solomon's Mines, in which Robeson's Umbopa, after traveling with white fortune-hunters to his native land, reveals himself as the rightful chief. He plays the mythical David Goliath in Pen Tennyson's The Proud Valley. After arriving in a Welsh coal-mining town as a vagabond who has jumped his American ship, David becomes the pride of the men's chorus and a miner who martyrs himself to save the less noble white miners. (Although Robeson's characters obviously represent moral choices, more recent critics have also openly acknowledged their frequent eroticism.)

The Emperor Jones contains gratuitous songs for Robeson which were not in the stage productions, again setting a precedent. In Show Boat, recreating his stage role as Joe, he sings "Ol' Man River" (which he would later reinvent in concert as a protest song) in a stunning expressionistic sequence, and later performs a comic duet with Hattie McDaniel written especially for the film once Robeson was cast. His songs in Sanders of the River ("On to Battle") and King Solomon's Mines ("Song of the Mountains") contain embarrassingly childish lyrics, and in both Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley Robeson's obtrusive lyrics can be best described as anglicized Socialist Realism. Robeson's singing is perhaps best experienced through his many recordings of spirituals and international folk songs, which often suggest the legendary power of his live concerts.

Robeson's life was as superhuman as David Goliath's in The Proud Valley: the Spanish Civil War stopped for a day for his concert; his Othello was the longest-running Shakespearean play in American theatrical history; he was as outspokenly pro-African liberation as he was anti-imperialist. He championed communism even when government pressure destroyed his health and career. That he accomplished so much in so many public arenas is still awe-inspiring, while his life continues to inspire debate and discussion; that the American and British film industries, not to mention the U.S. government, so consistently devalued and hampered his talents remains a major shame.

—Howard Feinstein, updated by Corey K. Creekmur

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Robeson, Paul

Paul Robeson

Born: April 9, 1898
Princeton, New Jersey
Died: January 23, 1976
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

African American singer, actor, and political activist

Paul Robeson was an African American singer, actor, and political activist. He crusaded for equality and justice for African Americans.

Early life and distinguished scholar

Paul Leroy Robeson was born the last of eight children in the Robeson family, on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father, William Drew Robeson, was a runaway slave who fought for the North in the Civil War (186165), when Northern forces clashed with those of the South over secession, or the South's desire to leave the Union. His father put himself through Lincoln University, received a degree in divinity, and was pastor at a Presbyterian church in Princeton. Paul's mother, Anna Louisa Robeson, was a member of the distinguished Bustill family of Philadelphia, which included patriots in the Revolutionary War (177583), when the American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain. She also helped found the Free African Society, and maintained agents in the Underground Railroad, a secret system to help runaway slaves.

Paul's mother died when he was six and his father moved the remaining family to Sommerville, New Jersey. There, young Paul spent his childhood under his father's influence, regularly working with him after school and also singing in his father's church. From his father Robeson learned to work hard, pursue valuable goals, fight for his beliefs, and to help his people's cause.

At seventeen Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Although he was only the third African American student in the school's history, Robeson was immensely popular and was considered an athlete "without equal." He won an amazing twelve major letters (varsity spots on sports teams) in four years. His academic record was also brilliant. He won first prize (for four consecutive years) in every speaking competition the at the college for which he was eligible, and he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, a scholarship honor society. In addition, he engaged in social work in the local black community and delivered his senior class graduation speech. Rutgers subsequently honored him as the "perfect type of college man."

Turns to entertainment

Robeson graduated from the Columbia University Law School in 1923 and took a job with a New York City law firm. In 1921 he married Eslanda Goode Cardozo; they had one child. Robeson's career as a lawyer ended abruptly when others within the firm turned on him because he was African American. He then turned to acting as a career, playing the lead in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) and The Emperor Jones (1925). He added to his acting by singing spirituals. He was the first to give an entire program of exclusively African American songs in concert, and he was one of the most popular concert singers of his time.

Robeson starred in such stage presentations as Show Boat (1928), Othello, in London, England (1930), Toussaint L'Ouverture (1934), and Stevedore (1935). His Othello (194344) ran for 296 performancesa remarkable run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway. While playing opposite white actress Mary Ure, he became the first black actor ever to do the role in England's Shakespeare Memorial Theater.

Robeson's most significant films were Emperor Jones (1933), Show Boat, Song of Freedom (both 1936), and Proud Valley (1939). Charles Gilpin and Robeson, as the first African American men to play serious roles on the American stage, opened up this aspect of the theater for African Americans. Robeson used his talents not only to entertain but to gain appreciation for the cultural differences among men.

International affairs

During the 1930s Robeson entertained throughout Europe and the United States. In 1934 he made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union. He spoke out against the Nazis, Adolf Hitler's (18891945) radical German army, and sang to Loyalist troops during the Spanish Civil War (193639), when battles erupted between Spain's traditionalists and reigning Second Spanish Republic. In addition he raised money to fight the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, supported the Committee to Aid China, and became chairman of the Council on African Affairs (which he helped establish in 1937). A spokesman for cultural black nationalism (a radical movement that called for African Americans to set up their own self-governing nation), Robeson also continued to fight racial discrimination (forced separation people based on race). During World War II (193945), when the Alliesthe United States, England, France, and the Soviet Unionbattled German-led Axis forces, he supported the American effort by entertaining soldiers in camps and laborers in war industries.

After the war, Robeson worked full-time campaigning for the rights of African Americans around the world. In a period of great paranoia within the nation, the American government and many citizens felt threatened by Robeson's crusade for peace and on behalf of minorities. The fact that for over fifteen years he was America's most popular African American did not prevent Robeson from being banned from American concert and meeting halls and being denied a passport to travel overseas.

Awards and legacy

During the 1950s Robeson performed in black churches and for trade unions. After eight years of denial, he won his passport, gave a concert in Carnegie Hall, and published Here I Stand in 1958. He went abroad on concert, television, and theater engagements. He received numerous honors and awards: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) Spingarn Medal, several honorary degrees from colleges, the Diction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, numerous awards from labor unions and civic organizations, and the Stalin Peace Prize.

Robeson had used an "unshakable dignity and courage" learned from his father to break stereotypes (generalizations of a person or group) and limitations throughout his life. He added fifteen spoken languages, a law degree, an international career as singer and actor, and civil rights activist to his long list of accomplishments in his effort to be "the leader of the black race in America."

Robeson returned to America in 1963 in poor health and soon retired from public life. Slowly deteriorating and living in seclusion, Robeson died on January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after suffering a stroke.

Honored after death

It took Robeson seventy-seven years to win the respect of the college sports world. During his outstanding, four-year football career at Rutgers University, Robeson was named All-American in 1917 and 1918, the first African American to do so. In 1995, after his race and politics no longer took away from his legacy and the awards were based more on accomplishments, he was inducted posthumously (after his death) into the College Football Hall of Fame at the new fourteen million dollar museum's grand opening in South Bend, Indiana. Sports Illustrated called it a "long-overdue step toward atonement [setting things right]."

In an article in Jet magazine, Robeson's son, Paul Jr., who accepted the honor, talked about his father's influence on African American men and his dedication to causes. "He felt it was a job he had to do for his people and the world as a whole," said the younger Robeson. His songs, such as his trademark Ol' Man River, and acting have remained available in videos and new releases of his vintage recordings.

For More Information

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Larsen, Rebecca. Paul Robeson, Hero Before His Times. New York: F. Watts, 1989.

Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. New York: Othello Associates, 1958. Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

Robeson, Susan. The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1981.

Wright, David K. Paul Robeson: Actor, Singer, Political Activist. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

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Robeson, Paul

Paul Robeson (rōb´sən), 1898–1976, American actor and bass singer, b. Princeton, N.J. The son of a runaway slave who became a minister, Robeson graduated first from Rutgers (1919), where he was an All-American football player, and then from Columbia Univ. law school (1923). He began his acting career in 1924 with the Provincetown Players. With a resonant voice and the ability to project a humane spirit, he won wide acclaim with his creation of the title role in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones (1925; film, 1933). Other outstanding dramatic performances include Crown in DuBose Heyward's Porgy (1928) and Othello (in London, 1930, and New York, 1943–45). In 1925 he made his debut as a concert singer. Possessed of a magnificent bass voice, he became known especially for his rendition of "Ol' Man River" in Jerome Kern's musical Show Boat (1928; film, 1936) and for his interpretations of spirituals. He lived mainly in Europe from 1928 to 1939, traveling to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1934. Robeson's association with Communist causes and his winning of the International Stalin Peace Prize (1952) made him a controversial figure in the United States. He moved to England in 1958, and continued to appear in concerts in Europe and the Soviet Union. He returned to live in the United States in 1963.

See his Here I Stand (1958); biographies by his wife (1930) and son (2001) and by M. B. Duberman (1988); study by J. Goodman (2013).

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