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Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)

Paul Robeson must be counted among the most broadly talented men ever born in the United States, but the fact that he was also a "Negro" in a society that could not easily accept exceptional skills in one of his race regularly limited his opportunities to demonstrate his talents. That he accomplished so much in so many public arenas despite the restrictions he faced remains especially remarkable. At times Robeson was probably, often simultaneously, the most famous and controversial black man in America; in retrospect, his long and complex public career marks some of the high and low points in American race relations during the twentieth century.

While Robeson frequently faced racism and, eventually, political intolerance, he nevertheless excelled in whatever field he entered: he was an excellent scholar, an All-American athlete, a riveting stage and screen actor, a spellbinding orator, and one of America's most powerful folk singers. Born and raised in New Jersey, Robeson acted, sang, and delivered speeches in high school before entering Rutgers University, where he then triumphed in several sports, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, and addressed his graduating class as valedictorian. While attending Columbia University Law School, Robeson also played professional football with the Akron Pros, and made his professional stage debut. Recognizing the barriers facing black lawyers, Robeson concentrated on his theatrical career after graduating from Columbia, accepting lead roles in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones in 1924. In the same year Robeson made his screen debut in the independent African-American director Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul, signaling his career-long attempt to address both mainstream and minority audiences.

By 1925, Robeson was frequently recording and singing in concert, as if no single entertainment form could contain his talents; by 1929 he could easily fill both London's Royal Albert Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall. In 1928 he was added to the cast of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat, beginning his indelible association with the pseudo-spiritual "Ol' Man River," originally a cry of resignation that he eventually reformed in concert as a defiant protest song. By the time the watershed musical was filmed in 1936, Robeson's fame demanded that his small but crucial role be filled out with additional songs provided by the show's composers. Robeson and his wife Eslanda appeared in the experimental film Borderline in 1930, and in 1933 The Emperor Jones was adapted as Robeson's first talkie. In 1930 Robeson had also opened in London to rave reviews as Shakespeare's Othello, a role that, along with O'Neill's Brutus Jones and Show Boat's Joe, he would often reprise in later years.

As early as 1933 Robeson had become involved with leftist organizations and causes, and his direct involvement with international politics intensified as he continued to act, sing, and make films. Traveling extensively in the late 1930s, Robeson supported the Republicans in Spain fighting Franco's Fascists, sang for dozens of working-class organizations, denounced racial discrimination in every form, and regularly defended the Soviet Union, even after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. While a number of Robeson's films from this period—including Song of Freedom (1936), Jericho (1937), Big Fella (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940)—tacitly supported his political views and growing attachment to Africa, others, such as Sanders of the River (1934) and King Solomon's Mines (1937), placed him uncomfortably in the role of the exotic native within nostalgic colonialist fantasies. After appearing as an ignorant sharecropper in Tales of Manhattan (1942), Robeson announced his rejection of Hollywood films. Almost all of Robeson's films, whether produced in Hollywood or Europe, betray their uncertainty about how to depict a charismatic black man in entertainment directed at white audiences, so even Robeson's apparent strengths were usually qualified. As Richard Dyer argued, in his films "Robeson was taken to embody a set of specifically black qualities—naturalness, primitiveness, simplicity and others—that were equally valued and similarly evoked, but for different reasons, by whites and blacks."

A high point in Robeson's singing career came in late 1940, when he sang "Ballad for Americans" on the radio. Once recorded, the patriotic piece became one of his best-known numbers, and performing the "Ballad" at the Hollywood Bowl, Robeson set an attendance record by drawing a crowd of 30,000 listeners. Following World War II, Robeson regularly drew attention to the restrictions preventing African-American achievement in the United States, leading the Crusade against Lynching to Washington and meeting with President Truman in 1946. In 1949, two Robeson concerts held in Peekskill, New York, were disrupted by riots, and in the following year the State Department refused to issue Robeson a passport to travel outside of the United States, a restriction that would not be lifted until 1956, resulting in such bizarre circumstances as his singing to 40,000 listeners across the Canadian border in 1952. Declining health and persistent suspicions regarding Robeson's earlier communist and Soviet affiliations prevented him from participating fully in the prominent civil rights struggles of the 1960s, but his last decade was marked by a number of awards and affirmations that would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier, including the renaming of a number of Rutgers University buildings after the school's prominent alumnus. When Robeson died in the first month of the American bicentennial, over 5,000 people attended his funeral.

Although by any measure a remarkable individual, Robeson was fated to represent his race even when his views clashed with those of many other African Americans. Often he was a proud and willing representative of black America, but the persistent demand that he stand for others also exceeded his control, forcing Robeson to carry an impossible symbolic weight. In the long run, the dignity with which he bore the burden of America's racial heritage far outweighs his—or anyone else's—inability to fully contain the varied meanings of blackness in and beyond Robeson's lifetime.

—Corey K. Creekmur

Further Reading:

Brown, Lloyd L. The Young Paul Robeson: "On My Journey Now." Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1997.

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson: A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Reprinted New York, The Dial Press, 1995.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. New York, Macmillan, 1986.

Foner, Philip S., editor. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1978.

Robeson, Eslanda Goode. Paul Robeson, Negro. New York, Harper& Brothers, 1930.

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

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

Stewart, Jeffrey C., editor. Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1998.

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