Singer, actor, activist
Paul Robeson—singer, 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. Robeson’s 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 Robeson’s approach in his beliefs and actions throughout his life.
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 Duberman’s 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 God’s Chilluan Got Wings, 1924, Show Boat (musical), 1928, Othello, 1930 and 1943, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, 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 O’Neill. Two productions in which he starred, The Emperor Jones and All God’s 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 Shakespeare’s Othello, Robeson’s 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.
Robeson had been giving solo vocal performances since 1925, but it wasn’t 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.
A critical journey at that time, one that changed the course of his life, was to the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson author Duberman depicted Robeson’s time there: “Nights at the theater and opera, long walks with [film director Sergei] Eisenstein, gala banquets, private screenings, trips to hospitals, children’s 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 Robeson’s “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, Newsweek’s 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.”
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 public—forced famine, genocide, political purges—still more advocates left the ranks of communism. Robeson, however, was not among them. National Review contributor Joseph Sobran explained why: “It didn’t 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 Stalin’s 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.”
Robeson’s 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 didn’t 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 Robeson’s 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 $2,000—and he was removed from the list of All-Americans,” Saal noted in Newsweek. America’s highest prize, its honor, was removed from him. His career died.
Robeson’s 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 Robeson’s 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 voice—raised 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.”
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 People’s Voice, 1940s; editor and columnist for Freedom, c. 1951-55. Contributor to periodicals.
American Balladeer—Golden Classics, Volume 1, Collectables.
Man & His Beliefs —Golden Classics, Volume 2, Collectables.
Historic Paul Robeson—Golden Classics, Volume 3, Collectables.
Collector’s 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.
Duberman, Martin Baulm, Paul Robeson, Knopf, 1988. Robeson, Paul, Here I Stand, Beacon, 1971.
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.
Born April 9, 1898, in Princeton, NJ; died following 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 (died, December, 1965); children: Paul, Jr. Education: Rutgers College (now University), A.B., 1919; Columbia University, LL.B., 1923. Politics: Communist.
Admitted to the Bar of New York State; employed in a law firm, 1923; actor in plays, including Simon the Cyrenian, 1921, All God's Chillun Got Wings, 1924, Othello, 1930 and 1943, and Toussaint L'Ouverture, 1936; actor in films, including Body and Soul, 1924, The Emperor Jones, 1933, Sanders of the River, 1935, and Show Boat, 1936; singer in concert performances, for recordings, and in musical productions, including Show Boat, 1928. Member, Council on African Affairs (co-founder), Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, and Committee to Aid China.
National Maritime Union (honorary member), Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Phi Alpha, Sigma Tau Delta.
Badge of Veterans of Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1939; Donaldson Award for outstanding lead performance, 1944, for Othello; medal from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1944, for good diction on the stage; Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1944; Champion of African Freedom Award, National Church of Nigeria, 1950; Afro-American Newspapers Award, 1950; Stalin Peace Prize (U.S.S.R.), 1952; German Peace Medal (East Germany), 1960; Ira Aldridge Award, Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, 1970; Civil Liberties Award, American Civil Liberties Union, 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, 1932 and 1973, Hamilton College, 1940, Morehouse College, 1943, Howard University, 1945, Moscow State Conservatory, 1959, and Humboldt University, 1960.
Forge Negro-Labor Unity for Peace and Jobs, Harlem Trade Union Council, 1950.
Here I Stand (autobiography), Othello Associates (New York, NY), 1958.
Columnist for People's Voice, c. 1940s; editor and columnist for Freedom, c. 1951-55. Contributor to periodicals, including African Observer, Afro-American,
American Dialog, American Scholar, Daily Worker, Freedomways, Jewish Life, Masses and Mainstream, Messenger, National Guardian, New Statesman and Nation, New World Review, New York Age, Opportunity, Spectator, and Worker. Created many sound recordings.
(With others) Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, Freedomways, 1971, enlarged edition, Dodd (New York, NY), 1985.
Paul Robeson: Tributes, Selected Writings, compiled and edited by Roberta Yancy Dent with the assistance of Marilyn Robeson and Paul Robeson, Jr., The Archives (New York, NY), 1976.
Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974, edited with an introduction by Philip S. Foner, Brunner, 1978.
Paul Robeson—civil rights activist, singer, actor, law school graduate, athlete, scholar, author—was perhaps the best known and most widely respected black American of the first half of the twentieth century. Balancing his many accomplishments in the eyes of many, Robeson was also a Soviet apologist, and later in his life he was widely vilified and censured for his outspoken and unyielding views on issues to which American public opinion ran contrary. As a young man, Robeson was virile, charismatic, eloquent, and powerful; in his final decades he was defeated and unsure mentally, a mere remnant of his younger self. While Robeson learned to speak more than twenty languages in order to break down the barriers of race and ignorance throughout the world, as Sterling Stuckey pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, for the last twenty-five years of his life his name was "a great whisper and a greater silence in black America." Martin Baulm Duberman, in his 1989 biography, Paul Robeson, asserted that Robeson ultimately is a hero wrongly accused, that his story is an "American tragedy." Barry Gewen, writing in the New Leader, felt instead that Robeson was a great man tragically flawed, "an artist of unassailable gifts and achievement who was brought low through his own political obtuseness." Such divergent views of Robeson can only be reconciled by understanding the complexity of his life from the beginning.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, the fifth and last child of Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson. During these early years the Robesons experienced both family and financial losses. At the age of six Paul and his siblings, William, Reeve, Ben and Marian, suffered the death of their mother in a household fire. This was followed a few years later with their father's loss of his Princeton pastorate. After moving first to the town of Westfield, the family finally settled in Somerville, New Jersey, in 1909, where William Robeson was appointed pastor of St. Thomas AME Zion Church.
Driven to Success
Enrolling in Somerville High School as one of only two blacks, Robeson excelled academically while successfully competing in debate and oratorical contests and showing great promise as a football player. He got his first taste of acting in the title role of William Shakespeare's Othello. In his senior year he not only graduated with honors, but placed first in a competitive examination for scholarships to enter Rutgers University. Although his other male siblings chose all-black colleges, Robeson took the challenge of attending Rutgers, a predominantly white institution, in 1915.
In college from 1915 to 1919, Robeson experienced both fame and racism. In trying out for the varsity football team, where blacks were not wanted, he encountered physical brutality. In spite of this resistance, Robeson not only earned a place on the team but was named first on the roster for the All-American college team and went on to graduate with fifteen letters in sports. Academically he was equally successful, elected a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society and the Cap and Skull Honor Society of Rutgers. Graduating in 1919 with the highest grade point average in his class, Robeson gave the class oration at the 153rd Rutgers commencement.
With college life behind him, Robeson moved to the Harlem section of New York City to attend law school, first at New York University, then transferring to Columbia University. He sang in the chorus of the 1921 musical Shuffle Along by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and made his acting debut in 1920 playing the lead role in Simon the Cyrenian by poet Ridgely Torrence. Robeson's performance was so well received that he was congratulated not only by the Harlem Young Men's Christian Association audience but also by members of the Provincetown Players who were in the audience.
While working odd jobs and taking part in professional football to earn his college fees, Robeson met Eslanda "Essie" Cardozo Goode. The granddaughter of Francis L. Cardozo, South Carolina's secretary of state during the Reconstruction era following the U.S. Civil War, Goode was a graduate of Columbia University and was employed as a histological chemist, the first black staff person at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. The couple married on August 17, 1921, and their son, Paul, Jr., was born on November 2, 1927.
To help support his family and fund his education while studying at Columbia Law School, Robeson played professional football for the Akron Pros from 1920-21 and the Milwaukee Badgers during the 1921-22 season. During the summer of 1922 he traveled to England to appear in a production of the play Taboo, which was renamed Voodoo. Graduating from Columbia in 1923 with a law degree, Robeson sought work in his new profession, all the while singing at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. He obtained a position with a New York law firm, only to have his career halted when a stenographer, as Duberman related the incident, refused to take down a memorandum and stated, "I never take dictation from a nigger." Offered an acting role in 1923 in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, Robeson quickly took this opportunity. "The stage," Harvey Klehr wrote in Commentary, "was an arena where his race, far from impeding his career, actually enabled him to capitalize on his talents much
more quickly than would ordinarily have been the case." A Nation critic, reflecting on the traditional, stereotyped role for blacks then, posed this question and answer: "What if Paul Robeson had wanted to use his proven mental abilities to become a great lawyer instead of employing his magnificent voice and physical presence to become a brilliant performer? A comparable career would have been unlikely."
Although All God's Chillun brought threats by the Ku Klux Klan because of the play's interracial subject matter and the fact that a white woman was to kiss Robeson's hand, it proved to be an immediate theatrical success. Robeson soon found himself cast in a 1924 revival of The Emperor Jones, the play Rosanne, and the silent movie Body and Soul, the last under the direction of independent African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. In 1925 Robeson debuted in a formal concert at Cape Cod's well-known Provincetown Playhouse. His performance, which consisted of Negro spirituals and folk songs, was so brilliant that he and his accompanist, Lawrence Brown, were offered a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. Encouraged by this success, Robeson and Brown embarked on a tour of their own, but were sorely disappointed. Even though they received good reviews, crowds were small and they made very little money. What Robeson came to know was that his talents in acting and singing would serve as the combined focus of his career.
Acting and Singing Career
Robeson's acting career started to take off in 1928 when he accepted the role of Joe in a London production of Show Boat, a musical composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. It was his singing of "Ol' Man River" that received most of the acclaim surrounding the show and earned him a great degree of attention from British socialites. Robeson gave concerts in London at Albert Hall and Sunday-afternoon performances at Drury Lane. In spite of all this attention, he still had to deal with racism, however. In 1929 Robeson was refused admission to a London hotel; because of the protest the actor then raised, major hotels in London soon announced that they would no longer refuse service to blacks.
Years later, Robeson recalled 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 men, 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: "He 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."
Robeson was embraced by the media during the 1920s. In the New Yorker Mildred Gilman wrote during that decade that Robeson was "the promise of his race," "King of Harlem," and "Idol of his people." Respected by white audiences as well, Robeson returned briefly to the United States in 1929 to perform before a packed Carnegie Hall. In May of 1930, after establishing a permanent residence in England, he accepted the lead role in Shakespeare's Othello. This London production at the Savoy Theatre was the first time since the performance of well-known black actor Ira Aldridge in 1860 that a major production company cast a black in the part of the Moor. Robeson, a tall, strikingly handsome man with a deep, rich, baritone voice and a shy, almost boyish manner, so captivated the audience that the first performance included twenty curtain calls.
Robeson received many accolades for his outstanding acting and singing performances during the 1930s, but his personal and home life were surrounded by difficulties. His wife, Essie, who had published a book on her husband in 1930 titled Paul Robeson, Negro, sued for divorce in 1932. Her actions were encouraged by the fact that Robeson had fallen in love and planned to marry Yolande Jackson, a white Englishwoman. Jackson, whom Robeson called the love of his life, originally accepted the still-married actor's proposal, but later called the marriage off. It was thought by some who knew the Jackson family well that she was strongly influenced
by her father, Tiger Jackson, who was less than tolerant of Robeson and people of color in general. With his marriage plans canceled, Robeson and Essie came to a new understanding regarding their relationship, and the divorce proceedings were canceled.
A Life of Activism
Robeson returned to New York briefly in 1933 to star in the film version of Emperor Jones before turning his attention to the study of singing and languages. His stay in the United States was a short one due to his racist treatment at the hands of the U.S. film industry and because of criticism he received from blacks upset over his role as a corrupt emperor. Upon returning to England, Robeson eagerly immersed himself in his language studies; along with Essie, he became an honorary member of the West African Students' Union and met students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, the future presidents of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. It was also during this time that Robeson performed at a benefit for Jewish refugees, an action that marked the beginning of his political activism.
Robeson's inclination to aid the less fortunate and the oppressed in their fight for freedom and equality was firmly rooted in his own family history. His father, William Drew Robeson, was an escaped slave who eventually graduated from Lincoln College in 1878, and his relative, Cyrus Bustill, was a slave who was freed by his second owner in 1769 and went on to become an active member of the African Free Society. Recognizing the heritage that brought him so many opportunities, Robeson chose roles in several films that present blacks in other than stereotypical ways: 1935's Sanders of the River and the 1937 film releases King Solomon's Mines and Song of Freedom.
In 1939 Robeson stated his intentions to retire from commercial entertainment and return to the United States. He gave his first American recital at Mother AME Zion Church Harlem, where his brother Benjamin was pastor. Later that same year he premiered the patriotic song "Ballad for Americans" on CBS radio as a preview of a play of the same title. The song was so well received that studio audiences cheered for twenty minutes after the performance, while the listening audience outnumbered that tuning in for actor Orson Welles's famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast. Robeson's popularity in the United States soared and he remained the most celebrated person in the country well into the 1940s. He was awarded the esteemed NAACP Spingarn
Medal in 1945 and received numerous other awards and recognitions from civic and professional groups. In the 1943 U.S. film production of Othello his performance placed him among the ranks of great Shakespearean actors. The production ran for 296 performances—over ten months—and toured both the United States and Canada.
Continued travels throughout Europe in the 1930s had brought Robeson in contact with members of politically leftist-leaning organizations, including socialists and African nationalists. Singing to and moving among the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, and 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," as Huggins noted. On a trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1934 to discuss the making of the film Black Majesty, he befriended Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein and also became so impressed with the education Soviet school children received against racism that he began to study both Marxism and Socialism. He also decided to send his son, nine-year-old Paul Jr., to school in the U.S.S.R. so that Paul would not have to contend with the racism and discrimination his father had confronted in both Europe and the United States. Robeson was ecstatic with this new-found society, concluding, as New York Times Book Review contributor John Patrick Diggins explained, "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,'" Robeson was quoted as saying. Noting Robeson's intellectual bent, Diggins went on to point out that Robeson's "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 desire to believe in a cultural genealogy, Robeson soon become a vocal advocate of communism and other politically left-wing causes. He returned to the United States in the late 1930s, Saal observed, as "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." After World War II, when relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R. dissolved into cold war hostility, many former advocates of communism backed away. When the many crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin became public—his forced famines, genocide, political purges, and death camps—still more advocates of communism left the ranks. Robeson, however, was not among them. Sobran explained why: "It didn't 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's popularity soon plummeted in response to his increasing rhetoric. A violent riot prevented his appearing at a concert in Peekskill, New York, after he had urged black youths not to fight if the United States went to war against the Soviet Union. The State Department revoked Robeson's passport in 1950, 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 [as little as] $2,000—and he was removed from the list of All-Americans," Saal observed. With no passport to travel abroad, Robeson continued to speak out in public forums in the United States and through his own monthly newspaper, Freedom. Barred from all other forms of media, his own newspaper became his primary platform from 1950 to 1955.
Robeson's passport was restored in 1958 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case, but it was of little consequence. By then he had become a nonentity. When his autobiography was published in that same year, leading newspapers, 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 the Smithsonian. Slowly deteriorating and virtually unheard from in the 1960s and 1970s, Robeson died after suffering a stroke in 1976.
If you enjoy the works of Paul Robeson
If you enjoy the works of Paul Robeson, you may also want to check out the following films:
To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck, 1962.
Glory, starring Denzel Washington, 1989.
Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne, 1995.
During his life, Robeson had thrilled thousands with his athletic achievements on the football field, had entertained thousands with his artistic presence on the stage and screen, and had inspired thousands with his voice raised in speech and song. But because of his singular support for communism and his inability to renounce 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 went out in sadness and loneliness, "forced in the end to retreat into the wilderness with his ghosts," as Huggins asserted. Robeson's 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," Diggins explained, "is at once an American triumph and an American tragedy." On February 24, 1998, Robeson received a posthumous Grammy lifetime achievement award. On January 20, 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the former actor in his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. Writing in Dynamic, the official magazine of the Young Communist League, Brandon Slattery stated: "Robeson is perhaps the first U.S. communist to be so honored."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Boyle, Sheila Tully, and Andrew Bunie, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement, University of Massachusetts Press (Boston, MA), 2001.
Brown, Lloyd L., The Young Paul Robeson, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1997.
Davis, Lenwood G., A Paul Robeson Research Guide: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1982.
Dorinson, Joseph, and William Pencak, editors, Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy, McFarland (Jefferson, NC), 2002.
Duberman, Martin Baulm, Paul Robeson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Editors of Freedomways, Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, enlarged edition, Dodd (New York, NY), 1985.
Gilliam, Dorothy Butler, Paul Robeson: All-American, New Republic Books, 1976.
Hoyt, Edwin P., Paul Robeson: The American Othello, World Publishing, 1967.
Robeson, Paul, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939, Wiley (New York, NY), 2001.
Robeson, Susan, The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson, Citadel (New York, NY), 1981.
American Heritage, April, 1976; April, 1989.
Commentary, May, 1989, Harvey Klehr, review of Paul Robeson.
Dynamic, November, 2003, Brandon Slattery, "Paul Robeson Honored on U.S. Postage Stamp."
Journal of African American History, summer, 2002, Barbara J. Beeching, "Paul Robeson and the Black Press: The 1950 Passport Controversy," p. 339.
Nation, February 7, 1976; March 20, 1989, Nathan Irvin Huggins, "Paul Robeson," p. 383.
National Review, May 19, 1989, Joseph Sobran, review of Paul Robeson, p. 55.
New American, February 23, 2004, Warren Mass, "A Mockery of Black Heritage," p. 44.
New Leader, February 20, 1989, Barry Gewen, "The Robeson Record," p. 17.
Newsweek, February 13, 1989, review of Paul Robeson.
New York Review of Books, April 27, 1989, review of Paul Robeson. New York Times, August 6, 1972; April 16, 1973; February 25, 1998, "Robeson Receives Posthumous Grammy."
New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1973; February 12, 1989, review of Paul Robeson.
Smithsonian, October, 1989, Dennis Drabble, review of Paul Robeson, p. 221.
Newsweek, February 2, 1976.
Time, February 2, 1976.*
Robeson, Paul 1898-1976
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. Robeson’s 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 (1896–1965). Her grandfather, Francis L. Cardozo (1837–1903), 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 husband’s 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. Robeson’s 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 O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924). In 1930 he appeared opposite renowned British actress Peggy Ashcroft (1907–1991) in a London production of Shakespeare’s Othello and in 1932 a Broadway version of Jerome Kern’s musical Show Boat (1927). Despite his glittering stage success, not everyone was impressed. The Trinidadian writer and activist C. L. R. James (1901–1989) 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 (1893–1972) 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.
Robeson’s 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 Robeson’s 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 Student’s Union and became acquainted with a younger generation of Caribbean and African leaders, such as C. L. R. James and George Padmore (1903–1959) of Trinidad, Jomo Kenyatta (1890?-1978) of Kenya, and Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904–1996) of Nigeria. It was this milieu that encouraged Robeson’s “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 Robeson’s political development concerned international socialism. The Great Depression had destroyed many people’s 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 (1908–1960), 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 (1818–1895) 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 Eslanda’s 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 York’s 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 Robeson’s 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 Robeson’s remarkable life and make up their own minds. Paul Robeson’s 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 today’s 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
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, 1939–1948. 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 Artist’s Journey, 1898–1938. 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
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 (1861–65), 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 (1775–83), 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 (1943–44) ran for 296 performances—a 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.
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 (1889–1945) radical German army, and sang to Loyalist troops during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), 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 (1939–45), when the Allies—the United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union—battled 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.
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:
Body and Soul (Micheaux); Borderline (MacPherson)
The Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy) (as Brutus Jones)
Sanders of the River (Bosambo) (Z. Korda) (as Bosambo)
Song of Freedom (Wills) (as John Zinga); Show Boat (Whale) (as Joe)
King Solomon's Mines (Stevenson) (as Umbopa); Jericho (Dark Sands) (Freeland) (as Jericho Jackson); Big Fella (Wills) (as Joe)
The Proud Valley (Tennyson) (as David Goliath)
Native Land (Hurwitz and Strand—doc) (as narrator); Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier) (as Luke)
Das Lied der Ströme (Song of the Rivers) (Ivens—doc) (singing voice only)
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
April 9, 1898
January 23, 1976
Actor, singer, and political activist Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father, William Drew Robeson, was the minister of a local Presbyterian church, and his mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, was a schoolteacher. His childhood was happy but marred by two defining events. His mother died when he was six, after she was accidentally set on fire at home; and his father lost his church following a fierce dispute among his congregation. After working at menial jobs in Princeton, his father moved first to Westfield and then to Somerville, both in New Jersey, where he again led churches affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination.
An uncommonly brilliant student and athlete, Paul Robeson entered Rutgers College (later Rutgers University) in New Brunswick in 1916. Although he was the only black student there, he became immensely popular. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior and selected twice (1917 and 1918) as an All-American football player by the famed journalist Walter Camp. After graduating in 1919, he moved to Harlem, and in 1920 entered the law school of Columbia University in New York. To support himself he played professional football on weekends, then turned to acting after winning a role in Simon the Cyrenian at the Harlem YMCA in 1921.
Graduating from law school in 1923, he was admitted to the bar and served briefly in a law firm. Then, chafing at restrictions on him as a black, and urged on by his wife, Eslanda Cardoza Goode (a fellow student, in chemistry, at Columbia), he left the law for the stage. He enjoyed immediate success, particularly with the Greenwich Village–based Provincetown Players in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones (1923) and All God's Chillun Got Wings (1925). In 1925, with his longtime accompanist Lawrence Brown, he launched his celebrated career as an interpreter of African-American spirituals and of folk songs from around the world with a concert of the former in New York. He then traveled to Europe and Great Britain (where in 1922 he had been well-received as an individual and as an actor in the play Voodoo ). Critics hailed his acting in the 1925 London production of The Emperor Jones.
In the 1928 London production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's musical Show Boat, his stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" took his popularity to new heights. Although he triumphed again when Show Boat opened in New York in 1930, Great Britain was the scene of many of his greatest achievements. In the following years he starred there in a number of plays, including Othello (1930), The Hairy Ape (1931), and Stevedore (1933). Robeson also had prominent roles in almost a dozen films, such as Sanders of the River (1935), Show Boat (1936), King Solomon's Mines (1935), and Proud Valley (1941). In most of these efforts, his depictions of a black man contrasted starkly with the images of subservience, ignorance, criminality, or low comedy usually seen on the Hollywood screen.
Handsome and blessed with a commanding physique and a voice of unusual resonance and charm, Robeson might have capitalized on his stage and screen success and ignored politics altogether. However, his resentment of racism and his attraction to radical socialism, especially after an outstanding welcome in the Soviet Union in 1934, set him on a leftward course. A frequent visitor to the USSR thereafter, Robeson learned to speak Russian (and eventually almost two dozen other languages, in which he recorded many songs). His son, Paul Jr. attended school there for several years. Robeson became a dependable supporter of progressive causes, including the rights of oppressed Jews and of antifascist forces in Spain. In London, he befriended several students and other intellectuals, such as Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, and Jomo Kenyatta, who would later be prominent in the anticolonialist movements in Africa.
Resettling in the United States in 1939, Robeson joined enthusiastically in the war effort and maintained his stellar position as an entertainer—although racism, including that on Broadway and in Hollywood, still disturbed him. In 1943 his critically acclaimed portrayal of Othello, in the first Broadway production of Shakespeare's play with an otherwise white cast, created a sensation. He was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1945. He fared less well after the war, when the cold war intensified. In 1946 he vowed to a special committee of the California State Legislature that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. However, when accusations continued, he resolutely refused to cooperate with the authorities. Despite his protests, he was identified as a communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Such opposition hampered his career as a recording artist and actor.
In 1949, in a major controversy, he told a gathering in Paris that it was "unthinkable" to him that African Americans would go to war against the Soviet Union, whose fair treatment of blacks was a rebuke to racist American laws and conventions. Later that year the announcement of his participation in a musical festival sponsored by liberals and leftists in Peekskill, New York, led to rioting in the town that left scores of attendees injured. The next year, the State Department impounded his passport. With Robeson refusing to sign an oath disavowing communism, his singing and acting career in effect came to an end. He was widely ostracized by whites and blacks, except those among the far left.
In 1958 the Supreme Court declared the oath and other government rules unconstitutional. That year, Robeson published Here I Stand, which combined autobiography with a considered statement of his political concerns and other beliefs. He sang at Carnegie Hall in what was billed as a farewell concert, and also performed in California. Leaving the United States, he was welcomed as a hero in the Soviet Union, which had awarded him the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, but he fell ill there. Complaining of chronic exhaustion and other ailments, he entered a series of hospitals in the Soviet Union, Europe, and Britain.
In 1963, when he and his wife returned to the United States and a home in Harlem, he announced his formal retirement. In 1965 Eslanda Robeson died. With a further deterioration in health, including a nervous breakdown, Robeson moved to Philadelphia to live with his sister. A seventy-fifth birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1973 found Robeson (whose illness kept him away) saluted, in a more liberal age, by prominent blacks, liberals, and socialists as one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. In a message to the gathering, Robeson described himself as "dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace, and brotherhood." He died in Philadelphia in 1976.
Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
Robeson, Paul, Jr. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey, 1898–1939. New York: Wiley, 2001.
Stewart, Jeffrey C. Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
arnold rampersad (1996)
Paul Leroy Robeson (April 9, 1898–January 23, 1976), a world-famous singer, actor, and political activist, was born in Princeton, New Jersey. The son of a runaway slave who became a Presbyterian minister, Robeson received a scholarship to Rutgers College in 1915. Only the third black student to be admitted, he starred in four sports, was twice named an all-America football end, and become valedictorian of his class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the national college honor society. To fulfill his class prophecy to be "the leader of the colored race in America," Robeson earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1923, supporting himself by playing professional football on the weekends.
At the urging of his wife, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, a fellow Columbia Law School student whom Robeson had married in 1921, he turned from the law to the stage. Beginning with the Provincetown Players in 1924, he eventually gained international acclaim for his performances in the title roles of Shakespeare's Othello and Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, and as Crown in DuBose Heyward's Porgy. Robeson also won praise for his moving interpretations of black spirituals and the folk music of many countries. Possessed of a magnificent bass voice, Robeson became known especially for his rendition of "Ol' Man River" in Jerome Kern's Show Boat. Despite his fame, Robeson could not escape the indignities of racism in the United States, and he was frequently denied service at hotels and restaurants, even in the North.
From 1928 to 1939 Robeson lived and worked primarily in London. There he became acquainted with leaders of the British Labor Party and with pan-Africanists such as Jomo Kenyatta and C. L. R. James. He came to see the connection between the struggles of the working class and those of oppressed colonial peoples, and he studied Marxist texts and the major ideas of communism. Increasingly, Robeson viewed his art as serving the fight for economic and racial justice.
In 1934 Robeson made the first of a series of visits to the Soviet Union. For the first time in his life, he would later claim of his time in Moscow, "I walk in full human dignity," entirely free from racial prejudice. This, and the Soviet Union's support of anti-fascist and anti-colonialist struggles, led to his close ties with American Communists, although he never formally joined the party. Having returned to the United States in 1939, Robeson became a leading spokesperson for a variety of left-wing causes, especially equal rights for African Americans. The first major artist to refuse to perform before segregated audiences, he urged Congress to end of the color bar in major league baseball. Robeson also helped lead voter registration campaigns in the Deep South and the efforts to enlist black workers in the Congress of Industrial Organizations union-organizing drives in the 1940s.
Reacting to President Harry Truman's refusal in 1946 to sponsor legislation making lynching a federal crime, Robeson shocked many Americans by asserting that black Americans would exercise their right of self-defense. Then, attending a peace conference in Paris in 1949, Robeson expressed a widely publicized prediction that African Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union.
Refusing on constitutional grounds to answer any questions from congressional committees concerning his Communist Party membership or affiliation, Robeson felt the full weight of McCarthy-era repression come crushingly down upon him. Branding him "one of the most dangerous men in the world," the State Department revoked his passport, and would not restore it until 1958. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency hounded and harassed him until his death, and the entertainment industry blacklisted him, preventing Robeson from appearing in television, radio, and the concert stage until 1957. Most African-American organizations no longer wanted any association with him, and when his autobiography was published in 1958 most newspapers and magazines in the United States did not review, or even mention, the book.
The once eloquent and powerful performer and radical, depressed at the loss of audiences and friends, suffered a series of mental breakdowns and tried twice to commit suicide. Largely forgotten in the 1960s and 1970s, Robeson died after suffering a stroke in 1976.
Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. 1989.
Foner, Philip S., ed. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918–1974. 1978.
Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. 1958.
Robeson, Susan. The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson. 1981.
Stewart, Jeffrey C., ed. Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen.