Robeson, Paul 1898–1976
Paul Robeson 1898–1976
Civil rights activist, singer, actor
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 1930s and 1940s. Paul Robeson was also a Soviet apologist, and a man, later in his life, widely vilified and censored for his outspokenness and unyielding views on issues to which public opinion ran contrary. As a young man, Robeson was virile, charismatic, eloquent, and powerful. In his last two decades, he was defeated and unsure mentally, a remnant physically. 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 name had “been a great whisper and a greater silence in black America.” Martin Baulm Duberman, in his 1989 biography Paul Robeson, asserted that Robeson ultimately was a hero wrongly accused, that his story was 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. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, Robeson wasn’t subjected to the brutalities of daily life common for black Americans after 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 year. He earned varsity letters in four sports, and was named Rutgers’ first All-American in football. Fueled by his class prophesy 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
Born Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson, April 9, 1898, in Princeton, NJ; died 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 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.
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; Spingarn Medal from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1945; Champion of African Freedom Award from National Church of Nigeria, 1950; Afro-American Newspapers Award, 1950; Stalin Peace Prize from U.S.S.R., 1952; German Peace Medal from East Germany, 1960; Ira Aldridge Award from Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, 1970; Civil Liberties Award, 1970; Duke Ellington Medal from Yale University, 1972; Whitney M. Young, Jr., National Memorial Award from Urban League of Greater New York, 1972. Honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Morehouse College, Howard University, Moscow State Conservatory, and Humboldt University.
Member: National Maritime Union (honorary member), Council on African Affairs (co-founder), Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, Committee to Aid China, Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Phi Alpha, Sigma Tau Delta.
graduation 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: “I never take dictation from a nigger.”
Sensing this one episode as indicative of the climate of the law, Robeson left the bar. (Duberman noted that upon reflection, “Robeson concluded that he could never have entered ‘any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to me.’”) While in law school, he had married a fellow Columbia student, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who encouraged him to act in a few amateur theatrical productions. Subsequently convinced by his wife and friends to return to the theater, Robeson joined the Provincetown Players, a group associated with playwright 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 Newsweek’s Hubert Saal, called Robeson “thoroughly eloquent, impressive, and convincing.” But others have since noted that Robeson’s talent, albeit prodigious, did not alone account for his stature. “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.” And 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.”
Thus Robeson continued on the stage, winning plaudits from the critics and audiences, gaining an international reputation for his performances on the London stage, and even extending his acting repertoire by appearing in films, including adaptations of a few of his theatrical credits. 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 song “Ol’ Man River,” displaying a powerful, warm, soothing voice; his Shakespearean performance, though applauded by many critics, had a few detractors. Joseph Sobran, writing in the National Review, observed that “as Othello, [Robeson] completely failed to convey the Moor’s smashed self-esteem at Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. Where [British actor Laurence] Olivier displayed shocking, writhing rage beyond all shame or dignity, Robeson could only work up disapproval.” Even Duberman noted his “awkward body movement” and his “tendency to declaim.” 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 his growing social convictions.
Robeson had been giving solo singing 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 there 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.”
This focus in Robeson’s life was not unwarranted. In the New York Times Book Review John Patrick Diggins described how Robeson was “forced to use freight elevators, denied entrance to hotels and restaurants even at the height of his fame, [had] a white woman companion spat upon, [and read] of the hundreds of black youths killed in racial violence.” He was aware of the indignities of a forced social class structure, and “his patience in the face of the continual slights and insults was little short of heroic,” Gewen observed, a testament to the elder Robeson’s teachings.
Continued travels throughout Europe in the 1930s 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, 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 pivotal journey at that time, one that changed the course of his life, was to the Soviet Union. 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, 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.’” 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, 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 dissolved into Cold War hysteria, many former advocates of communism backed away. When the many crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin became public—forced famine, genocide, political purges—still more advocates 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 couldn’t publicly decry the Soviet Union even after he, most probably, learned of Stalin’s atrocities, for “the cause, to his mind,” Huggins emphasized, “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. 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. 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 member 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?” “It was, and he paid a fearful price for that clarity,” Geoffrey C. Ward pointed out in American Heritage.
The State Department revoked Robeson’s passport in 1950, insuring that he would stay 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 observed. 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 in that same year, leading literary journals, including the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune refused to review it; indeed, “they refused to include its name on their lists of ‘books out today,’” Lloyd L. Brown lamented in the preface to the 1971 edition of Here I Stand. 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 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 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,” 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.”
Here I Stand, Othello Associates, 1958, reprinted with a preface by Lloyd L. Brown, Beacon Press, 1971.
(Contributor) Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, Freedomways, 1971, new edition, Dodd, 1978, enlarged, 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, 1976.
Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974, edited with an introduction by Philip S. Foner, Brunner, 1978.
Columnist for People’s Voice during 1940s; editor and columnist for Freedom, c. 1951-55. Contributor to periodicals.
American Balladeer—Golden Classics, Volume 1, Collectables.
Collector’s Paul Robeson, Monitor.
Essential Paul Robeson, Vanguard.
Favorite Songs, Volume 1, Monitor.
Favorite Songs, Volume 2, Monitor.
Historic Paul Robeson —Golden Classics, Volume 3, Collectables.
Live at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard.
Man & His Beliefs —Golden Classics, Volume 2, Collectables.
Paul Robeson, Pearl.
Paul Robeson Sings “Ol’ Man River” & Other Favorites, Angel.
Duberman, Martin Baulm, Paul Robeson, Knopf, 1988.
Robeson, Paul, Here I Stand, Beacon Press, 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.
New York Review of Books, April 27, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1973; February 12, 1989.
Newsweek, February 2, 1976; February 13, 1989.
Smithsonian, October 1989.
Time, February 2, 1976; March 13, 1989.
Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 1958.