by Esther Iverem
The life of actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson bears
the deep, horrible and wondrous marks of America as perhaps no other.
For who else could there be a Hollywood Walk of Fame award, a Grammy
award for Lifetime Achievement and a Stalin Peace Prize?
His birthday on April 9 annually invites us to consider the greatness,
controversy and tragedy of this Renaissance manthe magnificence
and pain of his lush bass-baritone; the profound parallels between
Robeson and "Othello," which he played on Broadway and in London,
declaring, "I have done some service to the state, and they know
it;" the measure of Robeson as eulogized at Mother A.M.E. Zion Church
in Harlem: "This was a man," said his boyhood friend Bishop J. Clinton
Hoggard, "who bore on his body the marks of Jesus... marks of vengeance."
Robeson was marked as he walked America's jagged, rocky color line,
the line that W.E.B DuBois called the "problem of the 20th century."
After winning a scholarship to Rutgers University, he was elected
to Phi Beta Kappa and went on to Columbia Law School. He was an
All-American football player who lettered in three other sports,
a star of Broadway and film and a popular recording artist who spoke
20 languages. His friends would include many of the century's luminaries,
such as W.E.B. DuBois, Noel Coward, Sergei Eisenstein, Jomo Kenyatta
and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Robeson was also the son of an escaped slave. His childhood was
fired in the kiln of a turn-of-the-century America that increasingly
offered grisly murder, violence and disenfranchisement to its African
American citizens. The film, "Birth of A Nation," which glorifies
the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, was a national hit in 1917 and prominent
educators promoted the inferiority of blacks as a scientific fact.
When Robeson tried out for the football squad at Rutgers, his own
schoolmates broke his nose, dislocated his shoulder and crushed
his bare hand under metal cleats, ripping off every fingernail.
Growing up on that line made Robeson identify with the oppression
of his people, eventually finding links between racism at home and
fascism abroad. It dictated how he viewed slavery and freedom, justice
and inequality, life and death. As a result, he elevated slave-honed
spirituals to a form of classical music. He walked out on a lucrative
film career rather than continue to perpetuate characters he described
as "Stepin Fetchit comics" or "savages with leopard skin and spear."
And finally, to his eventual downfall, he would remain a staunch
critic of capitalist Americawhere black soldiers returned
from World War II and were lynched still wearing their uniforms.
At the height of this country's anti-communist fervor, he would
defend the Soviet Union, where he felt during his several visits,
beginning in 1934, that he had walked "for the first time as a human
Folksinger Pete Seeger once said, "If it hadn't been for race prejudice
in America, Robeson might have been president."
I got a home in-a-dat rock. Don't you see?
was in the churches pastored by his father, William Drew Robeson,
that Robeson learned the spirituals that would fuel his fame. His
father had escaped a North Carolina plantation in 1860 at the age
of 15 and trained as a minister. After speaking out one too many
times about racial equality, the elder Robeson was forced out of
a black but white-controlled Presbyterian church in Princeton, N.J.
in 1901. Seven years later, he reestablished himself in Westfield,
N.J. where he built the Downer Street St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church.
He later pastored in Somerville, N.J.
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton on April 9, 1898. When he was
six years old, his mother died due to burns from a fire. The Westfield
congregation helped to look after him and his brother Ben, the only
two of the family's five children still living at home. As the baby
of the family, Paul was doted upon by his elderly father and older
In taking this heritage into concert halls, Robeson was among the
Harlem Renaissance artists who spread the flowering of African American
culture to the larger nation.and world. Though he received his degree
from Columbia Law School in 1923, Robeson learned that racism would
make it difficult to actually practice law. With prodding from Eslanda
Goode Robeson, whom he married in 1921, and friends like his lifelong
musical collaborator Larry Brown, he sort of stumbled into singing
At his New York concert debut in April 1925, in a small Greenwich
Village theater, the crowd was packed beyond the fire safety limit.
Given advance buzz by writer, artist and arts patron Carl Van Vechten
and by a generous column in the New York World, more clamoured on
the sidewalk for tickets to hear a new voice singing this trendy
new thing called Negro spirituals.
Some black intellectuals such as Alain Locke, in promoting the
idea of the "New Negro," argued to Robeson that folk sources, such
as his spirituals, were not important. Some middle class blacks
considered spiritualsoften rendered in dialecta throwback
to slavery. But like his contemporary, Zora Neale Hurston, Robeson
stressed the importance of elevating indigenous African American
culture as opposed to parroting Euro-American classical culture.
When he was bound for Kansas City in 1927 to perform, this debate
raged in the local black press for months. Most readers supported
Robeson but others accused Robeson of "commercializing our backwardness."
One reason for the endurance of the African American spiritual is
because it has always served the double purpose of worship and social
commentaryas it did for Robeson: "Didn't my lord deliver Daniel?
And why not every man?"
dozens of his recordings, such as "Paul Robeson: Songs of Free Men"
(Sony); "Paul Robeson: The Peace Arch Concerts" (Folk Era), "Paul
Robeson: Live At Carnegie Hall" (Vanguard), you can hear his unmistakable
voice giving dignity to spirituals and slave songs. He sings with
passion songs of the labor movement like "Joe Hill" and gives warmth
to international songsparticularly Chinese and Russianthat
he often delivers in their native tongue. He felt a kinship with
folk music from around the world, and found parallels between it
and African American spirituals.
He is most popularly remembered for singing "Ol Man River," in
both a theatrical and film production of "Show Boat." Eventually,
he changed the final lyrics to "I'm tired of livin' and scared of
dyin" to "I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin.'" Even until the
end of his singing careerwhen the song could have sounded
antiquatedpeople all over the world, Russians, anti-Franco
forces in Spain, miners in Wales, a fashionable Carnegie Hall crowdwent
wild when he rumbled its first bass notes.
His musical career chronicles his restless life. Increasingly in
the 1930s, his concerts were dedicated to political causes. In 1938
he went to Spain to sing for the troops battling the fascist revolt
of Francisco Franco. After having lived in England for a decade,
and during that time educating his son, Paul Robeson Jr., in the
Soviet Union, he returned to the United States in 1939 to play a
greater part in politics at home.
"I saw the connections between the problems of all oppressed people
and the necessity of the artist to participate fully," he said.
That same year, he enjoyed national pop star status with his recording
of the patriotic "Ballad For Americans." "Our marching song" to
a land of freedom and equality "will come again," he sang. "For
I have always believed it and I believe it now!"
After his triumph with "Ballad for Americans," Brooks Atkinson,
the New York Times theater critic wrote him, saying that "Ballad"
had made a "deep impression" on him and thanked him "for your voice,
which God gave you, and especially... for the fortitude and honesty
of your character, which are qualities for which you are responsible."
But in a few years, voices of praise would be drowned out by voices
of condemnation. Where once huge crowds packed arenas like the Hollywood
Bowl to hear him sing, they would soon want him to sing but be silenced
"We want him to sing, and go on being Paul Robeson," said the New
York Times in 1949. One English critic wrote that, compared to the
new Robeson, he preferred the old one in one of his unfortunate
film roles, wearing feathers and carrying as spear as an African
You could say that White America ultimately embraced Paul Robeson
as an artist but denied him his political stance. Most African Americans
embraced his outspokenessparticularly about racial inequality?but
often sharply debated or criticized his work as an artistparticularly
his images on stage and in film.
Film and Image
Look here, white man? Do you think I'm a natural born fool??
Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones
Despite failures and embarrassments, Robeson set a
precedent for Black actorsSidney Poitier in the 1960's, and
a newer crop of actors, including Denzel Washington, to portray
Black men on stage and screen who are not one-dimensional stereotypes.
As with Josephine Baker, his Black image would become
an emblem. Standing six-foot-three and muscled, with a broad chest
and kingly African features, he was besieged with requests from
artists to photograph, paint and sculpt him. British sculptor Jacob
Epstein's bust of him renders his eyes wide and terrible as if Robeson
has the ability to see heaven and hell. A series of nudes of him,
by photographer Nikolas Murray, portray him as a fine ebony Atlas.
"That Mr. Robeson should be stripped to the waist
is my first demand of any play in which he appears," one English
critic wrote in 1931.
it was a long, tough road. He actually began acting before he began
professionally singing. While he was still in law school and living
in Harlem, he lived next door to a rehearsal hall for the Amateur
Players, a group of students, and finally consented to their continual
requests to join them in a production, which he did in 1920, appearing
in "Simon the Cyrenian.11 After that, a series of roles came his
way in productions, including: "Shuffle Along, (1921),11 "Taboo,"
later titled "Voodoo (1922), "Plantation Revue" (1922), "All God's
Chillun Got Wings," "The Emperor Jones" and "Roseanne (1924), "Black
Boy," (1926), "Othello," In England (1930), "Hairy Ape," (1931),
"Show Boat (1932), "John Henry" (1939) and "Plant in the Sun" (1938).
In his Broadway rendition of "Othello" beginning in
1943, the longest running production of Shakespeare there, Robeson
crashed theater's color line, interpreting the role as he thought
a black man betrayed by whites would react. Variety wrote, "no white
man should ever dare presume to play the role again." He appeared
in a dozen films, ten of them British, including, "Body And Soul"
(1925); "The Emperor Jones" (1933); "Sanders of the River" (1935);
"Showboat," (1936) and "Jericho" (1937).
In the best of his roles, he provided a measure of
fresh air to black audiences desperate for something other than
the usual cast of denigrating characters.
In "Proud Valley," for example, he purposely counters
the popular stereotype of the lazy, shiftless Negro. Robeson identified
with the average guy. He wanted to be Everyman, even though his
size, presence, voice andin these British filmshis color
made that next to impossible.
This presence would have served him well as a dashing
leading man but few such roles were available. He gets close in
"Jericho," in which he played Jericho Jackson, a soldier with skills
as a doctor who avoids capture and wrongful prosecution.
Even in his more questionable roles, Robeson has his
moments. In "The Emperor Jones," based on the play by Eugene O'Neill,
he gets to look good in his Pullman porter uniform, slick city suits
and, finally, his ridiculous emperor tailcoat. He gets to outsmart
white people. Poking out his chest and his lip, Robeson parodies
the petty tyrant with attitude and gusto.
In playing "Emperor Jones," which ultimately reinforced
stereotypes of blacks as uncivilized and incapable rulers, Robeson
showed the compromises black actors had to make to get the scarce
"Japhet in search of a father was not a more forlorn
figure than Mr. Robeson in search of a play," wrote one critic.
In both "Showboat" and "Tales Of Manhattan," the two
American films in his repertoire, his parts are marginal. They both
cast Robeson and the African American community as bit players to
whites. At first glance, his role in "Showboat" would appear to
be positive. His character sits on the dock whittling. He looks
strong and reflective, not bug-eyed and slow.
Similarly, in "Tales," Robeson's character lives in
a rural community where a coat whose pockets are filled with thousands
of dollars has just fallen from the sky. Some writers for the black
press said that by portraying the town folk as grateful for the
money "from hebben," the film makes them look ignorant and foolish.
But critics could just as well have noted that Robeson gets to make
a good sense speech about using the money to buy land and build
hospitals and schools.
Though England would provide him with his best roles
in films like "Jericho" and "Proud Valley," it would also provide
him with his worst. Just as Hollywood placed African Americans within
a framework of stereotypes, English films did the same for Africans
and the continent of Africa, still held as colonies by England and
other European countries. By far the worst of these Robeson films
is "Sanders of the River," a paean to European colonialism in which
entire African nations quake at the feet of a nerdy British civil
servant named Sanders. As a king, Bosambo, Robeson declares himself
to be Sandy's servant, uses his lush voice to sing Sandy's praises:
"Sandy the strong! Sandy the wise!" and heaps worshipful praise
on the English monarchy: "Every time I've seen the beautiful face
of your king, my heart has filled with joy."
In the 1940's he would give up on film making, deciding
that the industry was not ready for a celluloid version of black
life that did not grin, shuffle or run with a spear shouting "ooga-booga."
By the 1940's, he was also increasingly estranged
from his wife who, according to his biographer Martin Duberman,
lived apart from him for most of her life, though she remained a
fervent supporter. During this time, he became increasingly uninterested
in any art that did not allow him mix in politics.
Robeson as Othello
by Alfred Bendiner.
"I do the singing and acting because it helps me to
make a statement, gives me a platform to say what I believe," he
told his "Othello" co-star Uta Hagen.
On the heels of his success in 1939 with "Ballad For
Americans,," he supported the American war effort by touring with
the first integrated U.S.O. show. He also performed concerts at
war plants at home. Like many leftists of his generation, he was
full of optimism about Soviet socialism in its early fits and starts
as a new society. World events and the Soviet Union's increasing
corruption were processed through this hope. He saw the Hitler-Stalin
pact as a fact of life forced on the Soviets because Western countries
refused to cooperate with them.
For a long time, his marriage of art and politics
was fine. In addition to championing the cause of colonized people
in Africa, Asia and in Central and South America, he was a fervid
anti-fascist. In defending the Spanish Republic against Franco and
defending the Soviet Union, his views were not too far out of line
from those of many Americans, especially during World War II after
Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and when the Soviet Union and the
United States were war allies. But the post-war climate was something
else. Across the United States the focus was on the Soviet Union's
expansion into countries like Poland and Romania and later on the
revelation of millions killed under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
But Robeson was alarmed, instead, by the fact that the war just
fought for freedom had not brought an end to the brutalities and
death in South Africa from colonial domination over much of the
world by Europe.
"Little is said of the cold war of racial hatred,
malice and intolerance, which is being waged with an intensifed
fury in an attempt to hold millions of people of non-European race
in permanent subjection," he said at the time. "A Negro may be lynched
in the Southern States of America if he attempts to use his vote.
In South Africa he is in no such danger, only because he has no
He turned more of his energy toward speaking out on
his beliefs. He was never, by all accounts, a member of the Communist
Party. Yet he had close and enduring ties to members of the party
and other major leftist organizations. He headed the Council on
African Affairs, at that time the country's most important organization
concerned with the welfare of Africa. In 1946, he spent a great
deal of energy campaigning for the Progressive Party's presidential
candidate, Henry Wallace and, when he could have remained snug in
individual privilege, he told President Truman that if anti-lynching
laws weren't passed, black people would collectively arm and defend
As early as 1943, while Robeson was receiving accolades
as "Othello," F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover placed him on "custodial
detention list," a list of suspected subversives who would be rounded
up and detained during a national emergency. In 1948, he was brought
before a Senate subcommittee investigating whether all Communist
and so-called "Communist-front organizations" should be required
to register with the government.
When he spoke out at the Congress of the World Partisans
of Peace in 1949, it was a major turning point in his life. In a
famous though apparently universally misquoted statement, he questioned
why in the increasingly cold climate of the cold war African American
or colonized people should make war against the Soviet Union.
After that he was attacked broadly in the United States
for his views. His persecutors began to close around him. Years
of F.B.I. surveillance and harassment was coming to fruition (at
some point a federal investigator believed that Robeson was part
of a conspiracy to set up a Soviet satellite country in the southern
Concert halls barred his performances, two concerts
in Peekskill, N.Y. turned into violent attacks against leftists,
Jews and blacks. In 1950, The U.S. State Department stripped him
of his passport, stating that his travel "would be contrary to the
best interests of the United States." In a footnote to court documents
filed in the case, the State Department added that his outspokeness
against racism and in support of the colonized people of Africa
was a "diplomatic embarrassment."
banning effectively prevented him for making a living around the
world where he continued to have support. His records were taken
out of stores. Neighbors "reported" neighbors who played Robeson
records. It didn't help when in 1952 he was awarded the Stalin Peace
Prize which honored leftists and supporters of the Soviet
Union those who oppose war. His name was obliterated from athletic
record books. His income dropped from $100,000 in 1947 to $6,000
in 1952 He independently published his 1958 book, "Here I Stand,"
because no commercial publisher would touch it.
At issue were differing definitions of patriotism
and loyalty. When he was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American
Activities in 1955, Representative Gordon Scherer (R-Ohio) asked
him why he didn't just go and live in Russia. He replied, "Because
my father was a slave and my people died to build this country,
and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you.
And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?"
The years of confinement took their toll on both his
physical and mental health. By the time his passport was returned
in 1958 and he attempted a resurgence, he was once again received
with enthusiasm among his hardcore supporters, by this point primarily
African Americans, in the United States. In that same year, he gave
his first New York concert in ten years at a sold-out Carnegie Hall
and the next year starred as Othello at the 100th season of England's
Stratford-upon-Avon Memorial Theater.
But his health was in jeopardy. In 1963 while in Europe,
he suffered a series of mental breakdowns and attempted suicide.
His son, who also suffered a breakdown, stated his belief that both
of them were victims of poisoning by the C.I.A. In England he received
a treatment of 54 electric shock treatments during one single year
that was considered excessive by independent specialists reviewing
the case. Later, the treatments were determined to have caused brain
damage. When he returned to the United States at the height of the
civil rights movement, he was often forgotten by a new generation
of activists who did not know the pioneering role he had played
in speaking out for human rights and in forcing America to confront
a black man who would not bend.
He lived his later years bearing the physical and
emotional marks of a lifetime of battle. His poor health prevented
him from attending a celebration of his 75th birthday at Carnegie
Hall in 1973 but he sent a message that said, in part, "Though I
have not been active for several years, I want you to know that
I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of
humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.
But I keeps laughing
Instead of crying.
I must keep fighting until I'm dying.
'And Ol Man River He just keeps rolling along!'"
His wife had died in 1965. He was cared for by family,
primarily his sister Marian Forsythe, at her home in West Philadelphia.
He died in Philadelphia in January 1976.
On a grassy hill in Hartsdale N.Y., Paul Robeson's
tombstone reads: "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or
for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." This
grave marker is the final mark he bears and it is his last statement
to the world.
"He forces us to rethink what it means to be an American
citizen and to question whether citizenship should be based on solely
on loyalty to America, right or wrong," says Jeffrey C. Stewart,
editor of "Paul Robeson: Artists and Citizen," which accompanied
the traveling exhibit of the same name.
"The word 'class' is almost a dirty word today," says
his son, Paul Robeson, Jr., who lives in Brooklyn. "Most African
Americans and most Americans in general are working class, not middle
class. Paul Robeson's culture was very much geared to and strongly
identified with the working class. His view was that you can't solve
the race problem without first solving the class problem. But this
society goes to great pains to try to separate the two.
Because of his complete package of intellect, star
quality and activism, Robeson's legacy is often claimed by today's
"We feel that Paul Robeson basically symbolizes the
artist-activist, that whole notion of a performer or artist who
is professional but also takes a political stand," says Ray Davis,
who two years ago was executive director of the D.C. Student Coalition
he is being re-examined as an actor, his films have been brought
out on video. Though his Broadway "Othello" is widely considered
one of the finest Shakespeare performances of this century, he forbade
its filming and there exists no record of it.
Many books on Robeson, including Martin Duberman's
biography, have been reprinted. The "Paul
Robeson: Artist and Citizen" catalogue from Rutgers is one of
the most recent to take stock of him in total and assess his contemporary
In exhibit halls, dinner tributes and festivals, his
recordings are played. There is often his rich voice overhead. He
"There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole."
-- April 9, 2001
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