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 Eslan da Cardozo Goode, August 17, 1921; children: Paul Jr. Education: Rutgers College (now University), A.B., 1919; Columbia University, LL.B., 1923.
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 Sov iet 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 whi sper 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 acciden t 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 let ters 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 profess ional 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 joi ned 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."
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 u ndeniable, and with the musical Show Boat and Shakespeare's Othello, Robeson's reputation grew even larger. In Show Boat he sang the immensely popular "Ol' Man River," displa ying 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 an d 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 spi rituals 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 spirit ual 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 directo r 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 di gnity.'" 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 Ameri can 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 S aal 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 afte r 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 Am erican 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 h is 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 l ist 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 t he 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 ut terly 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 Smi thsonian. 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 ."
Columnist for People's Voice, 1940s; editor and columnist for Freedom, c. 1951-55. Contributor to periodicals.
by Rob Nagel
Paul Robeson's Career
Admitted to the Bar of New York; employed in a law firm, 1923; actor; stage appearances include Simon the Cyrenian, 1921, All God's Chillun 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.
Paul Robeson's 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; Champ ion 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, 1 970; 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 Un iversity, Moscow State Conservatory, and Humboldt University.
- Selective Works
- 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.
- 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.
January 20, 2004: The U.S. postal service issued a stamp honoring Robeson in his home town of Princeton, New Jersey, on January 20. Source: Associated Press, http://customwire.ap.org, January 20, 2004.
April 26, 2005: Robeson, a play that concentrates on Robeson's later years, was written by Miriam Jensen Hendrix and premiered at the Blue Heron Arts Center in New York. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, April 26, 2005.
- 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.