Paul RobesonJun 4th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1898-1976 Paul Robeson devoted his enormous talent to working on behalf of those oppressed by circumstances of race and class. After becoming one of the most famous and beloved performers in the world, and then an outspoken advocate for human rights, he was tragically crushed by political forces, a victim of the Cold War.
Early Athlete and Scholar
Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was a former slave who became a church pastor; his mother, who died when Robeson was five years old, was a teacher from a family of Quaker abolitionists. One of five children, he showed early intellectual promise as the family moved to Westfield and then Somerville, New Jersey, where in 1915, he graduated from Somerville High School. That year he became the third black student in Rutgers College (now University) history when he received a full academic scholarship. During his four years there, Robeson excelled in academic and oratorical performance, and earned multiple varsity letters in four different sports while being named twice to the All American Football team. He was active in student theatrical productions, earned a Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, and graduated in 1919 as class valedictorian.
Robeson went on to study law at Columbia University in New York, earning money for tuition by playing professional football on weekends. While there, he married Eslanda Cardozo Goode; they would eventually have one son. He was also noticed by the playwright Eugene O’Neill in a student play. After graduating in 1923, he practiced with a New York law firm but left the profession when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. Returning to his artistic passions, Robeson joined the Provincetown Players, a theatrical troupe allied with O’Neill. He became an almost instant sensation, beginning with his lead role in the playwright’s 1924 All God’s Chillun Got Wings and amplified by his return to the stage in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. His Broadway appearance in Othello was the longest running Shakespeare production of the era, and marked Robeson as one of the first black actors to play serious roles in the American theater.
His rich baritone singing voice then brought him into the musical theater. There, he became even more widely known in such productions as Showboat, with his signature rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” Robeson began to act in films, ultimately appearing in 11 movies including Body and Soul, Proud Valley, Song of Freedom, and Jericho. During this period, he developed an acute sense of social justice and of the artist’s responsibility to serve the cause of his conscience. At the same time, he developed a concert career as a singer, based on his affinity for traditional black music and a growing appreciation of how the folk music and struggles of common people everywhere expressed universal themes. As this career became international, Robeson mastered over a dozen languages and appeared at overflowing concert halls in Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as in the United States, singing in the native tongue and shared language of common hopes and struggles to rapt admirers. These included such dignitaries as Pablo Neruda, President Harry Truman, W.E.B. DuBois, Joe Louis, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
A Global Perspective
As a result of his international experience, Robeson learned that other countries were far less racist than the United States of that time, where he still had difficulty finding restaurants to serve him and where African Americans could only be seated in the upper balconies of theaters to hear him perform. In particular, a visit to Russia made an indelible impression on him. There, he experienced a color-blind society apparently committed to improving the conditions of its working class members, descendents of serfs just as African Americans were descendents of slaves.
Returning to the United States, Robeson became active in working to change racist practices at home for which he was honored with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1945. He was part of an organization that attempted to force President Harry Truman to sign federal antilynching legislation, and he refused to sing for segregated audiences. When the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. took hold, Robeson was vocal in protesting U.S. policy toward Russia. As tensions mounted, he went so far as to urge African Americans not to fight in a war, since they were treated with such discrimination by their own country. These were inflammatory sentiments that attracted the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee to sign an affidavit that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, Robeson refused on principal, even though he had never joined the party.
The Committee condemned him. Robeson was blacklisted from performing in the United States and his passport was revoked in 1950. Confined to a hostile America for the next eight years, he fought for his passport, studied Chinese, and wrote an autobiography, Here I Stand. But popular opinion had turned against him, a traumatic state for a formerly beloved performer. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that the basis for denying his passport was unconstitutional; it was reinstated, but to little effect. Newspapers refused to review his autobiography, published that year. Robeson returned to Russia, and performed in 1960 in Australia and New Zealand, but the psychological consequences of his experience resulted in several episodes of suicidal depression. He was hospitalized in London and then treated for a variety of misdiagnosed ailments on his return to the United States in 1963, where he retreated from public view.
Robeson’s wife died in 1965, at which point he moved in with his sister and became a virtual recluse. He died of a stroke in 1976 in Philadelphia. Robeson was recognized posthumously for his athletic prowess in 1995 with his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, and in 1998 for his music career with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. His legacy survives in the strength of his ideals and his passion for the universal rights of man.