Robeson’s Choice

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In the densely printed fifty-one-page index to Taylor Branch’s splendid new chronicle of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, there are just three references to Paul Robeson, all of them inconsequential. To blacks and their allies of an earlier generation, Robeson’s relative insignificance in that struggle would have seemed inconceivable. As athlete and actor, singer and spokesman, Robeson had been perhaps the best-known black American on earth during the twenties and thirties. He was only fiftyseven when Rosa Parks refused to leave her bus seat and was still just sixty-five when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed his dream at the Lincoln Memorial, yet he no longer had any role to play. Martin Duberman’s new biography, Paul Robeson (Alfred A. Knopf), traces the long, sad arc of Robeson’s career in meticulous, sometimes harrowing detail.

 

He was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, the sixth and best-loved child of a Presbyterian minister and former slave who had been driven from his pulpit and forced to haul ashes for a living because of his outspokenness about racial injustice in that Jim Crow university town. The elder Robeson passed on to his son his huge baritone voice and unshakable dignity as well as his conviction that blacks were at least the equal of whites and that application and good will would ultimately prevail over prejudice. Robeson “had never learned as a youngster, as had almost all black Americans,” Duberman writes, “to deal in limited expectations; treated in his own family like a god, he had met in the outside world far fewer institutional humiliations than afflict most blacks. ... Ingrained optimism had become a characteristic attitude; he expected every set of hurdles, with the requisite hard work and determination, to be cleared as handily as those of his youth had been.”

He cleared those early hurdles with astonishing ease; he seemed able to do anything. Tall, powerful, and magnetic, he earned fifteen varsity letters in four sports at Rutgers, was twice named to Walter Camp’s All-American football team, graduated fourth in his class, and delivered the commencement oration in 1919 to tumultuous cheers. The class prophecy suggested that by 1940 he would have “dimmed the fame of Booker T. Washington” and become “the leader of the colored race in America.”

After college he played professional football, considered a boxing career, earned a law degree from Columbia, sang, acted, and seemed undecided about just what field to conquer next when he married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, a pretty, light-skinned woman, as ambitious as she was conventional, who devoted the rest of her life to making what she called the “best and the most” of her husband. Known always as Essie, she steered him toward the stage.

“The general public’s idea of a Negro is an Uncle Tom, an Aunt Jemima, 0I’ Mammy and Jack Johnson,” she told one playwright. “These subjects have always been sold to the public deliberately. Well, now they don’t exist anymore except in the sentimental minds of credulous people, and we feel that we certainly must not do anything in any way to prolong their nonexistent lives!!! We feel Mr. Robeson must play a Negro who does exist, who has something to do with reality. That’s all he asks.”

He asked too much. He was hugely successful in Othello and The Emperor Jones, but there were precious few such parts, and he largely abandoned acting for the concert stage. Heard today on records, his voice still astonishes—Brooks Atkinson called it a “cavernous roar"; a New Zealand critic exulted in its “sheer, carpeted magnificence”—although the self-conscious gravity with which he approached everything he sang now often seems stiff and dated. (In October 1940 with Count Basic he recorded “King Joe,” a blues tribute to Joe Louis, who had recently annihilated Max Schmeling. “It certainly is an honor to be working with Mr. Robeson,” Basic confided to the record producer, “but the man certainly can’t sing the blues.”)

“The only thing wrong with Robeson,” W. E. B. Du Bois once said, “is in having too great faith in human beings.” That was not all that was wrong. The size of his voice was matched by that of his ego. He was, he assured one reporter, “one of the great artists of the contemporary period.” And his devotion to art and politics was alloyed always with the sins that theatrical flesh seems especially heir to. He routinely ignored his son, Paul, Jr., toward whom, he once told Essie, he had “no fatherly instincts ... at all,” and in his pursuit of other women, he time and again wounded his loyal wife, for whose lifelong willingness to take him back between affairs Duberman seems to me to give insufficient credit. (Essie, a friend remembered, was willing to “be ‘a dragon’ so [Paul] could be his beautiful self.”)