Skip to main content


Robeson’s Choice

May 2024
6min read

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.”)

“That Mr. Robeson should be stripped to the waist is my first demand of any play in which he appears,” wrote the drama critic for the London Graphic in what Duberman calls “a fine display of homoeroticism,” and women felt the same way about him. Robeson had “many, many, many women,” the actress Uta Hagen (who was one of them) recalled, including Peggy Ashcroft, his first Desdemona, but not, according to his biographer, the two Englishwomen most prominently rumored to have been his lovers—Nancy Cunard and Edwina Mountbatten. In 1932 another Englishwoman, whom he had courted for three years and planned to divorce Essie in order to marry, abruptly turned him down, apparently because her father would not hear of her marrying a black man.

Shortly thereafter Robeson began to manifest a new interest in his own African heritage and in the Soviet Union, which he persuaded himself was entirely free of the racism evident everywhere else on earth. “Here,” he said in Moscow in 1934, “for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity.” After that he rarely strayed from the Soviet path, and his devotion to the struggle for equality in America was always tangled up with the fate of international socialism everywhere else. “Despising American racism and viewing the Soviets as the only promising counterbalancing force to racism,” Duberman writes, “Robeson was inclined to look away when the USSR acted against its own stated principles, to look away fixedly as the perversions multiplied over the years, discounting them as temporary aberrations or stupidities ultimately justified by the long view. . . .”

Robeson said nothing about Stalin’s purges, even when old friends disappeared and his Jewish accompanist was refused entry to the USSR. He applauded the Nazi-Soviet pact, dismissed the Hungarian revolution as a fascist uprising, even argued that while the Smith Act was unconstitutional when applied against communists, it was just what Trotskyists deserved. “Paul is inclined to be a bit arrogant sometimes when people don’t agree with him,” his wife once admitted in private, “especially politically. Not in any other field, as I think of it now. Only politically.”

A mob stormed him in 1949 after he was quoted as saying American blacks would never fight against Russia.

Nothing Robeson ever did or said abroad can excuse the appalling treatment he received at home during the early Cold War years. After he had been quoted as saying American blacks would never fight against Russia, a mob stormed him at a Peekskill, New York, concert in 1949. Theaters closed their doors. Networks blacklisted him.

For eight years the State Department denied him the right to travel because he refused on principle to say whether he had ever been a member of the Communist party (according to Duberman, he never was). The FBI dogged his footsteps, tapped his telephone. In a move that Stalinist historians might have envied, the editors of College Football, a record book published in 1950, listed only ten members of the All-American team for 1918 rather than have Robeson’s name subvert their pages. He refused to bend. Why didn’t he stay in Russia, where he belonged, Congressman Gordon Scherer demanded at a Washington hearing. “Because my father was a slave,” Robeson thundered back, “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?”

It was, and he paid a fearful price for that clarity. In 1955, as the FBI turned its unwanted attentions upon Dr. King, Robeson began to show signs of manic depression. When on the upswing, he could not be dissuaded from talking about his “discovery” that the universality of the pentatonic scale (the five-note harmonics of the piano’s black keys) was proof of the essential oneness of all peoples. When on the way down, he slashed his wrists, tried to drown himself, wandered away from home. Neither drugs nor intensive electroconvulsive therapy could permanently restore his equilibrium. Nor could the 1958 publication of Here I Stand, a slim manifesto affirming that his first loyalty was to his own community and to winning back the black masses whose hero he once had been. The new generation of students sitting-in and freedom riding and registering voters all across the South had barely heard of him.

A psychiatrist who saw him a few times during his last years remembered above all Robeson’s profound sadness. He was “an ‘innocent,’ in the best sense,” Duberman reports him as concluding; “his motivational spring was ‘compassion, not ego,’ and therefore he felt devastated when others, less ‘purely’ motivated, cast him aside; he was a man ‘fundamentally puzzled’ at how his humane instincts and vision had run aground.”

Essie died of cancer in 1965. Robeson lived on for another decade, a haunted, isolated invalid, looked after by his sister and by the son he had once been too preoccupied to spend time with. He died in 1976 at the age of seventy-seven.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.