Daily Archives: February 24, 2009
One of only two black students at Somerville High School, Paul Robeson excelled academically, competing in debate and oratorical contests, as well as being an exceptional athlete. It was also at Somerville where Paul got his first taste for acting, appearing in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello. Robeson not only graduated with honors, but placed first in a competitive examination for scholarships to Rutgers University; his brothers had chosen all-black colleges, but Paul was attracted to the challenge of attending Rutgers, a mostly white school.
College life, it turned out, was both pleasure and pain for Paul Robeson. He tried out for the football team–where blacks were neither welcomed not wanted–and encountered physical attacks from the other athletes. But he was not one to be held down because of the color of his skin. He persevered, and not only was given a spot on the team, but was named first on the roster of the All-American college team; Paul Robeson graduated with 15 letters in sports. Academically he was equally successful; Robeson was elected a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society and the Cap and Skull Honor Society of Rutgers, and graduated in 1919 with the highest grade point average in his class.
With college life behind him, Robeson moved to the Harlem to attend law school, first at New York University, and later at Columbia University. While in college, he made his acting debut, playing the lead role in Simon the Cyrenian by poet Ridgely Torrence; in 1921 he sang in the chorus of Shuffle Along, by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.
To support his family while studying law at Columbia, Robeson played professional football for the Akron Pros and the Milwaukee Badgers; he spent the summer of 1922 in England, appearing in a production of Taboo. Upon graduation from Columbia in 1923, Robeson worked days as an attorney, and nights singing at the Cotton Club. But suddenly Robeson quit the law firm–a secretary refused to take dictation from a black man–and was offered a role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
All God’s Chillun was an instant success, although success brought threats by the KKK because of the play’s interracial themes, and the fact that a white woman kissed Robeson’s hand. All God’s Chillun was followed by performances in a revival of The Emperor Jones, the play Rosanne, and the silent movie Body and Soul.
After the failure of the tour, Robeson realized his success lie in performing, and his career took off. In 1928 he accepted the role of Joe in a London production of Show Boat; his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” received the most acclaim, and earned him a great deal of attention from British high society. There were Robeson concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and Sunday afternoon concerts at Drury Lane and yet, in spite of all his success, all the acclaim and attention from the British elite, Robeson still had to deal with racism. At one point during his stay in England, he was refused admission to a London hotel; because of his protestations of his treatment, many major hotels in London said they would no longer refuse service to blacks.
Paul Robeson returned to the United States in 1929 to perform at Carnegie Hall, but his permanent residence was in England, where he accepted the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello–the role he played years earlier in high school. This production marked the first time since the performance of the black actor Ira Aldridge in 1860 that a major production company cast a black man in the part of the Moor. Robeson was a tall, strikingly handsome, with a deep, baritone voice and an almost shy manner; audiences were mesmerized by his performance in Othello.
His career was on the rise, but his personal life, and his home life, began to suffer. Essie Robeson, who has written a book about her husband, Paul Robeson, Negro, sued for divorce in 1932. Robeson had fallen in love Yolande Jackson, a white Englishwoman, calling her ‘the love of my life.’ Jackson accepted his proposal of marriage, but later called it off, forced to end the relationship by her father, Tiger Jackson, who was, to put less than tolerant of black people in general and Paul Robeson in particular. With his marriage plans to Yolande Jackson canceled, Paul and Essie came to an understanding regarding their relationship; the divorce proceedings were canceled.
Once again Robeson returned to America, albeit it briefly, to star in the film version of Emperor Jones; his stay was short lived. He felt he was treated badly by a racist American film industry, and because the black community itself criticized him for taking the role in Jones. Returning to England, Robeson immersed himself in the studying of singing and language, mastering several languages, and became an honorary member of the West African Students’ Union, becoming acquainted with African students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatte. Robeson also gave a benefit concert for Jewish refugees which marked the beginning of his political awareness and activism.
His desire, his need, to aid those less fortunate, and the oppressed in their fight for freedom and equality, was deeply rooted in his own family history. Robeson’s father was an escaped slave who eventually graduated from Lincoln College; his maternal grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, was a slave who was freed by his second owner and became an active member of the African Free Society. Understanding and recognizing the heritage that brought him so many opportunities, Robeson performed in a series of films–Sanders of the River in 1935, King Solomon’s Mines in 1937, and Song of Freedom, also in 1937–that presented blacks in other than stereotypical ways.
In the Soviet Union in 1934 to film Black Majesty, Robeson was impressed with the education against racism for schoolchildren; he began studying Marxism and Socialist systems in the Soviet Union, and decided to send his son, nine-year-old Paul Jr., to school there so he would not have to contend with the racism and discrimination Robeson endured in both Europe and America.
While continuing to act in atypical black roles, Robeson once again received rave reviews for his performance of “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 film production of Show Boat. He also embarked on a more active role to fight injustice throughout the world by being a co-founder of the Council on African Affairs to aid in African liberation; he sang and spoke at benefit concerts for Basque refugees; he supported the Spanish Republican cause, and sang at rallies to support a democratic Spain. At a benefit at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Robeson is quoted as saying “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” Paul Robeson seemed hellbent on taking a new direction in both his personal and professional life.
In 1939 Robeson returned to America, stating that he would soon retire from his life as a ‘commercial’ entertainer. He gave a recital at Mother AME Zion Church Harlem where his brother Benjamin was pastor, and that same year he premiered the patriotic song “Ballad for Americans” on CBS radio–a preview of a play by the same name. The song was so well received that studio audiences cheered for 20 minutes after the performance. Robeson’s popularity in America soared and he remained the most celebrated person in the country well into the 1940s. In the American production of Othello in 1943, Robeson’s performance placed him among the ranks of the greatest Shakespearean actors.
But after his run in Othello, Robeson’s political commitments became foremost in his life. He championed a wide variety of causes, from South African famine relief to support of an anti-lynching law; in September 1946 he was among the delegation that spoke with President Truman in support of anti-lynching legislation. Robeson adamantly urged Truman to act; his anger and passion overflowed; he began to praise the Soviet Union and denounce United States’ allies.The following month, when called before the California Legislative Committee on Un-American activities, Robeson declared he was not a member of the Communist Party, but praised their fight for equality and democracy. But the damage was done; the attempt at branding him un-American caused many to distrust his political commitments.
In 1949 Robeson embarked on a European speaking tour, speaking out against the discrimination and injustices that black Americans faced on a daily basis. News of his remarks were distorted by the United Sates media, and the backlash from whites culminated in riot before a scheduled concert in Peekskill, New York. Advised of the violent protest, Robeson returned to New York City, but did agree to a second concert in Peekskill for the people who truly wanted to hear him. The concert took place but afterwards another riot broke out, leaving over 140 people seriously injured. With such violence surrounding Robeson’s concerts, many groups and sponsors no longer supported him.
Robeson had received by so much negative press that, in 1950, he made plans for another European tour; his plans were derailed when the US government refused to allow him to travel unless he agreed not to make any speeches. With no passport, and denied his freedom of speech abroad, Robeson spoke out publicly, and in his own monthly newspaper, Freedom. Having been barred from all other forms of media, Robeson’s newspaper was his primary platform until 1955. While he was supported by the National Negro Labor Council, the Council on African Affairs, and the Civil Rights Congress, the NAACP openly attacked him; other groups shunned him in fear of reprisals. Undaunted by the negative attacks, Robeson traveled around the US, encouraging groups to fight for their rights and for equal treatment.
In May of 1958, Robeson gave his first New York concert in ten years to a packed Carnegie Hall. When the concert was over, he informed the audience that the passport battle had been won, and from 1958 to 1963 he traveled to England, the Soviet Union, Austria, and New Zealand. He was showered with awards and played to packed houses throughout his travels, but he was also hospitalized several times in Europe for a disease of the circulatory system, forcing him to return to America. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, much had changed in America, and Paul Robeson was enthusiastically received home upon his return.
Paul Leroy Robeson’s funeral was held at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem before a crowd of 5,000.
Paul Robeson was a man who loved to entertain, to perform, to sing to act; he loved that. But he lived to fight for oppressed, and particularly black people. While it is clear that his rich voice, and his acting talents would have brought him more money, more fame, more accolades, it is because of his vision, his actions, his voice, as an activist both here and around the world, that Paul Robeson will be remembered as a truly great American.