Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Virginia Hamilton’s Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man has several purposes. Foremost is her narrative of Robeson’s life and career in music, on the stage, and in the political arena. Second, the book is in large part a reconsideration—almost, at times, a defense—of Robeson’s political stances, stances that were to make him one of the most controversial figures of the fledgling American Civil Rights movement. Third, it is a social history describing the situation of African Americans in the middle of the twentieth century. As all these elements are combined in Robeson’s life, so Hamilton weaves each of these concerns into the tapestry of her narrative.

Hamilton describes Robeson’s refusal to accept the social strictures that bounded African Americans. At first, this attitude manifested itself upon the stage, where he played Othello despite an American audience’s difficulties with the interracial marriage that William Shakespeare depicts. Hamilton also describes his roles in those Eugene O’Neill plays that broke through color barriers, and his pioneering work on the stage was matched by his work in the concert hall. He was one of the first great singers to introduce the Negro spiritual to the concert stage as a serious art form. Hamilton’s portrayal of this courage causes the reader to see Robeson as one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

Hamilton moves beyond...

(The entire section is 474 words.)