In the late 1980’s, few Americans under forty recognize the name of Paul Robeson, and for many over forty his name is linked more with the bitter divisions of Cold War politics than with his immense talent and ability as a singer and actor. The story of Robeson’s life serves as an episode in American cultural history. The tragedy of his life is the tragedy of racism in America writ large. How did the most prodigiously talented black American of his generation become so politically alienated from his country? Robeson’s problem was that of all black men of talent and ability during his time: how to express their talent and ability without incurring white resentment. That Robeson became an embittered apologist for Soviet Stalinism is as much a reflection of the failure of American liberal democratic promises for black Americans as it is an indication of his misguided political views. As his friend Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commented, “No honest American, white or Negro, can sit in judgment on a man like Robeson unless and until he has sacrificed time, talent, money and popularity in doing his utmost to root out the racial and economic evils which infuriate men like Robeson.”
Paul Robeson was an extraordinary man by any measure. Princely in appearance (he stood 6’3” tall, weighed 240 pounds), Robeson dominated the concert hall or theater stage with his imposing physical and artistic presence. He had a vibrant, throbbing bass voice that filled auditoriums with powerful renditions of Negro spirituals and work songs. Along with the talented arranger-accompanist Larry Brown, Robeson adapted spirituals to the art song form and introduced them to European and American concert audiences. Robeson believed that Negro spirituals were an essential part of the American musical heritage and belonged in the concert repertory. His vocal arrangements expressed his people’s spirit and determination to be free.
Paul Robeson was a pioneer in the struggle for equality, and as such he faced considerable white antagonism. Facing continual white harassment and resentment, he was forced to become an overachiever in order to win acceptance for his race. His father, a former slave who attended Lincoln University in Philadelphia and became a Presbyterian minister, was a great inspiration for Paul, urging him always to do his best and never to feel ashamed of himself.
Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the youngest of five and was doted upon as a child. When he was six, his mother, who was a schoolteacher, died of burns suffered in a stove-fire accident. At the time, Princeton was a racist, segregated community and Paul’s father, who spoke out against racial injustice, was forced to resign from his pastorate at Witherspoon Presbyterian Church because of pressure from the white community. He moved his family to Somerville, New Jersey, and left the Presbyterian church, establishing a small A. M. E. Zion congregation.
At Somerville High School, Robeson excelled at everything he attempted, both academics and athletics. One of his teachers called him “the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince,” but added, “still, I can’t forget that he is a Negro.” Earning a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University, he proceeded to win fifteen varsity letters in four sports, was chosen All-American in football, and was graduated Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian of his class. His class notes predicted that he would be governor of New Jersey by 1940 and a leader of his race. There is no doubt that such accomplishments might have been within his reach, had it not been for the barriers of racism. When Robeson walked out on the football field as a freshman to try out for the team, the white members of the team piled on top of him and deliberately stepped on his hand, leaving him with a broken nose and assorted cuts and bruises. Robeson persevered, however, and made the team as the first Negro player at Rutgers. He would not allow himself to quit because his father had impressed upon him that he was the representative of other Negroes who wanted to play college football; he had to take whatever was handed out.
After graduation from Rutgers, Robeson earned a degree in law at Columbia Law School, but he found himself more attracted to theater than to a legal career. When the secretary at the law firm where he was employed refused to take his dictation, Robeson realized that he had no future in law. In 1920, while still at Columbia Law School, he had become involved with the Amateur Players, an Afro-American theater group in Harlem. He appeared in productions of Ridgely Torrence’s Simon the Cyrenian (1917) and Mary Hoyt Wiborg’s Taboo (1922) and briefly joined the cast...
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