Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man Critical Context - Essay

Virginia Hamilton

Critical Context

In her preface, Hamilton suggests that Robeson stood as an important role model for the African-American community while she was growing up. He not only experienced success in a world dominated by a white culture but also challenged that white culture. Although this book is not the only biography of Robeson, it is perhaps the one that most emphasizes this aspect of Robeson’s career, perhaps because it has touched the author personally.

By 1974, when this biography was published, the Civil Rights movement had made enormous strides since the days when Robeson first sang upon the stage. Yet the continuing existence of discrimination suggests the lasting significance of this book. In writing a story of a forerunner of the Civil Rights movement—regardless of the fact that he was rejected by some of the African-American leaders of that movement because of his political affiliations—Hamilton has written the story of an individual whose strength of will enabled him to fight against seemingly insuperable injustice.

Perhaps herein lies the significance of this biography for the young adult reader. While it tells the story of a certain figure in a certain politically turbulent time, the book also describes one person who believed that injustice should be fought. It is the story of one who did not give in to popular opinions and who even voiced opinions that were decidedly unpopular. Thus, the biography not only challenges many conceptions about Robeson’s life but also challenges the reader’s complacency—a tall order for a biography that is ably met.