Virginia Hamilton Elaine Landau - Essay

Elaine Landau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Until] recently it was rare to find an American under 18 who knew who Paul Robeson is. However, within less than a year, several of his old films have been revived, black students at Rutgers named their student center for him, and a three part series on Robeson, sponsored by National Educational Television, won an Emmy.

Now Robeson's renaissance is further enhanced by Virginia Hamilton's outstanding biography [Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man]. In a lively narrative style, she recounts Robeson's life from the warmth of his closely knit family, through his professional and political growth, to his persecution during the McCarthy witch-hunt and its final resolution. Virginia Hamilton actually tells two stories, so skillfully interwoven they are indivisible—Robeson as the black singer and actor refusing to play "darkie" parts, and Robeson as the humanist and political activist whose determination to free black America eventually stripped him of his career and wealth.

The story is told in a rich historical context; Miss Hamilton's readable explanation of political ideologies prevalent during the Second World War and McCarthy era enables young readers to identify with Robeson's actions, as well as grasp the complexities of the times. Unlike most young-adult biographies, the text remains unfictionalized and acquires chilling authenticity as each incident is fully documented by Senate testimony, newspaper and magazine quotes, Robeson's autobiography or texts by his wife and close friends. Yet Virginia Hamilton's magical ability to conjure up vivid images is still present in parts of the book, especially in her portrayal of Robeson's near-lynching in Berlin….

[Virginia Hamilton's] book is far more than a compelling story of a banished black; it is a vivid chronicle of dignity and determination with which all young people can identify.

Elaine Landau, "A Brave Man, a Baby Gorilla, a Poisoned Planet," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 22, 1974, p. 8.∗