Paul Robeson   Leave a comment


Paul Leroy Robeson (play /ˈrbsən/ rohb-sən; April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American concert singer (bass), recording artist, actor, athlete, and scholar who was an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement in the first half of the 20th century. He gained international attention for his work in the arts and he merged his artistic career with political activism to speak out for the equality of minorities and the rights of workers throughout the world. His friendship with the Soviet Union USSR and the Soviet peoples plus criticism of the lack of progress in civil rights in the United States (US) at the outset of the Cold War and during the age of McCarthyism brought scrutiny, conflict and retribution from the American government. His public persona became diminished, his income plummeted and he faced isolation from the Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 20th century. Robeson endured McCarthyism and briefly returned to the artistic spotlight, but the events in the 1950s combined with ongoing severe health breakdowns well into the 1960s virtually destroyed his health. Robeson lived out the last years of his life privately in Philadelphia.

Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College and there he was an All-American football player, and valedictorian of his class. He further advanced his education attending Columbia Law School, while playing professionally in the National Football League (NFL) and singing and acting in off-campus productions. He graduated from law school and had a brief stint working as a lawyer before focusing his career on the arts. He made singing tours of the US and Europe, and became an international star of stage, screen, radio and film.

He was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and was the first black actor to portray Shakespeare‘s Othello with an otherwise all-white cast. As his artistic career progressed, he increasingly became a more out-spoken political artist. His promulgated political beliefs, with respect to American policy, caught the attention of the FBI, the CIA and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and also brought public condemnation in the US.

In 1950, his passport was revoked under the McCarran Act over his work in the anti-imperialism movement, his criticism of US civil rights policies, and his affiliation with members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Though internationally acclaimed, he was blacklisted in the US from performing on stage, screen, radio and television and as a result, his income suffered because he was not able to travel overseas. His right to travel was restored in 1958, but his already faltering health broke down under controversial circumstances in 1963.

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[edit] Early life

[edit] Childhood (1898-1915)

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton in 1898, to Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill.[2] He had three brothers, William Drew Jr (born 1881), Reeve (born c. 1887), and Benjamin (born c. 1893), and one sister, Marian (born c. 1895).[3] Maria was from a prominent, black, Quaker family of mixed ancestry: African, Anglo-American, and Lenape.[4] William was born a slave but escaped from a plantation in his teens.[5] William then served in an honorable, yet not formally inducted, capacity with the Union Army during the American Civil War.[6] Post-bellum, he earned a degree from Lincoln University and became a minister of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton in 1881.[7]

In 1900, a disagreement between William and white, financial supporters of Witherspoon arose with apparent racial undertones,[8] which were prevalent at the time in Princeton.[9] William, who had the support of his entirely black congregation, resigned under pressure in 1901.[10] The loss of his ministry forced him to work menial jobs.[11] Three years later when Paul was six years old, Louisa, who was nearly blind from cataracts, tragically died in a house fire.[12] Eventually, William was financially incapable of providing a house for himself and his two sons, Ben and Paul, so they took up residence in the attic of a store in Westfield, New Jersey.[13]

A few years later in 1910, William found stability in the parsonage of the St. Thomas A. M. E. Zion[14] where Robeson would fill in for him when he was momentarily called away.[15] In 1912, Robeson attended Somerville High School,[16] where he performed in Julius Caesar, Othello, sang in the chorus, and excelled in football, basketball, baseball and track.[17] His athletic dominance sometimes elicited racial taunts that he discreetly ignored.[18] Prior to his graduation, he won a statewide academic contest for a full scholarship to Rutgers.[19] Robeson took a summer job as a waiter in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where he befriended Fritz Pollard.[20]

[edit] Rutgers University (1915-1919)

Robeson (far left) was Rutgers Class of 1919 and one of four students selected into Cap and Skull

In the fall of 1915, Robeson became the third African American student ever enrolled at Rutgers, and the only one at the time.[21] Although he was determined to excel at his studies, he tried out for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team that fall.[22] During tryouts, the players tested his resolve to make the team by engaging in unwarranted, and excessive play that was somewhat precipitated by racism.[23] In an ensuing practice, Robeson used his superior size and strength to physically exact retribution against the other players. Witnessing Robeson’s brutal tactics, the coach, Foster Sanford, decided Robeson had conquered the tribulation and announced that he had made the team.[24]

Robeson then joined the debate team,[25] and indirectly became involved with the Glee Club, as membership required attending all-white mixers.[26] Undeterred, he sang on-campus informally and off-campus for spending money.[27] He also joined track and field, the basketball, and baseball teams.[28] In his sophomore year, amidst the sesquicentennial celebration of Rutgers founding, he was, in a stinging insult, benched, when a Southern team refused to play a team that fielded a Negro.[29]

After a standout junior year of football,[30] he was recognized in The Crisis for his athletic, academic, and singing talents.[31] In what should have been a pleasant point in his life,[32] Robeson was burdened with William falling grievously ill.[33] Consequently, Robeson took sole responsibility to care for him as he shuttled between Rutgers and Somerville.[34] Three days after his father’s death, he somberly expounded on the incongruity of African Americans fighting to protect America, and yet not being afforded the same opportunities as whites.[35]

His college days ended with four annual oratorical triumphs[36] and numerous varsity letters in athletics.[37] His memorable play as end in football[38] resulted in him being named a first-team All-American in both his junior and senior year, with Walter Camp considering him the greatest defensive end ever.[39] Academically, he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa[40] and into Cap and Skull, Rutgers’ honor society.[41] Due to the high opinion his classmates had of him,[42] they elected him class valedictorian.[43] and published a poem in The Daily Targum honoring his achievements.[44] In his valedictorian speech, he exhorted his classmates to work for equality for all Americans.[45]

[edit] Columbia Law School (1919-1923)

Robeson entered New York University School of Law (NYU) in the fall of 1919.[46] To financially support himself, he became an assistant football coach at Lincoln,[47] where he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.[48] Harlem had undergone a dramatic change beginning in 1905, from a predominantly Jewish American neighborhood, to an almost entirely African American one in 1915,[49] and Robeson was drawn to it.[50] He transferred to Columbia Law School in February 1920 and moved to Harlem.[51] By this time, Robeson was well known in the black community for his singing,[52] and he was selected to perform at the dedication of the Harlem YWCA.[53] He began dating Eslanda “Essie” Goode, a histological chemist at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital.[54] Robeson then gave his theatrical debut as Simon in the Ridgely Torrence play about Simon of Cyrene.[55] After a year of courtship, Essie and Robeson married on August 17, 1921.[56]

Robeson was recruited by Pollard to play for the NFL’s Akron Pros, while he continued his law studies.[57] In the spring, he postponed school[58] to portray Jim in Taboo by Mary Hoyt Wiborg.[59] Robeson then sang in a chorus in an Off-broadway production of Shuffle Along[60] before he abandoned it to join Taboo in Britain for the summer.[61] The play was adapted by director Mrs. Patrick Campbell to give greater prominence to his singing.[62] After the play’s run, he became acquainted with Lawrence Brown,[63] a classically trained musician,[64] before returning to the States and continuing at Columbia whilst playing for the NFL’s Milwaukee Badgers.[65] Robeson ended his football career after 1922,[66] and a few months later, he graduated from Columbia.[67]

[edit] Theatrical ascension and ideological transformation (1923-1939)

[edit] Harlem renaissance (1923–1927)

Robeson briefly worked as a lawyer, but then renounced law due to extant racism in the field, which would relegate him to a position far below his intellect.[68] Essie supported them while they became acolytes to the social functions held at the future Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.[69] In December, he acquired the lead role of Jim in an Eugene O’Neill production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings,[70] whose plot culminated in Jim symbolically emasculating himself, in order to metaphorically consummate his marriage with his white wife. Chillun’s opening became postponed while a nationwide debate occurred over its plot.[71]

Chillun’s delay effectuated a revival of The Emperor Jones with Robeson as Brutus, a role made famous by Charles Sidney Gilpin.[72] The portrayal terrified and galvanized the novice Robeson, as it was practically a single, 90-minute soliloquy.[73] Reviews of Robeson at the Provincetown Playhouse as Brutus declared him an unequivocal success.[74] Weeks later, critical reviews of his performance as Jim in Chillun’s, though arguably clouded by the controversial subject matter, were neutral to unfavorable.[75] However, the popular success of his achievements placed him in elite social circles.[76] His ascension to fame was proceeding at a startling pace,[77] forcefully aided by Essie[78] whose naked ambition for his success was a startling dichotomy to Robeson’s insouciance to it.[79] Essie quit her job, became his agent, and negotiated his first movie appearance in a silent race film directed by Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul.[80]

Robeson believed fate had drawn him to the “untrodden path” of drama and stressed the only “original” American culture was African American culture and stated the measure of a culture is its artistic contributions while reinforcing the importance of the culture of ancient Africa.[81] To support a charity for single African-American mothers, Robeson headlined a concert singing spirituals.[82] Robeson then took his repertoire of spirituals from the concert stage and performed them on the radio. [83] Brown, who had become a renowned accompanist-arranger while touring with gospel singer Roland Hayes, stumbled on Robeson back in Harlem.[84] The two ad-libbed a set of spirituals, with Robeson’s bass as lead and Brown’s tenor as accompaniment, that so enthralled them that they booked Provincetown for a concert.[85] The pair’s rendition of African-American folk songs and spirituals captivated the audience and critics,[86] and Victor Records signed Robeson to a contract.[87]

Robeson and Essie embarked to London for a brief revival of Jones before spending the rest of their fall on holiday on the French Riviera socializing with political free thinkers such as Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay.[88] Robeson and Brown began a series of concert tours in America, with and without Essie, from January 1926 until May 1927.[89] During a hiatus in New York, Robeson encountered Essie who was several months pregnant.[90] Nevertheless, Robeson and Brown launched a tour of Europe in October.[91] On November 2, 1927, Paul Robeson, Jr. was born, but not without Essie experiencing complications.[92] By mid-December, her health had deteriorated dramatically. Over her objections, Essie’s mother wired Robeson and he returned to Essie’s side in late December.[93]

[edit] Show Boat (1928-1929)

Robeson next played the stevedore Joe in the London production of the American musical Show Boat, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,[94] The show had premiered in New York in 1927, but Robeson had not been able to appear in it then because of schedule conflicts.[citation needed] His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” in the show became a benchmark to which all performers of the song would be judged.[95] Some black critics were not pleased with the play due to its usage of the word nigger.[96] It was, nonetheless, immensely popular with white audiences,[97] and it even gained a royal audience, principally Queen Mary.[98] Subsequently, Robeson was summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace in honor of the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII.[99] and he was befriended by MPs from the House of Commons[100] Consequently, feeling comfortable in London, the Robesons bought a home in Hampstead.[101] The musical continued its run for 350 performances and as of at least 2001, it has remained Theatre Royal’s most profitable venture.[95] Robeson reflected on his life in his diary and wrote that it was all part of a “‘higher plan'” and that “God watches over me and guides me. ‘He’s with me and let’s me fight my own battles and hopes I’ll win.'”[102]

[edit] Marriage Difficulties (1930-1932)

Essie had known early in their marriage that Robeson had been involved in extramarital affairs, but she tolerated them.[103] However, when Essie inadvertently discovered that Robeson was having an affair with a white Ms. Jackson, she unfavorably altered the characterization of him in the biography she was privately writing.[104] They went on a concert tour of Europe and there was no suggestion that their relationship had been harmed.[105] In early 1930, Essie and Robeson both starred in the the experimental classic Borderline.[106] They returned to the West End for Robeson’s starring role in William Shakespeare‘s Othello, opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona.[107] Essie’s Paul Robeson, Negro was published, wherein she effectively defamed him by describing him with “negative racial stereotypes,” which he found appalling.[108]

Robeson became the first black actor cast as Othello in Britain since Ira Aldridge.[109] The production, however, met with mixed reviews which pointed out Robeson’s “highly civilized quality [but lacking the] grand style.”[110] Drawn into an interview, Robeson stated the best way to diminish the oppression African-Americans faced was for his artistic work to be an example of what “men of my colour” could accomplish rather than to “be a propagandist and make speeches and write articles about what they call the Colour Question.”[111] After Essie’s discovery of Robeson’s affair with Ashcroft, they split up and decided to seek a divorce.[112] Robeson’s and Jackson’s relationship became serious and they broached marriage.[113] Nevertheless, he returned to Broadway to play Joe in the spring 1932 revival of Show Boat, wherein his performance was critically and popularly acclaimed.[114] Subsequently, Robeson received, with immense pride, an honorary master’s degree from Rutgers,[115] and although sources are unclear, Robeson was about this time advised by Sanford that divorcing Essie and marrying Jackson would do irreparable damage to his public reputation.[116] Their relationship abruptly ended in 1932,[117] following which the Robesons permanently reconciled; their relationship, however, was permanently scarred.[118]

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Posted February 17, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Uncategorized

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