Paul Robeson: A Biography
Open Road Media, 2014
(Originally published 1988)
Equality might be denied, but I knew I was not inferior.
It's been a long struggle that I've waged, sometimes not very well understood.
It is because Robeson made his protest bitterly that we can be more light-hearted now.
I've admired the multi-talented Paul Robeson for many years and according to my blog stats, the readers of A Classic Movie Blog do as well. My profile of the singer, actor, athlete and activist has been in my top five post views since I first published it in 2010. I always knew I had a lot more to learn about this remarkable man though, so when Open Road published a new ebook version of Martin Duberman's exhaustive 1988 biography, I knew I had to finally read it.
Though I knew Paul Robeson had led and intense and often difficult life, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of this book. It is expertly written, and astonishingly well organized given the number of details Duberman had to work with, but it was almost overwhelmingly difficult to absorb the indignities and stress this mighty man endured.
Still, if you admire Robeson, this is the definitive version of his life. His story is as rich and vibrant as it is devastating and here you get the full scope of it, and told from a satisfying variety of perspectives.
Duberman was approached by Robeson Senior's son, Paul Robeson Jr. (who died in April of this year) to write the book. He gave the author unprecedented access to the Robeson Family Archives which he supplemented with several dozen interviews with many of Paul Senior's co-workers, friends and family.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was a reverend; his mother died in an accident when young Paul was six. The son of an escaped slave, he did not encounter intense racism in his early life, but he was also not immune to its insults and he learned quickly to have pride in himself despite the way society viewed his race.
He was a football player at Rutgers, where he endured violence from racist opposing team members and attained hall of fame status. The young student also excelled as an orator, bringing audiences to tears with his moving presentations. Law school followed, but upon graduation, Robeson found that he could not find clients, and even secretaries that would work with a black lawyer.
By then Robeson had met and married his wife Eslanda, known as Essie. It was the beginning of a complicated relationship in which she would try to control him and he would abandon her frequently for other women, tours and whatever else might grant him freedom, income or both. Still, she was a smart woman and she understood that Robeson's gifts needed to be nurtured.
Essie steered Robeson towards the stage and concert singing. He quickly found success and for the rest of his life, whatever controversy dogged him, he was always able to make a living as an entertainer. There were journeys to Europe, where he found even more success as an actor and concert singer. He also fit several movies into the mix, though he often struggled to ensure his performances would be a source of pride to his race.
Always rigidly intolerant of racism and segregation, Robeson devoted himself to the elevation of his race, and particularly in the United States. He fell in love with the Soviet Union, where, apparently blind to the country's human rights issues, he raved about the respectful way people of color were treated. Accusations of communism were flung, the US government got nervous, in the end, Robeson would lose his passport for a decade and suffer excruciating blows to his reputation.
Duberman relates these events of Robeson's life in remarkable detail. This is especially amazing considering that Paul did not keep journals and didn't like to write letters. Fortunately, Essie was prolific on both counts, and her voice often dominates the early portions of the book. Duberman is careful to note where Mrs. Robeson strays from the truth, or at least puts a rosier lens on unpleasant events.
Essie's account of Robeson's life is balanced nicely by the many interviews he conducted, several of them with true intimates of the man. He was clearly a complicated person and the many facets of his personality are presented more than examined by Duberman. There is plenty of analysis from his interviewees.
Though Robeson only appeared in a handful of films, he made a significant impact as one of the few black men who played substantial roles in the movies of his era. From the experimental film Borderline (1930) and the Oscar Micheaux production of Body and Soul (1925), to his legendary performance in Show Boat (1936) and strong British films such as Jericho (1937), his influence was widespread. While his cinematic performances were for the most part a sideline to the rest of his career, I felt there was sufficient coverage of his roles to satisfy movie fans.
In fact, I would recommend this edition of the biography to anyone curious about Robeson's film work, because at $2.99, it is worth the price to simply read those sections. Not that I would recommend that. Paul Robeson led a rich, fascinating life, and his story is worth reading from beginning to end.
Overall, this book remains an awesome achievement and a must-read now that it is so accessibly priced.
Many thanks to Open Road Media for providing a copy of the book for review.