Singer, actor, athlete and lawyer: Why you must know about civil rights pioneer Paul Robeson

Nii Ntreh December 16, 2020
Paul Robeson was jack of all trades and a civil rights pioneer. Photo Credit:

Off the back of his successful cinematic storytelling of the life of Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave, British director Steve McQueen promised in 2014 to bring the life of the intriguingly versatile Paul Robeson to the silver screens.

That promise is yet to be fulfilled but it is not as if McQueen has been dormant. Currently, he is putting out a five-part anthological film series called Small Axe, which is a tapestry of five distinct stories about the life of West Indian immigrants to the UK in the 1960s and 70s.

Someday, Robeson will have his day in the theaters. It speaks to the times that a film has come to be the easiest and most appreciated way we may know and understand some of the most accomplished minds that ever lived.

A few would reckon that to describe Robeson – himself an actor between the 1920s and 50s – as “accomplished” is an understatement. If it were ever possible, one could go with the king of the jacks of all trades.

Robeson said of himself: “As an artist, I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.” These things that he was were not at odds with another but constituted the wholesomeness of his being.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898, Robeson came into the world at a time that America was on the precipice of its modern self. The dawn and the early years of the 20th century have been tagged as the Progressive Era of American history but it suffices to say that this advancement in the human condition that was sought by money, power and technocracy did not take into account Robeson’s people.

Robeson’s father William had been born into slavery in North Carolina from where he escaped as a teenager. The north was welcoming to Black people, at least a little more than America’s south. But in 1900, while he was the minister at Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, William had a disagreement with the white financiers of his ministry and this supposedly race-tinged tension forced William’s resignation.

Race-tinged tension is a phrase that can explain the entirety of Robeson’s life. By the time he was in his late teens, Robeson stood at a considerable height of more than six feet. He was burly, athletic and his iconic baritone voice was already surging through that massive frame. The racist “big, bullish and fearsome negro male” stereotype had begun to form around him.

Shamelessly, the racist taunts never wavered in the face of contradicting evidence. The young man they thought was all brawn and no brain was actually an outstanding student. At the Somerville High School, New Jersey, apart from playing in a number of sports, Robeson graduated as class valedictorian and won a scholarship to Rutgers University, becoming only the third African-American student in the school’s history in 1915.

The background of this success bears mentioning. After his father lost his job as minister in the church at Princeton, Robeson, and his four older siblings were introduced to the harshest possibilities after their mother died in 1903. By the time he had finished high school, Robeson had learned the need to depend on himself for his upkeep.

At Rutgers, he was singing off-campus for money to take care of himself. He played collegiate athletic sports and joined debate teams. In college too, Robeson graduated as the class valedictorian with a B.A. degree.

Robeson’s attraction to acting would come via the imploring of his girlfriend Eslanda Goode, who later became his wife. Robeson had dropped out of law school at the New York University at the time and he took a role in a play that was a moderate success, in 1921. But he would attain his LLB at Columbia in 1923 having worked throughout schooling as the assistant football coach of that prestigious university.

For a while too, Robeson was a professional football player with the Milwaukee Badgers. All of the period after 1923 until his death in 1976 was the second phase of the life of the gentleman who had been formed out of strife and stringency. His philosophical, artistic and political self-expressions were based on the experiences of the time it took before Robeson was a nationally famous man.

He strangely gave up on lawyering in New York, blaming the decision on racial discrimination. After 1924, he was wholly enamored with acting for stage and screen, playing roles in critically acclaimed films such as Body and Soul and The Emperor Jones.

He did not achieve fame only in the United States, by the way. Robeson was known to Western Europe’s literati as well as performing art enthusiasts. He was the first Black man after Ira Aldridge to play the tragic Shakespearean protagonist Othello in British theater history.

Vocalizing his political opinions came in the early 1930s when Robeson appeared to have been triggered by a sudden interest in the aspects of African history and culture that he believed to have been undiluted by the European colonization of that continent. He then enrolled at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies to study Swahili.

He wrote an essay in 1934 titled I Want To Be African. It has been cited as the foundational philosophical literature espousing Robeson’s shift towards African consciousness, a mental framework that he insisted all African-Americans must possess. Having publicized his critique of Euro-American identity, Robeson’s European friends saw the opportunity to introduce him to socialism and the overarching anti-imperialist movement in Europe.

In the late 1930s, Robeson’s turn towards an opus of overt political meaning was complete. This was the period that saw him play the leading role in Sanders of The River, a film that claimed to depict colonization in Africa in a realistic way. Then came Song of Freedom and King Solomon’s Mines, as well as a stage depiction of C.L.R. JamesToussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s independence leader.

When the Spanish Civil War started, Robeson did not hesitate to choose the side of those fighting for republicanism. He connected his bias for republicanism with the fight against fascism. Fascism was also exactly what Robeson felt the Jim Crow era and segregation in the US sought to uphold.

His steps into politics worried his business managers but Robeson was not one to mind. In the 1940s, he campaigned against African-Americans fighting for a country he believed was not living up to its promise of giving dignity to Black folk. This antiwar campaign saw him oppose America’s involvement in Korea and Vietnam as well.

However, Robeson was not simply a status quo antiwar and pro-Black campaigner. Indeed, his campaigns did not bother to conform to respectability. Meeting President Harry Truman in the aftermath of the 1946 lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia, Robeson told the president that if the federal government was unwilling to defend Black people, “the Negroes will defend themselves“. Truman immediately ended the meeting.

Robeson was also a philosophical ideologue who believed that it was only under communism that all people would be guaranteed their fair share in American society. And so when the machinations of the Red Scare were sparked, Robeson was in the sight of the McCarthyists and others with power who wished to identify any form of protest of the marginalized as anarchism and beat down both the protesters and their calls.

For purposes of forcing everyone in line, America needed to make deterrents of the “enemies within” as Joseph McCarthy himself called the civil rights activists, labor leaders, writers and entertainers who were matched before his witch-hunting House committee. They were the presumptive spies in the aid of the Soviet Union.

Robeson, a man familiar with Russia, seemed to poke the lion with many public utterances praising his treatment while on tour in Moscow, comparing that favorably to how he was treated in Mississippi. He along with his friend W.E.B. DuBois would suffer the same fate of having to be banned from traveling outside the states as well as monitored by authorities throughout the 1940s and 50s.

The US State Department reportedly blamed Robeson’s ban from travels on “his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States [that] should not be aired in foreign countries”.

With his ongoing problems and his penchant for counterculture politics, no one in Hollywood was going to put Robeson in a film at this time. He could not perform in Europe too where he was undeniably adored. Notwithstanding, a powerful anecdote of this period was recorded in 1957 when unable to perform for British fans, Robeson sang via the telephone to about 1,000 who had paid for tickets at the St. Pancras Town Hall in London.

It was his work to entertain but Robeson saw an oft-overlooked potential of his art.

“Through my singing and acting and speaking, I want to make freedom ring. Maybe I can touch people’s hearts better than I can their minds, with the common struggle of the common man,” he once said.

After McCarthyism had passed, Robeson picked up where he left off. He performed to crowds in Russia, the UK, New Zealand and Australia (where he criticized the Australian government on its treatment of the Aborigine population) between 1958 and 1963. He and his wife were even special guests of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier.

As the result of the counsel of his wife, Robeson decided to stay in Europe after 1961 although he wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement that had sprung to life thanks to a certain Martin Luther King Jr., a preacher. But Robeson’s wife was fearful that her husband’s life would be in danger in America.

But by this time, whatever mental burdens Robeson had been carrying were overwhelming him. He attempted to take his life after a party in Moscow that year. Robeson’s son also named Paul, would later reveal that his father had spoken of paranoia, emptiness and depression while recuperating from making incisions in his wrists.

His mental health deteriorated while he was seeking care in London. It was in East Germany that Robeson was put together again, but only just. He did return to the US in 1963 to be part of the civil rights movement he had hungered for since the 40s.

He made a few public speeches and appearances but not more after 1965 when he was nearly killed by kidney blockage. Then about 68, Robeson’s frailties were becoming difficult to hide. He would live in seclusion after the death scare of 1965 until his actual death from complications of a stroke in 1976.

As has often been the case with the living, the fascination with a genius is multiplied tenfold after their ingenuity dissipates inside the earth. Since the 1980s, Robeson has been continuously honored with plaques, postage stamps, halls and walks fame rollcalls as well as being named after places and buildings.

A befitting McQueen film would fit into these post mortem honors.

Last Edited by:Nii Ntreh Updated: December 16, 2020


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