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He was a huge man, 6 feet 3 inches, 230 pounds, with the posture of a dancer and the massive chest and broad shoulders of an athlete. His voice, a warm, rich bass, could fill a room with a whisper. All his life, Paul Robeson elicited superlatives from those who came in contact with him. The theater critic George Jean Nathan, after watching him play the lead in "All God′s Chillun Got Wings," called Robeson "one of the most thoroughly eloquent, impressive actors that I have looked at and listened to in almost 20 years of professional theatergoing." "He has an extraordinary voice, but he knows how to use it so that the tones and phrases pour forth without effort," a British critic wrote in 1933. "His tone is always lyrical; it flows like a deep river which has not a ripple on its surface." "Paul fascinated everyone," Emma Goldman wrote in her memoirs. "Nothing I had been told about his singing adequately expressed the moving quality of his voice. Paul was also a lovable personality."
Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., in 1898, the youngest of the five children of the Rev. William Drew Robeson, a former slave who had become a clergyman, and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, who died in a fire when Paul was 6. He attended Rutgers University –– only the third basketball teams, was a first–team All–American football player, a soloist in the glee club and a leader in the debating society. He won the class oratorical prize four years in a row, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and the Cap and Skull honor society, was class valedictorian and gave the commencement address.
After Rutgers, Robeson went to Columbia Law School. After graduating in 1923, he took a job at a Wall Street law firm. When a stenographer informed him that she would not take dictation "from a nigger," and the partner who had recruited him suggested he open a law office in Harlem because white clients might not want to work with him, Robeson abandoned the law for a career as an actor and singer.
In 1928, Robeson, already an internationally acclaimed singer, actor and recording star, moved to London. He would spend the next 12 years in Europe, triumphing artistically and commercially in theater, film and on the concert stage. In the early 1930′s, Robeson began to identify himself with the African independence movement. He visited the Soviet Union in December 1934 at the invitation of the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who wanted to work with him. According to his son, Paul Robeson Jr., in "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson,′′ he came away enormously impressed by the Soviet experiment and "profoundly affected by the climate of racial tolerance in the Soviet Union and by the sincere warmth expressed toward him by Russians in every walk of life." In 1936, he announced that he was sending Paul Jr. to school in the Soviet Union so that he could grow up in a society without racial prejudice.
From the mid–1930′s on, Robeson appeared regularly at rallies supporting anticolonialist and antifascist causes. In September 1939, fearful of war and convinced that he could speak out more freely and effectively in America than in England, Robeson returned to the United States with his wife and son. It is at this point that Paul Jr. ends the first volume of his biography.
There is no such thing as a definitive biography. For this reason alone, we must welcome Paul Robeson Jr.′s book. Still, we are obligated to ask him, as we would any biographer, what he has to add to the existing literature. In his preface, Paul Jr. tells us that he has written ′′an intimate, informal biography." I don′t quite know what informal means, but his biography is certainly not intimate. Nor can it be, as Paul Robeson Jr. saw very little of his father during the period covered in this first volume, which ends when he was 12 years old. While his father and mother lived in London, Paul Jr. was raised by his grandmother and attended school in Switzerland, the United States and the Soviet Union. Until the age of 7, he writes, his father was ′′a relative stranger...an intimidating presence." Thereafter, father and son lived in the same house for only brief periods until the family returned to the United States in 1939.
Paul Robeson Jr., a freelance journalist, translator and lecturer, claims that in his biography, he will reveal "pivotal aspects′′ of his father′s personality "that he kept mainly to himself." "My most important source," he tells us, "has been my father himself." But his father died 25 years ago, so unless Paul Jr. taped or made extensive notes of his conversations, he is asking us to rely on his memory of his father′s memories. Memory is a valuable source for the historian, but it is also dangerously unreliable.
Robeson Jr. never refers in his text or his notes to Martin Duberman′s well–received 1988 biography, or to the fact that he invited Duberman to write the biography and gave him full access to the family archives, only to criticize the book after it had been written. "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson" reads like Paul Jr.′s attempt to correct the story of his father′s life as told by Duberman. In the end, however, it adds little and omits a great deal from the earlier biography. Duberman′s sources are richer, his prose more vital, his understanding of the historical context far greater, his interpretations subtler and sounder.
The son′s most striking achievement is the narrative he provides of his parents′ tortured marriage. He reassures the reader that his parents loved each other, but he also recounts, in excruciating detail, his father′s many affairs and his callous disregard of his wife. If in his description of his parents′ marriage Paul Robeson Jr.′s account parallels that of Duberman, in his discussion of his father′s politics it diverges significantly. Paul Jr. de–emphasizes his father′s political sympathies with, and public support for, the Soviet Union. While he admits that his father never publicly criticized the Soviet Union, he maintains that privately his father "harbored grave doubts about internal Soviet politics." Regrettably, the only sources for this assertion, which flatly contradict the public record, are what Paul Jr. identifies in his notes as "conversations with my father."
It is difficult in the year 2001, knowing what we do about Soviet history, to understand why Paul Robeson–and others–supported Soviet political actions with such uncompromised vigor through the 1930′s. The task of the historian, however, is not to rewrite this past or to obfuscate it or make apologies for it, but to help us understand it. Paul Robeson Jr. has regrettably failed to do this in his new biography of his father. (The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 2001)
Paul Robeson, one of the world′s most famous actors from the 1920s through the 1950s and a man who led an extraordinary life by any measure, is not widely known today. In this moving and intimate memoir, his son, a freelance journalist and translator, blames his father′s current obscurity on the public response to his outspoken left–wing politics and insistence on racial pride, evident throughout his careers in college sports, on stage and as a spokesperson for equal rights. Most pointedly at issue, in Robeson Jr.′s eyes, is the far–reaching, vituperative media campaign waged during the McCarthy era that (wrongly) labeled Robeson a Communist and caused him to be blacklisted from 1949 until his death in 1976. Born in 1898 to a runaway slave who became a famed minister and preacher, in 1915 Robeson was the third African–American admitted to Rutgers University, where, despite overt racism, he became a noted scholar, athlete and orator. After graduating from Columbia Law School, he tried his hand at the theater and, in 1924, was heralded for his performance in O′Neill′s The Emperor Jones. Robeson went on to become an international star, notably playing Othello in London and appearing in the stage and film versions of the musical Show Boat. During this time, he also entered the political arena with his support of antifascist and leftist groups, later used by the press and anti–Communist witch–hunters to tarnish Robeson′s reputation. Robeson Jr. writes forcefully of his parents′ successes–his mother, Eslanda, led a life as public as her husband′s–as well as of their troubled marriage. This version of his father′s life is an important, well–wrought addition to African–American, cold War and theater scholarship. (Publishers Weekly)
Robeson Jr. (Paul Robeson, Jr., Speaks to America, 1993) traces his father′s life from birth through the start of WWII, when the performer and activist all but fell mute. The author′s ranging voice can be defensive, proud, protective, and bell–clear, and while he may not have the thunderous delivery of his father, his words come across as heartfelt. The focus of his study is on the development of his father′s cultural and political views, while considerable attention is paid to the nature of Robeson′s relationship with his wife. Clearly, much of Robeson′s sense of dignity, self–worth, and justice came as a result of growing up the son of a clergyman (his father was pastor of Harlem′s Zion Church)–and from his own harsh experiences as the only black student at Rutgers. His drive to excel as a performer is set within the larger context of his conviction that the African–American cultural and spiritual experience was central to their liberation as a people. But this can hardly be considered late–breaking news–nor, as the author suggests, is the "debunking" of Robeson as a Communist likely to surprise many. While it is undeniable that Robeson admired the Soviet Union for its racial tolerance, as well as its anticolonial and antifascist stances, it now appears that he was more of a dupe than a true believer. Indeed, his silence on the Stalinist purges (to say nothing of the Scottsboro trials) would have made for some interesting speculation on Robeson Jr.′s part–and it is understandable, perhaps, but unfortunate all the same that such speculations never found their way into the author′s account. Robeson Jr. does, however, break some new ground in his discussion of his father′s artistic development, particularly regarding his use of the traditional folk style in spirituals.
Informed by a filial piety throughout, but hardly and unbiased take. (Kirkus Reviews)
"...this is a useful book..." (Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter, April 2002)
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