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Paul Robeson - Performer and Campaigner

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In many ways, Paul Robeson was an exceptional man. He was not only a singer, famous for his rich bass-baritone voice, but also an athlete, a scholar and a campaigner against racism and injustice.

Early Life

Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on 9 April, 1899. This was a time when racial segregation was widespread in the United States and lynchings of black people were not uncommon. His father, William, had been a slave but escaped at the age of 15, managed to get elementary school education and studied to become a minister. Paul's mother Maria had been a teacher but she died in 1904. Paul was the youngest of their children and the most gifted.

At school, Paul was popular, an outstanding scholar and athlete. His physique suited him well to American football; he grew to 6 foot 3 inches (190cm) at a time when most men were much shorter. In 1915, he took an exam for a scholarship to Rutgers University and won the competition. He also won a place in the football team and became one of their star players. However, he encountered racial discrimination and harassment. With a naturally genial temperament and a habit of self-control, he generally managed to remain pleasant and modest, but the injustice of his treatment still grated.

When Robeson graduated, he moved to Harlem to prepare for entrance to Columbia Law School. Here he encountered a flourishing black community with its own culture. He met and married Eslanda Goode (Essie).

Establishing a Career

Robeson's fine singing voice had been noticed at school and he had sung and acted in amateur productions. His first professional role came with a melodramatic play called Taboo, which was later moved to London and renamed Voodoo. Here, Robeson played opposite Mrs Patrick Campbell, who encouraged him to sing. His performance was regarded as the show's redeeming feature. In London, Robeson also met a young musician, Lawrence Brown, who was working on a volume of transcriptions of largely forgotten 'Negro spirituals'. This meeting was the beginning of a professional relationship that lasted most of their lives.

Although Robeson completed his law degree, he was not keen on the subject and was advised it would be difficult for him to pursue a career, due to his colour. Instead, he got a part in Eugene O'Neill's play All God's Chillun Got Wings. This caused controversy in the white community, because a white woman was required to kiss his hand. However, it brought in offers of other work, including the lead in The Emperor Jones.

In 1924, Robeson re-encountered Larry Brown and they collaborated on a programme of spirituals and secular songs. When Robeson sang them at the Provincetown Theatre, his performance earned thunderous applause. This was the first time a black soloist had devoted a whole programme to such songs. The audience was thrilled by the power and beauty of Robeson's voice and surprised by the range of the songs, such as Let It Shine, Go Down Moses and John Henry. The critics praised the sincerity of Robeson's singing and the ingenuity of Brown's accompaniment. Robeson's first tour of major concerts was a great success, although he faced the humiliation of being turned away from hotels and restaurants because of his colour.

He temporarily took the part of Crown in the successful run of Du Bose and Dorothy Heywood's musical play Porgy, which formed the basis of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. He left to play Joe in the London run of Show Boat, in which he only sang one song – Old Man River. However the critics praised his singing above the rest of the show, which they dismissed as spectacle. A flood of concerts followed in Britain and the rest of Europe. In Budapest, Robeson was struck by the similarities between the spirituals and Slavonic and gypsy folk songs. This was the beginning of an interest in the folk music of different nationalities. He began to study languages, and eventually learned 25. In 1930 he was in London, where he took the lead part in Othello, performing with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Sybil Thorndike as Emilia.

Growing Political Awareness

During the 1930s Robeson continued to sing in concerts and shows and appeared in a number of films, including The Emperor Jones and Sanders of the River. He was becoming increasingly interested in black culture and its roots in ancient African history. He enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to study African languages. In 1934 he went to Russia and met the film maker Eisenstein and discussed working with him. Robeson was impressed by Russia and thought Russians treated their minorities well. After he appeared in the film of Show Boat, which reduced his part to that of the lazy easy-going husband of the show-boat's cook, he looked for parts which portrayed black people more positively. These included Song of Freedom and Jericho.

Robeson began to be involved in politics, speaking at a number of rallies and visiting Spain, where he sang to Republican troops. When war broke out, he initially took the view that the leaders of the Western democracies only wanted to rid Germany of Hitler in order to join forces with the country against Russia. This view lost him some friends. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Robeson's view changed and he freely gave concerts and attended rallies in support of the allies. However, the FBI director Edgar Hoover was suspicious of Robeson and his agents claimed he was a communist. They tapped his phone and bugged apartments he visited. In fact, Robeson was never a member of the Communist Party, although he had many friends in the organisation and shared their views.

The peak of Robeson's career came in 1942, when he acted the part of Othello in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Princeton. He was the first black man to have played the part in the US and his performances were met with massive ovations. He also set out on the longest tour of his career so far.

After the War

After the war and the death of President Roosevelt, Robeson was disappointed to see the re-establishment of colonialism. Black people in America were living in worse circumstances, while returning black soldiers were met by a wave of lynchings and violence. Robeson supported the new Progressive Party, led by Henry Wallace, and also campaigned for the trade union movement and the Council for African Affairs.

In April 1949, he gave a speech in Paris to delegates of the World Peace Congress, in which he called for the sharing of wealth in America, and stated that he opposed war with Russia. Robeson was not uncritical of Stalin's Russia. He was concerned about the persecution of some Jewish friends and sang a Yiddish marching song at a concert in Moscow. However, he was misreported as calling for black Americans to refuse to fight for America and the reaction was furious. White America condemned him and some black groups made it clear that he did not speak for them. Concerts were cancelled and Robeson and his associates were taunted when they appeared in public.

In 1949 trouble culminated, with riots at two concerts at Peekskill in Westchester county, New York. The first concert ended in disarray when it was attacked by right-wing groups. Robeson was determined to return to Peekskill and another concert was organised for September. His supporters organised security for him and the concert itself passed off peacefully but, when the audience tried to leave, they were ambushed by local youths, led by veterans' groups, who dragged people out of cars and threw rocks. The police failed to intervene.

After Communist victory in China and the invasion of South Korea by the North, anti-Communist feeling was running high. The State Department declared Robeson's passport void on the grounds that his 'travel abroad at this time would be contrary to the best interests of the US'. He continued to give speeches, write and attend rallies but he became increasingly isolated, and his health suffered. After Kruschev revealed the extent of Stalin's crimes, Robeson's comments became less pro-Soviet, although he remained optimistic about the possibilities of socialism.

Later Years

Eventually attitudes in America softened, and campaigns were launched from within the country and outside for the return of Robeson's passport. He gave his first commercial concert for nearly a decade at the Carnegie Hall in New York in 1958, to a jubilant reception. He visited London and Russia, and his comeback was triumphant. He played Othello at Stratford and toured Australia. However, the tours proved gruelling and he experienced a breakdown, cutting his wrists in a Moscow hotel. Although he attempted to return to public life, his health suffered again. His wife Essie died in November 1965, and Robeson's last years, struggling with mental and physical ill health, were spent living with his sister. He died on 22 January, 1976.

After Robeson's death, many tributes were paid to him. His friends spoke of their sense of loss, and others praised his courage in pointing out injustice. Even the white press acknowledged him as 'a great American'. The black papers spoke of him as a 'Gulliver among Lilliputians', and said his life would 'always be a challenge and a reproach to white and black America.'


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