The remarkable life of Paul Robeson, quintessential Harlem Renaissance man: scholar, all-American, actor, activist, and firebrand
Born the son of an ex-slave in New Jersey in 1898, Paul Robeson, endowed with multiple gifts, seemed destined for fame. In his youth, he was as tenacious in the classroom as he was on the football field. After graduating from Rutgers with high honors, he went on to earn a law degree at Columbia. Soon after, he began a stage and film career that made him one of the country’s most celebrated figures.
But it was not to last. Robeson became increasingly vocal about defending black civil rights and criticizing Western imperialism, and his radical views ran counter to the country’s evermore conservative posture. During the McCarthy period, Robeson’s passport was lifted, he was denounced as a traitor, and his career was destroyed. Yet he refused to bow. His powerful and tragic story is emblematic of the major themes of twentieth-century history.
Martin Duberman’s exhaustive biography is the result of years of research and interviews, and paints a portrait worthy of its incredible subject and his improbable story. Duberman uses primary documents to take us deep into Robeson’s life, giving Robeson the due that he so richly deserves.
For millions of white Americans in the 1930s and early '40s, Paul = Robeson's success was a symbol that the American system worked. If this son of an ex-slave, this All-American football hero and concert singer could become a stage and screen starfamous as Othello and the Emperor Jonesthen couldn't any black person rise to the highest echelons through hard work? But when Robeson turned politically active, combining black militancy with support for the Stalinist Soviet Union and his own socialist vision, white Americaand many blacks tooturned their backs on him. The FBI kept him under close surveillance; the State Department restricted his right to travel. By 1960, he was branded as a public enemy, a Soviet apologist, and forced to the sidelines in civil-rights battles. His health and spirit broken, Robeson died in 1976, his reputation in eclipse. This big, engrossing, empathetic biography by distinguished historian-playwright Duberman is a major act of cultural restoration, forcing a fresh confrontation with Robeson's often highly independent political stances as well as his artistic creativity. Relying almost entirely on letters, diaries, interviews, FBI files and other primary sources, Duberman writes about Robeson's sexual affairs with white actresses, his shaky marriage, his deliberate cultivation of the image of ``natural'' actor and his fear that the U.S. would inherit the colonialist systems of Great Britain and France while its leaders pursued Cold War politics with the U.S.S.R. Photographs. 50,000 first printing.