Thursday, February 21, 2008

Paul Robeson: A Singular Life

Paul Robeson: No More Auction Block

Paul Robeson: Thumbnail of a Singular Life

  • born April 9, 1898 in Princeton, N.J., son of a former slave turned preacher
  • attended Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.: graduated #1 in his class
  • was an All-America football player at Rutgers
  • entered Columbia University where he obtained a law degree
  • due to lack of opportunity for blacks in the legal profession, did not practice law
  • drifted to the stage, making his debut in London in 1922
  • appeared in Eugene O'Neill's play All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924
  • played title role in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones which caused a sensation in New York City (1924) and London (1925)
  • starred in the film version of The Emperor Jones in 1933
  • gave his first vocal recital of Negro spirituals in Greenwich Village in 1925
  • became world famous as Joe in the musical Show Boat with song Ol' Man River
  • played the title role in Othello in London (1930) to great praise
  • his 1943 Othello set an all-time record run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway
  • spoke of 20 languages with some fluency
  • his political awareness impelled Robeson to visit the Soviet Union in 1934 and from that time onward became identified with left-wing commitments
  • active in civil rights and labor movements from 1930s onward
  • opposed colonialism in Africa and Asia
  • in 1950 the U.S. State Department withdrew his passport because he refused to sign an affidavit disclaiming membership in the Communist Party
  • in the following years he was ostracized for his political views: his films and recordings were removed from circulation/he was never seen on TV until after his death
  • in 1952, unable to leave the United States, sang concert at the Peace Arch on the U.S.-Canadian Border with more than 40,000 attending on both side of border
  • in 1958 the Supreme Court overturned the affidavit ruling, after which he left the United States to live in Europe
  • published his autobiography, Here I Stand, in 1958.
  • he returned to the United States in 1963 because of ill health
  • died January 23, 1976, Philadelphia, Pa.

In Memoriam: Trying to be Paul Robeson

I did not learn of Paul Robeson until 1964 when I was a university student—and then only because I had a professor who was left of left. Robeson had returned to the U.S. from Europe the year before and my professor had met him in NYC. From the moment I heard the marvelous stories of his life, Paul Robeson became a guiding light in mine.

A few nights ago, by chance, I saw for the first time the 1933 film in which Robeson starred (the first film, as I understand it, in which an African-American had the lead), The Emperor Jones. Then, again by chance, I found my misplaced CD of Robeson’s Peace Arch Concerts.

So I felt led to publish this post in honor and memory of this marvelous man, a personal hero of mine.

Note regarding my health: There is no change from yesterday.


  1. I believe he visited the Welsh miners too.

  2. Oh Nick! This is a beautiful tribute!

    Robeson would've been so much more well-known if he would've been born white and then spoken against Russia and Communism. What a voice!

    Thanks for waking me up to Robeson's story. I am inspired.

    Glad you got a doctor's appointment!

  3. LIZ: You are right! The Peace Arch Concert on the U.S Canadian border was sponsored by a Miners Union and Robeson visited miners all over the world. There is a union song, Joe Hill, about a union organizer working among miners in the U.S. who was convicted of murder and executed on charges trumped up by the mine owners. Robeson often sang that song at his concerts.

    I find it sad that outside of the United States, where his story has been repressed for more than 50 years, he is better known and remembered.

    CAROL: Thank you. I note that you’ve done a second excellent Robeson post. You’re on a roll, too!

  4. ` Good to know you're at least well enough to come back with this neat post.

    ` Please stay well, Nick! (If only that dratted cat of yours was capable of taking care of you....)

  5. Thanks for posting this and I hope you are feeling much better...

  6. This is an excellent tribute, Nick. I hope you feeling better now.

  7. S E E QUINE: Thank you. Of course, I worked on this post a bit at a time with quite a few catnaps in between. Matter of fact, I was catnapping until just a while ago. I was awakened by an ice storm outside. Alex is still napping.

    MISSISSIPPI SONGBIRD: l love typing Mississippi! Thank you; my breathing has improved, but my leg hasn’t.

    ANGUS: Thank you, my friend.

  8. Excellent tribute! And I hope you feel better soon!

  9. Sorry your health has not improved...there is always tomorrow!

    This was an educational and solid tribute!

    The Egel Nest

  10. What a lovely moving post....... wrap up warm Saintly, I hope you're feeling better soon.... sending you special wishes......


  11. Nicely done, Rev. Saint. I wonder if Paul Robeson if mentioned in U.S. history courses other than those covering African-American history. He certainly wasn’t in my school days. I would hope that he is now.

  12. Beautiful, Nick.

    Thank you for the post.