Called by some the Great Forerunner and others the Tallest Tree in Our Forest, Paul Robeson is without peer in the annals of modern American civilization. His was a life rich with intellectual and emotional complexity and poignancy, unfolding during the United States’ most eventful times, a long and troubled era to which he contributed his talent and his willingness to challenge the prevailing conventions of racism, imperialism, and social injustice.
His trailblazing career in film, during the 1920s and 1930s, was only one of the many facets of his extraordinary life, but it was pivotal to the emergence of a black film aesthetic and, by extension, an African-American cultural identity. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to understand the intersection of racism, colonialist influences on popular culture, and black artistic concerns without considering what Paul Robeson accomplished as a singer, stage and film star, and activist and, alas, what he left undone because of the tenor of his times.
Over the course of Robeson’s life, 1898 to 1976, the far-reaching legacies of both African enslavement and racial mythology in modern America were acknowledged on an unprecedented level and met with increasingly determined resistance by two generations of African-Americans. Robeson was at the forefront of that resistance. He was also among those who paid dearly for their own beliefs at a time when civil rights advocacy, labor activism, and kinship with the Soviet Union were hardly popular causes.
Robeson’s militancy was primarily drawn from black folk culture, as well as his deeply held personal belief in his worth as an American. Robeson, a modern man, burnished that pride with modern ideals and a theoretical and cultural critique of Euro-American supremacy long associated with learned Africans in the Americas. His life marked that passage made when a twentieth-century black individual became fully aware that the past had indeed yielded to the future, that blacks had a culture and a history worthy of study and preservation.
Not unlike many African-Americans born during the waning years of the nineteenth century, Robeson was personally touched by the memories and legacies of black enslavement. His father, W. D. Robeson, was a Presbyterian minister whose ministry, in the New Jersey towns of Princeton, Westfield, and Somerville, was shaped by his experiences as a slave; at the age of twelve, he had made his way north along the Underground Railroad. Over the course of Paul’s life, especially when he was confronted with the predicament of being a black man of prominence, he remembered the deeper travails of his father, who, the Robeson biographer Sterling Stuckey has observed, was “the greatest single influence” on his life. His mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, was born into very different circumstances—free, in the New Jersey hamlet of mixed-race coloreds known as Gouldtown. But like other free blacks, she knew something of slaves and the ordeal of slavery—its subtle and harsh indignities and the mythologies upon which it was based. Tragically, she died in a fire at their home when Paul was five years old.
During his youth, when the memories of his elders, who knew firsthand of enslavement and the nascent blessings of freedom, resonated throughout black American communities, Paul Robeson witnessed a transitional era in the history of his people. In his 1958 memoir, Here I Stand, he remembered the black community of Princeton: “Hardworking people, and poor, most of them, in worldly goods—but how rich in compassion. How filled with the goodness of humanity and the spiritual steel forged by centuries of oppression!” He and those whose lives he commemorated in his writings and speeches had entered into an era when formerly enslaved blacks were ceding authority and prestige to freeborn blacks, and new opportunities, including educational uplift and competition in a capitalist society, were within the reach of a black elite. Through his strength of character and intellectual prowess, Robeson embodied the emergence of a black man all but free of the burden of atavistic racism.
This is not to suggest that Robeson did not face the same realities as other African-Americans. He did indeed, as race was paradoxically heaped upon him in a manner commensurate with his growing fame. Robeson was among the better-known Americans of the 1930s and 1940s, and certainly the most celebrated African-American pursuing goals beyond entertainment and athletic competition. That he matured artistically, politically, and intellectually during the 1930s made him a powerful symbol of the New Negro and a sophisticated citizen of the world, but he was also viewed, at least by conservatives in the United States, as a threat to the racial and cultural hierarchy, a dangerous agent for change. His writings, his travels abroad, especially to the Soviet Union during the 1930s, and his fealty to workers around the world set into motion a series of accusations against his patriotism. By the mid-1950s, Robeson was among the most prominent victims of the cold war—as he became increasingly influential on political and racial matters in the nation of his birth and beyond, he drew at first the attention and later the wrath of American intelligence agencies, especially the FBI.
Yet Robeson navigated, brilliantly and uniquely, around the sharper edges of racism, giving to many who crossed his path a sense that he was above the harsh realities faced by other blacks in the United States. He brought to the lives of scores of associates—his fellow artists, activists, scholars, and humanists, who included W. E. B. DuBois and George Bernard Shaw—a personal joy and deep friendship. He thrived on the support and guidance of his wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson, who often acted as his career adviser and manager. His contemporaries often commented on his consistently winning personality, his deep reservoirs of artistic talent, and the fearlessness with which he famously challenged stereotypes of blacks, and of black men all the more so. Perhaps his academic, artistic, and intellectual stature made him palpable to whites, especially those of European ancestry, who saw in him the embodiment of an idealized Negro. Perhaps Robeson’s embrace of interracial brotherhood struck a chord that had been dormant since the abolitionist movement. Or perhaps by the time Robeson stepped onto the national stage, American society was prepared to valorize a black man having such formidable personal and physical qualities as did Robeson.
Robeson’s evolution as an artist began during the interwar period, an era of rich creativity by blacks and other ethnic Americans. A 1919 graduate and honors student of Rutgers College, Robeson then attended Columbia University Law School; though he was never formally trained in the performing arts, he was well on his way to becoming an acclaimed singer and actor by the end of the twenties. In 1925, at the Greenwich Village Theater, he gave one of the first public recitals devoted exclusively to Negro spirituals, drawn from African-American sacred and laboring culture. And in 1924, Robeson established himself as a formidable stage actor, first appearing as Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. His subsequent performances in O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924) and Shakespeare’s Othello, at the Savoy Theatre in London, in 1930 (he would later reprise that role in the nation of his birth, at Cambridge’s Brattle Hall, in 1942), solidified his reputation as one of the modern era’s most talented actors. But it was Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Show Boat (1928) that made him an overnight sensation: For many years to come, the show’s song “Ol’ Man River” would be his mantra against social injustice. In 1940, Collier’s magazine designated him “the favorite male Negro singer” of concertgoers and “America’s no. 1 entertainer.”
His singing and stage acting led to perhaps the most culturally transgressive portion of his career: his work in film, which, not unlike other chapters of his astonishingly productive life, was marked by paradox. On one hand, he was arguably the first black film star whose persona on and off the screen complicated and advanced the perception of blackness in a society where race was still the organizing principle. In that sense, his success as a performing artist and nascent personification of the New Negro’s identity set the stage for the future of blacks, and indeed whites, in film. Yet most of his films brought him deep frustration, as well as criticism from those he respected. In the end, his film career left a dubious legacy.
Beginning with his dual roles as both the Reverend Isiaah T. Jenkins and Sylvester in the silent film Body and Soul (1925), from pioneering African-American director Oscar Micheaux, Robeson’s film career took him into an arena quite different from the musical world that initially brought and sustained his fame. As a singer, he had more control over his material, his public image, and the objectives of his creativity than would be the case in film. He ultimately realized that he was powerless to control the final product of the complicated, politically and culturally compromised film industry. In most of his films, even those in which his talent was evident, he portrayed stereotypical caricatures. As one of his biographers, Martin Duberman, has observed:
During his nearly twenty-year film career, he tried time and time again to expand the limited vocabulary and representation of black life—even as he bore the brunt of denunciation by black newspapers and political leaders for accepting stereotypic parts. Often Robeson took a role only after having been promised that the film would have a progressive thrust—and would then discover, on seeing the final cut, that he had been misled or lied to.
Such was the reality of the business for many a film star, but all the more so when dealing with the representation, or misrepresentation, of black bodies, black speech, black narratives, and the stature of black people in modern life. To his credit, Robeson sought to control aspects of his film career, bringing to it his vigilance against colonialism and the demeaning of black people in popular culture. His two most favored films, Song of Freedom (1936) and The Proud Valley (1940), presented humanely constructed images of black men, unburdened by the stereotypes of the time. Indeed, Robeson’s character in Song of Freedom, John Zinga, is driven by intense interest in his African ancestry, as was Robeson for most of his life. His interest in working-class solidarity, race and racism notwithstanding, is especially evident in Proud Valley, in which he plays the endearing and heroic David Goliath, a black coal miner working in Wales. Both films contain severely problematic elements, most notably Song of Freedom’s simplistic and foolish portrayal of African people and culture, and the sacrificial death Robeson enacts to save his white brethren in Proud Valley. Nevertheless, these two films offered a more nuanced view of a person of African ancestry than had been seen up to that point.
In retrospect, Robeson’s prominence in film was not marked by the quality of his films so much as the effort he made, as actor and activist, to seize some small portion of integrity for the black world that cinema claimed to depict. The 1935 production Sanders of the River illustrates both Robeson’s importance and his enduring frustration with the film industry. Before its release, Robeson said, “For the first time since I began acting, I feel that I’ve found my place in the world, that there’s something out of my own culture which I can express and perhaps help to preserve—for I’m not kidding myself that I’ve really gotten a place in Western culture, although I have been trained in it all my life.” Once completed, Sanders of the River was a disappointment to Robeson. Duberman has observed, “It turned out he had lent his talents and invested his hopes in a film that ended up as a glorification of British imperialism.” Afterward, with the 1937 film Jericho, Robeson was granted more control over the finished product, so as to avoid such sizable ideological disparities with the filmmakers.
Near the end of his film career, Robeson turned to more political filmmaking, including Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand’s semidocumentary Native Land (1942), which he narrated. It is polemical, to be sure, perfectly in keeping with his mature vision of an American nation where the rights of workers and minorities were paramount. It is without the racial and cultural baggage of his earlier films, and a hopeful view of an American society that would come into sharper focus during the civil rights movement.
Robeson’s fame, both on screen and stage, and the affection in which he was held by two generations of black Americans emerged in part from modern African-Americans’ penchant for heroes. Drawing from their folk past, twentieth-century blacks relished the deeds of fellow blacks—bad, fearless, and ill-tempered Negroes—who by any means necessary struck a blow against racial injustice and white supremacy. With stories, songs, poems, and collective memory, modern black Americans, living at a time when the world was opening up to them, connected their sensibilities to the ways of their forebears. Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion boxer, was arguably the most visible and famous modern black American, his excessive and reckless lifestyle notwithstanding. But Robeson was clearly a more palpable heroic figure. While his educational attainments placed him among the early twentieth century’s Negro elite, his elevated status brought him to the study of his ancestors, where he dedicated himself to the culture, history, language, and prospects of Africans. “I am a Negro,” he wrote in 1934. “The origin of the Negro is African. It would therefore seem an easy matter for me to assume African nationality.” At the time, when he was thirty-six years old, such a statement was an affirmation that not only shed light on Robeson’s identity but would in the coming years be echoed by other blacks in the United States and throughout the African diaspora.
Robeson’s voluntary decision to end his film career came with the 1942 release of Tales of Manhattan, which negatively depicted Southern black agricultural workers. Robeson said of it, “I couldn’t blame any Negro for picketing the film.” Such a comment, rare for a black artist at the time, complicated his prominence as a black luminary in American popular culture. Indeed, his future was endangered by his antiracist, anticapitalist militancy, as the nation’s paranoia over the Soviet Union, Communism, social equality, and civil rights took on an increasingly hysterical and racialist bearing. Robeson became a victim of that sad era. His passport was revoked, his singing career (with the exception of his performances before black audiences and a few labor organizations) was severely imperiled, and the fame he enjoyed before and during World War II came to an end. Not until the 1960s, when the modern civil rights movement changed the terms of debate about racial justice, anticolonialism, and the legitimacy of agitation against injustice, was Paul Robeson, then infirm and remembered by many whose lives had been touched by his own, repositioned at the forefront of American society’s long quest for a democracy freed of racial mythology and hostility to the progeny of slaves. His film legacy, for its power and its sheer unlikeliness, remains a testament to Robeson’s enormous courage, conscience, and strength of character.
Clement Alexander Price is Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University, Newark Campus. He is the author of Freedom Not Far Distant: A Documentary History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey and many other publications that explore modern African-American history, race relations, and culture in the United States.