Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Paul Robeson

"Like every true artist, I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity."



1998 marked the centennial of Paul Robeson's birth. On April 9, 1898, an eighth child was born to Maria Luisa Bustill, the Quaker abolitionist, and William Drew, the former slave who had escaped to the north, gone to college, and become a minister. Paul was brought up to value education as much as his parents did.

Paul Robeson attended Rutgers University (he was the third black student in that school's history) in New Jersey, where he was an All-American football player and excelled in other sports as well. When he graduated, he was valedictorian of his class. He enrolled in Princeton Law School and became a lawyer, but due to the racism of that time, he had trouble finding employment.

It was this inability to move forward as a lawyer which compelled Robeson to change his life's course. Thus, he began the acting and singing career by which so many people came to love and admire him.

Robeson had a natural talent for performing and an enormously deep voice. When he appeared in the Broadway musical, Showboat, he sang a song that will always be remembered by the sound of that voice. "Ol' Man River" is now considered classic Paul Robeson. He also played the title role in three different productions of Othello, both in America and England, and in movies such as Sanders of the River, King Solomon's Mines, and The Proud Valley. He was greatly admired as an entertainer.

Robeson was deeply political. He believed in justice for all people. Even before his fame was at its peak, he traveled the world performing in benefits and speaking out for worker's rights, racial equality and peace. He fought for racial justice in America, but he also devoted his time, energy and money to groups outside the American black community. For instance, he spoke out against the Nazi's persecution of the Jews (among others) in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. Along with many other Americans, he participated in the Spanish Civil war against the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.

Of all his pronounced ideologies, perhaps the most controversial was his support of communism. Despite the growing fear of communism in the United States, Robeson remained steadfast to the idea of worker's rights and even to the Soviet Union, which was at that time still attempting to establish a working communist society. It was not uncommon for people suspected of sympathizing with the Soviets to be brought before a governmental panel called the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Many artists and actors were brought before this committee. This committee declared that Robeson's outspoken support of communism was unpatriotic and accused him, for instance, of trying to set up a Soviet state in the American South. The committee was powerful: It managed to take away Robeson's passport, and to coerce other black leaders into testifying against Robeson, but no one could prove any of the ridiculous accusations.

Robeson eventually recovered his passport and was able to tour and perform again for awhile. When he became ill, he left the stage and managed to live a private life for a short time.

Although he faded from public view, his work and dedication to political causes remained active. He died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia. The courage of his convictions and his strength before adversity make Paul Robeson a hero to people around the world.

From left to right: Theatre Artist Avery Brooks, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, Vice President of Diversity Development for the Postal Service Murry Weatherall, Paul Robeson, Jr., Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., Princeton University Provost Amy Gutmann and NJ Secretary of State Regena Thomas applaud as a stamp honoring entertainer Paul Robeson is unveiled in Princeton, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004. The stamp is the newest addition to the Black Heritage Stamp Collection. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen)

Paul Robeson continues to inspire people and his memory lives on. On January 20, 2004 a postal stamp honoring Paul Robeson was unveiled in Princeton, New Jersey. The stamp is part of the Black Heritage Stamp Collection.
Written by TONY


The Literature and Culture of the American 1950s
Find out more about the political climate of the fifties. A detailed reading list.

Paul Robeson's Heroes

Paul Robeson Online From the Princeton Public Library


Listen to Paul Robeson's music online (3,128 K)

Much of the information for this story came from Martin Duberman's book Paul Robeson: A Biography.


Here I Stand
by Paul Robeson, Sterling Stuckley (Intro)
Paul Robeson: A Biography
by Martin Duberman

Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man
by Virginia Hamilton

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