Nationality: American. Born: Paul Leroy Robeson in Princeton, New Jersey, 9 April 1898. Education: Attended Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (All-American football player), B.A., 1919 (Phi Beta Kappa); Columbia University Law School, New York, graduated 1923; admitted to the New York Bar, and joined New York law firm, 1923. Family: Married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, 1921 (died 1965), son: Paul. Career: Professional football player while attending law school; 1921—professional debut on Broadway in Taboo ; 1922—English debut in the same play, retitled Voodoo , in Blackpool opposite Mrs. Patrick Campbell; 1924—on stage in New York in The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings ; 1925—film debut in Body and Soul ; first professional singing tour; 1930—in
Body and Soul (Micheaux); Borderline (MacPherson)
The Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy) (as Brutus Jones)
Sanders of the River ( Bosambo ) (Z. Korda) (as Bosambo)
Song of Freedom (Wills) (as John Zinga); Show Boat (Whale) (as Joe)
King Solomon's Mines (Stevenson) (as Umbopa); Jericho ( Dark Sands ) (Freeland) (as Jericho Jackson); Big Fella (Wills) (as Joe)
The Proud Valley (Tennyson) (as David Goliath)
Native Land (Hurwitz and Strand—doc) (as narrator); Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier) (as Luke)
Das Lied der Ströme ( Song of the Rivers ) (Ivens—doc) (singing voice only)
Here I Stand , New York, 1958.
Paul Robeson, Tributes, Selected Writings , edited by Roberta Yancy Dent, New York, 1976.
Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918–1974 , edited by Philip Fowler, Larchmont, New York, 1978.
"The Culture of the Negro," in Spectator , 15 June 1934.
Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Paul Robeson, Negro , New York, 1930.
Graham, Shirley, Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World , New York, 1946.
Robeson, Eslanda Goode, Paul Robeson Goes to Washington , Salford, Lancashire, 1956.
Seton, Marie, Paul Robeson , London, 1958.
Salk, Erwin, Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner , New York, 1965.
Hoyt, Edwin, Paul Robeson: The American Othello , Cleveland, 1967.
Brown, Lloyd, Lift Every Voice for Paul Robeson , New York, 1971.
Hamilton, Virginia, Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man , New York, 1974.
Wright, Charles, Labor's Forgotten Champion , Detroit, 1975.
Brown, Lloyd, Paul Robeson Rediscovered , New York, 1976.
Gilliam, Dorothy, Paul Robeson, All-American , Washington, D.C., 1976.
Nazel, Joseph, Paul Robeson: Biography of a Proud Man , Los Angeles, 1980.
Robeson, Susan, The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Portrait of Paul Robeson , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1981.
Dyer, Richard, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society , London, 1987.
Duberman, Martin Bauml, Paul Robeson , New York, 1989.
Larsen, Rebecca, Paul Robeson, Hero before His Time , New York, 1989.
McKissack, Pat, Paul Robeson: A Voice to Remember , Hillside, New Jersey, 1992.
Holmes, Burnham, Paul Robeson: A Voice of Struggle , Austin, Texas, 1995.
Anthony, others, Paul Robeson: Bearer of a Culture , New York, 1998.
Davis, Lenwood, A Paul Robeson Handbook: Every, Kearney, 1998.
Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner , New York, 1998.
Stewart, Jeffrey C., Paul Robeson: Artist & Citizen , Piscataway, 1998.
Reiner, Carl, "How Paul Robeson Saved My Life": And Other Mostly Happy Stories , New York, 1999.
Hutchens, John K., "Paul Robeson," in Theatre Arts (New York), October 1944.
DuBois, W. E. B., "Paul Robeson, Right," in Negro Digest , March 1950.
Mieirs, Earl Schenk, "Paul Robeson: Made by America," in Negro Digest , October 1950.
Rowan, Carl T., "Has Paul Robeson Betrayed the Negro?," in Ebony (Chicago), October 1957.
Pittman, John, "Mount Paul," in New World Review , February 1962.
Fishman, George, "Paul Robeson's Student Days and the Fight against Racism at Rutgers," in Freedomways , Summer 1969.
Cripps, Thomas, "Paul Robeson and Black Identity in American Movies," in Massachusetts Review , Summer 1970.
Weaver, Harold D., "Paul Robeson: Beleaguered Leader," in Black Scholar , December 1973-January 1974.
Current Biography 1976 , New York, 1976.
Obituary in New York Times , 24 January 1976.
Stuckey, Sterling, "'I Want to Be African': Paul Robeson and the End of Nationalist Theory and Practice," in Massachusetts Review , Spring 1976.
Ward, Geoffrey C., "Robeson's Choice," in American Heritage , April 1989.
Sorel, Nancy Caldwell, "Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft," in Atlantic (New York), May 1992.
Cunningham, John, "A Second Look," in Cineaste (New York), June 1996.
Thompson, Cliff, "We Hardly Knew Ye: Four Early Films of Paul Robeson," in Cineaste (New York), July 1998.
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Paul Robeson's life story, of which his film career was a small and sadly underdeveloped component, is one of the great inspirations and tragedies of modern American history. An actor and singer of great presence and power, Robeson tried, often in vain, to find dignified roles for a black man in both American and British studios. With the exceptions of the African-American pioneer director Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul , the avant-garde Borderline , and the British Big Fella he was cast as either a subhuman or a super-leader with whom no one could identify. Nevertheless, Robeson was America's Twentieth-Century Renaissance man: All-American athlete at Rutgers, Columbia law school graduate, political activist, bass-baritone, public intellectual, linguist, and actor. Born in 1898, he became famous in the mid-1920s for his roles in two Eugene O'Neill plays, All God's Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones . He repeated the latter role in the 1933 independently produced film version, and the play itself anticipates Robeson's film career in several ways.
Like Robeson himself, Brutus Jones embarks on a journey of self-discovery. This southern black laborer becomes first a criminal and then the despot of a Caribbean Island. The transformation repeats itself through Robeson's film career: severing ties with one world, he must adopt a new persona in another. Two years after making The Emperor Jones , in the Korda-produced Sanders of the River , Robeson played a petty thief who has left Liberia and, by kowtowing to the British imperialists, becomes an African chief. In Song of Freedom he portrays an English dockworker who, after becoming a famous singer, retraces his ancestry in an African village. Another transformation occurs in King Solomon's Mines , in which Robeson's Umbopa, after traveling with white fortune-hunters to his native land, reveals himself as the rightful chief. He plays the mythical David Goliath in Pen Tennyson's The Proud Valley . After arriving in a Welsh coal-mining town as a vagabond who has jumped his American ship, David becomes the pride of the men's chorus and a miner who martyrs himself to save the less noble white miners. (Although Robeson's characters obviously represent moral choices, more recent critics have also openly acknowledged their frequent eroticism.)
The Emperor Jones contains gratuitous songs for Robeson which were not in the stage productions, again setting a precedent. In Show Boat , recreating his stage role as Joe, he sings "Ol' Man River" (which he would later reinvent in concert as a protest song) in a stunning expressionistic sequence, and later performs a comic duet with Hattie McDaniel written especially for the film once Robeson was cast. His songs in Sanders of the River ("On to Battle") and King Solomon's Mines ("Song of the Mountains") contain embarrassingly childish lyrics, and in both Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley Robeson's obtrusive lyrics can be best described as anglicized Socialist Realism. Robeson's singing is perhaps best experienced through his many recordings of spirituals and international folk songs, which often suggest the legendary power of his live concerts.
Robeson's life was as superhuman as David Goliath's in The Proud Valley : the Spanish Civil War stopped for a day for his concert; his Othello was the longest-running Shakespearean play in American theatrical history; he was as outspokenly pro-African liberation as he was anti-imperialist. He championed communism even when government pressure destroyed his health and career. That he accomplished so much in so many public arenas is still awe-inspiring, while his life continues to inspire debate and discussion; that the American and British film industries, not to mention the U.S. government, so consistently devalued and hampered his talents remains a major shame.
—Howard Feinstein, updated by Corey K. Creekmur