Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
by Randye Jones
Paul Leroy Robeson was born the youngest of seven children on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey. His mother, of mixed African, Cherokee, and Caucasian ancestry, was a teacher; his father, a minister, was a former slave who escaped from a plantation near Raleigh, North Carolina. When five-year-old Paul’s mother was killed in a fire, the child developed a very close, though sometimes strained, relationship with his strict father. Robeson was exposed to the Negro spiritual at his father’s church, and he sang them with his father and brothers at home.
His family also encouraged his interests in cultural history, education, and sports. In high school, Robeson played fullback for the football team, studied singing and Latin, was on the debate team, and gave his first reading of Shakespeare’s Othello. He earned a scholarship to Rutgers College in 1915. Among his honors, he was selected for the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society, won numerous sports honors, and was twice named a Collegiate All-American in football. When Robeson was chosen as class valedictorian, he spoke on “The New Idealism:”
We of the younger generation especially must feel a sacred call to that which lies before us. I go out to do my little part in helping my untutored brother. We of this less favored race realize that our future lies chiefly in our own hands. On ourselves alone will depend the preservation of our liberties and the transmission of them in their integrity to those who will come after us. And we are struggling on attempting to show that knowledge can be obtained under difficulties; that poverty may give place to affluence; that obscurity is not an absolute bar to distinction, and that a way is open to welfare and happiness to all who will follow the way with resolution and wisdom; that neither the old-time slavery, nor continued prejudice need extinguish self-respect, crush manly ambition or paralyze effort; that no power outside of himself can prevent man from sustaining an honorable character and a useful relation to his day and generation. We know that neither institutions nor friends can make a race stand unless it has strength in its own foundation; that races like individuals must stand or fall by their own merit; that to fully succeed they must practice their virtues of self-reliance, self-respect, industry, perseverance and economy.1
Robeson moved to the Harlem section of New York after his graduation and worked various odd jobs to save money for school. He then matriculated to Columbia Law School. During this period, he also continued acting in stage productions and playing professional football. Upon his graduation in 1923, he accepted a position at a prestigious New York law firm. He left the firm due to an incident involving a white staff member.
Robeson’s reputation as a singer and actor, however, continued to grow. He starred in two Eugene O’Neill plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings–with its controversial interracial themes–and The Emperor Jones. In 1924, he made his first film, Body and Soul, which was directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux. By 1929, Robeson’s highly successful performances of spirituals with pianist Lawrence Brown–in addition to his stage and film appearances–led to several tours of Europe and to a life-long interest in European and African languages and folk songs.
Paul Robeson starred in a London production of Othello in 1930. He had been concerned about the reactions to him as a Black man playing opposite a white female, Peggy Ashcroft. Although Robeson’s relative inexperience as a Shakespearean actor was apparent in his performance, his dynamic personae captured the favor of the British audience and initially drew critical praise. Thirteen years later, Robeson would again appear in the play, this time opposite Uta Hagen. The production’s 296 performances became the longest Broadway run of a Shakespearean play in history and led to an extended national tour.
In late 1934, Robeson and his wife, Eslanda, made their first of several trips to the Soviet Union, beginning for him an association that would later have serious repercussions on his life and career. He was impressed by its political philosophy and lifestyle, which seemed to lack the discriminatory practices he had experienced in the United States.
In 1936, Robeson appeared in the film adaptation of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II play, Show Boat. Robeson’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” had already become his signature piece and a regular additional to his recitals, but the film’s release solidified the connection between the song and its interpreter. Over the years, however, Robeson subsequently changed the racially derogatory words of the song to more accurately reflect his activist views.
By the 1950’s, his politically unpopular support of the Soviet Union and his stances for racial equality and international human rights caused United States officials to revoke his passport. He was blacklisted as an entertainer and was called as a witness before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. In the January 1954 edition of Freedom, Robeson stated:
In fact, the only thing fatal for the American people would be the failure to fight the McCarthyite madness. For McCarthyism means destruction of the constitutional rights of free speech and free press and free religion. It means the prohibition of free assemblies. It means the burning of books which proclaim the scientific truth that all men are created equal. It means the reign of fear, intimidation and terror…. I have no doubt that we will beat back McCarthyism and restore our traditional liberties. But to do this we must reject the Big Lie on which McCarthyism thrives. The big lie is the fairy tale that the American people are somehow threatened by “communism.”2
In 1958, after much international pressure, Robeson regained his passport and again toured Europe—including a 1959 performance of Othello at the famed Stratford-on-Avon theatre–until illness forced his retirement to Harlem in 1963. During the Civil Rights protests of the 1960’s, he was too ill to be physically active, but he spoke out often in its support. Paul Robeson was hospitalized in Philadelphia upon suffering a minor stroke in December 1975. He succumbed on January 23, 1976.
A bass-baritone whose vocal power matched that of his 6-foot, 6-inch physique, Robeson’s richness of tone and expressiveness were ideally suited to the spirituals and folksongs he preferred. He had an exceptional command of languages, having learned an estimated 20 of them in his studies of the songs of Europe and Africa.
During his life, Paul Robeson received numerous awards for his accomplishments as an entertainer and activist. In 2004, Robeson was honored by the United States Postal Service as its 27th stamp in the Black Heritage Stamp Series.
1Paul Robeson, “The New Idealism,” The Targum (June 1919), 570-571; quoted in Philip S. Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974 (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978), 64.
2Paul Robeson, “The ‘Big Truth’ Is the Answer to the ‘Big Lie’ of McCarthy,” Freedom (January 1954); quoted in Philip S. Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974 (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978), 374.
Musical excerpt: “Ol’ Man River,” from Showboat by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Excerpt from Songs of Free Men. Recorded by Paul Robeson, November 8, 1947. Columbia Masterworks/Sony Classical, 1997.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 10, 2016. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/paul-robeson-biography.