PAUL ROBESON, THE MAN AND HIS MISSION
BIOGRAPHY (London, Peter Owen, 1987)
This is the first comprehensive biography of Paul Robeson to be published since his death in
1976. It brings together all the main strands in the life of a remarkable man and provides
fresh insights into his celebrated career, including his twelve years in Britain which have
been virtually ignored in previous accounts.
Robeson's father had been a slave on a cotton plantation in Carolina before he escaped to
the North where he became a Presbyterian minister. Robeson's mother died tragically in an
accident when Paul was not quite six. His childhood was nevertheless a happy one and family
encouragement helped him later to make his mark at high school and college, both at work
and games. At Rutgers University he distinguished himself as a football player and in the
baseball team and he won prizes for oratory. Following his father's death in 1918 he
moved to Harlem, New York City, entering Columbia University Law School two years later.
His life now took the first of many dramatic turns; he became married, involved in singing
and theatre work and visited England, qualifying as a lawyer on his return to America.
During his subsequent career as a concert stage singer, film star and dramatic actor
Robeson played many parts, but none more compelling than the lead in Shakespeare's Othello.
His performance in the 1959 Stratford-upon-Avon production of the play was probably his
crowning achievment as an actor. In time he found it hard to separate his art from his
politics, and so it was that he moved irrevocably from being simply the interpretive artist
of his time to the role of political artist, adopting a radical, left-wing stance. He visited
Soviet Russia on several occasions and even sent his son to school in Moscow. His uncompromising
attitude aroused deep hostility among his countrymen, and in the McCarthy era he was vetted by
the House Un-American Activities Committee.
An international name in his lifetime, today Robeson is hardly known among a new generation of
black Americans. Yet he is being increasingly regarded by serious students as a monumental
figure in the struggle for civil rights in the United States and for freedom from oppression
everywhere. Either as a 'Great American' or 'Un-American', Paul Robeson springs to life again in
this book as a man of charisma and stature and as an indomitable spirit.