Paul Robeson, The Man And His Mission

BIOGRAPHY (London, Peter Owen, 1987)

robFullThis 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.

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