So Donald Sterling is once again dominating the airwaves, insisting that he’s not a racist. Personally, I’d love to imagine Sterling in the same room with the late Paul Robeson. Not that Robeson was a pro basketball player. But I suspect he could have been. Paul Robeson could do just about everything well. (Except, maybe, stay true to his marriage vows.) In the 1930s he became an international film star, then walked away to champion the plight of his fellow black Americans, along with working stiffs everywhere.
I’m mesmerized with Robeson right now because I just saw Daniel Beaty perform his one-man tribute, The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Robeson, it seems, was indeed tall . . . and handsome . . . and fearless . . . and extremely complicated. The son of a slave who escaped and entered the ministry, Robeson was born in genteel Princeton, New Jersey in 1898. In high school he was a four-sport athlete, but entered Rutgers University on an academic scholarship.
While at Rutgers he used his thrilling baritone voice to earn extra money. Meanwhile, he excelled on the debate squad, became a football All-American, and graduated as class valedictorian. Somehow he then managed to play NFL football while also attending Columbia University’s School of Law. But he ended his law career abruptly because of the racism all around him: he was not welcome in courtrooms, and one secretary refused to take dictation from a black man.
Instead, encouraged by his loyal wife Eslanda, Paul Robeson chose to concentrate on music and the theatre. During the era of the Harlem Renaissance, he starred in several ground-breaking plays, including Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and a popular revival of The Emperor Jones. He and Essie then relocated to London, where he was one of the first black men ever to play Othello. (His long affair with his Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft, rocked his marriage, not for the first time. It managed to survive, but entirely on his terms.)
As Robeson’s stature in Europe grew, he began making films. The cinematic version of The Emperor Jones (1933) was the first major movie ever to star an African American male: in 1999 it was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Robeson was also top-billed for his role as a native chieftain in Sanders of the River (1935), a English-made drama set in Africa. The finished film is a paean to British colonialism, with Robeson and the other African characters happily subservient to Commissioner Sanders, the Great White Father who solves all their problems. So appalled was Robeson when he saw the final cut that he fought to halt the film’s release.
Most famously of all, Robeson was featured in the 1936 film version (directed by James Whale) of Kern and Hammerstein’s legendary Show Boat, singing the immortal “Ol’ Man River.” Today the staging of that number looks crude indeed, but the force of Robeson’s presence still lingers. “Ol’ Man River” became his signature song, to the point where he changed the famous lyrics to reflect his own fighting spirit. And fight he did, embracing the Soviet Union for outlawing racism, then butting heads with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Robeson had always championed Jewish causes, both at home and abroad, so one moment in Beaty’s play shocked me. Although Russian-Jewish friends, cruelly persecuted by Stalin’s regime, pleaded with him to speak out, he refused to denounce the USSR while on American soil. One more contradiction in a life that held many. But Paul Robeson was an enigma, and he just kept rollin’ along.