Straddling Two Worlds: Paul Robeson

By Lifson, Amy | Humanities, November/December 1997 | Go to article overview

Straddling Two Worlds: Paul Robeson

Lifson, Amy, Humanities

"I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin'," Paul Robeson sang, changing the original Show Boat lyric-"I'm tired of livin' and feared of dyin"-and transforming a song about passive acceptance into a militant anthem. He was signaling a turn in career that straddled the worlds of artist and activist.

In 1936, Robeson had won fame for himself with his powerful singing of "Old Man River" in Show Boat. Variety said it was "the best piece of musical reproduction yet done in pictures." But Robeson was not happy at the portrayal of blacks as lazy or simple or barbarous. He began to question the attitude of the entertainment industry, and eventually gave up acting for concert appearances where he was freer to speak out on social justice. His views put him in alignment with the Communists, and eventually made him an outcast in American society.

A new exhibition at Rutgers University, Robeson's alma mater, examines his controversial life through photographs, concert and theater reviews, films, oral histories, and interviews. "Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen" opens in April at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers to commemorate Robeson's one hundredth birthday.

Born in 1898, Robeson was raised by his father, an escaped slave turned minister, in predominantly white middle-class New Jersey. He went to Rutgers, where he was valedictorian of the class of 1919, winner of the school's oratory award for four straight years, and an All-American football player. His classmates predicted that by 1940 he would be governor of New Jersey and the leader of the colored race in America, according to a biography by Martin Bauml Duberman.

By 1940 Robeson had deserted New Jersey for a larger stage-New York. He was a lawyer briefly, but quit the firm after the secretaries refused to work for him and the partners relegated him to pushing papers. He became an actor. He said he would never have entered "any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to me."

The New York theater was more welcoming. It was the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro movement was in full swing. Writers and artists were exploring primitivism and celebrating the "unspoiled" qualities of African Americans. The highly accomplished and intellectual Robeson was sought out for his "primitive" dark beauty. Nickolas Muray made nude photographs of him and Tony Salemme did a statue called Negro Spiritual.

Robeson was a commanding figure of that time. He felt optimistic. "If I do become a first-rate actor, it will do more toward giving people a slant on the so-called Negro problem than any amount of propaganda and argument."

He made these remarks in response to black criticism of his roles in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and in All God's Chillun Got Wings. From the reviews, the exhibition attempts to show how blacks were represented in American society. Dealing with an esoteric idea is tricky, says the curator, Jeffrey Stewart, a professor of history at George Mason University. "Most people come in and sweep through very quickly-how do you catch them to think about something deeper?

"One thing we'll be using fairly dramatically are newspaper and magazine articles that were written about Robeson during his career. For example, when he was at Rutgers as an allAmerican football player, we have a caricature that was done of him for the newspaper in blackface with big white lips and elongated limbs." Stewart says the caricature shows that Robeson's blackness was the most important factor: "They couldn't represent how he really looked-they had to use this stereotype."

The reviews openly spoke of color. In talking about Emperor Jones, the New York Herald Tribune said, "Physically this full-blooded negro fitted the role better than Gilpin.... He brings a full measure to the childlike volatility of his race.... " About Chillun, one critic wrote that Robeson had "all the unrestrained and terrible sincerity of which the white actor, save on rare occasions, is by virtue of his shellac of civilization just a trifle ashamed. …

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