Magazine article Monthly Review

Radical Internationalist Woman

Magazine article Monthly Review

Radical Internationalist Woman

Article excerpt

Radical Internationalist Woman Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 424 pages, $25, softcover.

Eslanda Robeson's robust life and political actions spanned twothirds of the twentieth century, from the Harlem Renaissance to the London theatre, from studies with students from the British empire's colonies to travels to the rural villages of Uganda and the Congo, through anti-fascism and the Second World War, across the Cold War and African decolonization, from the Soviet and Chinese revolutions to the founding of the United Nations, from fearlessly challenging McCarthyism to attendance at the All-African Peoples Conference in Ghana, from Jim Crow to the surging of the Black Freedom Movement. Her life as an internationalist, Africanist, political radical, writer, anthropologist, journalist, acclaimed speaker and, oh, yes, did I say the wife, sometimes partner, and enduring political comrade of actor, singer, and militant activist himself, Paul Robeson, spanned virtually every continent and every struggle for equality, peace, and liberation.

Eslanda Cardozo Goode-also known as Essie-was on her way to graduating from Teachers College, Columbia University in chemistry with dreams of becoming a medical doctor when she met Paul Robeson through friends in Harlem. They were married within a year and Essie turned instead to managing and framing his acting and musical career, giving birth to their son Paul, Jr., and moving to England with her new family to develop Paul's vocation as an artist.

In London, Essie became friends with the exiled Emma Goldman and with African, Pan-African, and Indian students and intellectuals-Jomo Kenyatta, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah-who were to lead their colonized nations to independence in the coming decades. She studied anthropology and African societies at the London School of Economics, visited the Soviet Union in 1934 and 1938, and began the lifelong task of reinventing herself again and again, so common to talented women and so dizzyingly difficult to capture.

Fortunately, Eslanda Robeson has a biographer who is equal to the task. Eslanda is excavated from relative obscurity by the brilliant historian Barbara Ransby, who is also the biographer of Ella Baker (Ella Bakerand the Black Freedom Movement), the quite different radical woman and founding mother of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Essie is thoughtfully given her due as a political analyst, activist, woman intellectual, and writer. Ransby is a professor in the departments of African American Studies, Gender and Women Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, director of the Gender and Women Studies Program, and a founder of the Social Justice Initiative. Ransby is herself an activist intellectual and engaged scholar, and-as a biographer-she brings the insights of a woman who is living large in the whirlwind of her own time to the challenges of illuminating with sensitivity and power Essie Robeson's remarkable journey.

Eslanda's unique and enduring vocation was to understand the reality of the peoples of Africa and to bring to that inquiry the perspective of an African-American woman fighting against white supremacy in all of its forms, against the violence of segregation, colonialism, and apartheid. She did so by listening to everyone, but particularly by engaging ordinary village people. She had access to missionaries, white colonial administrators, African professionals educated in the West, and to academics; her most vibrant teachers, however, and the focus of her writing, were the township and village women. Essie traveled to Africa for the first time in 1936 with her young son Paul, Jr., where she kept extensive journals of her conversations in South Africa in the Langa township outside of Cape Town. In Port Elizabeth she reunited with Z.K. Matthews, who would become a leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and be jailed with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in the treason trials of 1956. …

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