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Revisiting Robeson the icon


Paul Robeson had a majestic stage presence, whether in the theater or in film, at home or on the civil rights platform, and he had a rich, earthy bass voice that thrilled audiences like the rumble of Old Testament prophecy.

He was the first African-American Othello of the 20th century. He played Joe in "Showboat" and made "Ol' Man River" into a sort of personal anthem. He revived the traditional black church spirituals when they were thought of as common, and he sang them in their pure simplicity as art songs.

He was a 6-foot-3, 230-pound All-American football player at Rutgers University at a time when even his teammates were racist. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1919 and gave the valedictory speech.

"He redefined the black male image in a way no one else has in the century," says his son, Paul Robeson Jr.

And yet, despite these accomplishments, his son believes Robeson has not received the recognition he's due in the United States, even among African Americans.

Robeson Jr., 71, has published the first book of a two-volume biography of his father, "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: The Early Years (1898-1939)." He wrote his book at least in part to rescue his father's reputation from neglect and restore to him his place in African-American history.

"I tried to deal with that in the preface by saying, isn't it extraordinary that with all these achievements in all these various fields, that by themselves are impressive - altogether they're through the roof - how come so very few people relatively know about him? And less so in this country, and even among African-Americans, than in other countries?

"And then I say it's because the entire machinery of culture, government and society were mobilized to make him a non-person for decades. Why is that?"

Robeson was a self-confident black man who had no desire whatsoever to be an imitation white. "To be as good as someone else is no high ideal," he told an interviewer in 1926. "I am myself."

Robeson Jr. will talk about his book and his father at 7 p.m. today in the Wheeler Auditorium at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, 400 Cathedral St.

Highs and lows

He writes in the preface that in 1944 Robeson was at the peak of his career and American magazine called him "America's number one Negro."

"Yet five years later, in 1949, he was America's most vilified black man," Robeson says. "For the next 27 years, until his death in 1976, he was blacklisted as an artist in the United States."

He had been an early admirer of the Soviet Union and a dogged defender of the Soviets through the years of purges and repression. He sent Paul Jr. to school in Russia for about 18 months.

So Robeson Jr. speaks Russian fluently with "a perfect Moscow accent" he learned as a schoolboy. He's done lots of translations over the years. His Russian school days were "extraordinarily good."

"I was totally integrated into the fabric there," says Robeson Jr., a writer and translator living in Brooklyn, N.Y. "There was just no racial overtone. You can just imagine what an enormous burden was lifted from a kid if you don't have that to cope with."

But during the Red scares after World War II, his father was blacklisted by record companies, harassed by government agencies from the immigration service to the House Un-American Activities Committee to the FBI. The State Department pulled his passport and that of his wife, Essie, for about 10 years. NBC even stopped him from appearing on television with Eleanor Roosevelt.

But that's the substance of Robeson Jr.'s second volume.

"The truth is that my father was never a communist, nor did he ever seriously contemplate joining the party," he says in his preface to this book. And Robeson neither had a "love affair" with communism nor was he "duped" by Russian or American communists.

He loved Russian culture, his son says, and he was convinced that "the Soviet Union and communists in general were the most reliable opponents of Nazism, colonialism and racism."

Russians loved him then and love him now, too.

Robeson Jr. finds that even today Russian emigres in "Little Odessa" in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn still remember his father and love his music. And his father remains popular in England, in Spain, where he supported the anti-fascist Republican cause in the 1930s, and throughout Europe. He is downright revered in Wales, where he found remarkable affinity with downtrodden miners as early as 1929.

But Robeson Jr. recalls that his most angry confrontation with his father came when he pressed him about the Soviet purge of a doctor they both knew and liked.

He's 10 years old and yelling at his father. Suddenly Robeson's face goes from sunny day calm to hurricane weather "with a 100 mph wind. I just stopped in mid-sentence and vanished."

Even though his son had touched upon a flash point about the Soviet Union, Robeson was more angry about the disrespect. "He could no more have done that to his own father, than thrown a rock at him," Robeson Jr. says.

Father and son

Robeson's own father, Wiliam Drew Robeson, was a former slave who escaped to freedom at 15 and went on to earn his theological degree at Lincoln University. He was a man of upright dignity and uncompromising convictions.

He preached at a black Presbyterian church in Princeton, N.J., until he was removed in November 1901, when Paul was 3. He had offended the white Presbyterians who ran the church as a kind of annex.

He instilled a lifelong concern for the underdog in Robeson.

In his own confrontation with his son, Robeson realized that rebellion was no capital offense. He was a truly nonviolent man.

"He never tried to frighten me again," Robeson Jr. says. "He understood at some very important level that a father should never terrorize a child in any way."

Robeson is 41 at the end of his son's book.

"So it's about half [his life]," he says. "It's the crucial first half. He's as artistic and political and scholarly as he's ever going to be.

"I focused on the personal story of a man. So by the end of the book, hopefully, you know who he is, what he's about, why he's doing these things and how he feels. So that if you met him on the street, or heard him, you would know who this is."

In 1974, according to a Rutgers University timeline, the FBI finally decides "no further investigation of Robeson is warranted." He is 75 then.

Two years later he is dead.

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