Friday, 25 March 2011

BOOK REVIEWS ~ "Paul Robeson" ~ By: Eloise Greenfield

A Crowell Biography
Like "Ray Charles," (see previous book review post), the book titled "Paul Robeson" is another "Crowell Biography."  It was written by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by George Ford, and published in 1975.

Until I read this book with Alisdair I was unfamilar with the life and work of Paul Robeson.  And then we "googled" him and both of us were amazed at his extraordinary voice.  We listened to Black Spirituals and even a rendition of "Loch Lomond."  He definitely had talent!  I'm glad Greenfield's book introduced us to this entertainer.

Paul Leroy Robeson

PAUL LEROY ROBESON was born on April 9, 1898, in the church parsonage in Princeton, New Jersey.  His father, William D. Robeson was the pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Pastor Robeson had once been a slave on a plantation in North Carolina.  At the age of 15, he ran away, escaping to the North, where he went to school.  He married Maria Louisa Bustill after he graduated from college.  Paul was the youngest child in the family, with three older brothers and an older sister.  Greenfield tells us Rev. Robeson was 53-years old, when Paul was born.  She also notes that "Mrs. Robeson was sickly and almost blind.  Even with her thick glasses, she still could not see very well."  But despite all this, the family were delighted with their new arrival.

Paul Robeson encountered discrimination early on.  He was "still a baby when his father lost his position at the church because of an argument among the members."  He found a new way to provide for his family -- by buying a horse, named Bess, and a wagon and hauling away the ashes created by coal furnaces in the Town of  Princeton.

"Sometimes Reverend Robeson or Paul's brother, Reeve, hitched Bess to a large carriage and drove passengers where they wanted to go.  Some of the passengers were students from Princeton University.  More than once, Reeve fought these students for making insulting remarks about black people" (Page 3).  "Reeve taught Paul that he should always stand up for his rights" (Page 4).

"When Paul was six years old, a tragic accident upset the family's happiness.  One day when his mother was cleaning the house, she bumped into the coal stove that kept the house warm.  A hot coal fell on her long dress, setting it on fire, and she was burned to death" (Page 5).  Young Paul missed his Mother very deeply but he grew very close to his Father, as a consequence of this loss.  "His Father taught him to recite and helped him study his homework. . . . He had learned from his Father the importance of always doing his best.  He learned many other things by watching and listening to his father.  He learned to love words -- written words and spoken words.  He learned to be proud of being black.  He learned that people should do the things they really believe in" (Pages 6 and 7).

Eventually his Father became the pastor again.  "Paul was proud when he sat in church and listened to his father's sermons.  He could see that the words meant a lot ot the members of the church.  They liked what Reverend Robeson was saying and they liked the rhythm of his deep bass voice.  Paul sang in the church choir.  He loved music, especially the black music called Spirituals.  Spirituals are religious songs.  They are a mixture of the music that slaves had known in Africa and the music and words they added to it after they were kidnapped to America" (Page 7).

"Paul sang the solos in the glee club.  He liked to sing, and he sang well.  But he didn't think he would want to make his living as a singer when he grew up.  He knew he didn't want to be an actor.  One year his school gave a performance of Othello, a play written almost four hundred years ago by William Shakespeare.  Paul played the part of an African general.  It was the main part, and he was so nervous that he promised himself he would never try acting again.  Years later, Paul would be famous all over the world for his great acting in Othello and other plays, and for his singing.  But he did not know that then" (Pages 8 and 9).

Robeson graduated from high school and won a 4-year scholarship to Rutgers College.  "At Rutgers there was only one other black student.  There had not been many black students at the high school either, and Paul had had problems with some of the white students and teachers.  But worse things happened at Rutgers.  Paul was not allowed to sing in the glee club because there were parties after the musical programs that no black person could attend.  He tried out for football, but the other players did not want a black student on the team.  On the first day that the coach sent them out on the field to practice, one player smashed Paul in the face with his fist.  Paul fell down and the other players jumped on him and punched him with their fists and knees and elbows.  Paul went home with a broken nose.  His shoulder had been knocked out of place, and he had scratches and bruises all over his body.  He stayed in bed ten days.  He was hurting and he was thinking.  He was thinking about whether or not he wanted to try out for the team again.  He hated being hurt.  But he didn't want to be a quitter.  Also, he knew that if he made the team, he would give hope to other young black athletes" (Pages 11 and 12).

"Paul went back to practice determined to make it.  He knew that he was big and strong and that he had been the star player on his high school team.  If the other boys played fair, he could show the coach what he could do.  On the first play, Paul made a tackle, pulling the boy carrying the ball down with him.  Another player ran over, lifted his foot, and stamped on Paul's hand.  The cleats on the bottom of his football shoes dragged all the fingernails off Paul's fingers.  Paul was mad.  The pain and unfairness made him madder than he had ever been.  He picked up one of the players and lifted him up over his head.  Just as he started to slam the boy to the ground, the coach ran up to him.  'Paul, you're on the team!' he yelled.  'I'm picking you for the team!'  Paul put the boy down."

Illustration by George Ford
Page 13
"The Rutgers team was lucky tohave Paul. He became its hero. Newspapers wrote about Paul Robeson, the tall black athlete. They told how he stopped the players trying to run past him with the ball.  They told how he reached up with his long arms to snatch the ball out of the air and take it for a touchdown.  They told how he hurled his body against anybody who tried to stop a Rutgers teammate.  Crowds came to see 'Big Robey,' and almost always in the crowd was Reverend Robeson, proudly watching his son"  (Pages 12 and 14).

Robeson was twice named  "All-American End"
Paul decided to be a lawyer.  Near the end of his third year of his studies, Rev. Robeson died.  "His father would not be in the audience when he graduated.  Graduation day came in 1919 when Paul was twenty-one years old.  He had won many honors in college. . . . He won awards in four sports.  Twice, he had been named All-American End.  This meant that Paul was one of the best college athletes in the United States.  As the student with the best grades in the whole graduating class, Paul was chosen to make the farewell speech.  From the stage, he said good-bye to Rutgers for himself and his classmates" (Pages 15 and 17).

Robeson moved to New York and attended the "Columbia University Law School.  Weekends he played professional football to earn money.  Most of his free time was spent in Harlem, where he lived. . . . Paul saw plays at the Lafayette Theater.  He visited friends and went to parties.  At the parties people loved to hear him sing.  A friend would play the piano and Paul would sing Spirituals.  He sang about slaves being a long way from home and about slave children riding the train to freedom.  The room would grow very quiet as people listened to the sound of Paul's deep, throbbing voice" (Page 17).

"When the Harlem Young Women's Christian Association decided to give  a play, Paul's friends asked him to take a part in it.  Paul played the main part, but this time he wasn't as nervous as he had been in high school.  Many people told him that he was a good actor.  But he did not take it seriously.  He wanted to be a lawyer" (Page 18).

While studying at Columbia University he met Eslanda Goode, who was studying science at the school, and was nicknamed "Essie."  They "fell in love, and one summer day they were married" (Page 18).

The next summer, Paul was asked to act in a play put on by an English theater company.  The couple went and, while overseas, met Lawrence Brown, who became a good friend. Brown ended up accompanying Robeson on the piano and he put many of the Spirituals into musical notation.  The Robesons returned to New York and Paul worked, for a brief period, for a white law firm. When he soon found himself unemployed, Paul was asked to be in some plays.  He began to be paid for his talent and he appeared on the stage more and more.  Greenfield tell us that "in some of the plays, he both acted and sang" (Page 21). Then Lawrence Brown came to New York and he and Paul gave a concert featuring all Black music.  This was "a new idea.  Many people wanted to hear.  They filled all the seats at the theater, and some people even stood up" (Page 21).  At the end of the concert, the audience cheered and yelled for more.  They did not want the concert to end" (Page 23).  Robeson and Brown became a famous team.  They traveled all over the United States and to other countries, including Africa, France, the West Indies, Russia, and England.  Paul also made records and appeared in plays and movies on the radio. 

"Paul Robeson liked meeting and talking with the people of different countries.  He learned their languages and sang their songs.  He especially loved Africa - the people and languages, the stories and poetry, the music and art.  Because he was Black, he felt very close to Africa.  Everywhere he went, crowds came to see him.  Teachers brought their classes to see him as Othello.  People gave parties for him and gave him awards.  Newspapers and magazines wrote about his ability to walk and talk and look like the characters he played.  They wrote about his ability to make audiences cry or feel good.  But Paul could not always enjoy these things.  He saw many problems that made him sad and worried and angry" (Pages 23 and 24).

Robeson began to make speeches at his concerts about the injustices he saw in the world.  "He talked about Black freedom, and good jobs for all people, and peace.  Audiences listened when he talked.  Many people wanted to hear what he had to say.  But not everybody.  Not everybody liked what he was saying.  Some people did not want him to talk about problems.  But Paul had to do what he believed was right.  He often thought of his Father.  He wanted to be strong and as true to his beliefs as his father had been.  He not only continued to speak out, he worked too.  He marched with signs in front of theaters where Black people had to sit in special seats.  He marched in front of the offices of baseball teams that would not hire Black ballplayers.  He went to see the President of the United States to protest the killings of Black people in the South.  he started a newspaper called Freedom.  He helped to start groups who worked for Black freedom.  He wrote articles for magazines" (Pages 26 and 27).

Paul often attended large peace rallies held by the Communists which raised suspicion about him and his political affliations.  Robeson was punished for having Communist friends.  "It became very hard for Paul to find places to perform.  Owners of many theaters, concert halls, and radio and television stations would not allow him to sing or act.  Owners of record stores stopped selling his records.  Some of them were angry with him, and some were afraid they would be punished too.  Sometimes, but not very often, Paul could perform in a church or a park.  When he did, large audiences came to see him.  They came even though they were sometimes attacked by Paul's enemies"  (Pages 27 and 28).

One afternoon Robeson gave an outdoor concert in Peekskill, New York and 25,000 people came to listen.  "A much smaller crowd came to try to keep him from singing.  They yelled and blew horns during the concert.  But Paul kept singing.  At the end of the concert, a group of friends formed a bodyguard for Paul.  They walked him to his car and saw that he left safely.  Then the real trouble began.  Paul's audience was attacked.  They were beaten with clubs.  Men, women and children trying to leave in the buses and cars were hit with bricks and bottles and broken glass.  Empty cars were turned over.  The attackers were not arrested." (Page 29).

The next year, Robeson was barred from visiting other countries.  "Stop talking and just sing," he was told.  But Paul said, 'No.' He said that he had the right to both travel and speak.  He took his case to court for judges to decide.  While the judges were considering his case, Paul could not leave the United States.  But his voice could.  Several times he sang at the line between the United States and Canada.  He stood on a stage in the United States on one side of the line.  His audience sat in a park in Canada, on the other side of the line.  Once, almost a thousand people went to a concert in England. [Note:  Other sources suggest this concert was actually in Wales.]  Paul was not there, but his voice traveled across the Atlantic Ocean by telephone.  The last song he sang was 'Old Man River.'  One line in this song says that a man is tired of living and scared of dying.  Paul changed this line.  He sang, I must keep fighting until I'm dying" (Pages 30 and 31).

Robeson kept "fighting for freedom for all people, and he kept fighting for himself" (Page 32).  After eight years he was able to travel again.  "In the years that followed, millions of Blacks in America began to feel close to their African heritage.  Many of them marched for their rights and for better jobs.  Many Black singers and actors spoke out for Black freedom, as Paul Robeson had" (Page 32).

In April 1973, Paul Robeson was celebrated at a concert in Carnegie Hall.  Unfortunately he was too sick to attend -- but his son, Paul Junior, was there to represent him.  Twenty famous stars were on the program to mark Robeson's 75th birthday.  Robeson wrote a book, about his life, called "Here I Stand."  Robeson says "although Black people cannot yet sing, 'Thank God Almighty, we're free at last,' they can sing, 'Thank God Almighty, we're MOVING !' " (Page 33).

Greenfield's book ends at this juncture in Paul Robeson's life.  From further research we learned that, due to poor health, Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

According another website, "Paul Robeson was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and was the first black actor of the 20th century to portray Shakespeare’s Othello on Broadway. As of 2009 Robeson’s run in the 1943–45 Othello production still holds the record for the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway. In line with Robeson’s vocal dissatisfaction with movie stereotypes, his roles in both the American and British film industries were some of the first parts ever created that displayed dignity and respect for the African American film actor, paving the way for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte."

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Alisdair, I just read your report on Paul Robeson's life. (Today is Sunday,September 21, 2014.) Your essay is nicely written -- clear, complete, good sentence structure, no spelling errors! I learned much about Mr. Robeson that I had not known. Thank you.
    I came to your website because I saw a copy of that colored poster that you have at the end of the essay at my church. I'm trying to find out its value. So far, not much luck! You're not in 6th grade anymore... I hope things are going well with you and your family.
    Meg LeSchack I'm Anonymous because I'm not a member of any of the accounts listed under Profile.
    I'm from Bedford, Massachusetts. I'm 69. It shows on the outside, and I have a couple of achy joints, but inside I'm still curious, interested in learning, and I think the world's a pretty amazing place -- even though it and its people are under a lot of stress right now.