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The Actor Who Rejected the Script : PAUL ROBESON: A Biography by Martin Bauml Duberman (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 784 pp.; 0-394-52780-I)

February 19, 1989|Ishmael Reed | Reed's eighth novel, "The Terrible Threes," will be published by Atheneum in the spring. and

The life of a black celebrity is perilous enough, but the black celebrity who becomes a spokesperson is asking for pure hell. Not only has the outspokenness of those regarded as radicals gotten them into trouble, but as Gary Giddins' recent book "Satchmo" (Doubleday), revealed, even a non-radical like Louis Armstrong could come into conflict with the American secret police for his criticisms of Eisenhower's handling of segregation in the South.

If Paul Robeson had fulfilled the role that American society had prepared for him--that of a patriotic token, lecturing the underclass of his time about their "slovenly" habits and exhibiting by his efforts that with hard work and determination one could achieve anything in this land of opportunity--he'd probably still be around, delighting audiences with his spirituals and playing "Othello" in his old age.

But Robeson broke out of his role. He chose to use his celebrity status as a platform for speaking out against the injustices of the oppressed all over the world, and especially of blacks at home. For his efforts, he was hounded by his enemies into physical and mental breakdown; and, in one of those Orwellian ironies that black life in America accumulates, this man, who was persecuted from the early '40s until his death in 1976, was diagnosed as having a persecution complex.

In 1950, at the height of America's Cold War hysteria, the State Department lifted his passport, lowering an iron curtain on his opportunity to earn a living abroad. Not only did J. Edgar Hoover's FBI become part of the Robeson family, it seems, devoting more resources to the investigation of one black singer,actor and intellectual, during the '40s and '50s, than to investigating organized crime, but even the Communist Party sent an informant, posing as a bodyguard, to spy on Robeson. Though Robeson was sympathetic to some Communist causes, he never joined the Party and was never brought under its discipline. He once refused its order that he be silent.

Robeson's father, the Rev. William Drew Robeson, who had escaped from slavery in 1850, at age 15, was forced out of his New Jersey ministry and into poverty, punished by the white elders of the presbytery for his tendency to speak out against social injustice. In later years, when Robeson himself was subjected to vitriolic abuse from the press and the government, a family friend would comment: "They did it to his father."

Robeson graduated from Rutgers where he excelled as an athlete and in 1921 married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, whose great-grandfather was Isaac Nunez Cardozo, a member of a Spanish-Jewish family, and whose grandfather, Francis Lewis Cardozo, was described by Henry Ward Beecher as "the most highly educated Negro in America."

Despite Duberman's excessive and voyeuristic detail about Robeson's "multiplicity of romantic and sexual encounters," details which degrade an otherwise useful, fine and well-researched biography, Robeson and his wife remained companions until her death from cancer in 1965. A serious rift between the two occurred after the publication of her book, "Paul Robeson, Negro," in which she alluded to his affairs and described him as lazy. (Throughout the book, whenever there's a dispute between Robeson and his wife about a fact, Duberman sides with Essie Robeson.)

A C-student at Columbia Law School, Robeson stumbled into an acting career in 1920, appearing in some dreadful thing called "Taboo," in which, typically, Afro-American religion was subjected to the usual ignorant stereotyping. "Taboo" was written by what Duberman describes as a "fashionable young white socialite" named Mary Hoyt Wiborg, daughter of a wealthy financier, Frank Wiborg. (Throughout his life, Robeson would roam around freely among different classes, from the Australian aborigines, whose treatment he bitterly criticized during his stay in Australia, to the denizens of the English court.) Though Duberman provides testimony from some of the many he interviewed that Robeson regretted his lack of acting and singing training, he received high praise for his performance.

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