The Emperor Robeson

Read Time: 3 minutes

Simon Callow

His significance as an emblematic figure is crucial to an understanding of the American 20th century

Beinecke Library, Yale University/Van Vechten Trust

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Robeson was much in evidence, on records, on the radio, on television. His name was haloed with the sort of respect accorded to few performers. The astonishing voice that, like the Mississippi in the most famous number in his repertory, just kept rolling along, seemed to carry within it an inherent sense of truth. There was no artifice; there were no vocal tricks; nothing came between the listener and the song. It commanded effortless attention; perfectly focused, it came from a very deep place, not just in the larynx, but in the experience of what it is to be human. In this, Robeson resembled the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier: both seemed less trained musicians than natural phenomena.

The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider audience were not simply communal songs of love and life and death but the urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These songs, rooted in the past, expressed a present reality in the lives of twentieth-century American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis. When Robeson sang the refrain of “Go Down Moses”—“Let my people go!”—it had nothing to do with consolation or comfort: it was an urgent demand. And in the Britain in which I grew up, he was deeply admired for it. For us, he was the noble representative, the beau idéal, of his race: physically magnificent, finely spoken, fiercely intelligent, charismatic but not at all threatening.

At some point in the 1960s, he faded from our view. Disgusted with America’s failure to address his passionate demands for his people, he had gone to Moscow, endorsing the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, a new generation of black militants, fierce demagogues, had become prominent, and suddenly Robeson seemed very old-fashioned. There were no more television reruns of his most famous movies, Sanders of the River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940); his music was rarely heard. When news of his death came in 1976, there was surprise that he was still alive. And now, it is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest idea who he is, or what he was, which is astonishing—as a singer, of course, and, especially in Proud Valley, as an actor, his work is of the highest order. But his significance as an emblematic figure is even greater, crucial to an understanding of the American twentieth century.

Robeson was born in the last years of the nineteenth century, to a father who had been a slave and at the time of the Civil War had fled to the North, to the town of Princeton, New Jersey, eventually putting himself through college and becoming a Presbyterian minister. He drummed his own fierce determination and rigorous work ethic into his children, especially Paul, who was a model pupil. Studious, athletic, artistically gifted, he was an all-around sportsman, sang in the school choir, and played Othello at the age of sixteen. At Rutgers University, despite vicious opposition from aggressive white teammates, he became an outstanding football player; he graduated with distinction. He then studied law, first at NYU and then Columbia. On graduation, he was marked out for great things, tipped as a possible future governor of New Jersey, but he gave up the law almost immediately after a stenographer refused to take dictation “from a nigger.” Instead he threw himself into the vibrant artistic life of Harlem at the height of its Renaissance, appearing in plays by Eugene O’Neill, giving concerts of African-American music, and occasionally playing professional football; he was spoken of by Walter Camp as the greatest end ever.

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