The Striking Resemblance of Paul Robeson

8

2000

An outstanding athlete as well as scholar, Robeson was selected for the All-American college football team as the finest player in his position. For a short time thereafter he played professional football and semi-professional basketball. In 1921 he married his lifelong partner, Eslanda Cardozo Goode (1896–1965), an analytical chemist in a hospital pathology laboratory. She would later manage Robeson’s career, and even though their relationship was often stormy and included periods of separation, she was initially a major influence in his life and the author of an early biography, Paul Robeson, Negro (1930). Robeson began his acting career in 1920, appearing in Simon the Cyrenian in Harlem, New York, and played his first professional part in 1922 in Taboo. It was in 1922 as a member of the cast of this play, now renamed Voodoo, that Robeson made his début in Britain. In later years he recalled that it was during his performances in Voodoo at the Blackpool Opera House in 1922 that he first realized he had the talent to make a career as a singer. In 1923 he briefly worked at a law firm in New York, but his experiences of racism in the USA persuaded Robeson that he might have more success as an actor than by attempting to practice as a lawyer. In the United States, Robeson continued to develop his singing career, and with Lawrence Brown, who was to be his accompanist for many years, he performed the first ever concert comprising entirely African-American secular songs and spirituals in New York in 1925. Later that year he began his legendary recording career, and during the next thirty-five years made over 450 recordings, mainly in Britain and the United States. The previous year he had made his first film, Body, and Soul, directed by Oscar Micheaux. During the next twenty-five years, he starred in ten films and twelve plays and musicals. As an actor, he always strove to break away from the demeaning roles often played by black actors. (Boyle, 79) By 1947 he had decided to leave the professional stage in the United States altogether. he had already ended his film career because of his dissatisfaction with the roles he was offered. Robeson made numerous recordings and some of his most memorable films in Britain, including Song of Freedom (1936) and The Proud Valley (1939). In the latter, he played a black American stoker who helped Welsh unemployed miners reopen their pits. In retrospect, Robeson believed that his time in Britain had a profound influence on his personal and political development. As a result of his many contacts with students and other African residents, his serious interest in African cultures and languages developed. It was during this period that Robeson became a patron of the West African Students’ Union and, as he put it, ‘discovered Africa’ in London. He also began his comparative study of African, African-American, and other folk cultures, and in 1934 enrolled as a student of linguistics and African languages at London University. He took a special interest in languages and mastered over twenty, including Russian and Chinese.

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