Yesterday was the birthday of Paul Robeson, an American actor, singer and human rights activist who I didn’t even know about except a theatre in my local library in Hounslow is named after him and because I subsequently came across him a few months ago while doing research for this blog.
I often wondered who the man was behind the name of the theatre as I went by to find books in the library or surf the internet, so when I started finding out about the immense contribution of black Caribbean people to the UK, and his name came up frequently as part of the Claudia Jones story, I was intrigued to understand how this American man who was the son of a slave came to be so well known in the UK.
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9th 1898. His father started life as a plantation slave in North Carolina, but escaped in 1860 and eventually become a pastor. In 1915 Robeson became only the third black student to be accepted by Rutgers College after he won a scholarship. He gained a law degree but experienced racism in his chosen career and so spurred on by his wife Eslanda, who would later become his manager, he moved into singing and acting.
The Robeson’s moved to London in 1927 and Paul won critical acclaim after starring in several high-profile theatre productions. While in the UK he also became involved in various human rights issues which fitted in with his communist beliefs including a campaign for better working conditions for miners in Wales.
At the start of WWII the family moved back to the US but in the 1950s they were caught up, along with many innocent others, in the McCarthy hearings and were blacklisted for their communist views.
Paul apparently never recovered from this ostracisation which involved taking away his passport and making sure nobody would hire him for any role. Even when he was given back his passport in 1958 and tried to make several comebacks the effect of the previous years was long-lasting as he suffered from depression and tried to kill himself.
He died in Philidelphia in 1923 at the age of 77, a reclusive and almost forgotten man.
But now British filmmaker Steve McQueen (who incidentally is of Grenadian descent so will feature on this blog at some stage) is making a film about his life and I hope this will inform a whole new generation about Robeson’s talents.
In my opinion anyone who is interested in black culture in the UK or US should be told about his story as an actor and activist and I am glad that through this blog I have found out about him and his amazing life.
Below is a documentary about Paul Robeson’s life.
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