“He must have been lying to me for five years, steadily…. Paul is not any different from any other Nigger man, except that he has a beautiful voice. His personality is built on lies…. No wonder white people don’t want to let black men into their society.”
—Mrs. Paul Robeson, to her diary, October, 1930
Paul Robeson’s was a career whose ascent and decline were alike tethered to his identity as a man of conspicuous color—conscripted to be taken on approval throughout a widespreading acceptance that felt itself particularly kind and an even more general casting-away that felt itself especially wounded.
He seems to have been born to that tentativeness as the child, as he would be the husband, of a mixed marriage. His father, the clergyman, had been a slaveboy escaped from eastern North Carolina; and his mother had been born to the Bustills, a family whose blood mingled its black with Amerind and British Quaker strains, and whose history of modest prominence in Philadelphia ran back to the eighteenth century. Her choice of a partner so much darker than herself had been an abrasion to family pride; and the Bustills would be cool to their Robeson cousins until the fame of the youngest of them eclipsed every prejudice of color.
Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who would occasionally suffer and devotedly die as Mrs. Paul Robeson, had been born to a line grander than the Bustills could ever have hoped to be, since her hemi-demi-semi black grandfather had been treasurer of his state during its Reconstruction and a Jewish cousin would in time be a justice of the US Supreme Court. Eslanda Goode’s mother had married darker and so had she; and yet, dedicated Africanist though she became, her wariness of the taints of a duskier brush was so ingrained as to press her to warn her mother not to take seven-year-old Paul, Jr., “to any nigger beach.”
Martin Bauml Duberman’s abundant virtues as a biographer are of the variety seldom stimulated by the ironic sensibilities. But his explorations have brought forth a rich trove for those otherwise inclined; and the most telling lesson they might sift from these diggings is that Robeson’s life was defined all along by blackness. It may well have been his consolation at the last but it was, in between, the blessing that exalted him as long as he gave satisfaction, and the curse that condemned him almost as soon as he did not.
The Carl Van Vechtens, who had been the most fashionable of the patrons of his youth, visited him in London in 1928 and he repaid their prior hospitalities with a reception at the St. Johns Wood house he had rented from the Countess des Boulletts. The guests included Fred and Adele Astaire, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Ivor Novello, Hugh Walpole, Max, Lord Beaverbook and at least two ladies ennobled by titles much older than his.
The Van Vechtens had been gratified by their protégé’s welcome and dazzled by…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.