Knowing Paul Robeson

Knowing Paul Robeson

Historian Andrew Bunie offers new portrait of controversial figure

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

When he was asked a simple question, "Don't you know Paul Robeson?," Prof. Andrew Bunie (History) had no idea that it would take him more than 20 years of research to find the answer.


Prof. Andrew Bunie (History): "I tried to do the entire work in one volume, but it started taking more and more time. I said to myself, `This is just too much.'" Photo by Gary Gilbert.
Bunie's extensive effort has produced a book, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement, an intimate portrait of the African-American scholar, entertainer and activist who was one of 20th-century America's most complex and intriguing persons.

Co-authored by Bunie and former Boston College graduate student Sheila Tully Boyle, the book depicts the life and times of the talented, tormented Robeson (1898-1976), revered for his musical skills and pioneering accomplishments and, later in life, reviled for his stereotypical theatrical roles and complicated, controversial ties to Communism and Stalinist Russia.

Bunie said he became interested in the Robeson saga during a 1973 visit with Robert Vanne, editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent African-American newspaper. "Vanne had a photograph of Robeson on his wall, and he asked me, 'Don't you know Paul Robeson?'" Bunie said. "He began telling me his story."

Finishing that story took Bunie two-thirds of the way around the world in the ensuing two decades. "After Robeson's death in 1976, I thought that I would be done in three to five years, but it just began to mushroom," he said.

"What I have tried to portray is how Paul Robeson fit into the country during the first half of the 20th century. I tried to look at him as a scholar, a great athlete, a renowned performer, but treated in the same manner as poor blacks."

Bunie's book covers the period of Robeson's life from his birth in 1898 until the start of World War II, when Robeson - the son of a former slave, an accomplished scholar and an All-America football player at Rutgers University - had gained fame as an actor and singer with worldwide appeal.

But that appeal was often shadowed by the widespread racism of the day, according to Bunie. "As his wife said in 1922, 'Everybody loves Paul, but when we tried to get a flat in Greenwich Village, we couldn't do it.'"

Bunie said that Robeson was responsible for launching a rebirth of the Negro spirituals that had gone out of favor after the Civil War. "Blacks who had come out of the slavery generation really didn't want that," said Bunie.

However, he adds, Robeson's rich and booming bass rendition of the song "Old Man River" quickly became the signature highlight of his stage appearances.

"When he performed in the musical 'Showboat' in London," Bunie said, "the only reason a lot of people went was to hear him sing that song. They ignored the other parts of the play."

But Robeson's popularity did not insulate him from the complexities of the American racial climate. In 1942, Bunie says, Robeson made a triumphant return to his hometown of Princeton, NJ, to star in a production of "Othello" at Princeton University, only to discover to his frustration that Princeton still had no black students.

His success as an entertainer was minimized by some fellow African-Americans, who saw him as taking roles in cinema and stage productions of the 1920s and 30s that fostered the image of blacks as sharecroppers or colonial subjects.

Bunie says that Robeson was continually forced to accept theatrical roles that portrayed blacks in a stereotypical fashion. "He was the star of several 'Empire' movies from 1933 through 1937, movies that suggested how great the English were to African natives," Bunie noted. "He was taken to task by some of his own people for this, while others saw it as a breakthrough for African-American performers.

"His own lifestyle was a princely one," Bunie said, "and his opponents would say, 'Why are you doing this?'"

After suffering such criticism quietly, Robeson found solace during a pre-World War II visit to Stalinist Russia. "The Russians didn't know him," Bunie said. "He was treated like a human being. At least there in 1939, he looked at Russia as a good place and he stood by that.

"I think [poet] Langston Hughes summed that situation up correctly when he said, 'There was no toilet paper in Russia in those days. But there was also no Jim Crow [segregation laws].'"

After World War II, anti-Communist sentiment grew in America. Bunie said that Robeson, who was viewed as a Russian sympathizer, fell out of favor with both black and white American audiences. His concerts were cancelled in a number of cities and his earnings plummeted from an estimated $200,000 in 1945 to $15,000 in 1951.

Bunie and Boyle are working on a second volume that will chronicle the remaining years of Robeson's life. "I tried to do the entire work in one volume," Bunie explained, "but it started taking more and more time. I said to myself, 'This is just too much.'"

Bunie said that he has spent his academic career studying and teaching the plight of black Americans. "I was a 'Depression kid,'" he said. "The first time I really ever saw black people was when I was in the Army in 1952, and I said 'I am just like them.'

"Now, everything I teach is based on race - the history of sports, the history of jazz," he said.

 

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