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This article was prepared for the June 20, 2001 edition of U.S. 1
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Paul Robeson: A Son’s View
Among the many luminaries who have made Princeton their
home, few have made a larger impression on the nation and the world
than Paul Robeson. Born here in 1898, the youngest of a family of
five, his father, William Drew Robeson, was a runaway slave and
minister who spent 20 years as pastor of the Witherspoon Street
Church. His mother, Maria Louisa Robeson, who was descended from a
Philadelphia family of freedmen, died in a household fire when Paul
was only five. Actor, singer, scholar, linguist, and civil rights
activist, Robeson became larger-than-life in every sense of the term.
Now Robeson’s only child, Paul Robeson Jr., has published the first
in a two-volume biography, "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An
Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939" (John Wiley & Sons, $30), that
both the intimate details and the fuller picture of the man he knew
as his father. Paul Robeson Jr. will read from and sign copies of
his new book at the Princeton University Store on Saturday, June 23,
at 1 p.m.
As a biographer, Robeson Jr. says he set out to explore the connection
between the artist’s soul and the passions that ruled it, as well
as the relevance of his personal sense of vulnerability to his genius
as artist and prophet. His book is based on decades of conversations,
extensive research, personal insights, and previously unpublished
excerpts from the diaries and letters of his father and his mother,
Reflecting the struggle for legitimacy for a succession of Robeson
biographers, including the controversial authorized biography
from Martin Duberman, this biography has been eagerly awaited. "I
hope to tell his story as it was," explains his son, "with
no attempt at political, racial, or any other kind of `correctness.’
Paul Robeson has nothing to fear from history, from the public, or
from any critic; his true images speaks for itself and needs no
"Robeson scholars and those who knew him personally will discover
that there were pivotal aspects of his personality that he kept mainly
to himself," says his son. "I have sought to recreate the
development of the character my father personally revealed to me.
I have ventured an exploration of his vulnerabilities and his inner
struggles, with a focus on the revelations that accompanied his growth
as an artist."
Paul Robeson Jr. spent more than 20 years working as his father’s
close aide and personal representative, and his book debunks many
established notions about who Robeson was and what he believed. Most
prevalent among his new interpretation of the Robeson legacy regards
the actor’s relationship to the Soviet Union and Stalin. "Because
he found no anti-black racism in the Soviet Union, he believed that
the Soviet Union and communists everywhere were the best available
allies of the world’s colored peoples in their struggle against racism
and colonialism," he says. "He was an artist who was
active, but was independent of political organizations. For him,
was superior to political ideology."
Robeson Jr. earned his B.A. in electrical engineering at Cornell where
he was also a star athlete in football and in track and field. After
spending 25 years as a translator and publisher of Russian scientific
journals, he has worked as an author, lecturer, journalist, and
Today, Robeson Jr. travels extensively lecturing and talking about
his father, enjoying a renaissance of interest that has followed the
1998 celebration of the centennial of his birth. That celebration
included the major exhibition and catalog, curated by Jeffrey C.
at Rutgers’ Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum
Robeson Jr. established and is president of the Paul Robeson Archives
and is currently involved in creating a Paul Robeson Audiovisual
which will collect, preserve, and disseminate, all his father’s films,
concerts, and recorded speeches. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife
of 51 years, Marilyn Paula Greenberg. They are the parents of
filmmaker Susan Robeson.
Place, 609-921-8500. The author reads from and signs copies of his
new book, "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson." Free.
June 23, 1 p.m.
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