Rutgers University Press’ just released “Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson” gives a fresh look at a regionally connected American icon — literally.
The 141-page book uses 122 pages of comic-book styled illustrations to trace the life of an American of African ancestry and his journey from segregated Princeton — where he was born on April 9, 1898 — to an international platform where he demonstrated vast talents, despite harsh American racism.
In addition to being recognized as an accomplished scholar and athlete at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Robeson, the son of an escaped slave turned minister, became an internationally known actor performing new works by groundbreaking American playwright Eugene O’Neill, a major figure in the innovative race-conscious musical “Show Boat,” and classic works by William Shakespeare — especially the latter’s “Othello”; a major motion picture star; an international recording and concert performer star; an outspoken proponent for civil rights; and an avowed Marxist. The latter being a lightning rod caused that him personal and professional hardship during America’s Cold War anti-communism era.
Illustrator and text writer Sharon Rudahl’s mainly black-and-white illustrations are reflective of the underground comic book milieu that she helped create. She started as a cartoonist during the 1970s drawing for the anti-Vietnam underground newspaper Takeover and the counterculture focused The Good Times before becoming part of the feminist collective that launched Wimmen’s Comix.
A longtime advocate for social justice, who as a teenager marched with Martin Luther King Jr., the Hollywood, California, based Rudhal is the author of the graphic novels “Adventures of Crystal Night” and “A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman .”
Taking its title from a WPA-era musical piece that become one of Robeson’s signature songs — along with “Old Man River” from “Show Boat” — Rudhal’s book allows readers or viewers to scan the flow of Robeson’s life and the conflicts and hypocrisy of the era.
That the writer/illustrator charges the story with emotional visual and textual cues is to be expected and probably calculated to engage the eyes and minds of readers too impatient to read a more nuanced text.
After all, she is writing about a man who “grew up to be a world class athlete, a powerful actor, and an electrifying singer, cherished his African heritage, embraced the songs of many cultures, and whose voice was for voiceless common people. Everywhere.”
See and hear what she means in the sample pages pictured with this story.
“Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson,” art and text by Sharon Rudahl and edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, 144 pages, $19.95 (softcover), Rutgers University Press.
Robeson House to Host Birthday Events
The Paul Robeson House of Princeton, the nonprofit group that is working to restore the Witherspoon Street home where Roebling was born to serve as a resource for advocacy and human rights work, has organized a number of events in honor of Robeson’s 123rd birthday.
Thursday, April 8, at noon marks the YouTube premiere of “Robeson Legacy Interviews and Reflections.”
A statement from the organizers notes, “In honor of Paul Robeson’s 123rd birthday, stakeholders from the Paul Robeson House of Princeton stakeholder community share their thoughts on the Robeson Legacy in Princeton, NJ and around the world. Readings from Robeson’s writings, music from his catalogue and historic photos are shared to help visualize the enduring work of human rights activism done by Paul Robeson during his lifetime.”
And on Friday, April 9, from noon to 2 p.m. the Arts Council of Princeton hosts a memorial wreath laying at the Robeson bust located outside its building — also named for Robeson — at the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place. Mayor Mark Freda will present a proclamation designating April 9 as Paul Robeson Day in Princeton.
The ceremony will be followed by a tour of Robeson-related sites in the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood led by historian Shirley Satterfield. Masks and social distancing are required. For more information visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
For more information on the Paul Robeson House and the ongoing renovations there, visit www.thepaulrobesonhouseofprinceton.org.