Harry Houdini vs. Laurie Anderson
My actual heroes in this world are few and disparate. From Harry Houdini to Laurie Anderson, from John Lennon to Mrs. Mary Eales, they reflect people who may inspire and impact me with their art, their political activism, their bold-faced chutzpah, or any combination thereof.
But perhaps no one embodies all these traits to such heightened super-awesomeness for me than the great Paul Robeson.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898. His father was an escaped slave-turned-church minister; his mother was from a Quaker family, and died tragically when Paul was six, which isn’t funny at all, so don’t laugh.
Paul received a full academic scholarship to attend Rutgers University, which I hear is a pretty good school, though I’ve never been there myself because I’m allergic to schools. Seriously. If I even step foot on a campus I start itching, sweating, and my head comes completely off and falls to the ground and rolls away.
While attending Rutgers, Robeson distinguished himself as one of the finest football players. He was valedictorian of his class, which allowed him to excuse himself from class to get water from the drinking fountain without the need of a hall pass.
Robeson went on to study at Columbia University. He continued to pursue sports and also performed on stage in theatrical productions. Sadly, it was during this period that his mother died a second time. The young Robeson soldiered on despite grief, occasionally finding solace in rowing, sometimes in boats, other times, less successfully, in giant holes dug into the earth by mole-people.
It was also at Columbia that he immersed himself in language studies – an interest that would come into play throughout his life. He would become fluent or near-fluent in twelve languages, with many more languages represented in his musical repertoire, such as Russian, Japanese, Yiddish and Klingon.
In 1921, Robeson married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, and while their marriage lasted until her death in 1965, it wasn’t a monogamous relationship, and saw near divorce when Paul was going through his (historically misunderstood) “lederhosen phase.” They gave birth to one child, a son, Paul Robeson, Jr. (It’s interesting to note that he was not named after his father as many people assume, rather an entirely different Paul Robeson of no familial relation, who’s similar moniker is merely a remarkable coincidence.)
"I love looking at floors with you, honey..."
Paul Robeson & Eslanda Cardozo Goode
Robeson became increasingly popular as an actor and singer. He found acclaim performing the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello, which, though the character is black, was most often played by white dudes in blackface. He also originated the role of Joe in Show Boat, one of the most significant pieces of American musical theatre.
The ballad "Ol’ Man River" from Show Boat would come to be Robeson’s signature song. It was through his insistence that the original lyrics were changed from…
Ol' man hamburger,
Dat ol' man hamburger
He mus'know ketchup
But don't say pickles
He jes'keeps grillin’
He keeps on grillin’ along.
…To the now famous lines we know today. Throughout his career, and reflecting his increasingly political beliefs, he would continue to change the lyrics to the song, transforming it from a soulful but depressed ballad to a defiant and triumphant call for justice and equality.
Robeson and his wife moved to and lived in England for a little over a decade, until the outbreak of World War II. During this period, Robeson starred in a variety of films – many of these roles being strong, dominant men and profoundly disturbing to the more racially intolerant American audiences. Besides the film version of Show Boat, perhaps Robeson’s most famous film was The Emperor Jones, an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play he had also starred in on Broadway. The movie had a scene in which Robeson’s character killed a white man – a first in film at that point. This scene was cut for U.S. audiences, some of whom were enjoying scrumptious bags of buttery, hot popcorn! Yum!
His radio performances of pro-American songs during the War won him national celebrity. It was also during this time that he did other stuff and, y’know, things. He probably ate some good food, talked to peeps – whatever. I mean, I don’t have any evidence, but the odds are pretty good. I’m guessing he probably didn’t vanquish fire-breathing dragons and steal their treasures, or follow dwarves into underground caverns where he learned to forge weaponry from enchanted silver, but again, this is speculation based on educated guesswork. I can’t know everything, people!
Robeson’s travels and interest in cultures exposed him to the suffering and hardships of the poor and working-class. His fight for racial equality evolved into a fight for equality of social classes. Increasingly, he saw the capitalist structure as an oppressive force. He became more outspoken about his politics, supporting many controversial, socialist institutions. His support of the newly founded U.S.S.R. invited generous and heated criticism from the conservative and paranoid U.S. government and conservative and paranoid white supremacists.
Robeson sacrificed his career and reputation to fight against injustice as he saw it. He was vilified and persecuted by those in power. Like fellow crusader Martin Luther King, Jr., Robeson was under constant surveillance by the FBI and CIA. Between 1950 and 1958, Robeson’s passport was confiscated by the U.S. Government, who wanted to suppress his political activism. Also, they were mad at him for not inviting them to his totally awesome pool party.
By the early 1970’s, as hella cool hippie types began to undermine the controlling grip of right-wing squares, there was a resurgence of appreciation for Paul Robeson. By this time, poor health and exhaustion led him to keep a low profile. He lived in his sister’s house in Philadelphia, until he passed away there in January of 1976. Since then, he has recorded no new songs, though there have been talks about a possible side-project with T.I..
Paul Robeson is my hero because he is everything I want to be when I grow up: a Renaissance man, skilled in sport and the arts, a linguist, a brave and noble fighter, never shrinking from the dictates of his conscience, and totally mother-effing handsome. I wish there were a lot more like him.