Lloyd Brown on Robeson: Bearing the burden

February 16, 1997|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,sun staff

"The Young Paul Robeson," by Lloyd Brown. Westview Press.224 pages. $24.95

As Lloyd L. Brown tells it in this brief but affectionate biography, the young Paul Robeson lived by the aphorism that a black man has to work twice as hard to get half as far.

Robeson first became famous as a star athlete and prize-winning student at Rutgers University, which he entered in 1915 at the age of 17. He was the only black student enrolled and only the third ever to attend the school. But his winning manner easily made friends and disarmed foes.

Yet he was no pushover. When Robeson's teammates planned a brutal initiation at his first football tryout, Brown writes, Robeson got so mad the coach had to intervene to keep him from crushing a veteran running back.

"Robey" went on to earn top grades and become the best all-around athlete the school ever had. But though he excelled, he took care never to appear "uppity" or otherwise disturb the perception of him as a "good Negro."

The preoccupation with accomplishment and maintaining the esteem of whites came from his father, who raised Paul after his mother died when he was six. The Rev. William D. Robeson was born a slave in Martin County, N.C., but ran away when the Civil War began. Later he put himself through school, eventually earning three degrees from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Thus while Paul's years at Rutgers established a pattern of success that would later repeat itself in his stage and screen careers, the mold was set by his father, whose nearly superhuman efforts at self-improvement were a lifelong example his son.

"The difference of more than 50 years in their ages had given them much of the mutually satisfying relationship of grandfather and grandson," Brown notes, "and over the years when there were only the two of them at home there had developed between the elderly widower and the motherless boy a strong emotional bond."

Brown throws new light on the Robeson of later years, when the artist was attacked as a Communist and saw his career destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Adding insult to injury, Robeson was marginalized by younger black militants of the 1960s, who questioned the integrationist perspective he took for granted. Brown interprets the artist's bitterness over these developments as an ironic inversion of his youthful optimism.

It is in calm, clear prose that Brown conveys his obvious admiration for his subject. The Robeson that emerges was a happy warrior who drove himself to live up to seemingly impossible standards in order to become a "credit to his race."

How and why Robeson's generation felt compelled to bear the entire burden of America's racial divide is a fascinating subtext to Brown's book, which should be required reading for anyone interested in the moral dynamics of the outsider driven to succeed.

It is a story that could apply equally to today's strivin immigrants, though it has a somewhat melancholy ring given the anomie many blacks raised on the ideals Robeson epitomized feel in a post-civil-rights era that has left those ideals tragically unfulfilled.

Glenn McNatt is an arts columnist at The Sun. He was previously an editorial writer for 10 years at The Sun and began his career as a college English teacher.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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