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At a time when most Black women suffered painfully circumscribed lives, Eslanda (Essie) Cardozo Goode Robeson enjoyed enormous mobility, even if this mobility was conditional, rife with contradictions, and sometimes costly. For most of her adult life, Essie was a traveler, both literally and metaphorically. She transcended class and cultural boundaries and crossed international borders; she conversed in multiple languages and traveled to nearly every corner of the globe. Essie Robeson’s story is about one woman’s journey across the vast and volatile landscape of twentieth-century world politics and culture, how that landscape looked to her, and how it changed beneath her feet. It is also a chronicle of love and loss, of grand ideals and unyielding principles, of loyalty and betrayal, of resilience and survival. It is the story of a woman grappling with how to make her mark in a rapidly changing world, and of how she herself changed in the process. But it is not a singular story. It is a story of a marriage and a partnership that was fraught with complications, but which ultimately endured. And it is a story that reflects the embeddedness of Essie Robeson’s life in the major global struggles of her time. Essie Robeson’s life was set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, World War II, the Cold War, African decolonization, and the early rumblings of the U.S. Black Freedom movement. She witnessed, engaged in, and was shaped by these historic events. While she may have been best known for her marriage to world-famous artist and activist Paul Robeson, Essie was an independent and accomplished trailblazer in her own right; an anthropologist, an outspoken anti-colonial
and anti-racist activist, a strong advocate for women’s leadership, and a prolific writer and sought-after public speaker. College educated when most Black women were working as domestics, Essie in the 1920s became the first Black woman chemist to work in a pathology laboratory at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, and the first Black woman to head such a unit. In the 1930s, she studied with renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics and later pursued a Ph.D. in anthropology. She published three books, one of which was co-authored with the Nobel Prize–winning China scholar Pearl Buck. For nearly twenty years, she worked as a freelance journalist, a U.N. correspondent, and a writer, analyzing international affairs and domestic politics. She wrote hundreds of essays and articles and delivered hundreds of lectures throughout the United States and around the world in which she spoke out against racism and injustice. By the 1940s, she had become an outspoken and uncompromising voice for a range of progressive and left-wing causes, most notably independence for African nations still suffering under colonial rule. She publicly allied herself with militant anti-colonial campaigns, and with the world communist movement, at a time when such stances were both controversial and dangerous. “There’s nothing like a trip to get your mind wandering,” Essie Robeson once wrote in a meandering essay about travel and self-discovery.1 And wander she did. She set foot in nearly forty countries on five continents between 1930 and 1960. For Essie, the journey was as important as the destination. She relished “the thrill when the plane revved up, gathered speed, and then was airborne.” The unease and uncertainty were inseparable from the excitement. “You are most certainly on a magic carpet,” she once enthused to a fellow passenger who was flying for the first time.2 Essie explored such far-flung places as Beijing, Moscow, Capetown, Mexico City, Sydney, and Brazzaville, and lived overseas for extended periods of time. She trudged through the Ituri Rainforest, visited the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, and took a ten-day boat trek down the crocodile-infested Congo River. How was Essie able to move with such fluidity and fearlessness across cultural and political divides, as well as international time zones? What “set her flowin’” (as literary critic Farah Jasmine Griffin might ask)? In her early travels, Essie was searching. Sometimes she roamed for personal reasons, other times she had political and professional goals in mind. She traveled in search of grand adventures and new challenges, and sometimes to seek refuge from the debilitating racism in the United
States that stunted her personal and professional aspirations. Essie moved through the world with courage, curiosity, ambition, a keen eye, and an open mind. She was never a disinterested spectator or a voyeur; she was an itinerant traveler but never a tourist. Later in life her travels were driven by her intellectual and political interests and commitments. As a writer and anthropologist, Essie sought to connect with and understand the cultures of people whom she encountered across the globe, and she felt particular empathy for those living under the yoke of colonialism and oppression, from the Maori people of New Zealand to the multi-ethnic Black working class of South Africa. Over time, Essie became an ally and advocate for the oppressed and disenfranchised. She left the United States for London in 1928 with limited ideas of what the Black experience meant beyond the U.S. borders, and with her political views still in formation. She returned nearly twelve years later with not only a richer understanding of the African Diaspora and the world, but also a deep appreciation for the limits of capitalism and the dangers of fascism and colonialism. Essie was born on December 15, 1895, a year before the historic Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that inscribed Jim Crow segregation as federal law.3 Her middle-class family, based in Washington, D.C., was defined by both privilege and struggle. Essie’s maternal grandfather was a famed Reconstruction-era politician, and Essie was a distant relative of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.4 Her father was a federal government employee with a law degree from Howard University. Essie’s family fortunes changed irrevocably when, on January 23, 1901, her father died suddenly at the age of thirty-nine.5 Essie was only five years old, and the tragedy meant that her mother had to raise three young children on her own. Supporting the family by working as a beautician and entrepreneur, Essie’s mother, also named Eslanda, moved to New York City soon after her husband’s death, and it is there that Essie and her brothers spent most of their childhood. She and her mother later moved to Chicago, where Essie finished high school and enrolled in the University of Illinois on scholarship. During her third year, she transferred to Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, a move that would change her life in immeasurable ways.6 Essie met Paul Robeson in New York in 1919, in 1920 she fell in love with him, and in 1921 they married. Paul went on to become an internationally acclaimed actor, singer, artist, and beloved icon of both the Black American freedom movement and the worldwide anti- colonial
and communist movements. With Essie as his business manager and the architect of his early career, Paul became perhaps the best-known Black artist of his generation. Widely celebrated, he performed regularly on the stages of New York, London, and Paris, and Essie often traveled with him. A fiercely independent woman with savvy, determination, and smarts, Essie was a ubiquitous figure in international arts circles during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. She developed personal and professional relationships with a wide variety of writers, performers, producers, and patrons. Her correspondence and appointment books included a who’s who of the theater and literary world of the early 1900s: Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston, Noel Coward, Eugene O’Neill, Virginia Woolf, and more. By the early 1940s, she had found her political voice and, along with Paul, became an unwavering advocate for racial justice in the United States and for freedom and self-determination globally. Essie and Paul enjoyed an eclectic group of friends and associates whose political affiliations ranged from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to communist parties around the world. Three sets of experiences in the 1930s profoundly influenced Essie’s life and worldview. One was her 1934 trip to the Soviet Union, where she and Paul got a glimpse of a predominately white society where official state policy stood in opposition to racism and colonialism. Her second life-altering experience occurred in 1936, when she spent three months living and traveling in South Africa and Uganda, supplemented a decade later by travels in the Congo. Her time in Africa represented an intensive political education for Essie, who saw up close the ugly realities of colonialism and the complex and hopeful face of African resistance. Essie made three trips to sub-Saharan Africa: to South Africa and Uganda in 1936, to Congo in 1946, and to Ghana in 1958. And the final set of pivotal experiences occurred during Essie’s twelve years in London and Europe, where she enjoyed a rich and stimulating cultural and intellectual environment. The “Blacks” (Jomo Kenyatta, Kojo Touvalou Houénou, and dozens of African students), “Browns” ( Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, and Cheddi Jagan), and a few “reds” (most notably Emma Goldman) formed Essie’s intellectual community and profoundly influenced her evolving sense of politics and the world. In the 1940s, along with W. E. B. Du Bois, Max Yergan, and Paul Robeson, Essie became an important contributor to the Council on
African Affairs (CAA), a prominent anti-colonial organization. In 1945, she was an unofficial CAA delegate to the founding convention of the United Nations in San Francisco. Her identity, which was grounded in the Black American and global Black experiences, led her to side with the downtrodden and oppressed of the world, whatever their color, as well as with communist ideals and leftist movements because in her eyes they represented hope for the future. In the 1950s, Essie worked as a writer for New World Review, covering the United Nations, and eventually became the publication’s editorial consultant on Negro and colonial issues.7 She also contributed to numerous African American newspapers, including the Afro-American, the Amsterdam News, and the Pittsburgh Courier. And she contributed articles to the Daily Worker, the U.S. Communist Party’s newspaper, as well as Claude Barnet’s Associated Negro Press, a more mainstream Black news service. Essie was a sought-after public speaker in the 1940s and 1950s, giving lectures to sororities, church groups, labor unions, civic associations, and political organizations. In 1948 she joined the newly formed Progressive Party; toured the country with its political candidate, Henry Wallace; and ran for office twice on the party’s antiwar ticket. Throughout the Cold War years, the Robesons refused to renounce either their radical friends or their own radical ideas, even when it would have been convenient and expedient to do so.8 They also refused to be silent about the persistent scourge of American racism. As a result, they were targeted as subversives by their own government, spied on by the FBI, blacklisted by the U.S. State Department, and, in 1950, had their passports confiscated, which dealt Paul’s career a severe blow, slashed their income dramatically, and turned their lives upside down. In 1953, Essie Robeson appeared as an uncooperative witness in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous anti-communist committee, which had been set up to root out alleged communist sympathizers from the government, arts, and public life. Far from being intimidated, Essie used her highly publicized testimony to challenge the credibility of the committee itself and to indict its conveners on the grounds of racism and repression.9 When their passports were returned in 1958, Essie and Paul relocated overseas, spending time in England and the Soviet Union, but retaining a residence in Harlem. They returned to the States in 1963. With his bass-baritone voice, towering frame, powerful intellect, and irrepressible charm, Paul Robeson cast a large and imposing shadow. He was, in many ways, the most influential person in Essie’s life. He
was her first love, the father of her only child, an artistic genius whom she greatly admired, and a hero in the struggles for peace and freedom that she ardently supported. Her identity as Mrs. Paul Robeson was extremely important to her. That title gave her access to otherwise unreachable people and places and honored her role in their partnership. Whatever it meant to “be” Paul Robeson, Essie felt she had had a hand in creating that status. Incredibly, even as she defended, supported, promoted, and advanced Paul’s interests and career for over four decades, she never lost herself. She did not see herself as an appendage of Paul, but rather recognized that her privileged position in his circle enabled her to amplify her own creative voice and later, promote her vision for a different kind of world. Over time, she forged her own career, made her own friends, and reached an unconventional marital accord—all while remaining steadfastly devoted to Paul. For most of their forty-four-year partnership, Paul had romantic relationships and long-term affairs with other women, some of whom were married themselves and some of whom Essie knew and befriended. As is clear from her diaries, Essie was aware of Paul’s infidelities and alternately tolerated, protested, and ignored them. At one critical point in 1932, their eleven-year marriage teetered on the brink of divorce. They eventually overcame that obstacle and settled into an open marriage of sorts, with Paul pursuing other intimate relationships and Essie, on occasion, doing the same. The marriage survived because there were ties between them more enduring than sexual attraction and more fundamental than a marital contract: friendship, respect, commitment, and intellectual camaraderie. Later there would be political camaraderie as well. As complicated as her private life may have been at times, Essie managed to maintain an outward focus. She traveled frequently, crossing the Atlantic at least thirty times over the course of her life and documenting her experiences in her diaries, spiral notebooks, fine leather journals, and even on makeshift scraps of neatly labeled paper. She may initially have traveled out of curiosity or to bask in her beloved husband’s fame, but later she traveled to enact her principles and bear witness to injustice. Along the way, she saw history unfold: fascism emerged, colonialism eroded, socialism arose, and empires unraveled. Essie visited countries in transition, those engaged in civil war, socialist, or communist experiments or postcolonial nation-building. She went to the newly independent Ghana, war-torn Spain, postrevolutionary China, and the Soviet Union. Her support of the Soviet
Union was the most controversial of her political associations, given its Cold War rivalry with the United States after World War II. But the Robesons had a special attachment to the country and its people that lasted to the end of their lives. Many Black American supporters of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s felt that a strong Kremlin was a necessary bulwark against Western imperialism and white supremacist practices, especially as the prospect of decolonization loomed large.10 Despite the problems and contradictions in the Soviet system, Essie felt that it was important to offer her support, not only because of her antiracist and anti-colonial views, but also because of her growing sympathy with the plight of poor and working-class people of all races. Many later broke with the Soviet Union over Stalin’s dictatorial policies and purges. But for complicated reasons, some of them still unclear, the Robesons never did. Many historians, including Paul Gilroy, Dayo Gore, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Gerald Horne, Robin D. G. Kelley, Nikhil Singh, Carol Anderson, and Penny Von Eschen, have written about how certain African Americans helped to internationalize Black American politics and identity through their travels, writings, migrations, social networks, and political affiliations. Essie Robeson was one such figure. In September 1943, she wrote of her international views and identity: “In my travels about the world I have come to realize that we are not only lumped together as Negroes, 13 million of us, we are lumped together, in the world view, as Colored Peoples. . . . Whether we want to be or not, you and I are not only brothers and sisters in our little American Negro family, we are also fellow members in the very big family of Colored Peoples.”11 She increasingly viewed herself as a part of a “world family” as well as an African Diasporic and Third World family. In fact, while much of the discussion of the Robesons’ global politics in the postwar years focuses on the politics of East versus West, a more careful look at Essie’s writings, speeches, and activism forces us to shift our attention from the Soviet Union to the growing sense of community and solidarity that was being forged in the global South. Essie’s strong ties to and interest in India and the Caribbean were superseded only by her deep and abiding passion for, and commitment to, the cause of African freedom and liberation. Through her three significant visits to western, southern, and central Africa, Essie developed some enduring relationships on the continent, furthered her understanding of its complex political landscape, and deepened her Pan-Africanist views.12 No matter how far from home Essie’s journeys took her, she always
found her way back to New York City and to Harlem. She felt a sense of comfort and place there that eluded her in Europe, Russia, and even Africa. Upon her return to the United States, Essie was often overcome with a sense of reassurance and affirmation. In her words, “When the ship enters New York harbor, I am excited.” When “the ship begins slowly to come to berth against one of the largest piers in the world, and gradually in the smiling, shouting and waiting people, the face of John and Frank, my brothers, of Minnie Sumner, Corrine Cook, Buddy Bolling come into focus, my gates are open and I am overwhelmed with a grand feeling that I am home again.”13 The following chapters chronicle Essie Robeson’s life, although not always in a perfectly neat timeline, in part because the overlapping themes, patterns, and ideas that stretch across multiple decades sometimes need to be discussed together, and in part because not every year in Essie’s life was equally eventful or equally well documented. Overall, however, Essie Robeson lived what biographers call a wellpreserved life. She made sure of it. She marked her journey, maintained and saved voluminous correspondence and news clippings, published her thoughts and ideas as widely as she could, and saved many of her public speeches and private diaries. To his enormous credit, Essie’s son, Paul Jr., a researcher and biographer in his own right, and his wife, Marilyn Robeson, have devoted untold hours and resources to preserving the historical record of the lives of Essie and Paul Robeson. Therefore I had a wealth of material to draw on: the Paul and Eslanda Robeson Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Manuscript Collection, Howard University (which includes many of the powerful and revealing photographic images that I have used to help tell Essie’s story), and the smaller and overlapping Robeson collection, mainly on microfilm, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. But the primary sources do not stop there. Essie lived a dynamic and engaged life and she was constantly on the move, with friendships that stretched from Delhi to London to Accra to Harlem. Her way of keeping in touch was to write, and thus there is a treasure trove of letters scattered around the globe that document and map Essie’s political and social networks and relationships. There are also international archives that have offered me a window into Essie’s world: the Robeson Collection at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, the Emma Goldman Papers in Amsterdam, the Nehru Archives in Delhi, and the A. B. Xuma Papers in Johannesburg. Finally, through their painstakingly detailed documentation of Paul’s life, his two principal biogra-
phers—Martin Duberman in his more than seven-hundred-page tome published in 1988, and Paul Robeson Jr. in his subsequent two-volume portrait of his father—have offered a partial but substantial roadmap to Essie’s life. Both biographers rely heavily on the material that Essie had preserved and the diaries and papers that she left behind. Still, for me, the story becomes most interesting when we travel off the beaten path. Essie’s journey is perhaps most exciting, and most telling, when she is on her own—in Paris in the summer of 1932 meeting an array of extraordinary and colorful characters; in South Africa and Uganda in 1936 where her real passion for Africa and politics were ignited; and in the Congo in 1946, interviewing an eclectic group of Africans and then making her way down the Congo River in the fierce heat and rain. In the following pages I will privilege Essie’s own words in retelling her story, largely because she was such a talented and underappreciated writer and she can, in many instances, write for herself better than I can paraphrase her ideas. I will also rely on Essie’s writings, published and unpublished, because too few of them ever reached a wide audience. Her correspondence alone deserves an edited volume, and her many novels and plays that publishers rejected for a variety of reasons (some fair, some unfair) tell yet another story. But even though I have foregrounded Essie’s own articulated views, and situated her in a wider world, I understand that I still have another job to do. And that is to add myself to the mix (however humbly). This happens whether we biographers admit to it or not, so I admit it: this story is also in part about me. It is biased in favor of my curiosities and questions, my passions and predilections, and it is subject to my judgment calls and assessments of what matters and what does not. In a sense, for every page written there is another page that could have been written, with details and caveats added, or with simply a view of the same moment captured through a different lens. But I have made choices. And one of these was not to create a mammoth text that attempts to transcribe Essie Robeson’s life, but rather to offer a narrated and annotated chronicle punctuated with observations and analyses. In the end, I hope the story I have crafted is a fair and honest portrait of an amazing, talented, tough, and complex woman. I should also underscore the obvious, that this is not another biography of Paul Robeson. Many people I have talked to over the years about this project start off talking about Essie, but in five minutes end up asking, telling, or theorizing about Paul. Enough of that. There are already
two very fine biographies of Essie’s “fabulously talented” and “terrifically brave” husband, and many more articles, book chapters, smaller biographical portraits, and even children’s books about him. So even though I, like many others, was captivated by Paul long before I ever got to know Essie, this is her story, and Paul is a supporting actor in it. What follows, then, are fourteen chapters arranged in general chronological order. Chapter 1 skims the surface of Essie’s youth and family history, offering what little is known about this period. Chapters 2 through 5 give the highlights of Essie’s early life with Paul, including her role as hard-working and determined manager of his theatrical and musical career, their marital woes, and their growing ambitions. As Essie herself articulates in a letter to Carl Van Vechten years later, her early life goals were social, artistic, and professional, and centered around Paul. Later her ambitions became political and looked out to the larger world. Chapters 6 through 10 chronicle her growing engagement with that wider world and how she evolved and changed as a result. Chapters 11 and 12 examine the repression and political persecution Essie and Paul experienced in the 1950s, the toll it took on their health and well-being, and how, above all, Essie responded with dogged resilience, unwavering strength, and a renewed commitment to her political views and to her family. Paul and Essie’s passports were confiscated in 1950, and for eight long years Paul’s career and income suffered severely because the couple could not travel overseas. Essie helped to coordinate a campaign against the travel ban and continued to speak out vociferously against U.S. government policies. When the passport battle was finally won, the Robesons left the United States for a five-year stay abroad. Chapters 13 and 14 chronicle this time of new possibilities and new limitations, when the possibilities were political, and the limitations physical and personal. Essie wrote to a friend in the early 1960s that she had more ideas than ever before and less and less energy to implement them. During the couple’s time in London from 1958 to 1963, Essie reconnected with old friends and reached out to new ones, particularly in the African Diasporic and expatriate communities. She supported numerous organizations and wrote prolifically about Africa, African Americans, and the world. When the Robesons returned to the United States in 1963, the world was in flux. Essie’s relationship to the resurgent U.S. Black Freedom movement and the postcolonial world during this time is also highlighted in the final chapters of the book. Despite Paul’s poor health, Essie continued to write extensively about the burgeoning civil rights
and Black Power movements and international affairs. She even trekked to the United Nations to sit in on certain sessions, see old colleagues, and bear witness to the historic events that were being debated and discussed. Essie delighted in the upsurge of activity on the part of Black activists, artists, and intellectuals in the mid-1960s. She saw the world shifting and changing before her eyes, yet again and there must have been some satisfaction in the knowledge that she had played a role. Essie Robeson lived a life that was complicated and vibrant, rich and full, privileged but often difficult. Along the way she made some hard choices about the path she was going to follow, and about the kind of woman she was going to be. Tough and determined, Essie fought long and hard for the ideas she believed in and on behalf of the people she loved and admired. She won some battles and lost others, but she was a fighter to the end.
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