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Grace and Nerve.

Only one generation removed from slavery--forty years after his father, a teenaged runaway in 11858, emancipated himself--the first Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was blessed not only with enormous artistic, intellectual and athletic gifts, but also a natural social confidence] His sense of himself was such that he performed, competed and excelled on the world stage during a time when the larger society despised black people.

What was the source of this combination of grace and nerve? That was what I wanted to know from Paul Robeson's most recent biographer, Paul Robeson Jr. Of course, Robeson Jr. is also the only child of his subject. I was also fascinated to learn that this son and biographer enjoyed a privileged and peripatetic childhood and an unusually broad education as a boy living all over the world. He went on to excel himself, both academically and athletically, at Cornell University, where in 1949, he earned a degree in electrical engineering in the top 10 percent of his class. Fluent in Russian (because of several years' study in the Soviet Union as a child and in Russian-speaking schools in London with the children of the Soviet diplomatic corps), Robeson Jr. forged an independent career in the U.S. as a freelance translator of Russian technical journals, and also established himself as a journalist, lecturer and civil rights/human rights activist. Increasingly involved from the early 1950s in the management of some aspects of his father's career, he became a close aide and confidante in his father's later years, and today is his chief archivist, presiding over the extensive Paul Robeson and Eslanda Robeson Collections.

From the beginning of The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson Jr. declares his intent to reclaim his father's stature as a major dramatic artist and musical performer of the 20th century and an innovative theorist and commentator on black culture. Many of us retain in our minds some subliminal aural echo of the elder Robeson's gentle bass performing either "Old Man River" or the cadences of Shakespeare's Othello, but few of us know he was a scholar of African languages and culture. Allow me to quote an important assessment of Robeson's contribution in this light from a source other than Robeson Jr.

"During the 1930s Paul Robeson began to write about the richness of African culture: he studied the cultures, went to school [in London] with some of the future leaders of postcolonial African nations, and thought it quite a wonderful thing to be black. He also knew that African Americans did not get the same information he was absorbing and that we suffered from the deficit." These authoritative words are from Bernice Johnson Reagon's recently published book If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (University of Nebraska Press, February 2001, $30.00, ISBN 0-8032-3913-0). I recommend the introduction and four essays in this slender book as an example of the scholarship and insight of Reagon, a stellar musical performer in her own right (she founded and leads the a capella vocal music group Sweet Honey in the Rock), and one of Robeson's artistic and intellectual children.

Robeson Jr. documents this era of his father's development that Reagon has described. But it is also his mission to clarify the elder Robeson's lifelong commitment to the freedom of the world's African people and to reposition him as a social prophet unbound by ideology. Too few of us

now remember the Red Scare hysteria generated in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the insidiously resounding question, Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? The cycle of intimidation, betrayal and redlist sanctions resulting from the McCarthy hearings and other improper U.S. government probing isolated many people of conscience from the productive lives and livelihood they had previously built. For Robeson Jr.'s account of the repercussions of this era in his father's later life, we have to wait for the second volume that he is currently writing.

In the meantime, our cover story this month by journalist Juan Williams, author of the biography, Thurgood Marshall, An American Revolutionary, invites you to consider the challenges one faces in documenting the lives of great men. When the great man in question is black, even black biographers are hard pressed to describe the man's humanity in ways everyone finds acceptable and still tell the truth. Fortunately, neither Williams nor Robeson Jr. have been daunted by the task.

SUSAN McHENRY

BIBR Executive Editor
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McHENRY, SUSAN
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:750
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