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The Undiscovered Paul Robeson--An Artist's Journey 1898-1939.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson--An Artist's Journey 1898-1939 By Paul Robeson Jr. John Wiley & Sons, April 2001, $30.00, ISBN 0-471-24265-9

In this carefully crafted portrait of the artist as a work-in-progress, we are given a detailed account of the African American family and community that shaped Paul Robeson's youth, and then the whirl of early 20th century social, cultural and political currents he navigated while cultivating his artist's vision and personal conscience.

The first part of a projected two-volume biography, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson concludes in 1939 as the thunderclouds of World War II burst over Europe, and Robeson and his wife, Essie (nee Eslanda Goode), returned to New York after a decade of living in London and touring the world. By 1939, the senior Robeson, at 43, was a dazzling world-renown concert performer, dramatic actor and film pioneer--an intensely private man of intellect and conscience who avidly embraced a public commitment to the freedom of the world's African people.

The book provides fresh insight into Robeson's early life, and although covered by previous biographers, the story told by this biographer--who just happens to be the only child of the subject, his father's archivist, close aide and confidante--is well worth reading. The most important early influence on Robeson was his father a Black minister who began his life as a slave in North Carolina, but escaped to freedom as a teenager in 1858. Since Paul's freeborn schoolteacher mother died when he, the youngest of five surviving children, was only six, he was largely raised by this much older man, whose high standards for conduct and scholarship the boy made every effort to meet.

Robeson Jr.--as both son and biographer--does a remarkable job of fitting together the puzzle parts of the two strong, talented and complex people who were his parents: Essie, the ambitious and scientific-minded strategist, operator and manager; Paul, the artist, idealist, gifted performer with natural social skills. The couple married secretly in 1921, and she encouraged her husband to finished law school, which he did at Columbia in 1922, while playing professional football on weekends. But when he was initially reluctant, she also encouraged him to explore his performing talents in the theater in both Harlem and Greenwich Village.

What emerges from this biography finally is the trajectory of the early Robeson--an outstanding student and athlete, who was transformed into a gifted performer, and who, with the support of a strategic wife, found the best platforms for his talent and made some innovative career choices to display his devotion to his people's music and culture. Readers will eagerly await the second volume.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McHenry, Susan
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
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