In fact Eslanda Goode Robeson led an extraordinary life in her own right as a political activist, a writer and an academic, the details of which are faithfully chronicled in Barbara’s Ransby’s just published biography of her.
Its sub title, ‘The large and unconventional life of Mrs Paul Robeson’, gives a clue to what we might expect of a woman who was determined to make her mark on the world in pursuit of what she thought was right but in a way that was independent of her husband.
As witness to some of the most momentous events of the 20th century, she had plenty to write and to talk about, and indeed she did, penning hundreds of articles and essays and delivering lectures around the world on a range of progressive issues.
But she was not content to be just a bystander. Between 1925 and 1965 she travelled to nearly every corner of the globe on trips that took her from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War and Nazi-occupied Berlin to the Soviet Union and China.
Most remarkably, accompanied only by her eight-year-old son Paul Jnr, she visited Africa for the first time in 1936, spending three months in Uganda and South Africa.
It was both a scholarly expedition and a personal pilgrimage. As an anthropologist, she was eager to debunk myths about the ‘dark continent’, and as someone who grew up against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and its rallying cry of black pride, she wanted to connect with her “African family”.
By all accounts it was an arduous journey but one that typified Eslanda’s fearlessness, a quality that she displayed on many other occasions, not least during the Cold War years when she became the target of surveillance by the FBI but refused to renounce her radical ideas or her radical friends and associates, not even when hauled before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist committee in 1953.
Her subsequent 1945 book, African Journey, established her as an expert on Africa, despite her approach to anthropological research and ethnography being at odds with mainstream thinking, something that was a source of great pride to her.
Eslanda Goode, or Essie as she was generally referred to, was born in 1895 to a well to do family whose mixed ancestry would have easily enabled them to pass for white – “Spanish” – if they so wished. They did not. In fact her grandfather, Francis Cardozo, famously campaigned for black citizenship rights during the Reconstruction era only to be find himself later thrown into jail when the tide turned.
To consciousness add resilience, which Essie developed after her father suddenly died at the age of 39, forcing the family to move from Washington DC to the less desirable Harlem. An A grade student, she went on to graduate with a BSc in chemistry at Columbia University in New York, where she met the “devilishly handsome” Paul Robeson in 1919. By 1921 they were married.
At the time, Paul was studying law at Columbia and only ventured into acting and singing as a sideline. It was Essie who realised his talent and potential and she began encouraging him to put his legal career on the back burner. Soon, “seething with ambition for him”, she would be abandoning her own career as a chemist to become his manager. She accompanied him on his first tours to Britain and France and even appeared in some of his early films with him.
Ransby, a professor in the department of African American Studies, Gender, and Women Studies Programme at the University of Illinois, delicately touches upon Paul’s many infidelities that began from the off and inevitably led to serious strains in their relationship. Yet despite everything, they remained together for 44 years in what was more or less an open marriage, valuing each other’s friendship above all else, especially during their difficult final years when their passports were confiscated.
Perhaps it was the void in her marriage that led Essie to forge her own eventful journey through life, and no doubt being Mrs Paul Robeson opened many doors for her, enabling her to develop personal and professional relationships with so many of the great figures of the last century. It does not really matter one way or another for whatever she undertook she did so with passion and sincerity.
Ransby is a scholar activist who won accolades for her 2003 book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Although her writing does not exactly fly off the page, she has managed to rescue Eslanda from her husband’s considerable shadow in a thorough and thoughtful fashion. Moreover, to look at at the sweep of recent history through the eyes of a radical African American woman, as she does, is to debunk common assumptions about the 20th century world and how it was transformed.
Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs Paul Robeson by Barbara Ransby is published in hardback by Yale University Press
Article first published in Camden Review, June 13 2013