Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson

9780300124347In the new issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands Feb. 26 and immediately on our new digital platform, we review the new biography Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson by Barbara Ransby. Most of us have heard of singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, but Ransby reminds us that his wife was remarkable in her own right.

In a just world, Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson would be known as a feminist foremother, studied and admired by every schoolgirl. She might have been secretary-general of the United Nations, or U.S. secretary of state. But even in a cruelly unjust world, this remarkable woman managed to participate in the founding of the U.N., write the influential anthropological text African Journey and champion women on the world stage.

Born in 1895 to a family of black professionals, “Essie” earned a chemistry degree from Columbia University and as a very young woman headed a lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, the first African American to do so. At 25, she eloped with a Columbia law student, the budding actor/singer Paul Robeson, and took on roles as tour manager, acting coach and breadwinner while he honed his skills. They made a formidable team. “She used her title as Mrs. Paul Robeson to open doors,” Ransby writes, “but once those doors opened, a smart, pragmatic and fiercely independent woman walked through.”

Despite the demands of managing her husband’s extraordinary career—his title role in Othello and star turn in Show Boat remain iconic—Eslanda developed an international sphere of influence. Often living abroad with her son and mother, she studied at the London School of Economics and traveled constantly, speaking at conferences and reporting for journals. She maintained lasting friendships with Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, independence activists Jawarharlal Nehru and Jomo Kenyatta, anarchist Emma Goldman, the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, Shirley and W.E.B. Dubois and other leading progressives.

Light-skinned enough to pass for Spanish or Italian in her cosmopolitan circles, Eslanda wholeheartedly claimed herself as one of the world’s people of color. “I feel brown, and I think brown and I am brown” she proclaimed in a speech to the All African Women’s Freedom Movement, a group that, in typical fashion, she had helped to found.

Her marriage frequently in turmoil—Paul had affairs, some lasting for years—and her family often living apart, she took a key role in the international anti-colonial cause, which she strongly linked to “Negro civil rights.” U.S. and British intelligence agencies frowned on this dangerous linkage; they harassed the Robesons for years, confiscating their passports during the Cold War ’50s. Paul was blacklisted, and lack of income from his international tours meant they lost their home. Summoned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to testify at a Senate hearing on un-American activities, an outraged Eslanda parried every insulting question with wit and vigor. “McCarthy glared,” writes Ransby, and said “that she might have been cited for contempt if she were a man.”

This long overdue biography of a bold scholar-activist emerging from the shadow of her famous husband is a gift, and such are Ransby’s narrative skills that I wept when, in her final pages, the vibrant Essie died, two days shy of 70. Ransby has a history of rescuing historically overlooked black female leaders; a prior biography was of the venerable civil rights activist Ella Baker. This new work is a major contribution to her glorious reclamation project.

Joan Steinau Lester is the author of the Eleanor Holmes Norton biography Fire in My Soul and the novel Black, White, Other.

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Comments

  1. This sounds like a great book. I hope that Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson finally gets the recognition she deserves from the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the mass media. It’s too bad her husband was so unfaithful.

  2. Emily Musil Church says:

    I am so excited to read this biography on Eslanda Goode Robeson. The author, Dr. Barbara Ransby is a model scholar-teacher-activist, and her book on Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement was outstanding.

  3. Judy Highfill says:

    Can’t wait to read this! From what I know of Paul Robeson he was an amazing man, and now he seems doubly great to have married such a woman. (What I remember most is from a folksong about his singing “Joe Hill” for the construction workers building the Sydney [Australia] Opera House in 1960 when he was there, thinking he’d better sing [outdoors] right then and there, because he’d probably not be back again soon; he died in 1976.) For Eslanda Goode Robeson to have been born in 1895 and married in 1920 a man with so many athletic, musical, acting, political, and other extraordinary talents, and then to have travelled the world and known so many men and women who were influential, as she was, in the civil rights movement for African American men, and all women, well, it’s an amazing feat… and I’m eager to learn more about her.

    Having recently had the good fortune to hear two speakers for African-American and women’s rights–SANDRA FLUKE (who recently passed her bar exam–and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were one day voting for her for U.S. Sec. of State, or even President–but now most renowned for her testimony before Congressmen recently on women’s health care needs under the Affordable Care Act, and then rebuked by well-known conservatives, including one of the worst, whose name I will not mention) and ANITA HILL (whose two books I am also avidly reading: the first, “Speaking Truth To Power,” [1991] on her renowned testimony before Congressmen [also rebuked by them] about sexual harassment from the Supreme Court nominee [who, of course, was passed with flying colors!; who'd believe a woman, anyway??!!] and the latter book, “Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race and Finding Home,” recently published and now available…I am proud to have met these women, and wish I could have met Mrs. Robeson…though I’m sure I will immensely enjoy reading this biography, including both her joys, and her sorrows, which all of us compassionate and passionate women can undoubtedly identify with, whatever our age or color.

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