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Eslanda Robeson: from the shadows

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 3/18/2013, 12:20 p.m.
Eslanda Robeson: from the shadows

What Barbara Ransby achieved in her biography of Ella Baker is repeated with verve and astonishing insight in "Eslanda: The Labor and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson." Ransby, a professor of gender and women's studies and African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, extricates Eslanda Goode Robeson from the enormous shadow cast by her indomitable husband and provides a platform on which she can express her own considerable bona fides.

And Eslanda's Robeson's attributes--with or without Paul's notoriety and companionship--warrant all the sensitivity and sensibility Ransby can muster to capture a woman who was a devoted wife, a trained scientist, an unheralded anthropologist, a tireless journalist and a global trekker equal to her famous husband.

Citing her as "Mrs. Paul Robeson" in the subtitle is the first indication that readers may not be aware of her singular accomplishments, and to some degree, the use of the word "unconventional" prepares them for Ransby's recounting of the couple's extramarital affairs.

But what resonates most consistently from Ransby's study is the fortitude, Robeson's unflinching determination to make her own mark in the world. And the word "world" has special resonance for the intrepid Robeson, whose global reach was as profound as her gritty resolve to speak truth to power, whether it was the McCarthy witch hunts, the CIA or the Ku Klux Klan.

At the conclusion of the book's introduction, Ransby offers the summary of Robeson's remarkable social and political life. She writes that 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."

Essie the fighter emerges from every page with forthright conviction as Ransby tastefully unravels the complexity of her days with Paul, days that might have totally dismayed a partner of lesser strength and commitment.

Even the most informed readers will be surprised to discover Robeson's academic prowess. There's every reason to believe that under other circumstances, freed from Paul's needs for comfort and support, she would have been a first-rate anthropologist. In effect, her diaries and her book, "African Journey," are equivalent to some field studies and commentaries on a discipline that was just beginning to gain traction under the tutelage of Bronislaw Malinowski, her teacher.

It is simply amazing for anyone to have traveled with such fearlessness to Africa at a time when the winds of change had yet to sweep across the continent and when the accommodations were often far less than ideal. With her son Paul Jr. in tow, she was undaunted by the absence of the necessities she was accustomed to; she consistently brushed aside cultural shock and unflinchingly faced the menace of apartheid in South Africa.