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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

Robeson kept daily diaries as she traveled to Africa and other places, and Ransby used them--along with Robeson's countless articles on a variety of subjects--to great advantage.

Born in the nation's capital on Dec. 15, 1895, the same year the great Frederick Douglass died, Robeson, as Ransby notes, was a child of privilege and struggle. Her maternal grandfather was Francis Lewis Cardozo, a Reconstruction politician, and she was a distant relative of Benjamin Cardozo, a U.S. Supreme Court justice. But an illustrious pedigree did not guarantee an easy walk in life, and when her father died suddenly at 39, the family's fortunes changed for the worst.

Robeson, her mother and her two brothers moved to Chicago, where she finished high school, enrolled at University of Illinois and then transferred in her third year to Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City. Geography is often fate, and it was certainly true for Robeson, because by 1919, she met Paul. They courted and married almost immediately.

There is no need here to discuss Paul's monumental accomplishments; others have done that quite capably, even Paul himself in his memoir "Here I Stand." Clearly, it's hard to talk about Robeson's life without touching on large portions of Paul's momentous escapades. And this may be the time to deal with Ransby's notion of unconventionality.

Mainly, the unconventionality refers to the sexual dalliances and infidelities by Eslanda and Paul, though Eslanda's may have mostly been in reaction to Paul's affairs. None of this comes as news because in his lengthy and laudable biography of Paul Robeson, Martin Duberman more than broached this turf and Paul Jr. did not avoid this sensitive zone in his volumes on his father.

Apparently this lifestyle suited them and Robeson reluctantly accepted it, because they managed to stay married for more than 40 years with only short periods of real separation.

Toward the end of their lives, both were exhausted and troubled with an assortment of ailments, with Robeson receiving the most devastating setbacks as she battled breast, cervical and uterine cancer. Nevertheless, she remained loyal to Paul as he struggled with a severe form of depression that often left him difficult to live with.

Ransby handles these final days with the same tender and respectful delicacy as she does with the early years of their resourceful relationship, and we can only wait with great anticipation for Ransby's next woman of merit to be skillfully revealed. Born in the nation's capital on Dec. 15, 1895, the same year the great Frederick Douglass died, Robeson, as Ransby notes, was a child of privilege and struggle. Her maternal grandfather was Francis Lewis Cardozo, a Reconstruction politician, and she was a distant relative of Benjamin Cardozo, a U.S. Supreme Court justice. But an illustrious pedigree did not guarantee an easy walk in life, and when her father died suddenly at 39, the family's fortunes changed for the worst.

Robeson, her mother and her two brothers moved to Chicago, where she finished high school, enrolled at University of Illinois and then transferred in her third year to Columbia University's Teachers College in New York City. Geography is often fate, and it was certainly true for Robeson, because by 1919, she met Paul. They courted and married almost immediately.