Hurston/Wright Foundation | Paul Robeson Jr.
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Paul Robeson Jr.

Paul Robeson Jr.

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The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson Jr.

Biography

Mr. Robeson was born on Nov. 2, 1927, in Brooklyn, the only child of Paul and Eslanda Robeson. As a boy, he traveled with his parents to Europe and lived with his grandmother in Moscow, where he became fluent in Russian and attended the same public school, he said, as Joseph Stalin’s daughter. After his father’s death in 1976, Mr. Robeson began to collect his father’s correspondence, recordings and photographs for an archive, part of which is housed at Howard University. When the play Paul Robeson opened on Broadway in 1978, Mr. Robeson and several African-American leaders, including Maya Angelou and Julian Bond, published a letter in Variety calling it a “pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson.” The play, written by Phillip Hayes Dean, who died earlier this month, did not emphasize Mr. Robeson’s socialist views, they argued, in order to appeal to a mass audience. The show closed after 77 performances, but it returned to Broadway in 1988 and 1995, with Avery Brooks in the title role. During the first revival, Mr. Robeson said that the production had improved but added, “I still feel the character as written is a counterfeit.” Mr. Robeson served as a consultant for several films about his father, including a 1999 documentary for the PBS series American Masters. His first book on his father, published in 2001, followed an earlier biography by Martin Duberman. It read “like Paul Jr.’s attempt to correct the story of his father’s life as told by Duberman,” a review in The New York Times said. “In the end, however, it adds little and omits a great deal from the earlier biography.” Besides his daughter, Mr. Robeson is survived by his wife, Marilyn, and a grandson. Mr. Robeson was tall and athletic like his father; both men played football in college. While they had much in common, he said one difference was that he was a member of the Communist Party from 1948 to 1962 while his father never joined the party. (During the McCarthy era, his father faced F.B.I. surveillance after he criticized the government.) Asked whether it was difficult being in his father’s shadow, Mr. Robeson said that his father once told him: “If you want to be somebody, you’re going to have to be yourself. You can’t copy anybody else, especially me.” “So I never remember having any need to compete with him,” Mr. Robeson said. “He gave me a sense of being my own man.”

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