Eslanda Robeson’s robust life and political actions spanned two-thirds of the twentieth century, from the Harlem Renaissance to the London theatre, from studies with students from the British empire’s colonies to travels to the rural villages of Uganda and the Congo, through anti-fascism and the Second World War, across the Cold War and African decolonization, from the Soviet and Chinese revolutions to the founding of the United Nations, from fearlessly challenging McCarthyism to attendance at the All-African Peoples Conference in Ghana, from Jim Crow to the surging of the Black Freedom Movement. Her life as an internationalist, Africanist, political radical, writer, anthropologist, journalist, acclaimed speaker and, oh, yes, did I say the wife, sometimes partner, and enduring political comrade of actor, singer, and militant activist himself, Paul Robeson, spanned virtually every continent and every struggle for equality, peace, and liberation.
Eslanda Cardozo Goode—also known as Essie—was on her way to graduating from Teachers College, Columbia University in chemistry with dreams of becoming a medical doctor when she met Paul Robeson through friends in Harlem. They were married within a year and Essie turned instead to managing and framing his acting and musical career, giving birth to their son Paul, Jr., and moving to England with her new family to develop Paul’s vocation as an artist.
In London, Essie became friends with the exiled Emma Goldman and with African, Pan-African, and Indian students and intellectuals—Jomo Kenyatta, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah—who were to lead their colonized nations to independence in the coming decades. She studied anthropology and African societies at the London School of Economics, visited the Soviet Union in 1934 and 1938, and began the lifelong task of reinventing herself again and again, so common to talented women and so dizzyingly difficult to capture.
Fortunately, Eslanda Robeson has a biographer who is equal to the task. Eslanda is excavated from relative obscurity by the brilliant historian Barbara Ransby, who is also the biographer of Ella Baker (Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement), the quite different radical woman and founding mother of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Essie is thoughtfully given her due as a political analyst, activist, woman intellectual, and writer. Ransby is a professor in the departments of African American Studies, Gender and Women Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, director of the Gender and Women Studies Program, and a founder of the Social Justice Initiative. Ransby is herself an activist intellectual and engaged scholar, and—as a biographer—she brings the insights of a woman who is living large in the whirlwind of her own time to the challenges of illuminating with sensitivity and power Essie Robeson’s remarkable journey.
Eslanda’s unique and enduring vocation was to understand the reality of the peoples of Africa and to bring to that inquiry the perspective of an African-American woman fighting against white supremacy in all of its forms, against the violence of segregation, colonialism, and apartheid. She did so by listening to everyone, but particularly by engaging ordinary village people. She had access to missionaries, white colonial administrators, African professionals educated in the West, and to academics; her most vibrant teachers, however, and the focus of her writing, were the township and village women. Essie traveled to Africa for the first time in 1936 with her young son Paul, Jr., where she kept extensive journals of her conversations in South Africa in the Langa township outside of Cape Town. In Port Elizabeth she reunited with Z.K. Matthews, who would become a leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and be jailed with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in the treason trials of 1956. Essie was unable to publish her ethnographic travel journal of their two months with the Toro people in Uganda until a full decade later as African Journey; it established and solidified her independent reputation as a writer and ethnographer of Africa. But there in Africa, in the gathering storm of the Second World War, Essie became an internationalist in her bones and blood, an allegiance she deepened throughout the decades as the third world project—the global movement for independence, self-determination, democracy, and peace—gained focus and power.
She was at the cutting edge of anti-fascism in Spain, present at the founding of the United Nations, lived in Soviet Moscow, visited the newly won Chinese Revolution, journeyed to Egypt, promoted and wrote about African decolonization and Indian independence, and became herself a fierce resister to McCarthyism at home, an activist in words and deed. She never apologized.
In 1951, in the newspaper Freedom, Eslanda wrote: “Every Negro who has been called ‘George’ regardless of his right name, ‘Uncle’ regardless of his relationship, ‘boy’ regardless of his age…who has not been allowed to enter the public libraries, parks, theatres, stores, every Negro who has been denied proper respect, human dignity and human rights—All these Negroes will be able to understand and fully appreciate what is happening in the Chinese People’s Republic. In the new China, the old familiar signs, ‘Chinese and Dogs Not Allowed’ have been torn down.”
Her longest, closest friends included Shirley Graham Du Bois, Zora Neale Houston, and Janet Jagan. She befriended a slew of twentieth-century icons: from Patrice Lumumba to Lorraine Hansberry, from Marian Anderson to Charlotte Haldane, from Langston Hughes to Pearl Buck, from Noel Coward to Joe Louis, all of whom make their way into contact and often close relationships with Eslanda Robeson.
Author Barbara Ransby mines Essie’s voluminous diaries and letters, speeches and articles, interviews her son, family members, and colleagues, and develops Eslanda’s emerging political identity with the myriad conflicts and messiness visible. Eslanda gives us a fully human life, lived unconventionally, indomitably, joyfully, sorrowfully, and sometimes tragically (childbirth complications, abortions, breast cancer, never-published books and screenplays, an uncompleted doctoral thesis, betrayals, loneliness and economic dependence), yet expansively and with fierce principle. How did she manage the contradictions? How did she find her voice? And at what cost?
The reader becomes part of Essie’s political conversations and ripening opportunities: a “race rebel” at home and abroad, writer for and member of the Council on African Affairs; a not-exactly feminist who developed into a robust global advocate for women’s leadership; a partner to (and wounded by) a forty-year open marriage; a person frequently dependent on begging for money from her husband’s business manager; a woman who grew into her own thoroughly defiant and fearless power, vocally opposing the repression and harassment of 1948–1958 anti-communism as the Cold War forces of McCarthyism closed in; the eloquent and deep activist of self-determination for and solidarity between Africans and African Americans; a devoted grandmother and the caretaker of her husband as an ill and despondent older man—you can see why Ransby chose “The Large and Unconventional Life” as her theme and title.
Clearest is Eslanda’s evolving political focus on an international view of the Black experience. “We Negroes are becoming all the more impatient as we learn about what is going on among the colored peoples elsewhere in the great wide wonderful word. Our hearts beat faster when we learn that Africans in the Gold Coast are governing themselves, and that Africans in Nigeria will soon be doing likewise. We hold our breath with anxiety and sympathy for Africans in South Africa who have organized with Indians and colored people there to resist [the] vicious policy of Apartheid,” she wrote in 1955. From her earliest engagements with the diasporas of students in London and her repeated travels to Africa, Essie drew the connections between African Americans inside the United States and the struggles for independence, equality, socialism, and democracy across Africa, the Caribbean, and India. During a second trip to Africa, to the Congo in 1946, she easily made comparisons between the migrant labor system there and the debt peonage system of sharecropping in the U.S. South. Her outspoken advocacy against the racist government of South Africa and its efforts to annex the territory of South West Africa (now Namibia) escalated after the Second World War as Essie became a vibrant and sought after public speaker.
Her close work in the Henry Wallace Presidential campaign on the Progressive Party ticket, her writings as a UN correspondent, her regular articles for New World Review and Freedom, all connect the African and African-American freedom movements. She championed the coalition of Black and brown nations that took to the floor of the UN General Assembly to insist on a special vote to put Algeria on the agenda, noting that the United Nations could become a place to enlarge the contested meaning of post-colonial freedom. She became an African- American analyst in courageous support of the socialist nations of Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union.
Her analysis and solidarity included the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Mau Mau uprisings against British colonial savagery in Kenya, the Guyanese independence struggle, Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and the protests against the pass laws in South Africa. Through organizations like the Council on African Affairs and Sojourners for Truth and Justice, Essie’s journalism and activism caught fire. Despite the revocation of her (and Paul’s) passport in 1950 and the Cold War frenzy that would include riots and denunciations, Essie’s clarity and reporting flourished.
Two weeks after the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Eslanda walked into the Senate Office Building room 357, in response to a subpoena from the McCarthy Senate Investing Committee. “I was working very hard on an article about Mau Mau,” her official in-your-face statement defiantly noted, referring to the militant anti-colonial resistance movement in Kenya. In response to questions about the Communist Party, she took the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing voting rights regardless of race. “As a Negro and as a second-class citizen, I have been fighting racial discrimination all my life…. As a Negro, I know a lot about the force and violence used against my people in this country…. Most Negroes are in the South, sir, and they don’t have much right to elect senators.”
Perhaps because of her wide access to power, or her passionate defense of the socialist-bloc nations, or perhaps due to her close relationship with the Communist Party, she identified the contradictions within the tidal wave of anti-colonial campaigns that peaked in 1957. As a delegate to the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, Ghana in 1958, Essie met with Tom Mboya, Patrice Lumumba, and Hastings Banda. Present were representatives from twenty-eight African colonies still in the midst of their independence struggles; two years later, eighteen of them would achieve independence. There were just eight women among the hundreds of official delegates, and only two women spoke. Eslanda saw early the dangers of neocolonialism: her notes included supporting the recognition that half the population of Africa were women who deserved to be equally represented; championing militant tactics in the struggle for freedom; praising Kenya’s Tom Mboya’s militant support for “all fighters for freedom in Africa,” even those “who are compelled to retaliate against violence”; and condemning “African Uncle Toms, those would-be Frenchmen, Britons, etc., the especially-trained Black elite” who had been allowed to speak for Africa and would be displaced by “the authentic voice of the African people.”
As Paul’s clinical depression and Eslanda’s cancer began to take their toll, her output of essays, articles, and speeches crescendoed in the early 1960s. She spoke at a rally in Trafalgar Square on the first anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, a rally which became the catalyst for the global struggle against apartheid. She was present at the annual meeting of the British Commonwealth of Nations where the effort by apartheid South Africa to remain part of the Commonwealth was defeated by insurgent Africa. She was invited to join the All-African Women’s Freedom movement; she spoke at the Committee of African Organizations’s special forum on “The Role of Women in the Emancipation of Africa.”
Eslanda died as she lived, largely without glory or tributes, mostly alone and in pain. She is, paradoxes and flaws, a woman to know about in these times. Through the vast intellect and devoted political commitments of Barbara Ransby, Essie’s ferocious clarity about global solidarity in thought and action, her defiance of the forces of racism and reaction, and her remarkable resilience and intellectual curiosity which led her to teach and to write, to engage and then to wholeheartedly embrace the struggles of her time—tell us much about ourselves and the challenges to buck up.
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