<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> <b>THE CALLING</b> (1939-1940) <p> <p> On October 23, 1939, my father, Paul Robeson, the American singer, actor, and movie star, strode off the gangplank of the USS <i>Washington</i> in New York Harbor. He had come home from England with my mother, Eslanda (Essie), myself, and his longtime accompanist Lawrence "Larry" Brown one month after the start of World War II in Europe. In the wake of Hitler's invasion of Poland and the subsequent declaration of war against Germany by Britain and France, Paul, after twelve glorious years in London, had decided he must return to his native Harlem to be with his people during a time of international crisis. <p> Essie, gracefully regal in her manner, remained beautiful at forty-four. Although a wide streak of gray ran through her hair, her light olive complexion remained as smooth as ever, and her vivacious personality had the same irresistible charm. Her five-foot-two-inch frame was beginning to thicken, but she countered with a fashionable wardrobe, an ever-expanding intellect, and undiminished energy. Larry, forty-eight, handsome, elegantly dressed, moved with an athletic grace that reflected his young days as one of Florida's top amateur boxers. Paul, even in the swirl of passengers debarking at the Port of New York, was the center of attention. He had sailed out of that same harbor twelve years earlier as the "King of Harlem," and now he returned as an international celebrity. <p> He cut a striking figure. At forty-one years of age, with no trace of gray hair, standing six feet three inches tall with broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and a still narrow waist, he towered over most of the crowd. The engaging smile flashing in his dark brown face, the large, wide-set, expressive eyes, and his huge, athletic body gliding forward made him instantly recognizable. Admirers called to him from all sides. Gripping his music briefcase in his left hand, he saluted them with his right, tipping his fashionable Stetson hat. Two customs officials, one white and one black, who had hurried out to meet our party as if we were visiting royalty, led the way. <p> Grandma Goode, Essie's mother, and a small group of friends greeted us as we emerged from the customs area. Ramrod straight, with her iron gray hair, high-top shoes protruding from under a long black dress, a cane, and a piercing gaze, Grandma was a disciplinarian. She had been my primary caregiver until my father liberated me a few years earlier to live with him and my mother, and I hoped that this arrangement would continue. The exchange of greetings was soon interrupted by the approach of a large group of reporters who bombarded Paul with questions, most of them controversial. Why had he returned from "exile in London"? What was his "current attitude on the race issue"? <p> In step with the rising black resistance to segregation, Paul was determined to make U.S. racism the main issue. He replied, "My roots are here, and I always expected to come back. In England I considered problems from the point of view of Africa; in this country I look at everything from the point of view of the Negro worker in Mississippi. I wanted success not for money, but so that I could say what I wanted." <p> "Are you a communist, Mr. Robeson?" a reporter from the Hearst press yelled in response. <p> "I am not a communist, and I am not a fellow traveler; I'm an antifascist," Paul shot back. <p> "What about the Stalin-Hitler nonaggression pact?" another reporter challenged. <p> "No matter what other countries do, including Russia," Paul answered, "I think America should play a key role in building a worldwide antifascist coalition. You don't negotiate with fascists-you fight them." <p> "But why won't you criticize Stalin?" the reporter persisted. <p> "Because in Russia I didn't find any race prejudice," Paul answered curtly. <p> For the third time, Essie, who didn't think Paul should deliberately antagonize the press, tried to terminate the impromptu press conference. The first time, Paul had ignored her. The second time, he had waved her off peremptorily. Now he shrugged good-naturedly, waved, turned abruptly on his heels, and glided off with huge, rapid strides. Essie quickly organized us to fall in behind him, effectively blocking off the press. Over the next several days, Paul arranged multiple interviews with the black press to make certain that his message was disseminated accurately to a nationwide black audience. His subtext conveyed the view that white racists were the main enemies of blacks and that Hitler's Nazis were just like the racists. The Soviet people, who were strongly antiracist and anticolonialist, were the allies of blacks. <p> For the next few weeks, we lived with Hattie and Buddy Bolling in their comfortable Harlem home, a huge apartment occupying most of the top floor at 188 West 135th Street in Harlem. To my great relief, I stayed there with my parents instead of being shunted off to live with Grandma in her Greenwich Village apartment. Hattie, a heavyset "earth mother" figure in her late forties with a smooth brown complexion and an outgoing disposition, had played the role of older sister to Essie for many years. Buddy, a thin, smallish man ten years older than she, worked at a service job in a major downtown office building. He smoked cigars, told wonderful stories, and had a dry sense of humor. The foursome shared a love for bid whist and spent long evenings at the card table. <p> Paul rehearsed regularly with Larry, who lived on the floor below. Partners since 1925, the two men had become one of the world's best-known musical teams. Larry was a brilliant arranger and sensitive accompanist. He had helped Paul construct a vast repertoire of the world's folk songs and provided a tenor counterpoint to Paul's bass baritone. Essie prodded Paul to accept any appropriate offer and make a quick reentry onto the American cultural scene. After his long absence abroad, procrastinating even a short while might jeopardize the impending lucrative fall-winter concert season. Paul rebuffed her good-naturedly, believing that an ideal offer would come his way. It soon did. <p> * * * <p> The <i>Pursuit of Happiness Hour</i> was one of the most popular prime-time entertainments, radio being the principal mass medium of the day. The show's producer, Norman Corwin, was a progressive activist with a keen ear for patriotic songs, and the left-wing composer Earl Robinson had written an eleven-minute-long populist cantata titled "Ballad of Uncle Sam." Corwin had a hunch that Robinson's tribute to democracy would appeal to a sorely divided nation, where conservatives were fiercely attacking liberals over Roosevelt's New Deal and the new labor unions battled management to organize industrial plants. After hearing Robinson perform the cantata, Corwin renamed it "Ballad for Americans" and, with Robinson's enthusiastic agreement, called Bob Rockmore, Paul's combined attorney, agent, financial manager, and friend, with an offer for Paul to sing it on his radio program. <p> Bob and his Russian-born musician wife, Clara, were both dear to Paul. Short, chain-smoking, balding, and about Paul's age, with piercing eyes and a businesslike manner, Bob had earned Paul's abiding trust. From a working-class Lower East Side Jewish background, he was a partner in the distinguished law firm Barron, Rice and Rockmore, and as one of the East Coast's most accomplished entertainment lawyers, he stayed keenly aware of Paul's professional and financial needs. Bob promptly forwarded Corwin's offer to Paul, along with the music for "Ballad for Americans" and an attached personal note from Corwin. <p> With Larry at the piano, Paul bit into the cantata like a ripe peach, savoring its everyday language and folk-inspired structure. From the outset of his singing career, Paul had rejected the classical operatic style. Instead, he had adapted his singing technique to his physical attributes. His vocal cords were not particularly strong, but his enormous fifty-one-inch chest expansion, wide throat, large palate, and broad nasal cavity were a sublime match for folk music. <p> Paul also realized that John LaTouche's simple lyrics were ideally suited to the delivery of a progressive message in song. Throughout the piece, soloist and chorus relate America's struggle for democracy. They tell about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and "Old Abe Lincoln, thin and long": <p> His heart was high and his faith was strong; But he hated oppression, he hated wrong. And he went down to his grave to free the slaves. Man in white skin can never be free While his black brother is in slavery. <p> <p> However, the CBS three-minute time limit required pieces of the seamless eleven-minute cantata to be cut. Paul, with Essie's encouragement, decided he should preserve the artistic integrity of the piece and made Corwin a counteroffer. He proposed that the entire eleven minutes be broadcast and requested a fee of a thousand dollars. That sum was unheard of, especially for a black performer, and the three-minute maximum for a song was one of radio's most rigid standards. Corwin's boss at CBS refused to pay Paul's fee or program the full eleven minutes, but Corwin, not to be discouraged, asked Robinson to perform "Ballad" for a group of top CBS executives. <p> They were bowled over. "Wouldn't Robeson knock the hell out of this!" Vice President Bill Lewis exclaimed. CBS was ready to bet that the combination of the message and the messenger would be irresistible, and Lewis accepted Paul's terms. The agreement was signed and Paul plunged into intensive rehearsals with Robinson. <p> At four-thirty on Sunday afternoon, November 5, 1939, six hundred people assembled in the main CBS studio, along with the CBS orchestra and chorus. For the next forty-five minutes, millions across the nation sat by their radios tuned to the <i>Pursuit of Happiness Hour</i> until finally the host, actor Burgess Meredith, announced, "What we have to say can be simply said. Democracy is a good thing. It works. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-of these we sing. `Ballad for Americans'-and the singer, Paul Robeson." <p> Backed by orchestra and chorus, Paul's majestic voice rolled out over the airwaves, singing in praise of all the ordinary people who made the country great and kept it strong. The compelling, unifying message was that America could overcome any crisis because it put its hope in its people in all their diversity. The ending held out great hope for the future: <p> Out of the cheating, out of the shouting, Out of the murders and lynching, Out of the windbags, the patriotic spouting, Out of uncertainty and doubting, It will come again-our marching song will come again, Simple as a hit tune, deep as our valleys, High as our mountains, strong as the people who made it. For I have always believed it, And I believe it now, And you know who I am-AMERICAAAAA! <p> <p> The ovation from the studio audience lasted for two minutes while the show was still on the air and continued for fifteen minutes thereafter. Hundreds of phone calls jammed CBS's Manhattan and Hollywood switchboards. Thousands of letters poured in requesting words, music, and recordings. "Ballad for Americans" became an instant hit. By popular demand, the radio broadcast was repeated with equal success on New Year's Day. Performances spread across the country among school choruses and choirs. The universally popular recording was issued a few months later. Paul Robeson was now the voice of America. <p> Fresh from the success of "Ballad," Paul and Essie settled into living quarters of their own. It was a relief. For all of his sociability and energetic engagement with public affairs, Paul was an intensely private person. He thrived on study and solitude. The release of his creative powers required a quiet, comfortable, hospitable retreat from which he could venture forth at will from isolation to engagement. And, notwithstanding his nomadic spirit, he also craved a stable home base with a warm family hearth. Essie had provided this anchorage throughout the nineteen years of their marriage despite the emotional conflicts between them. <p> Since Paul wanted to live in Harlem, the center of black America's cultural and political influence, Essie found an ideal spot on Sugar Hill, the fabled enclave of the Harlem elite. Located at 555 Edgecombe Avenue, it was a spacious five-room apartment on the fourteenth floor with extensive views south and west. The apartment lent itself to studious work habits as well as to gracious entertaining. Above, on the penthouse floor, was a three-room apartment with a terrace where Grandma Goode and I would live. <p> I was glad to be in Harlem despite being parked, once again, under Grandma Goode's authority. I accepted my exile to the penthouse with as much grace as a twelve-year-old could muster, but I spent as much time as I could with my parents downstairs. Seeking the closeness I had experienced with my father in London, I carefully observed his usual daily schedule. A late riser, he ordinarily ate a leisurely brunch while reading the morning papers. A spurt of work or study would follow. Currently, he was studying Chinese using his collection of books and records on the Chinese language. By late afternoon, he was ready to relax for a couple of hours before dinner. <p> After school one day, I found Grandma gone from the penthouse-an unusual occurrence. Spared of her organizing efforts, I dumped my books and headed downstairs in the hope that I might catch my father in a good mood for a chess game. My arrival interrupted a highly contentious family discussion taking place in the guest room. Grandma Goode was sitting on the bed, her jaw tight. My father, clearly in command, stood in the middle of the room wearing a calm but determined expression. My mother had taken up a position near the foot of the bed. She looked distraught and subdued. <p> I stopped just inside the room, taking everything in. After a brief silence, Paul looked at Essie and said, in a quiet but commanding voice, "Are you going to tell him?" Essie snapped back, "Well, since you've decided this, <i>you</i> should tell him." My father turned to me without hesitation. "I've decided you'll move in with Mama and me down here. We're going to be a regular family. This room is yours. You can bring your things down anytime you like." <p> I was both surprised and elated, but I took my cue from his matter-of-fact demeanor. "Okay," I said. "I'll go get them now." <p> It did not take long for Paul to feel at home again in Harlem. Strolling in its heartland around 135th Street and Seventh Avenue, he recalled his days as a local football hero. The Harlem YMCA down the street from Larry's apartment was a familiar landmark. His older brother Ben's church, Mother A.M.E. Zion (the second largest church in Harlem), on 137th Street between Seventh and Lenox avenues, was another. <p> Uncle Ben, a gentle dark-skinned father figure graying at the temples, was not as tall or broad as Paul but radiated a commanding presence. He welcomed Paul's visits, as did the parishioners when Paul occasionally came to Sunday services and sang with the senior choir. Essie, who had relinquished neither her long-standing remoteness from Ben nor her quasi-atheism, gave the church a wide berth. <p> Top celebrities now, Paul and Essie appeared together at important Harlem events and cultivated an influential social crowd. More often, Essie organized intimate parties or quiet evenings with friends. This group included educator Ira Reid and his wife, Gladys, Harlem lawyer Hubert Delany, and Dr. Louis Wright, the first black fire department surgeon, and his wife, Corinne. The couple I remember best, Walter White and his wife, Gladys, lived just a few blocks down Edgecombe Avenue and were important acquaintances. They had known my parents since the early 1920s. Walter, the longtime general secretary of the NAACP, was treated as the most important black leader by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. <p> Because Essie and Paul's white friends and acquaintances rarely came to Harlem in the evening, they would travel downtown to see them. Paul renewed his long-standing affair with designer Freda Diamond, whose husband, Alfred "Barry" Baruch, maintained a cordial relationship with Paul. Essie, despite her resentment, established a friendship with Freda. Both Paul and Essie revived their contacts with friends from the 1920s and added new ones from left-wing and liberal cultural circles. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>The Undiscovered Paul Robeson</b> by <b>Paul Robeson, Jr.</b> Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.