Enter Paul Robeson

This blogpost originally appeared February 22, 2017

A black and white images of a man in profile wearing a suit
Paul Robeson / James Latimer Allen / 1927 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 

At six foot three and with a bass-baritone voice, Paul Robeson was a commanding presence whether on the football field, in the movies, or behind a podium. He was an All-American athlete, who became a world-renowned actor, singer, and human rights activist. Aware of the injustices imposed upon African Americans and other populations worldwide, he condemned racism at home and abroad. On account of his support of left-wing causes, he was a target of the McCarthy-era investigations of suspected communists in the U.S. His passport was revoked, his performances boycotted, and he was banned from appearing on television. Despite these significant setbacks, Robeson continued his work as a singer and activist until his death in 1976.

Robeson also epitomized the concept of the “New Negro.” The term had been in use since the 1890s and gained further traction after Alain Locke’s article “Enter the New Negro” in the March 1925 issue of the journal The Survey Graphic. Locke suggested that African Americans of his time should no longer “be seen through [...] the dusty spectacles of past controversy.” The “New Negro” was to reject racist stereotypes and counter oppression, while embracing and projecting self-determination.

James Latimer Allen (1907–77) promoted the “New Negro” in his work and was one of the favored photographers of the Harlem Renaissance. As the art historian Camara Dia Holloway has noted, Allen preferred to photograph his sitters, including Robeson, as assertive individuals, against a plain backdrop and neatly dressed. Their countenances were also to be moderated, and as with Robeson, his subjects tend to have controlled expressions, in direct contrast to the broad smiles associated with minstrelsy.

By the time of this sitting Robeson, the son of a formerly enslaved father-turned-minister and a Quaker abolitionist mother, had not only excelled academically and in multiple sports, but had made his stage debut in 1920. His acting success led to one production after another, and in 1924 he played the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, reprising the role in London the next year. He had also launched his career as a singer, focusing on African American spirituals, for which he garnered international renown. Throughout his career Robeson exemplified the traits Locke, Allen, and others endorsed in their work, and later became a symbol of the Civil Rights Era.