BY THE TIME Susan Robeson was born in 1953, her grandfather Paul Robeson had made an indelible mark in the cultural life and political struggles of this century. He had excelled as an all-American college football player and earned his Phi Beta Kappa key and his Ivy League law degree. He had given his imposing definition to "Othello" and "The Emperor Jones," had electrified world audiences with his rendition of "Ol' Man River" and was one of the first major black film stars.
Paul Robeson also stood as a model for the activist artist, speaking out for civil rights and civil liberties, the working class worldwide, the liberation of then-colonized African nations and peace movements. In the 1930s he made the first of several visits to Russia, where he said, he felt like a "full human being," a status he didn't feel in America. Labeled a subversive by those who questioned his patriotism, he was an early victim of the 1950s McCarthy communist hunt. For eight years the United States government revoked his passport and tried to make him a nonperson. That official ostracism-- and his unbending politics -- ended his film career, crippled his concert career in this country and led to a shroud of silence about him.
Publicly Paul Robeson was an object of heated debate, but his granddaughter remembers him in those times as a gentle, often funny storyteller. "The story I always asked for was about his trip to Spain in 1937 and 1938. During the height of the Spanish Civil War, he went to the front lines and gave a concert at Teruel. When he sang at night, the guns on both sides stopped, and the fighting started the next day. I loved that message of love and universality," recalls Robeson, now 28.
To illustrate both her appreciation of her legacy and grapple with the paradoxes of his life, Robeson, a television associate producer in New York, has put together a book, a pictorial biography of her grandfather, titled, "The Whole World in His Hands." Deliberately adopting the layered rhythms of a documentary, she has written essays, interspersed with Robeson's own words, and culled photographs from the family's private collection of 50,000 items, now part of the Howard University Archives.
The majority of the photographs have never been published, and dozens were taken by Robeson's wife, Eslanda, who was a scientist, anthropologist and journalist. Susan Robeson's favorite is a photograph of her grandfather taken in 1958. He is sitting in a garden, drinking coffee, in white, short-sleeved shirt and tie, his heavy, unsmiling face turned toward an unknown object. "That's Grandpa, that's his inner quality," she says. The daughter of Robeson's only child, Paul Robeson Jr., she has inherited the tall, powerful stance of her grandfather, and the intense yet soft directness that comes through in his recorded speeches.
This is the man she remembers as she grew up near him in New York and, for a brief time as a teen-ager, lived with him. Like any child in a family under public scrutiny, she was sheltered from some of the bad moments, the tension of death threats, the frustration of inactivity. She speaks of the humble yet rich life replete with a scholarly library, and ongoing discussions of the pressures and price of principles.
In her Washington hotel room, she relives three special moments: when she was 4 in 1957 and he gave a transatlantic concert from a studio in New York; the next year sitting in the front row of his victory concert after his passport was reinstated, hearing him sing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," for her; the day in 1963 when he returned from five years abroad, announcing at the airport press conference that he was retiring from concerts and wanted to participate in the civil rights struggle. "The next day the papers said he was disillusioned with Russian communism," says Robeson.
That is only one of the interpretations of her grandfather Susan Robeson would like to correct. "One misconception was that he was bitter, broken and betrayed by communism. Bitterness bespeaks regrets, and he never had any. He knew he would have to pay a price for speaking out. He didn't exile himself. In his whole lifetime he only spent time that would total two years in the Soviet Union. There was an image that he had forsaken his country that wasn't true," says Robeson. The State Department restricted his travel outside the country because they considered treasonous his public statements on American racism and his calls for peace with the Soviet Union. Officially his travel was restricted because of his refusal to sign a noncommunist affiliation oath. After he returned to the United States in 1963, he rarely made any public appearances and was pictured as a sad recluse. "He wanted to retire when he could no longer walk around. He didn't want to let people's expectations down," corrects Robeson. After his wife died, Robeson moved to Philadelphia and lived with a sister until his death in 1976 at age 77. "Again there was tremendous mystery about him, maybe he was bugged out and people wanted to create a mystery, wanted to say he was broken."
For Susan Robeson, carrying a legendary name has had a few drawbacks, such as having to answer questions from her schoolmates on her grandfather's politics and endure close scrutiny on her own life, from her grades in school to her own politics. Her name was twined with many expectations and responsibilities. "I was raised with a strong ethic, you must do the best," says Robeson. Her name has never been a burden, she says: "I didn't think I had the right to fail and that's not a burden . . . also I was not told what to think, what to believe, not 'this is what your grandfather thought,' but was told to be intellectually curious."
It was her grandfather's work in film in the early days of the talkies through the early 1940s, struggling to portray black characters with a positive sense of self and a world view, and the way the media treated her grandfather, that influenced her documentary journalism career. Her first work was as a technician with an independent film company that investigated the prison rebellion of Attica. Now she carries a social and political point of view into her regular work on "Like It Is," the Emmy-winning black-oriented public affairs show. "She takes the opportunity to show her social responsibility. She did an extraordinary series on the Native American culture," says Gil Noble, the show's producer. "She has political maturity, sensitivity and courage."
Just as she doesn't take her name lightly, she says, she doesn't try to abuse it. "I do have access but I try not to use it. So many people respond automatically with respect and I try to earn it," she says. For example, Lena Horne's name appeared on the invitations for her New York book party, where legendary folk singers Odetta and Pete Seeger performed. But it is just as clear as she writes in her book's introduction, "the privilege of being Paul Robeson's granddaughter would often overwhelm me."
She feels her book, and her work with another project, the Paul Robeson Productions, are only part of a small Robeson renaissance. In the last five years Susan Robeson has noticed an increase in curiosity and scholarship about her grandfather. "There is a tendency to give people their due after death . . . There's a reaching back to people, fashion, film, theater, especially black theater," she says. "Paul Robeson was a force culturally and politically, we seem to be teetering on the brink of the 1950s politically; there's a tinge of hysteria. You can't miss what he represented."