Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson - A Review
by Rhone Fraser, Ph.D.
Eslanda "Essie" Cardozo Goode Robeson – the anthropologist-journalist wife of Paul – was an important historical figure in her own right, especially her contributions to anti-colonialism. She “condemned African Uncle Toms, these 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.”
A Review: Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson
by Rhone Fraser, Ph.D.
This review previously appeared in Edifying Debate.
“Her story reveals militant Black women and men who defy the social order.”
Barbara Ransby has fulfilled her stated goal of crafting “a fair and honest portrait of an amazing, talented, tough, and complex woman” in Eslanda (Essie) Cardozo Goode Robeson.
Eslanda’s maternal grandfather Francis Lewis Cardozo, named after the New York signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a South Carolina politician during Reconstruction who later became a respected educator in Washington. He later moved to England, like his granddaughter did as the wife of the concert singer Paul Robeson, and studied briefly at Oxford. Essie studied at the London School of Economics. Because he refused to cooperate with the infamous Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 that removed federal troops from the South and exposed newly educated Blacks to white mob rule, according to family lore, Francis Cardozo was soon arrested on trumped up embezzlement charges, tried and convicted for one year (11).
Another individual close to Essie would be convicted of what she thought was an unfair charge: her husband Paul Robeson, whose militant outspoken warning to Blacks earned him the State Department’s seizure of his U.S. passport in 1950. His controversial 1949 statement, that prompted the Truman State Department to seize his and Essie’s passports, was that “it is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who oppressed us for generations against a country in which one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” (Foner, ed., p.537)
Ransby makes clear, however, in her book’s introduction that she did not want the largesse of Paul’s celebrity and infamy (in McCarthyist eyes) to eclipse the importance of Eslanda, on whom she focuses exclusively. Her life not only reveals militant Black men who defy the social order, but militant Black women as well. Her mother, Ransby writes, “was a supporter of the Black socialist internationalist Hubert Harrison… She was a volunteer for Harrison’s The Voice newspaper.“ (24) Harrison was what his biographer Jeffrey Perry called “the father of Harlem radicalism” who made a living as a soapbox orator on the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenues encouraging Harlemites to organize their own presses and their own independent party. Ransby writes that Harrison’s radical influence on Eslanda’s mother helped shape Eslanda into the militant journalist and anthropologist she would become.
She met Paul Robeson in 1919, the year he graduated from Rutgers as a Phi Beta Kappa. By then she had finished three years at the University of Illinois as a chemistry major, but transferred to Columbia University Teacher’s College, where she graduated by 1920. The next year she and Paul married.
Ransby writes that Eslanda “played a pivotal role in Paul’s early success” (38). She began to network and navigate her way into post-World War I high society. When Paul’s singing and acting career – that she helped launch – moved them to London, Essie applied her anticolonial grounding to a new network that included influential Africans like Prince Kojo Touvalou Houenou, a descendant of Dahomean royalty, who talked about Africa and the Diaspora with Eslanda. She met Rene Maran, an influential French writer who, with Prince Kojo, worked on a new journal called Les Continents, which aimed to create a global community of Black writers opposing colonial domination (42).
“Eslanda ‘played a pivotal role in Paul’s early success.’”
Ransby shows Eslanda as not only a doting wife, but a fastidious personal manager and publicist. She “stayed up late and woke up early rehearsing Paul’s lines with him… She worked tirelessly to promote the event [Paul’s first public concert at Greenwich Village Theatre with pianist Lawrence Brown]… It was sold out, with standing room only.” (43, 47) Ransby writes: “For Paul she remained an invaluable coach and career strategist.” (48) For others, like Paul’s brother Benjamin and Paul’s friend Claude McKay, she was “too abrasive,” “too ambitious,” and “formidable.” (32, 54) By 1927, she had arranged for the duo to appear in a series of concerts in France and England. By the end of that year she bore her and Paul’s only son, Paul Jr., on November 2nd. She made arrangements for her mother to be Paul Jr.’s full-time caregiver, “a role she would fill for well over a decade…this arrangement freed Essie to travel with Paul…and fulfill her increasingly demanding managerial duties.” (62)
As Paul’s artistic status soared, “his and Essie’s marriage began to unravel.” (64) She struggled with Paul’s extramarital affair with a British woman, Yolande Jackson, and sought letters between them to use in a divorce proceeding. In fact, finding such letters was “the first order of business” for Eslanda in 1932. While in Paris, she reconnected with Rene Maran, Prince Kojo, and a network of other African-descended French whom she interviewed and collected for a series of essays she titled “Black Paris” that was published in Dorothy West’s journal Challenge. This year she also penned a detailed treatise called “I Believe In Divorce” where she wrote that “marriage is a hangover from the cave man era” and, about Paul, “I think we are happier now than we have ever been. But we no longer wish to be married.” Shortly afterwards, Paul left Yolande for Essie and reconciled their issues “and would remain together for the rest of their lives.” (80)
In 1932, Eslanda wrote three fictional works, two novels and one play, none of which would get published, but each spoke to Eslanda’s interests in challenging Black middle class norms. The first novel, Black Progress, was about the plight of a Black middle class family; the second novel, Color, was on the theme of passing, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a parody of Stowe’s 1852 novel.
“Eslanda seems to make mental notes of exactly which Africans collaborated with the British and which didn’t.”
She was able to publish her first book: Paul Robeson, Negro by Victor Gollancz. Although Ransby does not mention it, this book contains the famous anecdote of Paul rejecting the law profession after a legal secretary tells him that she, a Columbia law student, “doesn’t take dictation from n—gers.” This book is a testament to Eslanda’s managerial skill. While in London, Essie took courses at the London School of Economics where she strengthened her anticolonial beliefs. By the end of 1934, Essie would visit Russia with Paul and by 1936 with her then nine year old son Paul Jr., would visit South Africa and take copious notes: “Essie boldly indicted the racism she had witnessed, and even commented on the unwarranted divisions and tensions between Blacks and so-called Colored or mixed-race people who had a distinct social, yet still subjugated, status in South Africa relative to whites” (106).
Leaving South Africa, Essie and Paul Jr. became a guest of Akiki Nyabongo and his family in Uganda. Essie’s lens of seeing race and class divisions throughout Africa seems to complement Ransby’s own lenses, especially when Ransby writes: “while some African elites openly collaborated with colonial powers, others used their Western education to turn the tables: they argued for African rights in British courts and made a moral cause against white domination.” (114) The Eslanda she describes seems to make mental notes of exactly which Africans collaborated with the British and which didn’t, without openly saying so: “[S]he did the best she could to offer insights without offending her hosts” (119).
In 1936 she returns to London, then to Madrid to join her husband who sings to rally the Spanish Republican forces against the fascist invasion from Italy. By this time Ransby writes that the gulf between Eslanda and the feminist-anarchist Emma Goldman grew at time when Stalin’s Soviet purges took place. Max Yergan visited Paul and Essie about founding an organization then called the International Committee on African Affairs, which would become an influential vehicle through which both Essie and Paul would educate the world about the anticolonial struggle in Africa: “Essie…’was the ICAA’s ‘first contributing member’…she wrote a $300 check to help get it started” (134).
Although Stalin’s pact with Hitler made Communism very unpopular in America, Ransby writes that “throughout it all Essie was both pro-Soviet and militantly anti-fascist” (138). The Robesons were quiet about Stalin’s abuses, worried that by publicly decrying Stalin’s atrocities they would be indirectly supporting the Jim Crow abuses sanctioned by the conservative forces in America.
They move into a comfortable Enfield, Connecticut, home in 1941. Although Essie was being watched by U.S. intelligence because of her political views, the FBI may have been a bit disappointed with the results because, Ransby writes, “she got along with her fellow Enfield residents,” one of whom described her as “one hundred percent American.” While Paul was performing Othello in America, he was intimately involved with his co-star Uta Hagen and his longtime friend Frieda Diamond. However Essie, Ransby writes, had agreed with Paul that “each partner was free to do as he or she pleased with regard to sex and romance.” (142) She would have her own intimate involvements outside the country and remain married to Paul.
Paul Jr. would say that “his mother never missed a single one of his athletic or academic events during his high school years.” (142)
In May 1945 she attends the founding conference of the United Nations (U.N.) in San Francisco and insists, in pamphlet she wrote, that the U.N. “be a catalyst for ending colonialism.” (148)
By August of 1945 her second book detailing her anthropological field work in Uganda and South Africa, African Journey, was published by John Day. Ransby writes that her research in this book was at odds with the mainstream of the field because, as she quotes from Mahon, for Essie “anthropology was a tool for liberation, rather than simply an abstract research enterprise.” (155) She gave Ralph Bunche a Kodak camera she received from Paul as a gift. She visited the Congo in 1946 and met Marxist organizer Gabriel D’Arboussier, who organized the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (African Democratic Group). It is on this trip that British intelligence view her presence in the Congo “as a threat to colonial authority.” (165) She also met Moise Tshombe and wrote about him in complimentary terms; Ransby writes how he would later play a “much reviled” role in supporting European colonialism in the 1960 U.S.-led murder of African revolutionary Patrice Lumumba.
“Essie agreed with Paul that ‘each partner was free to do as he or she pleased with regard to sex and romance.’”
Ransby could have mentioned how in the pages of Freedom, a paper dedicated to retrieving the passports of Paul and Essie Robeson, that Ralph Bunche was heavily critiqued for his support of U.S. colonialism. In page 6 of its March 1951 issue, Ben Davis, whom Essie would call “an old valued friend” in a March 1952 issue of Freedom, said that Bunche was “a Negro misleader” whom “Wall Street had bought out.” It would be this kind of leadership that would come to make the U.N. ineffective in ending colonialism. Two months later, after returning from the Congo in November 1948, Essie in a speech declares that “Africa is in revolution.” She joins the platform committee of the U.S. Progressive Party and publicly opposes the Korean War. By the time Paul makes his controversial 1949 statement, she “immediately issued a strong statement defending her husband and lambasting his detractors” (191).
The following year she vociferously defends her son from racist hate mail towards his interracial marriage to Marilyn Greenberg: “I do hereby declare war on my enemies and publicly notify them that I will fight them every step of the way.” (197) In 1950 she traveled to Moscow, Eastern Europe, and to China, where she “praised China’s new land reform policy…and the fact that…’equality extends to the woman, who are recognized as citizens on the same basis as the men” (203). Also by the end of this year Essie’s last book, American Arguments, with novelist Pearl Buck, is published.
This was also the year that many of her colleagues, including James Jackson and Claudia Jones, were jailed because of the Smith Act which was equated sympathy with Communism to plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. A fuller description of the Smith Act could have explained Essie’s drastic difference of opinion with Emma Goldman, Pearl Buck and other privileged white liberals who sympathized with the Robesons only up to their support of the Soviet Union. However the impact of this law gets only passing mention by Ransby.
During the years that Freedom was issued, both Paul and Essie used the publication as a tool to call attention to the anticolonial struggles in Kenya and Africa. Ransby quotes from Essie’s 1951 article praising Chinese communism and her March 1952 article praising Ben Davis. Essie also wrote an article for Freedom calling on the world to observe April 6th as D-Day, in South Africa, where Africans began their revolutionary struggle against European colonials.
By 1953, she is called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee and asked whether she is a member of the Communist Party and refuses to answer directly by claiming protection under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. When she is told she could not invoke the Fifteenth Amendment, she responded that as a Negro, she knew a lot about force and violence used against her people and how they don’t have much right to elect Senators. Ransby writes that no charges were brought against her. She wrote frankly about her testimony in the October 1953 issue of Freedom: “They kept on trying to change the subject, but I kept on sticking to it, and it soon became crystal clear that before any Committee starts yelling for first class loyalty and cooperation from me, they’d better get busy and put me and my Negro people in the First Class Department by making us First Class Citizens.” Ransby writes that the more Cold War paranoia informed American foreign and domestic policy, the more Essie had to say. “There were three women whose decades long friendships with Essie best reflect her transnational identity and both personal and political allegiances”: Shirley Graham Du Bois, Vijaya Lakshmi (Nan) Pandit, and Janet Jagan, all three of whom appeared in the pages of Freedom on more than one occasion.
Jomo Kenyatta also wrote some articles for Freedom. Essie credits him, according to Ransby, with bringing anthropology to life for her. About a year after Freedom’s last issue in 1955, Essie was diagnosed with breast cancer, however she continued her effort to build a transnational identity. The Russian edition of her book African Journey was published in 1957 and reviewed favorably by the Russian press as playing a positive role in the “active struggle against colonialism.” (242)
“Before any Committee starts yelling for first class loyalty and cooperation from me, they’d better get busy and put me and my Negro people in the First Class Department by making us First Class Citizens.”
In April 1958 she traveled to Trinidad by the invitation of Grenadian anticolonialist Theophilus Marryshow to participate in the celebration surrounding the formation of the West Indies Federation, which was a precursor to CARICOM. By December of 1958, she would travel to Accra, Ghana to attend the All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC), one year after the country became the first African nation to receive independence from England. Like Malcolm’s historic 1964 speech at the Organization of Afro-American Unity warning South African leaders against replacing European colonialism with American dollarism, Essie six years earlier issues a similar warning that should be considered an ideological precursor to Malcolm’s message. Ransby writes that she “condemned African Uncle Toms, these 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” (246).
Essie made clear a distinction between leaders who demonstrated a commitment to ending colonial rule in all of its forms and empowering the African masses, like Patrice Lumumba (in a 1961 photo of this book that shows Eslanda speaking, a banner next to her podium reads: “Long Live Lumumba”), and those who saw themselves as extensions of or in alliance with white colonial elites. In her journal she writes that “neo-colonialism is [the] greatest menace in Africa” (261). Not only does Eslanda critique African collusion with European and American interests, but she makes clear prophetic critiques of U.S. militarism in Africa: “I should like the continent to become…a zone where no foreign military bases are allowed. I should like this to be paralleled with an ideological truce and an agreement not to try to convert Africa into an economic appendage of any other continent.” The American development of AFRICOM absolutely betrays this hope.
Eslanda died of breast cancer on December 13, 1965. Ransby the historian is reluctant to describe Eslanda as a feminist because that is not the way Eslanda described herself. However Ransby writes in her epilogue that “Essie anticipated contemporary Black feminist theories of intersectionality that insisted that the relationships between capitalism, sexism, colonialism, racism and empire were symbiotic.” (278) Ransby admits that contemporary feminists might bristle at Essie’s formulation that American women “see themselves as people first and women second” (248). However, given Essie’s strong disdain for neocolonialism, what she meant by “people” in this case are people who are fighting neocolonialism, and who resent the use of the social construction of gender to advance the agenda of Wall Street.
No debate highlights this rejection of neocolonialism better than Eslanda’s critique of Edith Sampson, a U.S. delegate to the U.N. General Assembly, in the July 1951 issue of Freedom, which Ransby misses. Here Eslanda is rejecting the cynical use of token Blacks to advance a colonial or neocolonial agenda in the United States. Eslanda critiques Sampson’s silence at the 1951 U.N. Assembly on the Jim Crow abuses that Negroes endure and her remarks claiming that Communism was America’s main concern. Eslanda does not support Sampson simply because she is a woman; she understands the sophisticated yet cynical use by conservatives to push a sexist and racist agenda using tokens. She critiques Sampson because of her conscious choice to ignore the more serious plight of Jim Crow in America. Eslanda writes to Sampson:
“As a Negro woman…I was glad and proud to see you, a Negro woman, appointed as alternate U.S. delegate to the U.N. General Assembly…. When a reporter heckled you about conditions of the Negro people in the United States, you defended the U.S. in a press conference, against Communist accusation…and denied that the color bar is universal and typical in the U.S…Now Edith, this will never do…. We all hope, Edith, that you will ‘follow your own best thought.’ We watch and wait and hope.”
“Essie anticipated contemporary Black feminist theories of intersectionality that insisted that the relationships between capitalism, sexism, colonialism, racism and empire were symbiotic.”
Eslanda critiques Sampson’s downplaying of American racism in ways similar to how Hubert Harrison, in a 1911 New York Sun editorial, critiqued Booker T. Washington’s downplaying of American racism in a 1911 edition of the London Morning Post (Perry, ed., p.164). Eslanda’s mother belonged to Harrison’s Liberty League whose ideological concerns rubbed off on Eslanda in her resentment of token Blacks who downplay American racism. She was aware of the strategic and cynical use of gender by token leaders who are manipulated by the elite class to advance colonialism. Eslanda’s critique applies to the approaching uncritical appraisal of Hillary Clinton to be the next U.S. president. Her critique highlights the importance of identifying tokenism and not supporting someone simply because of their race or gender, but by how well they fight neocolonialism.
While Ransby has fulfilled her goal of “crafting a fair and honest portrait,” it comes at the expense of not fully expressing her complete role in advancing the Black freedom struggle. What is missing, is a more extensive discussion of three key events. One, the profound impact that the 1949 Smith Act had on her anti-imperialist colleagues like Claudia Jones and James Jackson, the husband of Esther Cooper Jackson (see Foner, ed., p.537). Ransby includes an important interview with Mrs. Jackson. However her biography could have been enhanced by a more thorough read of the James and Esther Cooper Jackson Papers that, unfortunately, were being physically removed from NYU’s Taimiment Library to be digitized at the final stages of both works. Two, Essie’s 1951 article in the California Eagle responding to Walter White’s attack on Paul Robeson’s controversial 1949 statement should have been discussed in the context of her differences of opinion with Emma Goldman and Pearl Buck. Three, the similarities between her and Paul’s anticolonialist beliefs. Where Paul articulated anticolonialism best as a singer, orator and actor, Essie articulated it in a more sophisticated way as a novelist, screenwriter, anthropologist, and journalist.
Ransby wisely puts Paul and Essie Robeson in the context of their historical time when she says that “they increasingly identified with those at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchies as a matter of principle” (193). This is reminiscent of Ella Baker’s critique of Martin Luther King, Jr., that King did not identify closely enough with the people he sought to lead (Ella Baker, 190). The same could be argued of the Robesons given their wealth. However, they used their wealth privilege in a functional way. Eslanda used her wealth to help start an anticolonial group in the International Council on African Affairs that compares to Jada Pinkett Smith’s 2012 funding of Shola Lynch’s film celebrating Communist beliefs in Free Angela And All Political Prisoners. Eslanda, like Jada, used her celebrity to challenge colonialism. Ransby shows how, like her husband, Eslanda used her celebrity in a functional way to help end colonialism. She saw it as a matter of reform and as a matter of armed revolution. Ransby writes that Eslanda “reserved the right to self defense against attacks.” (271) About Ella Baker, she writes that “nonviolence and self-defense were matters of principle: ‘mine was not a choice of non violence per se’ Baker reiterated” (Ella Baker, 193). Both women respected the necessity of armed revolution.
Ransby’s theoretical look at Eslanda is very significant. She rightfully hesitates to call Eslanda a feminist because Eslanda does not identify herself as one. The mainstream academy relies on the labels “Black Left” or “feminist” which continually assumes the normality of a white male perspective. This is the same lens that privileges a feminist perspective despite the fact that Affirmative Action benefits mainly white women’s entrance into the academy more than any other demographic. In Eslanda, Barbara Ransby shows a woman who, along with fighting for women’s rights, was primarily fighting for the U.N. to end colonialism, for CARICOM to build economic independence from the IMF, and for Africa to be free. This is Eslanda’s legacy that Barbara Ransby brilliantly shows us.
Rhone Fraser is a writer and scholar living in Philadelphia. He can be contacted a rhone.fraser(at)gmail.com.
Foner, Philip, ed. Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974. New York: Citadel, 1978.
Perry, Jeffrey B., ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown: Wesleyan, 2001.
Ransby, Barbara. Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson.
New Haven: Yale, 2013.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Chapel Hill: UNC, 2003.