Eslanda Robeson—Her Own Woman
By Herb Boyd
Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson. Yale University Press, 2013
What Barbara Ransby achieved so rewardingly in her landmark 2003 biography of Ella Baker (Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, University of North Carolina Press) is repeated with verve and astonishing insight in her new book Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson, Yale University Press, 2013.
Ransby, a professor in the department of African American Studies, Gender, and Women Studies Program, University of Illinois, Chicago, extricates Eslanda Goode Robeson from the enormous shadow cast by her indomitable husband and provides her a platform to express her own considerable bona fides.
And Eslanda’s attributes, with or without Paul’s notoriety and companionship, warrant all the sensitivity and sensibility Ransby can muster to capture a woman who was a devoted wife, a trained scientist, an unheralded anthropologist, a tireless journalist, and a global trekker equal to her famous husband.
Citing her as Mrs. Paul Robeson in the subtitle is the first indication that readers’ may not be aware of her singular accomplishments, and to some degree the mention of “unconventional” prepares them for the extra-marital affairs between the notable couple.
But what resonates most consistently from Ransby’s study is the fortitude, the unflinching determination of Eslanda to make her own mark in the world. And the word “world” has special resonance for the intrepid Eslanda whose global reach was as profound as her gritty resolve to speak truth to power, whether it was the McCarthy witch hunts, the CIA, or the Ku Klux Klan.
At the conclusion of the book’s introduction Ransby offers the summary of Eslanda’s remarkable social and political life. Eslanda she writes “lived a life that was complicated and vibrant, rich and full, privileged but often difficult. Along the way she made some hard choices about the path she was going to follow, and about the kind of woman she was going to be. Tough and determined, Essie fought long and hard for the ideas she believed in and on behalf of the people she loved and admired. She won some battles and lost others, but she was a fighter to the end.”
In this book, Essie the fighter emerges with forthright conviction as Ransby tastefully unravels the complexity of her days with Paul, days that might have totally dismayed a partner of lesser strength and commitment. Even the most informed readers will be surprised to discover Eslanda’s academic prowess. There’s every reason to believe that under other circumstances, freed from Paul’s need for comfort and support, she would have been a first rate anthropologist. In effect, her diaries and certainly her book African Journey are equivalent to some field studies and commentaries in a discipline that was just beginning to gain traction under the tutelage of Bronislaw Malinowski, her teacher.
It is simply amazing, particularly for a woman, to travel with such fearlessness to Africa at a time when the winds of change had yet to sweep across the continent, when the accommodations were often far less than ideal. With her son, Paul, Jr., in tow, she was undaunted by the absence of the necessities she was accustomed to, consistently brushed aside cultural shock, and faced without blinking the menace of apartheid in South Africa.
Keeping a daily diary as she did on her journey to Africa and other places was a habit she cultivated throughout life and Ransby used them to great advantage, to say nothing of Eslanda’s countless articles on a variety of subjects.
Born in the nation’s capital on December 15, 1895, the same year the great Frederick Douglass died, Eslanda, as Ransby notes, was a child of privilege—and struggle. Her maternal grandfather was Francis Lewis Cardozo, a Reconstruction politician, and she was a distant relative of Benjamin Cardozo, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. But an illustrious pedigree did not guarantee an easy walk in life and when her father died suddenly at 39, the family’s fortunes changed for the worst.
Eslanda, with her two brothers, moved to Chicago with her mother where she finished high school, enrolled at University of Illinois, and then transferred in her third year to Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Geography is often fate, and it was certainly true for Eslanda because by 1919 she met Paul Robeson. They courted and married almost immediately.
There is no need here to discuss Paul’s monumental accomplishments; others have done that quite capably, even Paul himself in his memoir Here I Stand. Clearly, it’s hard to talk about Eslanda’s life without touching on large portions of Paul’s momentous escapades. And this may be the time to deal with Ransby’s notion of unconventionality.
Mainly, the implication of unconventional is sexual dalliances and infidelities by Eslanda and Paul, though Eslanda’s may have mostly been in reaction to Paul’s affairs. None of this comes as news since Martin Duberman in his lengthy and laudable biography of Paul Robeson more than broached this turf and Paul, Jr. did not avoid this sensitive zone in his two volumes on his father.
Apparently this lifestyle suited them, and, at least, Eslanda reluctantly accepted it because they managed to stay married for more than forty years with only short periods of real separation.
Toward the end of their lives, both were exhausted and troubled with an assortment of ailments, with Eslanda receiving the most devastating setbacks as she battled breast, cervix, and uterine cancer. Nevertheless, she remained loyal to Paul as he struggled with a severe form of depression that often left him difficult to live with and comfort.
Ransby handles these final days with the same tender and respectful delicacy as in the early years of their resourceful relationship, and we can only wait with great anticipation for Ransby’s next woman of merit to be skillfully revealed.
Herb Boyd is a journalist, historian, activist, scholar and educator as well as the author and editor of 22 books, including his most recent one, Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today. His book Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin (Atria Books, 2008) was a finalist for a 2009 NAACP Image Award.