Eslanda sheds light on the links between the global struggles for freedom and equality across most of the twentieth century, argues Season Butler

Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs Paul Robeson (Yale University Press 2013), xiii, 373pp.

Eslanda is more than a biography of a prolific journalist, UN correspondent, anthropologist and writer of novels, plays and essays. It is also an in-depth study of the evolution of African-American intellectual life, the development of Pan-African consciousness and a social history of the major global struggles from the interwar period to the Vietnam War, all through the personal and public writings of Eslanda Cardozo Robeson. Over the course of this impressive life, Essie (as she is affectionately referred to throughout the book) reported the appalling inequities of pre-apartheid South Africa, narrowly escaped the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany, faced-off with fascists in Franco’s Madrid, defied McCarthy on trial in Washington, and defined life as a mother, wife and lover on her own terms.

Ransby’s biography could easily have been the story of the great woman behind the great man, Essie’s husband Paul Robeson, the globally acclaimed actor and musician. Instead Eslanda confronts this potential misunderstanding directly and provides the chronicle of an almost-forgotten activist and scholar. Although the author manages a generally objective, and sometimes even critical, tone in her treatment of her subject, this book doubtlessly serves the purpose of raising the profile of her subject and helping to establish her place in the popular imagination for her contribution to the struggle for racial liberation, gender equality and workers’ rights. She shows how Essie Robeson brought a sophisticated understanding of the architecture of oppression (and the relations between oppressions) to bear in her commitment to end it on the local, national, Pan-African and global levels. The evidence is convincing and may leave you wondering why you had never heard of Eslanda Cardozo Robeson before.

The events which shaped her also constitute turning points in history; the places she lived were epicentres of cultural, social and political change; her friends, colleagues and lovers were among the most influential people in the Modern era. Indeed ‘[h]er social calendar read like a cultural who’s who of the post-war decade’ (p.279). Eslanda is not just the story of a woman; it is the story of an era.

Essie’s parents married in 1890, ‘the eve of the twentieth century; a century that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote would be divided and defined by the colour line. It was a line that Essie’s family alternately walked, crossed, ignored, and challenged’ (p.19). As a young adult, ‘[i]n 1919, Essie lived in a … prime location in the center of Harlem, New York … Within a half mile of the lively intersection where Essie lived, Langston Hughes would pen his elegant poetry; James Weldon Johnson would write the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; Zora Neale Hurston and Jessie Fauset would pioneer a Black women’s literary tradition; and jazz legends Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Thelonious Monk would perform some of the century’s most unforgettable music … It was the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance and the emergence of the “New Negro” ’ (p.27).

It was here that she met Paul Robeson, a handsome, charismatic artist and intellectual (who was, at the time, the only Black student studying at the prestigious Columbia Law School (p.29). Essie’s own academic achievements were equally impressive and ground-breaking. ‘College educated when most Black women were working as domestics, Essie in the 1920s became the first Black woman chemist to work in a pathology laboratory at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City and the first Black woman to head such a unit. In the 1930s she studied with renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics and later pursued a PhD in anthropology’ (p.2).

‘Essie was a distinctively beautiful woman who presented herself with great confidence and poise. She stood only five feet four inches tall, and had a full, shapely figure, she wore her thick, jet-black hair straight, short, and smoothed back or tucked under a stylish hat … Her eyes were deep set, and her flawless olive skin made her look Mediterranean, and in some sense racially ambiguous. Within Harlem’s eclectic and international Black community, however, her skin tone was just another shade in the continuum of colors that ran from beige to deep brown to black’ (pp.28-9).

The passage above provides a taste of one of the subtler benefits of this book; it offers the reader a close look at the nuances of racial hierarchies in Jim Crow America. It is easy to forget that segregation in the United States was a far more nuanced matter than the designations of Black, White or Coloured would suggest. Racial mixing was very common (as it remains), through both defiant miscegenation and too-common owner-slave rape. The hierarchies of privilege and politics of ‘passing’ were part of the quotidian Black experience.

It is edifying to read about diversity within Blackness. The reader meets, for example, NAACP leader Walter White, ‘a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Negro’ (p. 41), and wealthy vaudevillian turned Paris nightclub owner Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, known as Bricktop, so nicknamed for her red hair and skin ‘yellow with freckles’ (p.73). Ransby describes a diversity of Black physiognomies, seldom relying on hackneyed similes involving chocolate, caramel or other confectionary (much to this reviewer’s relief).

Ransby reads Essie’s approach to politics through what is now known as intersectionality, describing Essie as a ‘one of Robin Kelley’s “race rebels”, fighting simultaneously for “the race” and the working class across many national borders … In speech after speech, and article after article, she insisted that the relationships among capitalism, sexism, colonialism, racism, and empire were symbiotic’ (p.278).

Eslanda is a satisfying chronicle of a rich life marked by steadfast commitment to family, freedom and justice worldwide. She was better-travelled than most Americans, of any race, but Eslanda Robeson never lost sight of the struggles at home. Although she was constantly defined by her race and gender, she was an inspiring dis-respecter of artificial definitions and oppressive borders. Her story shows just how much there is to gain through a lifetime of audacity.