One of our favorite tomato varieties is the Paul Robeson. It is an exceptionally juicy beefsteak type variety with purple shoulders. I knew it was a Russian variety named after the African American actor, singer, and activist, but am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much of anything about the man other than the fact that he had a delicious tomato named after him. We recently watched a PBS American Masters documentary about Robeson, and I am astounded that his name and life story aren’t better known.
Robeson was born in 1898. His father, a former slave, taught him early in life that he was just as capable and worthy as his white peers, and he took that message of equality to heart throughout his life. Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College, where he was the only black student. He gained a national reputation as a college football star and was valedictorian of his class. He graduated from Columbia Law School, but refused to accept a law career subject to racist barriers, and instead followed his passion for singing and acting.
Robeson’s incredible bass baritone voice is best known today from his performance of “Ol’ Man River” in the musical and film Show Boat, but his musical range was vast, crossing many styles and languages. Between concerts all over the world, Broadway performances, music recordings, and early films, Robeson became the most famous black man in the world. His performances of Othello in London and on Broadway were renowned (at this time, the role was typically played by a white actor in blackface) and he played to some of the first racially integrated audiences. While he struggled to land film roles that met his goal of uplifting the black experience, he continually used his platform to stand up for, and stand with, the downtrodden.
His activism ranged from black civil rights to anti-colonialism, labor rights to anti-fascism to the peace movement. He became enamored with the Soviet Union, where, when touring, he found himself treated as “a human being for the first time in my life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.” His unbridled affection for the USSR got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Intense anti-communist pressure from Senator McCarthy and others caused many civil rights leaders to denounce Robeson out of fear. Robeson stood firm on principle, refusing to play the game. During his testimony to the HUAC, Robeson was asked why he didn’t leave the US and move to Russia. His reply: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” His defiance did not help his case, and Robeson was entirely blacklisted in the US. His records and video footage were destroyed. His passport was even seized by the government so he could not tour abroad.
In 1958, a Supreme Court ruling restored Robeson’s passport and his career started a gradual recovery, but a mental and physical breakdown in 1961 forced him to retire from public life. He died in 1976 following a stroke.
Truly, Robeson had problematic blind spots when it came to his stalwart defense of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yet his unflinching activism, dedication to his beliefs, brilliance, and sheer talent in arenas from music to sports to linguistics should make him an honored household name. With my new knowledge of Paul Robeson’s life and work, I now think of tending his legacy when tending his tomatoes.