The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

On the Move with Essie Robeson

“Part of you is always traveling faster, always traveling ahead. Even when you are moving, it is never fast enough to satisfy that part of you." - Kelly Link, “Travels with the Snow Queen”

“For most of her adult life, Essie was a traveler, both literally and metaphorically. She transcended class and cultural boundaries and crossed international borders; she conversed in multiple languages and traveled to nearly every corner of the globe.”

- Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson

 

First, let’s get this straight: to call Essie “Mrs. Paul Robeson” is about as apt as referring to Beyoncé as “Mrs. Shawn Carter.”

Of course, Essie (like Beyoncé at times) wasn’t averse to inhabiting the role of wife to her famous-performer husband. But, as historian Barbara Ransby argues in her excellent biography Eslanda, Essie Robeson deserves far more of the limelight than she's been given.

I first encountered Essie on her own terms in a slim volume called African American Women Chemists. In the first iteration of what would be a career and identity in constant flux, Essie Robeson (born Eslanda Cardozo Goode) was a chemist.

 Essie in the lab at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

Essie in the lab at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

Essie completed her BS in Analytical Chemistry, begun at the University of Illinois, at Columbia in 1920. After graduation, she became the first black person employed as a lab technician at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Even after she met Paul, in the early years of their marriage and his fledgling career, Essie supported them both through her work at the pathology lab.

Essie encouraged Paul to abandon a law career to explore his talents as a singer and an actor. As his career took off, Essie left the lab to become his manager. Rooted in Harlem, the couple began to move in ever-widening geographical and social circles. They traveled to London for acting gigs, to the Soviet Union due to their growing Communist sympathies (and to visit Essie's brothers who had made a home there), throughout Africa as they came to support the struggle for independence from colonial rule.

Along the way, Essie hobnobbed with the rich and powerful, crossing race and class lines. Essie’s personal who’s who even included an affair with the British playwright Noel Coward and a flirtation with French painter Marcel Duchamp when, about 11 years in, her marriage with Paul careened toward divorce.

 A seriously glamorous profile of Essie in the 1929 film BORDERLINE.

A seriously glamorous profile of Essie in the 1929 film BORDERLINE.

For Ransby, travel is a crucial metaphor for Essie’s life. Sure, this movement involves her literal trips around the globe, but travel also took the form of a restless intellectual curiosity. She followed her roaming mind from chemistry to a couple of acting roles with Paul to the London School of Economics, where an interest in anthropology was kindled. 

Her growing political and feminist consciousness led her to the founding meeting of the United Nations, a brief foray into third-party politics, and even to the McCarthy hearings (the US State Department also confiscated her and Paul’s passports from 1950 to 1958, as a result of their communist/Soviet sympathies).  

Again and again, Essie found herself in a complicated position as she moved between worlds and had access to conversations and experiences that were not typical for most Black Americans at the time. Her celebrity and class status were often at odds with her skin color. It was freeing in one sense, but also challenging in another, a delicate walk between maintaining access and speaking truth to power.


Together Essie and Paul had one child, Paul Jr., nicknamed Pauli, in 1928. Essie's postpartum recovery was slow and difficult; she developed phlebitis and an abscess in her breast a few weeks after Pauli was born. Essie had always maintained a fierce independence, so she kept this pain from her husband. Paul had been abroad in Europe during the birth, and it was only due to Essie's mother's intervention that Paul returned home to take care of Essie and meet his two-month-old son.

 Essie with Paul Jr., December 1928.

Essie with Paul Jr., December 1928.

Ransby’s biography doesn’t provide a clear portrait of Essie’s experience of motherhood. But there's a similar kind of restlessness – an intensity coupled with periods of remove. Essie’s jet-setting lifestyle, her outward-facing energy, were not always compatible with raising a child. For the first several years of Pauli’s life, Essie’s mother played a crucial caregiving role. In those early years, the Robesons sometimes lived in a different country entirely from Pauli and Eslanda Sr. Later, the family settled in Connecticut, where Essie bridged that earlier distance. During Pauli's high school years, she never missed his academic or athletic events. 

 The Robeson family at their home in Connecticut, 1940s.

The Robeson family at their home in Connecticut, 1940s.

At the same time, Essie sought out moments of convergence, where these different parts of herself could come together. Most notably, Essie’s first visit to Africa was also a mother-son bonding trip with 8-year-old Pauli.

For three months in the summer of 1936, Essie and Paul Jr. traveled in South Africa and Uganda. What emerged out of that experience was Essie’s book African Journey. The 1945 publication combined ethnography, travel memoir, and anti-colonial arguments. It linked African American and African struggles, found common cause with people of color globally.

The book established Essie as authority on Africa, opening up opportunities such as speaking engagements, a leadership role on the Council on African Affairs, and a book collaboration with China scholar Pearl Buck.


In my overachiever youth, I never predicted that I’d struggle with settling on a career, with finding a fixed professional identity. In my mid-twenties, I migrated away from a publishing career in New York to a Ph.D. program in Texas, only to opt out of the academic job search after graduation. I’ve settled (temporarily) into a string of part-time teaching gigs. But this summer, scrambling for fall employment, I was reminded of how fickle and uncertain the adjunct life can be.

Such restless seeking after a vocation in middle age seems flighty, irresponsible. As someone who didn't become a mother until her mid-thirties, shouldn’t I at least have my working life figured out by now?

in all the romance of her celebrity and travel-filled life, ESSIE robeson offers an enticing counterexample. There’s nothing casual or careless about her non-linear career path. By turns a chemist, an actor, an anthropologist, an activist, Essie approached each of these pursuits with a seriousness of purpose.

What I find particularly inspiring was that Robeson saw her work, and herself, as a process rather than a product. Essie came as close as possible to earning a Ph.D. in anthropology from Hartford Seminary without actually securing the degree. As Essie honed her writing and journalistic skills, she left a host of unpublished writing in her wake – drafts of novels, screenplays, even an interview with Mahatma Gandhi (!). They were all fuel for her craft, practice for the Next Thing.

What she was building, it seems, was less a readily definable career than an outlook, a consciousness. That perspective was increasingly political in nature and global in focus.


The language around unhappy motherhood often defaults to claustrophobia. I can still recall the immobility I felt as a new mother, stuck in an armchair for five hours a day breastfeeding an infant, or tethered to a breast pump in our ‘lactation room’ at work – a repurposed electrical closet.

Juxtaposed to this prevailing mood of entrapment is the image of Essie in motion. Provisional and imperfect as it was, Essie found freedom in her identity as a global citizen. Parenthood, Paul’s infidelities, the weight of her ancestors’ literal bondage – none of this could keep her grounded as she taxied, accelerated, lifted off:

Soaring in the clouds, with the strange distant toy world spread out below, I felt removed from earth-bound things.

Why am I really glad and proud to be Negro? Why am I sorry for this pitiful 'superior' European? Why do I actually feel superior to him?

This poor man doesn't know what it's all about.... Has he not arbitrarily walled himself off from more than two-thirds of his fellow men, the non-white peoples of the world?

We have not built any walls to limit our world.

Walls have been built against us, but we are always fighting to tear them down, and in the fighting we grow, find new strength, new scope.


 

 

 

 

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