Updated: Aug 15, 2021
Learn from the Geniuses of Essie and Paul Robeson
We are born with a genius that is adaptable to the circumstances and opportunities that constitute our life pathways. By analogy, an acorn is born with a life map that will unfold into a tree. But there will be obstacles to grow around that ultimately shape the life of the tree: rocks, deer nibbling off branches, squirrels biting off little branches to get acorns before they are ready, and maybe a person will cut off a branch they consider intrusive. The Oaktree will adapt as best possible, seeking to actualize its purpose. Life is like that, but if we zero in, we will find energy and focus that is filled with the satisfactions of fulfilling the purpose for which we are born. This is the more profound and traditional meaning of the word “genius,” rather than an unusual characteristic of our intellect.
Genius is more than an individual characteristic that gives a unique identity. It is also birthed out of the cultural tradition from which the person has emerged. The genius characteristic is intended to meet a particular community need that has challenged the originating culture. The Robeson's story illustrates how their life purposes emerged from their people’s collective history.
Obstacles to Paul Robeson easily living out his purpose came early and kept coming. The Red Summer of 1919, when Paul graduated from Rutgers, saw not only the worst violence perpetrated upon Blacks since the end of Reconstruction, but it was also the turning point when Blacks begin to defend themselves against violence and mobilize to launch new movements toward social and economic freedom. Paul and Essie were supported by Black resilience that built upon the foundation of African heritage, the Black church and the Black Family; these ingredients provided the strength for Blacks to survive slavery, overcome the violent end of Reconstruction and to launch the forthcoming Civil Rights Movement.
Introduction to Essie Robeson
Essie Cardozo Goode Robeson was born on December 15, 1895, a year before the historic Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that inscribed Jim Crow segregation as federal law. Her familial lineage set the stage for her passions for social justice and political activism. Her maternal great-grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who married a Black woman freed from slavery. Living in Charleston South Carolina, where mixed marriage was illegal, their children did not have legal standing. One of their sons, Francis Lewis Cardozo (Essie’s grandfather) was sent to Scotland for higher education and returned to settle in New Haven, Connecticut, where he met and married Essie’s grandmother to be, Catherine Howell, a woman of Scotch, Danish, and West Indian descent.
Subsequently, Francis returned to South Carolina where he became a famous educator and reconstruction politician. In 1876, when Republicans and Democrats made a “devils-bargain” deal for the presidency, federal troops were pulled from the South; he refused a bribe to leave his office and was subsequently jailed for a year on trumped up corruption charges. Francis and his family fled South Carolina to Washington DC, where he refused to take the menial work that was offered him and resumed his career as an educator. Francis founded two schools in DC, one of which still bears his name.
Francis shared a special relationship with his only daughter, Eslanda (Essie’s mother). He was a father, a teacher, mentor, role model, and gentle patriarch. When she was a young woman, Eslanda often took long walks with her father after dinner, during which they would exchange ideas about history, culture, and politics. The two of them talked in depth about racism and Francis made sure his daughter had a good sense of Black history.
Eslanda married John Goode (Essie’s father), a Black man, claiming partial Native American heritage. John suffered from alcoholism and died a premature death in 1901, after which Eslanda’s life changed dramatically. Determined and entrepreneurial, Eslanda studied options and launched herself into the growing beauty industry. The steadfastness and pragmatism with which Eslanda developed her business career were characteristics that Essie, her daughter, internalized.
Eslanda (Mrs. Goode) placed her priorities on supporting and raising her children, Essie, and two brothers; but, nevertheless, she found time to be politically active. Her belief in women’s equality extended into activism for the suffrage movement. She withheld her support for White women suffragists, however, unless they would take a public stand on the status of Black women.
Essie completed a pre-med major at Columbia University, when most Black women were still working as domestics. In the 1920s she 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. Such success did not come easily; Essie frequently had to muffle her penchant for feistiness and directness when confronted with racist remarks, so that her talents could speak for her. Despite these achievements, however, she was not sure that she was on the pathway for her life purpose.
Essie Meets Paul Robeson, A Harlem Love Story
Harlem in 1919 was an oasis of music, poetry and hopefulness, a stark contrast to that year’s “Red Summer.” The Harlem Renaissance, celebrating “the New Negro,” brought gaiety to Essie and her friend Minnie, who together maintained a small apartment amid famous poets, writers, and musicians. Their neighborhood was vibrant and diverse – a Diasporic African enclave of Jamaicans, Antiguans, Bohemians, and Black Americans. Already, she began to look past national borders to establish her personal identity.
Essie loved the energy and sense of possibility that was Harlem in the 1920s. She and Minnie were quite adept at pulling up their small apartment’s bed to make space for neighborhood dance parties. When they first moved in, Essie, in one of her wild and spontaneous moments, agreed to play chemist and liquor distiller by concocting some homemade “bathtub” gin in honor of the occasion.
When Essie was taking graduate courses at Columbia, aspiring to med school, Paul Robeson, already famous from his athletic achievements, arrived in Harlem with great fanfare, becoming the only Black to attend the prestigious Columbia Law School. This beautiful woman and handsome man, both endowed with exceptional, multifaceted talents, would soon meet on the streets of Harlem and Cupid did the rest.
Introduction to Paul Robeson
Born in 1898, the youngest of five children, Paul Robeson was nurtured by his family and community to embody a pulse of Spirit from African rhythms that harmonized joy and sorrow with the sacredness of all life, shaping his Afro-Christian worldview, known by scholars as the “Black Sacred Cosmos.” This spirituality flowed through the slave church and into the family founded by his father, a runaway slave and pastor; and his mother, who came from a family of mixed Black, Indian and White Quaker heritage. Their home served the neighborhood as theatre, concert hall and social center. There was a warmth of songs of love and longing, songs of trials and triumphs, deep-flowing rivers and rollicking brooks, hymn-song and ragtime ballad, gospels and blues, and the healing comfort to be found in the illimitable sorrow of the Spirituals.” Paul’s mother’s death from a stove fire catching on her dress, when Robeson was six years old, added to an undercurrent of sorrow.
The selflessness inherent in his parents’ outlook—and the lack of greed that it promoted—was apparent in the generosity of one Black neighbor to another that deeply impressed Robeson in his youth. Indeed, a form of socialism was acted out in that Princeton, Black community, and Robeson’s identification with the working class was embodied in his family. Paul wrote
“I had the closest of ties with these workers, since many of my father’s relatives—Uncle Ben and Uncle John and Cousin Carraway and Cousin Chance and others—had come to this town and found employment at such jobs … serving as domestics in the homes of the wealthy, as cooks, waiters and caretakers at the university, coachmen for the town and laborers at the nearby farms and brickyards.”
Not only were many of his relatives ex-slaves, but by 1898, the year Robeson was born, ex-slaves and their children constituted almost the entire Black population of America, a population not yet differentiated along class lines.
Paul's intellect and a lot of independent study earned him admission, as the only Black in attendance, to Rutgers. Going out for football, Paul was assaulted by a group of his future teammates who broke his nose, dislocated his shoulder, and took off fingernails as they tried to break his hand with their cleats. Infused by a culture of White Supremacism, they did not want to play with a Black. Paul’s response made transparent his potential for adrenalized anger that could ratchet up his already great strength and yet demonstrate his capacity to hold it in check. He lifted one of the assailants above his head, as though he were going to smash him to the ground and kill him but held back when he got the coaches attention and was immediately told that he was on the team. Encouraged by a brother to hold his course, Paul became a two-time All-American (perhaps the most outstanding football player in the United States), and lettered in baseball, basketball, and track. Brandishing the training from his pastor/father, Paul also became a collegiate oratorial champion. Graduating as valedictorian, Paul gave the 1919 Rutgers commencement address. Amid the (bloody) Red Summer, when lynching and massacres of Black communities peaked, his speech, boldly, highlighted the 14th amendment, which addresses the equal protection and rights of former slaves, including "due process" that prevents citizens from being illegally deprived of life, liberty, or property. He spoke to the liberation of Blacks and argued that his loyalty to his people was sacred.
Arriving in Harlem that summer, Paul, played professional football for two years to gain the money for Columbia Law School tuition. Again, his exploits on the professional gridiron disclosed not only his physical strength but also how strong he became when his anger was triggered. Scoring one touchdown on defense and the second touchdown on offense, Paul put a game out of reach of his frustrated opponents, who then attacked him in the end zone. Paul was picking up his assailants and throwing them, to the amazement of onlookers, until the brawl was stopped. It happened that two professional boxing promoters were in the stadium; after the game they approached Paul and solicited him to be groomed as a professional boxer to take on the famous heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. Paul, however, was using his athletic prowess to earn tuition money and knew that his life purpose was not to become a professional athlete. (A few short years passed before, in 1926, the NFL removed its 9 Black players from the league, including Frederick Douglass [a.k.a. Fritz] Pollard, Brown All-American, player coach, and good friend of Paul.) Recently, Pollard was posthumously elected to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Essie And Paul Into The 20s Searching for Their Callings, their Geniuses
Searching for one’s genius is sometimes a rough road. There may be trial and error in trying out various activities, jobs, gigs etc. to see what is satisfying. And the inner work is likely to involve dreams, meditation, making one’s unconscious, conscious, etc. However, a balance with playfulness does wonders, both for being successful and for keeping up mental health. Given the harshness of racist obstacles, Essie and Paul needed playfulness to maintain balance and purposeful direction.
When I saw the following clip of Paul and Essie, a trailer for their silent movie called Borderline, I could not resist trimming it to blog size and renaming it as, “Peekaboo, I See Your Genius.” ENJOY!
Paul and Essie’s vocational pathways were guided by sensitivity to following inborn purpose. Traditional cultures around the world have often discerned an inner pattern that shapes each soul and provides a guiding force from within. Until modern times, all cultures understood that each person is born with something indelible within them that creates a valuable individual, bearing gifts to their community.
Michael Meade highlights the importance of modern culture recovering sensitivity to genius in his book, The Myth of Genius:
Genius stamps each soul as rare and valuable in some way that can both satisfy the individual and serve the world. When seen as an archetypal presence in the soul, human genius marks each person—regardless of age, gender orientation, ethnicity, or social status—as being essentially unique and inherently valuable.
The gifts of genius are designed for societal needs, not simply individual success, because they grow out of the group, nation or collective unconscious, which has given birth to the individual genius.
Circling back to the stories of Essie and Paul, their geniuses were shaped by the journey of their ancestors through African culture, slavery, the Afro Christian church, Jim Crow, and finally their entrance into the Harlem Renaissance. Their attention to their lineage and to the mysticism of the Afro-Christian Sacred Cosmos from which their geniuses emerged and their search for how to best live and give of themselves was core to their life journeys.
Jung added the observation that the creativity needed to construct the pathways for releasing genius comes not only from attention to one’s deep self but also to Spirituality – from a source transcendent to oneself. The Robeson’s resolve for maintaining Spirituals at the core of Paul’s concert repertoire, e.g., reflecting the Afro-Christian Sacred Cosmos, was critical to staying on track toward the full expression of their geniuses. The Robesons’ achievements illustrate Jung’s belief that it would be from the depths of our collective and individual psychic life that new Spiritual forms can arise to help subdue the White Supremacy cultural infection of greed and domination.
Sensitivity to their genius’ called Essie and Paul to seek solutions for Black realities as well as for themselves. From the time of their courting, through adulthood, they had to overcome being called communists because they passionately advocated for equality as well as justice. Their passions to free Africa from imperialism were rooted in sensitivity to their collective heritage from which their geniuses emerged, even when the NAACP was focused almost entirely on the United States. They passionately fought fascism, whether it was in the guise of Jim Crow segregation, or Nazism, even when there were few others uniting these 2 categories of anti-fascism as a single cause. They supported labor organizing across genders, races, industries, and nations, when the popular emphasis was on independent local unions. They sought the unity of laborers so that groups could not be played off, one against the other. In terms of societal reinforcement, the Robesons were continually swimming upstream, utilizing the strengths of being centered within their own gifts of genius.
Paul finished his law degree and began practicing with a New York firm. Soon, however, he was angered by the impact of racism on his professional practice. He was prohibited from engagement with cases that involved legal justice if Whites were involved, and the final straw came when his employer-assigned stenographer told him that she would not take dictation from him or any other nigger. This was a bombshell for Paul; law would not be a good avenue to actualize his genius. Essie had the answer; recognizing Paul’s artistic gifts, she encouraged him to begin his soon to be unmatched career in acting and singing. Essie determined that the best joint path forward would be for her to temporarily sacrifice her personal ambitions, dropping her aspirations toward medical school and helping Paul launch his career.
More than a facilitator for Paul, Essie was a woman, when the time was ripe, whose career would transcend class and cultural boundaries, visit and study 40 countries, and converse in multiple languages. She would become an accomplished anthropologist, an outspoken anti-colonial and anti-racist activist, an advocate for women’s leadership, a prolific UN correspondent, a writer, and a sought-after public speaker who spoke out against racism and injustice. She was sacrificing the “start” time for her career to get Paul rolling, but was not forgetting her own gifts.
In the African rhythms, the mysticism of the Black Afro-Christian Sacred Cosmos pulsing through the Spirituals, Essie and Paul shared the replenishment of strengths coming through the music that brought Black people out of slavery, and that now would fuel their boundless activism for social justice.
Robesons believed that Afro-American music carried a gift of Spirit to be shared across America and, indeed, internationally as a contribution to a peaceful and just global culture. Paul wrote,
the power of Spirit… that our people have is a great force that must be unleashed in the struggles of today. A Spirit of steadfast determination, exaltation in the face of trials – it is the very soul of our people that has been formed through all the long and weary years of our march toward freedom. It is the deathless Spirit of the great ones who have led our people in the past – Douglas, Tubman and all the others – and of the millions who kept “a inching along.” That Spirit lives in our people’s songs – in the sublime grandeur of “Deep River,” in the driving power of “Jacob’s ladder,” in the militancy of “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho,” and in the poignant beauty of all our Spirituals.
Expansion of Social Justice Vistas
During the late 20s, Paul’s career success summited rapidly, carrying them to Europe several times. They found that temporary residences in London and traveling in Europe gave them a respite from the overt racism that they encountered in the United States. Importantly to their social justice commitments, Essie and Paul met young African leaders, who were instrumental in fighting against colonial oppression and would lead the cause of anti-imperialism and independence within their countries. Robesons gained first-hand accounts of the anti-Semitism escalating in Europe, together with hearing the stories of the horrendous pogroms that had taken place in Russia and Eastern Europe. The perspective of their quest for social justice expanded from Jim Crow to anti-fascism, a category in which they included both segregation and imperial colonialism.
Paul’s celebrity status made them the guests of the Queen, princes, and other cultural elites. Although indifferent to the trappings of wealth, they were propelled into the upper-class company while their interests in overcoming inequality created acquaintances and allies within the Labor movement. Subsequently, on several occasions, Paul would be found on the marching lines with strikers. One day, for example, during the grim winter of 1929, when unemployment and desperate poverty stalked the British Isles, Paul was on his way to a gala affair when he heard the rich sound of a Welsh miners’ choir. He had crossed the path of a group of miners from South Wales who were walking along the street at curbside and singing for money to sustain themselves. One of their signs said they had walked all the way from Wales to petition the government for help. But what Paul instantly seized upon was their spirit and their suffering. Without hesitation, he joined the group, walking the streets with them and humming along. When they reached one of the large downtown buildings, Paul climbed the front steps and sang “Ol’ Man River,” ballads, and spirituals to his new friends.
Paul organized enough contributions to provide the demonstrators with a ride back home on a freight train that included a carload of food and clothing for the miners of the Rhondda Valley and their families. He then contributed the proceeds of a concert to the Welsh miners’ relief fund and visited the Rhondda Valley in person to sing for the mining communities and talk with the people. This was the beginning of a lifetime of ardent friendship between Paul and the people of South Wales.
Paul undertook the resolute achievement of singing labor songs in more than a score of different languages, cementing his inspiring fame with labor movements internationally.
Essie Takes the Journey of A Lifetime
In 1936, Essie chose a daunting task of achieving two goals simultaneously. She wanted to upgrade her relationship with eight-year-old Paul Jr. and to facilitate his being in touch with his African heritage. Plus, she wanted to pursue her commitment to the understanding and emancipation of African countries from imperialism. Taking Paul Jr. in hand, she set sail down the East Coast of Africa and up the West Coast of Africa, using finances and celebrity access that she and Paul had gained to finance her trip. She was catered to by both Imperial administrators and backcountry Chieftains, all of whom were Robeson fans. Even so, as a Black woman, logistics often had to be finagled; she never did receive a visa from South Africa but was determined that one way or another she would get in. The British intelligence monitored her entire trip, and an agent wrote to his supervisor that she was dangerous – after all, she made the statement that “Africa should be ruled by Africans.”
The journey was emotional as well as intellectual. The difference in treatment of third class, second-class, and first-class passengers on the ship from Europe to Africa, distressed her. Reacting to her first glimpse of sub- Saharan Africa off in the distance, Essie noted in her journal,
“It is a gray and heavy thought that between 1666 and 1800 more than 5 ½ million kidnapped Africans, my ancestors, began the dreadful journey across the Atlantic from this very stretch of coast, to be sold as slaves in the New World. ... No wonder the sea and the sky and very air of this whole area seems sinister to me.”
Arriving in Cape Town, at 7 AM she was to her surprise met by the paparazzi press of her day, who bombarded her with questions about her trip and about Paul. Not even having a visa, she nervously tried to avoid substantive answers about anything. Essie wrote in her journal, that the interviews went something like this:
Reporters: Why have you come to South Africa? Me: For a visit. I’m really on my way to Uganda to do field work in anthropology.
Reporters: Why isn’t Mr. Robeson with you? Was he nervous about coming? Nervous about the race question? Me: Mr. Robeson is detained in London on business.
Reporters: Are you interested in Native conditions here? Me: Yes, of course. I don’t know anything about them, however.
Reporters: Will you try to find out about them while you are here? Me: (In my mind: This is a trick question, Essie, be careful.) I’m afraid I won’t have time. I’m sailing almost immediately with the ship. (In my mind: I’ll certainly see as much as I can and find out all I can. That’s really what I came for.)
Reporters: Has Mr. Robeson expressed his views about segregation and discrimination in South Africa? Me: He has expressed his views on segregation and discrimination in general, everywhere. I don’t think we know enough about the specific problems in South Africa to express an intelligent view about them. (In my mind: I hope to find out as much as possible about them while I am here, so we will be able to express a view about them in the future.)
Reporter: What do you think will be the outcome of the Joe Louis—Max Schmeling fight? It’s Pauli (8 y.o. Paul Jr.): (promptly taking over) Joe Louis will win, of course,
Essie spent three weeks in South Africa; using her Black acquaintances from London and Harlem, plus the Robeson celebrity status, she was able to visit across class and racial lines. She used her business acumen to analyze governmental legal and taxation techniques that were used to control Blacks and keep them in poverty, creating a de facto slavery system.