Paul Robeson’s Formation in Harlem
This chapter provides the context in which to understand Paul Robeson’s reception in Europe as both “American” and “black,” showing how the interaction between the two terms defined his intellectual, artistic, and professional formation in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. It traces Robeson’s self-invention as a performer, a singer, an actor, and an exemplary “race man,” and it uses Oscar Micheaux’s treatment of Robeson in the 1925 film Body and Soul to show how his participation in controversial shows like Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1925) and Jerome Kern’s musical Show Boat (1927) led to a degree of ambivalence among Harlem audiences. Also discussed are the intellectual and political determinants of the Harlem Renaissance; key figures such as Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Carl Van Vechten; the movement’s interracial dynamics and internationalism; Robeson’s preference for concert recitals of spirituals and folk songs and his skepticism about jazz.
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