The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson

Barbara Ransby

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Eslanda "Essie" Cardozo Goode Robeson lived a colorful and amazing life. Her career and commitments took her many places: colonial Africa in 1936, the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, the founding meeting of the United Nations, Nazi-occupied Berlin, Stalin's Russia, and China two months after Mao's revolution. She was a woman of unusual accomplishment—an anthropologist, a prolific journalist, a tireless advocate of women's rights, an outspoken anti-colonial and antiracist activist, and an internationally sought-after speaker. Yet historians for the most part have confined Essie to the role of Mrs. Paul Robeson, a wife hidden in the large shadow cast by her famous husband. In this masterful book, biographer Barbara Ransby refocuses attention on Essie, one of the most important and fascinating black women of the twentieth century.

Chronicling Essie's eventful life, the book explores her influence on her husband's early career and how she later achieved her own unique political voice. Essie's friendships with a host of literary icons and world leaders, her renown as a fierce defender of justice, her defiant testimony before Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous anti-communist committee, and her unconventional open marriage that endured for over 40 years—all are brought to light in the pages of this inspiring biography. Essie's indomitable personality shines through, as do her contributions to United States and twentieth-century world history.

Barbara Ransby is professor in the departments of African American Studies, Gender and Women Studies, and History, and director of the Gender and Women's Studies Program, University of Illinois, Chicago.

"In this incredibly powerful, vital work, Ransby has rescued Eslanda Robeson from the shadows of her famous husband and establishes her as one of the most important activists, scholars, critics and theorists to connect anticolonialism with the black freedom movement in the U.S."—Robin Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“This is an enormously rich book by a masterful biographer, full of novel insights and surprises.”—Penny Von Eschen, University of Michigan

"Barbara Ransby has produced an insightful, fascinating, and significant biography. Eslanda Robeson has too long stood in the shadow of her remarkable husband, but as Ransby shows she was an important writer and political activist in her own right, whose life illuminates the international dimensions of the 20th-century black freedom movement."—Eric Foner, Columbia University

 "From a master biographer and historian of African American women, this mesmerizing story of an extraordinary woman's life and struggles offers a global view of black radical history. After this book no one will be able to think of Eslanda merely as Mrs. Paul Robeson."—Linda Gordon, author of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits

"Scholar and activist Ransby deftly details the accomplishments, struggles and impact of Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson... A well-researched, informative, readable biography."—Kirkus Reviews 

"This long overdue biography of a bold scholar-activist emerging from the shadow of her famous husband is a gift, and such are Ransby's narrative skills that I wept when, in her final pages, the vibrant Essie died, two days shy of 70. Ransby has a history of rescuing historically overlooked black female leaders; a prior biography was of the venerable civil rights activist Ella Baker. This new work is a major contribution to her glorious reclamation project."—Joan Steinau Lester, Ms. Magazine

"What Barbara Ransby achieved in her biography of Ella Baker is repeated with verve and astonishing insight in Eslanda: The Labor and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson.” —Herb Boyd, New York Amsterdam News

"Fascinating. . . A poignant portrait of a peripatetic, human rights activist willing to challenge oppression of any form wherever she could find it."—Kam Williams, Insight

"Compelling."—Eleanor J. Bader, In These Times

"Eslanda Goode Robeson deserves this fine biography that frees her from her role as Mrs. Paul Robeson and uncovers a life that defies summary, so varied, wide-ranging, and intense it was . . . Ransby skillfully organizes the details into a fascinating, well-researched account . . . A breathtaking biography. Highly recommended, all libraries."—Choice

 “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 periods of the Vietnam War, all through the personal and public writings of Eslanda Cardozo Robeson.”—Season Butler, Counterfire

“Barbara Ransby’s compelling, expansive and lively biography, Eslanda is the first to see Eslanda Robeson as an important figure in her own right and advances our knowledge of numerous fields such as the black radical left, black internationalism, black women’s intellectual history, Cold War politics, the long African American freedom struggle and human rights. Ransby’s exceptional talent as biographer was first displayed in her 2003 multi award-winning Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. In her second biography Ransby’s stylish skills chronicling the life, times and ideas of Robeson are again revealed.”—Imaobong D. Umoren, Reviews in History

"Through the vast intellect and devoted political commitments of Barbara Ransby, Essie's ferocious clarity about global solidarity in thought and action, her defiance of the forces of racism and reaction, and her remarkable resilience and intellectual curiosity which led her to teach and write, to engage and then to wholeheartedly embrace the struggles of her time—tell us much about ourselves and the challenges to buck up."—Bernadine Dohrn, Monthly Review
Won Honorable Mention for the 2013 Southern California Book Festival, in the Biography/Autobiography category, sponored by JM Northern Media LLC.
Won an Honorable Mention for the 2013 New England Book Festival given by the JM Northern Media Family of Festivals, in the Biography/Autobiography Category.
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the North America Category.
Won a Honorable Mention for the 2014 Los Angeles Book Festival in the Biography/Autobiography Category.
ISBN: 9780300124347
Publication Date: January 8, 2013
424 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
64 b/w illus.