Collossus of Rutgers: The Visual and Print Media Legacy of Paul Leroy Robeson

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walsh, shane bolles
Williams-Forson, Psyche
Corbin- Sies, Mary
One of the most celebrated African American figures known worldwide, Paul Leroy Robeson was primarily erased from history books for almost a decade after he began speaking out about injustices stemming from the second Red Scare. Fewer still know of his formative years and early influences. This erasure can only be counteracted with targeted scholarship. As a project of reclamation, this American Studies dissertation joins scholarship in other fields that aim to restore Paul Robeson to his proper place in history with the hope of prompting a new wave of research on the subject. The youth and early career of Robeson is the targeted era (before his matriculation at the University of London in 1934) of this work. The central question around which this dissertation is organized is this: Through a close examination of the role that the skin and masculinity of Paul Robeson played in his early life and career, how can we come to understand the ways that the resulting gaze was imposed on his body, and how did Robeson himself cultivate the gaze of his own public image and cultural representation as a performance icon and “race man,” launching him on his way to becoming an advocate for rights of black people worldwide? To engage this research question, the methodologies of textual critical discourse analysis, Mora Beauchamp- Byrd's exhibition categorization and methodology, and Frederick Douglass's lectures on visual theories are utilized. All of these have directly assisted in the interpolation of the printed and photographic legacy of Robeson. Given the early career focus of this dissertation, archival materials from the following institutions provided the primary sources for this work: the Rutgers University libraries Special Collection and Archives, Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Afro-American collection, and the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. With Robeson as an example of a multi-talented black cultural icon, textual discourse analysis demonstrates how to construct specific views of the social world that Paul Robeson inhabited in the early phase of his public life and how his career developments were portrayed in both the Black American and majority print media outlets of the era.