The Souls of Black Autistic Folk, Part I: An Introduction to Paul Robeson

And here is
Paul, the man made out of crossroads, seven or eight men
in one body. Call him Othello if you like. He is
voice-colored and fist-worn with Jim Crow’s black feathers
plastered to his knuckles. He has a sixteen track mind,
almost drowned by man-made lightning. He was a
serif font road sign: Poitier and Belafonte read him and
found their way to the stage. Here is Paul.
(an excerpt from my poem, “Tribe”)

I began this exploration of being African-American and autistic a few days ago by mentioning Paul Robeson, an individual where Black history and autism intersect. I had encountered the premise that Mr. Robeson had Asperger Syndrome in Norm Ledgin’s book Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models about two years ago and was immediately fascinated by it. While other African-American historical figures such as George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker are proposed to have been autistic, Robeson is the only African-American who to my knowledge has been analyzed for autistic traits using any sort of diagnostic criteria. And since my online journey began in late April 2010, I have noticed a distinct lack of the African-American presence in the online autism community. In an act of echolocation, I seek our presence to find, confirm, and perhaps reaffirm my own existence and reality as an African-American autistic. So Mr. Robeson, I have chosen you as my psychopomp for this journey.

Paul Robeson

(Please note: unless otherwise indicated, source material is from Wikipedia.com’s article about Robeson.)

The Life of Paul Robeson

Robeson was born on April 8, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. He was the third of five children born to Reverend William Drew Robeson, a former slave turned Presbyterian minister and Maria Louisa Bustill, who belonged to a prominent Quaker family of mixed ancestry: African, Anglo-American, and Lenape Indian. According to Ledgin, after his mother died in a fire at age five, Robeson was raised solely by his father; seeing that his son had a talent, Reverend Robeson encouraged his son to memorize speeches of all kinds in hope to help him overcome what he perceived to be his shyness. Ledgin makes the observation that this early “honing of Paul’s speaking skills” would prepare him for his later career in theater.

Robeson enrolled in Rutgers University in 1915, the third African-American to do so and the only African-American student at the time. He excelled in both academics and sports (this included playing for the Scarlet Knights football team) and according to Ledgin achieved one of the most outstanding academic records in the university’s history. Upon graduation in 1919, he entered New York University Law School. He later transferred to Columbia Law School, graduating from there in 1923.

Throughout his undergraduate and graduate academic careers, he performed as a singer and began acting while at Columbus Law School. He abandoned a potential career in law due to racism which curtailed opportunities for a promising young Black law school graduate and instead, resumed the stage. His first post-college theatrical role was of Jim, an African-American man married to an abusive white woman who destroys his promising career as a lawyer in All God’s Chillun Got Wings. After this would follow roles such as Joe, the stevedore in Showboat, in which he gave one of his most memorable song performances, “Old Man River” and the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello. In the meantime, Robeson also performed, singing in concert until around 1960.

During his career, Robeson became more vocal about racism and poverty and began to embrace socialism. A visit to the USSR in the 1930’s left a deep impression upon him and he began to champion causes such as civil rights, workers’ rights, and anti-imperialism. According to Ledgin, Robeson began to make comments from the stage about his political views. Ledgin states that he interviewed Robeson in 1947 and noticed that he tended to “sermonize” rather than “discuss” topics, so one could only imagine the actor expounding in sermon-like monologues from the stage about the plight of the oppressed. After World War II, his political views gained the unfavorable attention of the United States government — Robeson found himself blacklisted in the early 1950’s and sans passport, as it was revoked due to his political beliefs.

Robeson’s Message

Robeson’s health declined in later years. He lived in seclusion from the early 1960’s until his death in January 1976. He was unable to attend a Carnegie Hall celebration of his 75th birthday in 1973 but sent a taped message which was played at the event. Robeson addressed the celebrants:

“Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”

And if Robeson was an Aspie — and had any special, “narrow and obsessive” interest — it was indeed the cause of liberty, peace, and brotherhood. These ideals were so strong that Robeson risked his entire career to single-mindedly promote them, using his position as an artist as a vehicle for their conveyance. This is similar to the singleminded pursuits of other autistic people throughout history which have given us the fruits of art, literature, music, science, and other gifts which have made our world much richer.

Robeson was not ashamed to be what he was — African-American, talented, and singleminded in his ideals. It is my sincere hope that over a hundred years later, I and others like us can find the courage to be the same. We African-American autistics may feel as if we travel alone — painfully different and unseen in our worlds — but Robeson is yet another proof that we are not alone. We are not misfits. And yes, like the rest of God’s children, we do indeed have wings.

Stay tuned for more. I promise you, there will be more fascinating things to come in forthcoming posts.

Update: In the next post, I will be presenting Ledgin’s evidence for Robeson being autistic.

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3 thoughts on “The Souls of Black Autistic Folk, Part I: An Introduction to Paul Robeson

  1. […]  In part I of this series, I provided an overview of Paul Robeson’s life in order for readers to begin to understand who we was. Robeson was a multitalented individual – an academic star during his undergraduate studies at Rutgers, an actor of great renown, and a singer with a power, singular voice. Based on evidence presented by Norm Ledgin in the book Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models, I also believe that Robeson was autistic. I will present that evidence in this post. […]

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