The Souls of Black Autistic Folk, Part II: Paul Robeson, the Aspie?

I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice…
(From Shakespeare’s Othello, Act V, Scene 2, lines 339-343a)

Paul Robeson

 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.

 (Please note: Ledgin uses a summary of main points of the diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV. At times I will be referencing more specific criteria for Asperger Syndrome – 299.80 – as posted at the Centers for Disease Control’s website.)

Before We Begin: A Caveat

There has been endless debate about whether it is useful or ethical to speculate whether non-living public figures are autistic. I have been criticized for even undertaking this writing for that reason. The point of this writing is not to establish myself as an authoritative expert on whether or not Robeson had Asperger’s, as I am working from other sources and their evidence. I am a multiracial African-American autistic adult, and my purpose is that of exploration and echolocation using Robeson’s characteristics and life, since I have encountered very few visible African-American autistics.

Also, I am not a mental health professional. The only expertise I can claim is that of being an autistic adult. I can, however, recognize familiar patterns and behaviors and relate these to my own tendencies and behavior – and I will during this post.

Now, shall we begin?

Social Interaction

Part A of the diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome cites “qualitative impairment in social interaction” and requires that at least two of four characteristics be met in order to be considered to have social impairment. Specifically, sub-criterion 1) mentions a “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction”. According to Ledgin, Robeson fits a) and cites his own observations from on film and a 1947 in-person interview of Robeson:

 “My take on the matter is that he was slightly impaired in the area of nonverbal expression. His eye contact was not always steady but was darting in periods when he seemed a bit “wired” or eager to inform others about little known phenomena. During such periods he had a tendency to go on and on about obscure details without recognizing the effect that such deliveries were having on listeners.”

 Difficulty with eye contact has always been a hallmark of autism – I have observed and other autistics and Aspies have reported either an inability to make eye contact or the tendency to make too much eye contact to the point of staring. I have had trouble usually with the former – and by Ledgin’s observation, so did Robeson. Of course, there are endless debates about whether trying to teach autistics to make eye contact is either necessary or helpful, and I will not address those debates here. The important thing to note is the observed presence of non-verbal impairment in Robeson.

 Sub-criterion 2) referenced a “failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level”.  Ledgin references biographer Martin Duberman and cites observations that Robeson exhibited “a loner’s temperament” throughout his school years and was “able to retreat at will to an inner monastic fortress.” Those phrases struck me as significant and reminded me of my own tendency to be a “loner” as a child and teenager. Although part of this isolation was imposed from the outside (namely due to the constant moving around from ages four through eleven as well as my father’s controlling tendencies), I continued this isolation throughout junior high and high school. When I did emerge to try to become a social being, I was met with bullying and criticism for my social faux pas and inability to read and understand the social environment around me. Many times I found that being alone, while being painful in and of itself, was much less painful than the bullying. While I am not yet aware if Robeson encountered any bullying, I can conjecture that it might have been easier to retreat than to try to understand the social landscape any more than what he deemed was possible or necessary.

 Additionally, Ledgin’s observation that Robeson tended to speak continuously about obscure details “without recognizing the effect that such deliveries were having on listeners” could be construed to be evidence of Robeson fitting sub-criterion 4) which references ” lack of social or emotional reciprocity” – in this case, it is difficulty with social reciprocity which is more evident. To me, Ledgin’s observation of Robeson sounds very much like the tendency I had years ago (and sometimes still have now) to go on and on about a single subject without being aware that my listeners were tired of hearing about it. This has also been observed in other Aspies and seems to be one of the most recognizable hallmarks of Asperger’s.

Social Capabilities as Adults

As I am writing this, I must address one other observation. It seems to me that sub-criterion 2) may have been written with children and teenagers in mind. Robeson’s early years would fit this sub-criterion, as would my own – in fact, when I was diagnosed in 2010, the clinician I met with noted that I reported difficulty with forming friendships as a child and saw this as evidence of my fitting this sub-criterion. However, I have observed that as some autistic people grow into adults they are able to develop those relationships. I was able to do this myself, but after a lot of trial-and-error, mistakes, failures, and disappointments – and believe me, I am no socially adept person now even at age 36.

Also, as I have been doing research about Robeson and Ledgin’s assertion that he was an Aspie, I have observed this claim is being refuted by Robeson’s ability to engage in social behavior as an adult in order to connect with other individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois (to who the title of this series pays tribute, as I will explain in a later post) and Albert Einstein (with whom Robeson, along with DuBois were involved with the American Crusade to End Lynching). I must emphasize that while social interaction for an adult Aspie may still prove difficult, it is not entire impossible for many of us. Additionally, special interests or “causes” may be enough motivation to prompt an autistic person to engage in social behavior in order to reach out and communicate. Finally, it would be a mistake to generalize and believe that all autistic people do not wish to engage with others socially – in some cases, it is simply a matter of not knowing how to do so, or to do so well. (In the end, I must remind the reader of the well-known axiom in the autistic community – “If you’ve seen one autistic person, you’ve seen one autistic person”)

I’ve also encountered the claim that autistics have an inability to form romantic relationships. Some might go as far as to point to Robeson’s ability to court and marry his wife as evidence that he is not autistic. But if you consider that other autistics such as me (I am engaged and have been married before), Rudy Simone (she mentions previous relationships in her book Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome), Liane Holliday Willey (who is married), John Elder Robison (who has been married previously), and other autistics I have encountered have been able to enter into and maintain romantic relationships of nearly every orientation and flavor, then it is obvious that such an argument is neither logical nor supportable. I am certainly not ignoring any social difficulties autistic people have in either being social in general or forming love relationships – my own relationships have sometimes ended in a blaze of ignominy (or gone out with a whimper as T.S. Elliot might put it) – but I am simply pointing out that it is not impossible.

Fixations and Special Interests

I have observed that Robeson and his contributions are not as often discussed in American history in comparison to other African-American individuals such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X or as much as other African-American artists such as Maya Angelo or Langston Hughes. A large part of this may be due to the fact that he was blacklisted in the 1950’s and that his recordings and films were removed from public distribution due to persecution under McCarthyism because of his outspoken statements about civil rights, racism, and anti-colonialism as well as his pro-Soviet sympathies. Ledgin posits that Robeson’s consistent, unwavering, and insistent outspokenness on these issues to the point of fixation fits another one of the diagnostic criterion for Asperger Syndrome.

Part B of the diagnostic criteria cites “restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities” and lists four sub-criteria, of which at least one should be evident for an Asperger diagnosis. Of interest in regards to Robeson is sub-criterion 1), an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus”.  As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, Robeson displayed a single-minded interest in the social and political issues mentioned above.

The Awakening

During his visit to the former USSR in the 1930’s Robeson observed that his race was seen as irrelevant, and he observed no distinction in how he was treated. Additionally, he became intensely interested in African history and its impact on culture as well as African languages (he enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London in 1934 to study Phonetics, Swahili, Igbo and Zulu). Overall, Robeson underwent an ideological awakening during this time period and began to believe that the roles he played on stage and screen, as well as his status as a famous African-American artist, could not only have a positive impact but also give him a platform to advocate the cause of racial equality in the United States.

As a result of this epiphany, Robeson became more outspoken about civil rights, racial equality, worker’s rights, and anti-imperialism. He soon gained the admiration and attention of notable figures such as Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, DuBois, Lena Horne, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the future prime minister of India. He began to express this in deed (such as the aforementioned American Crusade to End Lynching, and by refusing to act in films from the 1930’s onward due to the demeaning roles available to Blacks). One notable event staged by Robeson during a concert tour in the 1940’s underscores his intense interest in these causes: he dedicated two hours every afternoon sitting in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel “…to ensure that the next time Black[s] come through, they’ll have a place to stay.”

Additionally, he began to express his convictions very strongly in word. When interviewed, he would never cease to comment about injustice, inequality, and the plight of the oppressed, including African-Americans. He began to lecture on these issues from the stage in concert, as Ledgin documents in Asperger’s and Self-Esteem:

“Often he used the concert stage as a platform for his views, to the dismay of most of the audience members…Few in his concert audiences welcomed his comments from the stage. To put it more bluntly, most people who went to hear him sing resented his lectures on the plight of the oppressed.”

Wasn’t He Just a Passionate Man?

It would be easy to dismiss this as simply a passion for one’s cause if one did not consider his actions as part of a large examination for autistic tendencies. Having a fixation on anything – in this case, social justice causes – does not alone qualify someone as being autistic. If that were the cause, one might consider former R.E.M. lead vocalist Michael Stipe and the late Mahatma Gandhi as spectrum candidates. However, his intense interest, along with other spectrum traits, is why Ledgin makes the case for an Aspergian Robeson.

As I was writing this, Robeson’s actions reminded me of some of my own from when I was a teenager and young woman. In junior high, I was intrigued by what I’d learned in American History class about the suffrage movement and was surprised to learn that women did not automatically have the right to vote when this country was founded. I seized and read every book I could possible find about women’s rights, with a special focus on the actions of those in the early movement in the U.S. (such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth), including the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Additionally, I participated in the Optimist Club speech contest for my local chapter in 1989 and focused on Dr. Martin Luther King’s theme, “I Have a Dream” for my speech — research on Dr. King lead to research about the U.S. civil rights movement. While reading about civil liberties in the school library one day, I stumbled onto books about animal rights, which described the horrific conditions of factory farming, puppy mills, and laboratory experimentation, amongst other things.

It is not so much my research and feelings as these became my own special interests but my actions that proved my fixations to be more evident. During and after this research, I did three things. First of all, I made my own color posters protesting the treatment of animals and began hanging them in the hallways of my middle school. No matter how often the school officials ordered the posters to be taken down, I insisted on putting them back up. I was finally confronted by the Vice Principal and asked not to put them up again when I inquired as to why they were being taken down. Secondly, my fascination with civil liberties, animal rights, and women’s rights became a steady and constant subject which took up nearly all of the conversations I initiated at school – and as a result, I attracted a group of jocks who began to tease and bully me. Finally, nearly all of my creative writing became focuses on these three subjects. This produced some positive fruit, as I ended up winning a creative writing contest in which Dr. King and his message were the central theme (I produced a fictional “diary” of what I thought Dr. King might have written had he kept one during his fight for civil rights). Also, I was determined to rewrite a fictional account of the first few chapters of Genesis, challenging a commonly held notion that Eve was responsible for sin in the world; for this, I commandeered the typewriter at the back of my English classroom and would type during “free periods” in the class. Back then, I thought that my behavior was typical and was surprised when I was bullied for some it.

Occupational Impairment

Criterion C for a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome states that “the disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning”. In other words, those behaviors present difficulty in living what might be called a normal, everyday life. I maintain that this could be evident of being and functioning differently in our world – in other words, being autistic in a world created by and for neurotypicals. However, it is the existence of occupational impairment that Ledgin calls attention to in regards to Robeson.

Robeson was unable to find employment in his later years as an actor or singer. Partially, this may be due to his blacklisting in the McCarthy era. Also, his passport was revoked, which prevented him from traveling abroad to perform – a revocation done solely because of his political beliefs (I will refrain from pontificating about the inherent hypocrisy in this action, as other nations have been harshly criticized by the United States for their treatment of their own citizens with differing political ideologies). However, Ledgin points to Robeson’s political and ideological fixation causing issues with his ability to perform before his passport was revoked:

“During general postwar nervousness about increasing influence of the Soviets and their ideology throughout the world, the mood of the country changed-but not Robeson’s. He continued supporting ideals considered both foreign and hostile and was often accused of disloyalty. Not only had his acting opportunities begun to dry up in the Cold War, but invitations to perform in concerts dwindled as well.”

I am certainly not suggesting that Robeson should have ignored his own conscience in these matters. If we are right that Robeson had Asperger’s, then so strong were his mindset, convictions, and feelings that he would have been indeed unable to abandon them. Robeson himself said that “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” This I propose would go beyond simply having a justice streak, or simply being convinced to fight for what is right. If Ledgin is right, then Robeson would have been so ideologically rapt that he may have seen these issues in terms of black and white and would have not thought of other ways to capture the public mind and attention with his cause. In other words, he would have seen no other way but to speak of these issues with each breath and sermonize from the stage in addition to his activist actions off-stage – even to the point of sacrificing his career.

Other Diagnostic Criteria

Ledgin does not discuss D, E, and F of the diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome. I will attempt to address these particular criteria myself as best as possible.

A reading of the first chapter of Duberman’s biography of Robeson does not reveal any “clinically significant general delay in language” as stated in diagnostic criterion D, so it is likely that he fits it. Indeed, there is no mention of Robeson failing to speak by age 3 and the fact that his father was able to coach him so well in the art of oration indicates that Robeson did not have such impairment. Also, there is no indication of any “clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood” as defined in criterion E. In fact, in his childhood and teenage years Robeson performed in a similar manner of excellent in academic studies, sports, singing, and debating (as documented by Duberman) as he would during his years at Rutgers.  Finally, concerning criterion F (“Criteria are not met for another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia”), I believe there is enough evidence in Robeson’s case to suggest Asperger Syndrome – and this would preclude PDD-NOS, as it occupies a different place on the autism continuum than Asperger’s – and no evidence seems to suggest a need to examine schizophrenia as a possibility.

What Next?

In future posts, I will speak about my reality as an African-American autistic as well as revisit Robeson himself. His portrayal of Othello, the songs he performed, as well as his other artistic engagements underlie a theme — and that is of being the “other” in a society. Also, I believe that African-American autistics find themselves as the “other” in two dimensions — similar to the “double consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois refers to in the first chapter of “The Souls of Black Folk”. Thus, it will become clearer why I chose the title of this series as I continue to write it.

February is quickly dying down, and I find myself with less time to write, so this series may extend past February. I believe that these topics are too expansive to be contained within one month of writing. Stay tuned.


4 thoughts on “The Souls of Black Autistic Folk, Part II: Paul Robeson, the Aspie?

  1. Wow….I am very impressed….especially since most Black folks are so down on any mental difference..I am proud that this eloquent man has been set out as someone possibly on the spectrum…so many variables with Autism…none are as important as those who think a bit differently and express those thoughts unashamedly, thankfully cause their Autism prevents filtering of that…Power to honesty and creativity!!

    • Hellp Regina: Thanks for stopping by. I must apologise for the lateness in my response — I have been bery much behind in responding to comments.

      I have also observed the same thing with some Black folks and I strongly believe in the need to raise awareness in our community, to promote understanding of autism, and to “bust the myths”. I’m thankful Mr. Ledgin took the time to write about Mr. Robeson, although it’s kind of interesting that he did, as Mr. Ledgin is also an alumnus of Rutgers. Considering Mr. Robeson’s many talents, it would not be surprising if he is indeed autistic and he does strongly fit many of the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s as set out in the DSM-IV.

      I think that’s one of the cool things about autism spectrum conditions…there’s the potential to either be unaware of status quo or to just plain not care about it. Either way, the results can be positive. More honesty and creativity are sorely needed in this world. We have the potential to provide more of both, if encouraged in a positive way and not stifled.

      Thanks again for commenting. I hope to see you here again soon.


Comments are closed.