Eslanda ("Essie") Goode Robeson, (December 12, 1896 - December 13, 1965) the wife and business manager of Paul Robeson, was an American anthropologist, author, actor and activist.
Eslanda Cardozo Goode was born in Washington, DC in 1896. The Cardozo family descended from Black slaves and wealthy Jews expelled from Spain in the 17th century. Her grandfather was Francis Lewis Cardozo, the first Black treasurer of South Carolina. Her father, John Goode, was a law clerk in the War Department who later finished his law degree at Howard University. Eslanda had two older brothers, John Jr. and Francis. She attended the University of Illinois and later graduated from Columbia University in New York with a B. S. degree in chemistry. When then she started to work at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, she soon became the head histological chemist of Surgical Pathology, the first Black to hold such a position. In 1920, Paul Robeson and Eslanda attended summer school at Columbia. One year later they married. Eslanda gave up her intentions to study medicine and supported her husband as his business manager. Eslanda worked at the hospital until 1925, when the career of her husband took more and more of her time. She spent time between Harlem, London and France in the following years.
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The only child of the Robesons, Paul Jr, "Pauli" was born on November 2, 1927; Robeson was on a tour in Europe at that time. The marriage was strained and Eslanda suffered under the affairs of her husband that reportedly started with a relationship with Freda Diamond in 1925. Other affairs affecting their relationship were those with actresses Fredi Washington and Peggy Ashcroft Robeson’s long-term liaison with Yolanda Jackson almost broke up the marriage, and Eslanda even agreed to a divorce at a time. Yet despite all the setbacks and separations, the marriage endured, as each of the two had needs that only the other could fill. Eslanda chose to "rise above Paul's affairs", but to stay married to him and pursue her own career.
In 1930 Eslanda published her first book, a first biography of her husband: Paul Robeson, Negro. Robeson himself who had given no direct input was “deeply angered” by it. He resented that she put words into his mouth and depicted him as lazy and immature, needy of her guidance. In the book, Robeson complains, "she treats me just as a ... small child", to which she replies "..perhaps when you grow up I'll treat you as a man." She also addresses the issue of his infidelity which he neither confirms or denies; she assures him that she feels that they have such a deep level of love that past events could not affect it, "No matter what other women have done to you, or you to them, they have in no way walked in my garden." Harry Hanson, a New York critic, gave the book a positive review and called it inspiring and that it was written with "rich understanding" and "deep pride". He recommended that the book should be read by white America. W. E. B. Du Bois placed it in the 'must read' category in The Crisis, the NAACP magazine. Other views, however, were negative, so Stark Young in the New Republic called it "biographical rubbish".
In 1931 the couple now living in London became more estranged, and Eslanda resumed her own career. Eslanda took acting parts in three movies over the next couple of years. She enrolled at the London School of Economics in anthropology and graduated there in 1937. In England she learned more about Africa and started the first of three journeys to the continent touring South and East Africa with her son in 1936. With the signs of war imminent in Europe, the Robesons moved back to Harlem in 1938. Three years later they moved to Enfield, Connecticut, to their estate, "The Beeches", and she earned her Ph.D. at the Hartford Seminary in 1945. Using her diary notes of her Africa trip she completed her second book African Journey the same year. The book was unusual as few books in those days dealt with Africa in the first place, and her perspective as an African American woman on women in black Africa was unique. The book's publication was endorsed by Pearl Buck whose husband was the head of the John Day publishing house. The book argued that Blacks should take pride in their African heritage. Both the white and black reviews were favorable. Buck and Eslanda continued to work together, and as a result American Argument was published in 1949, a book of dialogues and comments edited by Buck that lets Eslanda speak on society, politics, gender role, and race relations. While the book contained a critique of cold war politics, its reception, in general, was positive but it was a financial flop.
During the Cold War
With the development of the cold war the life of the Robesons changed dramatically. The couple had first visited the Soviet Union in 1934 and were impressed by the apparent absence of racism, and agreed with the stance of communism against racism, colonization, and imperialism. While aware of the Great Purge by or before 1938, they accepted this (as Robeson explained to his son, ” (S)ometimes… great injustices may be inflicted on the minority when the majority is in a pursuit of a great and just course”) and did not speak out against it.. By 1938, however, they helped Eslanda’s brother Francis to escape, her brother John had already departed the year prior, and Paul Jr. did not continue with his education at a Moscow “model school”. With their pro-Soviet views both became targets during the McCarthy days. Robeson’s career came to a standstill, their income dropped dramatically, and the Connecticut estate had to be sold. On July 17, 1953 Eslanda, like her husband, was called to testify before the US Senate; asked if she was a communist she took the Fifth Amendment and challenged the legitimacy of the proceedings. Her passport was revoked until the decision was overturned in 1958. Fighting for the decolonization of Africa and Asia she continued to work for the Council on African Affairs and to write as the UN correspondent for the New World Review, a pro-Soviet magazine.
Once the passports had been returned to the Robesons, they flew to London and the Soviet Union. Eslanda made her third and final trip to Africa attending the first postcolonial All-African Peoples' Conference in Ghana in 1958. In 1963 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned from Russia to the US and died in New York in 1965.