Apr 092016


Today is the birthday (1898) of Paul Leroy Robeson, U.S.  singer and actor, and activist with the Civil Rights Movement. At Rutgers College, he was an outstanding football player, then had an international career in singing, with a distinctive, powerful, deep bass voice, as well as acting in theater and movies. He became politically involved in response to the Spanish Civil War, fascism, and social injustices. His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism, and criticism of the United States government caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Ill health forced him into retirement from his career.


Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College, where he became a football All-American and the class valedictorian. He received his LL.B. from Columbia Law School, while playing in the National Football League (NFL). At Columbia, he sang and acted in off-campus productions; and, after graduating, he became a participant in the Harlem Renaissance with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Robeson initiated his international artistic résumé with a theatrical role in Great Britain, settling in London for the next several years with his wife Essie.


Robeson next appeared as Othello at the Savoy Theatre before becoming an international cinema star through roles in Show Boat and Sanders of the River. As he traveled he became increasingly aware of the sufferings of other cultures and peoples due to global imperialism. Although he was warned of his economic ruin if he became politically active, he set aside his theatrical career to advocate for the cause of the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War. He then became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA).


During World War II, he supported the U.S. war efforts and won accolades for his portrayal of Othello on Broadway. However, his history of supporting pro-Soviet policies brought scrutiny from the FBI. After the war ended, the CAA was placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations and Robeson was investigated during the age of McCarthyism. Due to his decision not to recant his public advocacy of pro-Soviet policies, he was denied a passport by the U.S. State Department, and his income, consequently, plummeted. He moved to Harlem where he published a periodical critical of United States policies. His right to travel was eventually restored by the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles, but his health broke down. He retired and he lived out the remaining years of his life privately in Philadelphia.

Robeson’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” is now iconic, and is the yardstick by which all other performances are judged:

The Paul Robeson tomato is an heirloom varietal that originated in the Soviet Union and named in his honor. It’s a dark, large, oblate, robust tomato with a strong slightly smoky flavor. You won’t find it for sale but you can get the seeds online if you are a home grower.  For example: http://www.rareseeds.com/paul-robeson-tomato/


The Paul Robeson tomato is perfect for tomato sandwiches. For the absolute purist, a tomato sandwich consists of slices of ripe juicy tomato between two slices of bread, with a sprinkling of salt as the only seasoning. You have to eat a good one over the sink to avoid making a mess. I’ve had to launder countless shirts as witness to this. I love tomato sandwiches as a quick lunch, but there was also a period in China last year when I practically lived on them because they were cheap to make and I didn’t have a kitchen.

For variety I added some extras once in a while, such as tomato ketchup, or a slice of cheese. You are on your own here – bacon, avocado, mayonnaise . . . whatever. The main point to remember is that you are making a TOMATO sandwich. The tomato is the main event. You’re not making a sandwich that INCLUDES tomato – such as the BLT. Tomato is the star. Treat it that way.