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The mind that sees: The third eye of Eslanda Goode Robeson

May 27, 2015

by Malaika Kambon

“When I started doing this Viewfinders book, Deb (Willis) was such a cheerleader,” said Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, author of “Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers,” in an interview with Kalia Brooks. “And it was then that I felt, OK, I’m a Black woman photographer. There have got to be a lot of Black women photographers out here, and Deb felt the same way.

Eslanda Robeson stars in the avant garde silent film, “Borderline,” made in 1929. She was in the film world both an actress and a filmmaker, among her many professional accomplishments. Evidence of her enormous body of work as a photographer has vanished.

Eslanda Robeson stars in the avant garde silent film, “Borderline,” made in 1929. She was in the film world both an actress and a filmmaker, among her many professional accomplishments. Evidence of her enormous body of work as a photographer has vanished.

“We found a woman in New Jersey. She was a photographer for the Army, in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). There were camera girls in all of the jazz clubs, and they were taking pictures of customers that would come in. It was just amazing that all of these women … they were professional, but in some sense, it was more the understanding of how Black women were used as photographers at that time. We incorporated that in the book.

“The icing on the cake for me was when Arthur was given an award from Yale University called the Kiphuth Award, and so I went up to Yale with him when he went to get this award, and I decided to visit the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. In it is the entire Carl Van Vechten collection of African Americans (‘Living Portraits: Carl Van Vechten’s Color Photographs of African Americans, 1939-1964’).

“I pulled it out, looked through it, and found photographs of Paul Robeson. They were taken by his wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson. And I looked up Eslanda Good Robeson and Carl Van Vechten, who was a good friend of theirs, and had scores of her work. She had photographed Indira Gandhi, she had photographed [Jawaharlal] Nehru. I mean these pictures were amazing. I could not wait to get back and talk to Deb. I said, ‘Deb, you won’t believe what I found.’ And we just talked and talked and talked, and I said, ‘OK, we’ve got a book.’”

Eslanda shot with a Cine-Kodak camera, which her husband Paul gave to her, and which she later gave to a political comrade. But in the 1940s she used the 35mm Leica as well as a Rollex camera. She was great friends with Carl van Vechten and had met Edward Steichen in 1939.

She took photos wherever she went, all over the world, from South Africa and the Soviet Union to the Great Wall of China. She took photographs as a chemist, surgical pathologist, anthropologist, scientist, and artist. She studied photography at the London University in 1928, took photographs of her family and friends, established a darkroom in her home, and soon became an accomplished photographer.

Her name was Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, and she was brilliant!

But what is perturbing is that this great body of work that exists that is hers – can only be researched and found through other people, as though she did not exist! But exist she very much did indeed!

Eslanda took photos wherever she went, all over the world, from South Africa and the Soviet Union to the Great Wall of China.

I’ve viewed large portions of the Beineke collection online – and I’ve viewed nudes of Paul Robeson in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library that have no information about who actually took them. The collections join five groups of miscellaneous photographs that were cataloged separately prior to 2012 but were collectively known informally as the JWJ Photos collection.

The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature was founded in 1941 by Carl Van Vechten. These files included photographs donated by Carl Van Vechten, Johnson’s widow, Grace Nail Johnson, and Langston Hughes, as well as photographs acquired from other sources. For many years, photographs that came to the library as part of manuscript collections were also removed from their original context and added to the files.

A description of the James Weldon Johnson Collection as “miscellaneous groups of photographs drawn from various collections” that “include images of prominent African American writers, cultural leaders and entertainers, as well as photographs by important African American photographers” also makes me wonder how many of the Robeson photographs were taken by Eslanda Robeson.

I see lists of other photographers who have taken photos of Paul Robeson, from the 12 photogravures by Roy DeCarava to the photographs of Hilda Doolittle (also known as H.D.) and Kenneth Macpherson, to the nude photographs of Nikolas Muray. Then of course there is that huge body of work by Carl Van Vechten.

But where are the records of the photographic works of Eslanda Goode Robeson, and why is it so difficult to find them? A search under her name of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library will yield a terse message: “Your search yielded no results, check to see if your spelling is correct!”

Her name was Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson, and she was brilliant!

Yet, in the book, “African Journey,” by Eslanda Goode Robeson, published by the John Day Company in 1945, pages 34, 43 and 61 detail photographs taken while she traveled in Africa. The same is true for her books, “Paul Robeson, Negro” (1930) and the Paul and Eslanda Robeson Collection.

Pretty amazing woman!

Eslanda Robeson lived and made an impact in the world. Her story is irresistible. She was a writer, storyteller, intellectual, adventurer, scientist, anthropologist, political analyst, artist, anti-colonialist activist and a woman of principle. She lived on a very large world stage, with a very astute and imminent cast of characters, from Zora Neale Hurston, Emma Goldman, W.E.B. du Bois, various African heads of state, her husband, Paul Robeson, to the unwanted associations with the House Un-American Committee of the U.S. which cost so much in terms of her being able to conduct her own career and life without being in the shadow of the narrow racism and white supremacy which consistently attempted to dim the brilliance of her husband.

Where are the records of the photographic works of Eslanda Goode Robeson, and why is it so difficult to find them?

But all of this should neither cause her work to be neglected nor relegate it to the files and histories of someone else – nor should it relegate her work to the files and auspices of others in the world of photography, especially white males.

As an Afrikan woman who is also a photojournalist, I am astounded by this among all of the things about Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Goode Robeson’s robust history. This one thing irks me so much: that a photographer of her magnitude should have her works nearly inaccessible under her name in a present day society that is glutted with cameras.

Essie Robeson, born on Dec. 15, 1896, in Washington, D.C., “came from a family that stressed a need for education.” The line of her people back to the beginning inculcated in her the necessity of attaining a quality education. Her father, though he died when she was 8 years old, was one of the first Afrikans to graduate from Northwestern University. Her mother worked hard, struggled, saved and sacrificed to educate her and her two brothers, inculcating that education was the most important thing in life.

Her maternal grandfather, Francis Lewis Cardoza, was educated at Scotland’s Glasgow University and founded Avery Institute, the first school for Blacks in South Carolina. She herself earned several degrees, the first a bachelor of science in chemistry in 1918.

But education is more than books. According to award winning historian Barbara Ransby, who wrote “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson”: “Eslanda was a woman of principle. She was a radical thinker and doer at a time when that was quite costly. And she loved Black people and Brown people and oppressed people unapologetically. She had privilege but she risked that privilege in the sake of principles that she believed in very dearly. She traveled to 40 countries on five continents, engaging people in several languages, and she risked her livelihood and security speaking out for socialism and communism” at a time in the U.S. “when people were persecuted as she and her husband, the legendary Paul Robeson, were persecuted for their left wing views.”

Paul Robeson Jr., at age 14, sits with his parents, Paul Sr. and Eslanda, on the front porch in Enfield, Conn., in 1941. – Photo: Frank Bauman, Look Magazine, via Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Paul Robeson Jr., at age 14, sits with his parents, Paul Sr. and Eslanda, on the front porch in Enfield, Conn., in 1941. – Photo: Frank Bauman, Look Magazine, via Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Essie Robeson was the architect of her husband’s multi-talented career. She was his business manager and publicist and circulated freely within the intellectual, political, photographic and fine arts communities. In fact despite the loss of her passport to travel in 1950, when she was able to travel, she was not viewed as a threat, being a woman scholar and an anthropologist, traveling with an 8-year-old child.

So she applied for visas to do anthropological work – in South Africa and in China particularly. In China, just before the cultural revolution, according to Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s “Viewfinders” on pages 94-95, she “left with three American women before the government could get around to restraining her,” even though neither her son nor her husband could go. And in South Africa, where the country was truly a police state during the apartheid regime, “The South African government could find no political reason to deny her entrance except that she was Paul Robeson’s wife.”

And in each of the places that she went, she took photographs.

“She took pictures wherever she went.” She was a global citizen, whose life and political actions spanned two thirds of the 20th century, who fearlessly challenged McCarthyism and fought Jim Crow laws and colonialism, attended the All-African Peoples Conference in Ghana, and was an integral part of global Afrikan freedom struggles from the U.S. to the Soviet Union to Africa, China and beyond.

She was friends with Jomo Kenyatta, Jawaharlal Nehru and Kwame Nkrumah and she photographed all of this history as she was an integral part of it, inventing herself repeatedly. She was very close to the West African Students Union (WASU) in London in the 1930s.

When she was able to travel, she was not viewed as a threat, being a woman scholar and an anthropologist, traveling with an 8-year-old child. In each of the places that she went, she took photographs.

So why – even though she studied both photography and anthropology at the London School of Economics and at London University and became an accomplished photographer in her own right – is her work not listed under her name? Why must one search through volumes of the work of Carl Van Vechten to find her photography?

Why is it buried in this manner?

Some posit that her career was sufficiently overshadowed by the career of her husband, Paul Robeson. Perhaps.

But this woman was a legend in her own right. She talked photography with Edward Steichen on a regular basis, particularly after he photographed Paul Robeson as the Emperor Jones. She had a strong bond with the photographic and artistic communities of her time, and the Robesons were great friends with the Carl Van Vechtens.

So why? Why is her work buried?

I think it is because of the racism and sexism in a society that is built upon such, root and branch from the ground up. I further think that using “buried in her husband’s shadow” is a societal excuse on certain levels because let us not forget, American society’s position, via the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, is that a Black person – neither man, woman, nor child – has any rights that a white person is bound to respect.

Why must one search through volumes of the work of Carl Van Vechten to find her photography? Why is it buried in this manner?

It is widely posited as well, particularly by Paul Robeson Jr., that the CIA, via Sidney Gottlieb’s infamous MK-Ultra program, poisoned his father in 1961 when Robeson Sr. planned a trip to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Paul Jr. believes, after a 30-year investigation of his father’s illness, that he was slipped a synthetic hallucinogen called BZ by U.S. intelligence operatives at a party in Moscow.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair report in “Did the CIA Poison Paul Robeson”: “Robeson’s case has chilling parallels to the fate of another Black man who was slipped CIA-concocted hallucinogens, Sgt. James Thornwell. Thornwell was a U.S. Army sergeant working in a NATO office in Orleans, France, in 1961 (the same year Robeson was drugged), when he came under suspicion of having stolen documents. Thornwell, who maintained his innocence, was interrogated, hypnotized and harassed by U.S. intelligence officers.” I remember seeing the movie, “Thornwell,” starring Glynn Turman in 1981.

James R. Thornwell died at the age of 46, but not before he sued the U.S. Army – and won – over being used unknowingly as a subject in an Army LSD experiment. He suffered an epileptic seizure while swimming in the family pool, according to the New York Times.

These things have to have weighed heavily upon Eslanda Robeson’s life. But this and more is just another excuse for the scarcity of her photography.

Eslanda Cardoza Goode Robeson, born on Dec. 15, 1896, died of breast cancer after returning from Russia, on Dec. 13, 1965. Her husband, Paul Leroy Robeson, born on April 9, 1898, died from complications of a stroke on Jan. 23, 1976.

Both remained staunch advocates of the political stances that they took. And she too, was a legend in her own right.

Malaika H Kambon is a freelance, multi-award winning photojournalist and owner of People’s Eye Photography. She is also an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state and national champion in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2012. She can be reached at kambonrb@pacbell.net.

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