In 1919, when Paul Robeson graduated from Rutgers as valedictorian, the “class prophecy” suggested that by 1940 he would be governor of New Jersey and the “leader of the colored race in America.” When 1940 came around, that prophecy had not been entirely realized but–except for the governorship of New Jersey, for which Robeson had no ambition–continued to seem entirely plausible. By then he had added to his undergraduate laurels as scholar and All-American football player, international acclaim as concert artist, stage actor, recording and film star.
Although many white and almost all black Americans in 1940 shared a high estimate of Robeson’s accomplishment, their views of what it meant failed to coincide in some important ways. To the white world in general, Robeson seemed a magnetic, civilized, and gifted man who had relied on talent rather than belligerence to “rise above his circumstances.” Whites vaguely recognized in 1940 that he was beginning to emerge as a passionate defender of the underclasses, yet the lack of stridency and self pity in his manner allowed them to persist in the comfortable illusion that his career proved the way was indeed open to those with sufficient pluck and aptitude, regardless of race–that the “system” worked.
–Martin Bauml Duberman