Eslanda Goode Robeson: “Africans Are People”

Oberstes Gericht, Globke-Prozess, Publikum
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0708-0014-004 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Public Domain.

Eslanda Goode Robeson was the wife of the famous singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. However, she was an important shero in her own right, distinguishing herself both in political activism and as an anthropologist.

The daughter of a freed slave, Essie, born in 1896, was passionately interested in Africa and the conditions that made the mother continent vulnerable. Her mother, Eslanda Cardoza Goode, was of mixed race, born among South Carolina’s free blacks to an octoroon mother and a wealthy Spanish Jew, Isaac Nunez Cardoza. Essie’s uncle Francis Louis Cardoza was named as “the most highly educated Negro in America” by Henry Ward Beecher. When Essie was six, her father died of alcohol abuse and the family moved to New York City just in time for the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. Essie was well educated herself, attending Teachers College at Columbia University and one year of medical school, ultimately receiving her degree in chemistry from Columbia. Her other interests included a strong proclivity for politics and the desire to fight for racial equality. Essie was on her way to becoming a model for the new equality when she became the first black person to work in the pathology and surgery departments of Columbia Presbyterian, where she ran the lab. In the twenties, she met and married Paul Robeson; after hearing him sing at a party, Essie became convinced he had a future in show business. She talked him into performing and soon his career was launched. By the mid-twenties, Paul was the toast of Europe and America; Essie quit her job to travel with Paul and manage his career. However, over and over the duo suffered the sickening hypocrisy of a white society that lauded Paul as the toast of stage and screen while not allowing Essie and him to eat in the same restaurants as the white music patrons. To avoid the pain, Essie began to stay home and focus upon their shared dream of a modern black family—emancipated, educated, and enlightened.

In the thirties, the ever intellectually restless Essie developed an intense interest in anthropology and in Africa. Studying at London University and the London School of Economics, she became even more radicalized: “I soon became fed up with white students and teachers ‘interpreting’ the Negro mind and character to me,” she wrote later. “Especially when I felt, as I did very often, that their interpretation was wrong.”

She decided to make her own conclusions. She traveled to Africa several times, exploring widely, up the Congo and into the heartland by any means available. Her exploration led her to emphasize the importance of racial pride in overcoming racism, and she banded with other black people to found the Council of African Affairs. She was always extremely outspoken about the plight of her people as a result of slavery and colonialism and never backed down from a debate. She drew fire when she suggested the Soviet Union had created a better foundation for equality than the United States. In the forties, during World War II, she was especially vocal, perceiving that the war against Fascism was an opportunity for a more racially united and equal opportunity America. Her book, African Journey, was published in 1945; that same year, as a representative of the Council on African Affairs, Essie participated in the conference that founded the United Nations.

In the fifties, the activity and views of the Robesons were brought to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy who called her before the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy was no match for the brilliance and verbal dexterity of Essie, who turned the tables on him, drilling him with questions about the black civil rights issue. But McCarthy got his revenge, revoking both their passports, reducing Paul’s income from international concert tours to almost nil.

This only spurred Essie on to greater activism—ultimately her passport was reinstated and she traveled to Germany to receive the Peace Medal and the Clara Zetkin Medal,
a governmental award for women who have fought for world peace. She continued to write articles and give speeches on behalf of equality and justice until she died in 1965. No matter what the personal cost, Essie fought to free her people from the invisible bonds that still held them back. Her work was invaluable in the civil rights movement; her call for absolute racial equality rang clear and true: “No man can be free until all men are free.”

“I believe there will never be peace in the world until people have achieved what they fought and died for.”
—Eslanda Goode Robeson
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in America

Margaret_Mead_(1901-1978)
By Smithsonian Institution from United States – Margaret Mead (1901-1978)Uploaded by Fæ, No restrictions, Public Domain.

Margaret Mead still stirs controversy in some circles for her pioneering work in social anthropology. Like Rachel Carson, she wrote a scientific study that crossed over into the general population and became a bestseller. For this, she received derision from the academic community. But that didn’t bother the free spirit, who was one of the first women to earn a PhD in anthropology. Margaret was fortunate to be born in 1901 into a family of academics who disregarded convention and put learning and involvement in the world ahead of society’s rules. The firstborn of five children, Margaret’s parents were Edward Mead, a professor at Wharton School who taught finance and economics, and Emily Fogg Mead, a teacher, sociologist, and ardent feminist and suffragist. Margaret was homeschooled by her very able grandmother, a former teacher and school principal.

Margaret didn’t fall too far from the tree when she started The Minority, an antifraternity at DePauw University, where she was attending. Bored, she transferred to Barnard College where the academic standards were more in accordance with her needs. Originally an English major, Margaret attended a class in her senior year given by anthropologist Franz Boas, a virulent opponent of the school of racial determinism. She also met Ruth Benedict, then Boas’ assistant, who encouraged Margaret to join Columbia under Boas’ instruction. Margaret agreed and went on to graduate school after marriage to a seminary student, Luther Cressman. Soon after, true to her heritage as a free-thinking Mead, Margaret went against her mentor Boas’ urgings to do field work with America’s Native peoples, a pet project of his; instead she followed the beat of her own different and, as it turns out, tribal drums, setting off for Polynesia to explore the island culture. She reasoned that they were better subjects because they had been less exposed and, therefore less assimilated than Native Americans. She was absolutely right, writing up her field studies after living with and working alongside the Samoans for three years. The date was 1926. Divorcing Luther, she married Reo Fortune, and a mere three years later, published Coming of Age in Samoa, a ground-breaking work that shocked some circles for its frank and completely objective report of, among other things, sexual rituals and practices among the Samoans. Nearly overnight, Margaret was a superstar, fairly rare for anthropologists and even rarer for twenty-six-year-old female anthropologists!

After a stint in the American Museum of Natural History, Margaret got the jones for another field study, so she and Reo headed to New Guinea. Her resulting book, Growing Up in New Guinea, was another huge hit in both academic and popular circles. While in New Guinea, Margaret met and fell in love with fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson; after her second divorce, she and Gregory married and she gave birth to her daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. They worked together in New Guinea, but ultimately Gregory claimed that she was stifling his creativity and they divorced in 1943.

Margaret Mead spent the rest of her life working full-tilt in the field of anthropology, publishing forty-four books and over one thousand articles and monographs, and working as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History between trips to the field. She also sought to support and finance the work of young anthropologists. At the core of all her work was an analysis of childhood development (she was the first anthropologist ever to study childrearing practices) and gender roles, overturning many time-worn assumptions about personality and place in society for both sexes. Over and over, her studies demonstrated that there is nothing natural or universal about particular “masculine” or “feminine” roles; rather they are culturally determined. Detractors damn her fieldwork as being “impressionistic,”but Margaret Mead’s success in a male-dominated scientific field was a wonderful contradiction to the typical role for an American woman of her day and age. With forty-four books, she became a household name, made anthropology available for the masses, and blazed a trail for shero scholars of future generations.

“I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples, faraway peoples, so that Americans might better understand themselves.”

— Margaret Mead

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.