* Biographies penned by the children of the famous and noteworthy are born suspect. Either they're see-no-evil love letters like ""My Father's Daughter,"" Tina Sinatra's memoir of her dad, Frank; or they are nasty memoirs of image immolation and score settling, such as Christina Crawford's ""Mommie Dearest"" (just try watching Joan Crawford in ""Mildred Pierce"" without thinking about wire hangers).
In ""The Undiscovered Paul Robeson,"" the first installment of a two-volume biography of his father, Paul Robeson Jr. deftly avoids crash landing in either camp. Stating that his father ""despised sycophants,"" Robeson Jr. writes, ""It would be an insult to his memory if I were to make the slightest attempt to satisfy those who crave a Robeson icon, those who wish to worship at a shrine, or those who are beguiled by his political persona.""
Robeson Jr. is more concerned with rescuing his father from the strange obscurity that has clouded his legacy and refuting the stubborn myths that clung to the man in life and have yet to fade in the quarter-century since his death - namely, that Robeson was a card-carrying Communist (he wasn't) who spent his later, blacklisted years as a bitter recluse (he didn't).
Of course, had Robeson chosen to do so, who could have blamed him? A gifted singer and actor, he made his name on the stage and screen with heralded performances in ""The Emperor Jones,"" ""Othello,"" and ""Show Boat,"" with his showstopping rendition of ""Ol' Man River."" But Robeson was dogged by racism at every turn. Once considered ""a credit to his race"" - inspiring to blacks, unthreatening to whites - he was later deemed a traitor when he spoke out against racial intolerance and embraced various unpopular political causes. Years of government harassment, especially by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, eventually eroded both his career and health.
Because this volume concludes in 1939, Robeson Jr.'s focus is on his father as a young man and burgeoning artist, not as a persecuted activist. Born April 9, 1898, in Princeton, N.J., Robeson was the youngest of seven children. His father, William Drew Robeson, escaped slavery three years before the Civil War began. His mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, a member of one of Philadelphia's prominent black families, died in a freakish fire when her son was 5.
A church pastor, William Robeson instilled in his children ""the techniques of survival in a viciously racist climate,"" writes Robeson Jr. ""He insisted that Paul must never appear to be challenging"" white people. ""Climb up if you can, but always show you are grateful,"" Robeson would tell his son.""Above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you.""
Such advice did little to spare Robeson the sting of bigotry. He attended high school in a neighboring town because Princeton had no secondary school for black children. A fine student, Robeson received a scholarship to Rutgers University, where he was the third black student in the school's then 150-year history. Both students and teachers were openly hostile, and when he tried out for the football team, several players threatened to strike. Robeson not only made the team but was twice selected as an All-American; still, he was benched for the homecoming game against a Southern college that refused to have its players on the same field with a black man.
In college, Robeson was also a member of the glee club. He'd been singing since childhood and had developed a resonant bass voice. But a career in the arts didn't interest him initially; he wanted to be a lawyer. While attending Columbia Law School, he also appeared in amateur theatrical productions but kept his sights on practicing in a Wall Street law firm. After graduation he got a job in a New York firm, but his tenure was short-lived. White co-workers treated him with such contempt that, Robeson Jr. writes, ""It was inconceivable to Paul that he would enter a profession in which his possibilities would be so limited by r