Drawing lines between the past and present: An interview with Sharon Rudahl

On October 16, 2020, Rutgers University Press published “Ballad of an American,” a graphic biography of 20th-century entertainer–activist Paul Robeson by progressive cartoonist Sharon Rudahl. A figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Robeson became famous during his lifetime for both his booming baritone voice and his outspoken leftist ideals. However, his legacy has faded since his death in 1976, leaving many millennial and Generation-Z leftists unaware of his accomplishments. With her graphic biography of Robeson, Rudahl aims to re-introduce this early progressive champion to a new generation of activists.

Rudahl, a prominent member of the underground comix movement, has been a working cartoonist for almost 50 years. “Ballad of an American” is her second book-length biography of a noted leftist: in 2007, she authored “A Dangerous Woman,” a graphic biography tracing the life and loves of Russian-American anarchist Emma Goldman. Both Rudahl and Goldman are Jewish women, and this shared identity prepared Rudahl to take on the Goldman biography. “There’s no question I was the right artist for that job,” Rudahl said. “They used to accuse me of turning out to be Emma Goldman if I didn’t start behaving myself, before I even went to kindergarten.” 

Writing a biography of Paul Robeson, the Black son of an escaped slave, presented a new set of challenges for Rudahl. To ensure that her book presented a realistic view of Robeson’s life, she dove into her research, beginning with his autobiography, “Here I Stand,” and branching out into books about Robeson and his worldview by Black writers who were his contemporaries. She teamed up with historian Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, a professor of philosophy and co-director of Oklahoma State University’s Center for Africana Studies, to ensure that the story stayed true to history. And she peppered real-world elements into the narrative, weaving in headlines from the newspapers of Robeson’s day and pairing her drawings with collages of archival photographs. For example, one splash page depicts a hand-drawn Robeson as he moves to New York City for the first time, ringed by black-and-white photographs of early-20th-century Harlem. “You sort of see his wide-eyed astonishment and glee at entering Harlem at that time,” Rudahl said. “That Harlem is more real, in some ways, than he is.”

During her research, Rudahl discovered a Paul Robeson who wouldn’t have been bothered by the thought of a 73-year-old Jewish woman writing his biography. “Robeson was so open to working with all sorts of people,” Rudahl said, “and in fact, he had especially good little old lady Jewish friends, so I felt like it was okay.” Still, she made sure not to overextend her own preconceptions into the narrative, instead presenting an image of Robeson shaped by his own words and those of his loved ones. Pages of the book often utilize direct quotes of Robeson’s as codas, a technique that Rudahl developed while authoring “A Dangerous Woman.”

Indeed, Rudahl only applied artistic license to the narrative when she felt doing so would bring out the real Robeson. For example, she expanded a footnote from historian Martin Duberman’s biography of Robeson—”the main source of accurate information about Robeson’s life”—into a three-page passage about Robeson’s vocal support for striking Welsh miners in 1928. Though much of this incident was fictionalized, Robeson’s heartfelt passion for the plight of the working man was not.

Historical accuracy was Rudahl’s top priority, but she still found ample ways to insert her own voice and style into the story. On page 3, a crescent moon hovers over Robeson’s father as he escapes from slavery; on page 82, the very same moon hangs over Robeson and his wife Eslanda as they flee Berlin following a close encounter with Nazi officers. Thanks to this “fatal moon” and other subtle elements, Rudahl’s personal touch is a vivid presence in a book whose narrative is dictated first and foremost by Robeson himself. “You’re not supposed to notice it,” Rudahl said. “It’s supposed to make the book more digestible, like adding garlic to a dish.” 

At age 73, Rudahl considers “Ballad of an American” her final book-length project, one that she hopes will inspire a younger generation to create progressive art—though not necessarily in the form of sequential narrative images. In her youth, Rudahl dove into comics because she saw it as a relatively unexplored medium safe from the prying claws of corporations and capitalist vultures. Today, she looks forward to the discovery of the next disruptive artistic medium, whatever it may be. “Now that comics are something that people review in the New York Times, I think it’s actually time for something else to come along,” Rudahl said. “I don’t know what’s next, maybe it can be computer games as an art form…TikTok is political; they did a lot of things to screw Trump up. I think TikTok is more political than ‘graphic novels.’”

If there is one thing to take away from “Ballad of an American,” it’s that all art is political—not can be, but is. In his early turns on Broadway and the silver screen, Paul Robeson was forced to act in productions that embodied the most vicious and backwards stereotypes about Black people. But he did it with a skill, grace, and beauty that brought him worldwide renown and the admiration of individuals of all colors. With this fame, he spread the gospel of progressivism far and wide, refusing to back down on his beliefs during the era of McCarthyism. Rudahl’s moving graphic biography of Robeson is a reminder that artists and creatives can still make an impact today, whether through song, comics, or bite-sized video. 

“Whenever art ceases to nurture, to satisfy, whatever it is that people need from art—then something just bubbles up from what people were doing for fun, or what was illegal, or from the streets,” Rudahl said. “Something comes from the streets, and it makes a new art that really works, whether you’re talking about rock and roll, or underground comix, or TikTok.”

Almost forgotten today, Paul Robeson’s life is an inspiration to those involved in solidarity work throughout the world. He truly understood that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” For a deep dive into his relevance today, join “Ballad of an American” co-editor co-editor Lawrence Ware in conversation with the University of Pennsylvania vice president for social equity and community Charles Howard—whose grandfather was a friend of Robeson’s—for a DSA-hosted webinar on February 16.

“Ballad of an American” is available for purchase on the Rutgers University Press website or by calling the Rutgers University Press warehouse at 1-800-621-2736. Use code DSARUP for free shipping and a 30% discount.