Melissa Harris-Perry | February 18, 2013
>> month here on mhp, we have been mi -- highlighting people whose stories are not known or misunderstood. perhaps you know john robson who was a champion of working people using his celebrity to speak out against racism and in support of labor rights , but today, we are focused on another robson and not paul , but essie. yolanda goodwin robson was a political activist in her own right before going on the pursue a ph.d. in anthropology, and she was the first women chemist to work in new york city 's presbyterian hospital . before plessy v. ferguson made it the lu of the land, essie was a vital part of the equality in america. she was a crucial actor in anti-colonial movements in america. the relationship between paul and essie was complicated, but shared by devotion to justice. to join us to talk about all things essie is author of the new book eslanda." i am so excited that you are here.
>> i am pleased to be here.
>> what do we need to nknow about this woman? is.
>> well, in some ways she was a biographer's dream and filmmaker's dream, because she lived a large political life , large professional life, and traveled to 40 countries on five continents at a time when women's lives were prescribed. she went to see mao, and went alongside paul to take a stand against fascism, and took her young son to sub saharan africa , and for those of us who jet around these days we forget how arduous it is.
>> she was on a ship with her son.
>> yes, and tiny planes skipping across the african continent with her son. she lived a bold and brazened life, but a life of principle.
>> and that is what is fascinating to me, because on the one hand she has enormous privilege as an african- american woman in this moment, and yet continues to feel that privilege should always be put to work particularly for the black die s a.
>> this is someone who is a wife of an international celebrity and beautiful home in connecticut at one point and travel around the world, but she leveraged the privilege and the celebrity to speak out against injustice in the world and particularly colonialism. she became a journalist, and paid a price for it in the mccarthy era .
>> uncompromising in the politics, but quite complicated in her relationship with robeson himself, and talking to me about how she navigates the marriage in con ttext of her political work.
>> well, they had an open marriage after the mid- 1930s . at that time, it was both unusual but not unique. some people in the arts had those kinds of relationships and arrangements and 40-year partnership and not without difficulties, but what began as a passionate love story evolved into a collegial relationship and commitment to one another with the ideas and the values of a comradeship and deep and profound and genuine e relationship, but it was complicated.
>> only th that, i want to pull out a little bit to the rest of the panel, and when i was reminded how frequently we get women into the public realm in part through the partnerships and the relationships of powerful men. i was thinking of hillary clinton who obviously comes to the national public stage through her role as first lady. i was thinking of the myrlie evers who came to us on the show as the widow of metger evers. is this how women of prominent came to voice?
>> well, the women who had those power seized them and took the opportunity. and i was thinking of eleanor roosevelt and when you were thinking of paul and essie's relationship, because that sounds how their evolved into the collegial and very respectful relationship, and eleanor used that privilege and really did try to open up pathways and which i think is pretty great to use that opportunity to make it into something good.
>> i have a question, because as you were describing this, there is a tradition in american life of black celebrity leaders becoming political voices and not on quote, unquote black issues, but variety of images. mohammad muhammad ali took a great risk to his career and he was not utilizing the profit yield of his image, but he was as you described with with the robesons to take that to do something broader in politic, but to pick one, and beyonce at the super bowl and has the hbo show this week.
>> just to pick one.
>> just to pick one that i am obsessed with, but it is fair to say that jay and beyonce have stayed in a safe and mainstream democratic politics role and why thauld coy do tremendous loi more if they wanted to take up more issues, they could, but they can't because that are a brand. so if you pick up a pepsi brand, you cannot be anti-war.
>> well, i had not thought of essie and beyonce in the same category, but i am going to say she was fierce and gorgeous, but the comparison might stop there. two things that i'm reminded of with the roosevelts and the contemporary folks. the robesons were insooiders in the art community, but outsiders because of the internationalist and the left wing politics and in a sense got blacklisted in terms of history and paul literally got blacklisted in terms of the career. so they had to be a united front from the margins and from the outside starting in the mccarthy era , but the question of internationalism and black celebrities on the international stage. eslanda robeson left in 1930 and returned in 1939 and left as a negro and came back as internationalist, and world citizen and black diaspra and she knew the heads of states to people who were shaped by her classroom experience.
>> i want to borrow that, barbara, she left as a negro and came back as an influential political woman. and now we want to check in with alex witt , and what is going on?
>> a new reported threat with north korea today. i will talk to bill richardson who just visited that country, and what did he learn with testing in regard to the nuclear w weapon.
>> and what you might expect from the aftermath of what happened.
>>> and you will hear from the uncle of oscar how president obama is fulfilling his promise in a bigger way than most people give him credit for. back to you.
>> thank you, alex.
>>> after the break, we're going to talk about a 101-year-old who is running four hours a day. our foot soldier of the week is the determined tornado and he's next.