As a teenager, Sharon Rudahl grew more aware of the social injustices around her and felt compelled to join in a number of civil rights marches, which included marching with Martin Luther King Jr. Rudahl began her writing and illustrations career with a number of anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She also became one of the founders of the early 1970s feminist Wimmen’s Comix, and later on, in 1979, she drew stories for the Anarchy Comics #2 and #3. But in 1980 she wrote, drew and published her own comic book titled “Adventures of the Crystal Night.” ? ??
Over the course of five decades, Rudahl has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions in many countries. She also worked with editor Paul Buhle on the following graphic books: Studs Terkel’s “Working” (graphic version) in 2009, “Wobblies” in 2005, “Yiddishkiet” in 2011. As well as “Bohemians” in 2014 and “Lincoln for Beginners” in 2015. Rudahl is also known for her graphic biography,?“Emma Goldman: A Dangerous Woman.”
More recently, Rudahl talked with the Ithaca Times about her latest graphic book, titled “Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson.”?
?Ithaca Times: This is an artful and important work, but what did it take for you to do the research and undertake the creative drawing for it? What was the process like for you to complete this graphic book?
Sharon Rudahl: This was a very demanding project that I was offered by Rutgers University Press when I was already past 70, part of their efforts to honor Paul Robeson on the 100th anniversary of his 1919 graduation from Rutgers. I did feel pressured by my own mortality — would my eyes stay clear enough, my hand steady enough, my back strong enough? But it was a chance to tell such an important story, I couldn't resist.
IT:?Can you talk a little about Paul Robeson’s parents, who were slaves, and how they influenced their son?
SR: Paul's father William was a slave in North Carolina who escaped around 1860 on the underground railway. He twice risked being caught and enslaved to visit his mother (Paul's grandmother) on the plantation. Paul's father worked his way through divinity school and became a respected minister. Paul's mother was William's wife, a mixed race schoolteacher named Maria Bustill.
IT: Robeson achieved a great deal when he was at Rutgers University. Talk about his academic and sports achievements and his singing in the Glee Club. How did this help him later in life?
SR: At Rutgers, Paul Robeson won 15 varsity letters in four different sports. His exploits in football were reported nationally. He was an outstanding student, one of only four undergrads to be selected for Phi Beta Kappa. He was elected valedictorian of his graduating class. As the star of the Rutgers Glee Club, Paul traveled to perform. But as a Black man, he was not allowed to go with the club to off-campus social gatherings.
IT: Who was Essie Robeson, and what were her achievements along side her husband?
SR: Paul's wife Eslanda Goode was in every respect his partner. Her outstanding efforts as promoter and manager made a great contribution to his professional success. Essie had hoped to become a doctor. When she met Paul, she was a lab technician at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the first Black on their professional staff. She wrote several books and published a well-reviewed book of her photographs taken in Africa.
IT: Paul Robeson played Othello, and it was said his performance was moving. Later he returned to America to work on a number of important issues — what drove him to work so hard? And what were some of the issues he felt were important?
SR: No Black actor had played Othello before Robeson since Ira Aldridge performed the play in Europe in the mid-1800s. The part of Othello was always played by white actors in varying shades of blackface. Paul Robeson performed the role in England and then on Broadway for a record 296 performances. At the same time, in the 1930s and 1940s, Paul Robeson was a tireless activist for labor rights, anti-fascism, liberation of African and Asian colonies, relief for war and disaster victims — he could raise funds and support for pretty much any progressive cause He appeared with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in support of U.S. troops during World War II.
IT: The FBI and others were concerned about Robeson as a socialist during the 1940s and 1950s, and they seem to have diminished and undercut his influence in the public eye. What sort of acts were done to limit Robeson?
SR: Robeson had his passport taken away, was disappeared from radio, newspapers, books, lists of athletic achievements, etc. He was denied the use of theaters and other public venues, but continued to perform in churches and union halls. It still seems younger generations are not aware of Robeson's legacy.
IT: If people are interested in knowing more about Paul Robeson, where can they look to see more of him in plays, movies and books?
SR: There are lots of clips of Paul Robeson singing and performing in movies that can be found on the internet. If you have access to a store that sells old CDs, his recordings are profoundly moving. For books, I would recommend Martin Duberman's biography as the most thorough, but “Robeson For Beginners”?by Paul Von Blum is brief and accurate, a good introduction.
IT: Do you have advice for young girls wanting to draw graphic comic books and get into the field?
SR: As in any artistic field, stubbornness and perseverance are probably the most essential qualities. Browse bookstores and try to zero in on what appeals to you in graphic storytelling. If you work hard, you will continue to improve. I've been told there are outlets online for trying out your efforts without first convincing a publisher.