Author, journalist, columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner. The son of Louisa Smith Robinson, a librarian at Claflin College, and Harold I. Robinson, an attorney and occasional professor of political science, Robinson was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He grew up in a two-story clapboard house built by his great grandfather, Major John Hammond Fordham. He attended Trinity Methodist Church and studied at Felton Training School (later Felton Laboratory School) on the campus of South Carolina State University. In 1967 Robinson began the tenth grade at Orangeburg High School, becoming one of a handful of black students enrolled in the school only a few years after desegregation.
Several months into Robinson’s first year at Orangeburg High School, black students from Claflin College and South Carolina State were refused entrance into All-Star Lanes, a whites-only bowling alley. The event sparked protests. Governor Robert McNair blamed “outside agitators,” and police focused attention on Cleveland Sellers, a Denmark, South Carolina native and organizer for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who was staying a few houses down the street from the Robinson home. Robinson looked on as a dozen police cars parked outside of his home, the officers’ rifles aimed at the house down the street.
Robinson has called that moment “the first time [he] felt vulnerable” and “an awakening”; he has claimed that he no longer could think of “race as something [he] could just ignore. . . . The question was how to deal with it: how to cut it down to size, how to keep it in perspective, how to keep from being crushed by it. How to live with it.” Three days later, police opened fire on a group of protesting students, killing three, in an event that would later be dubbed “The Orangeburg Massacre.”
Robinson attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, planning to study architecture. During his first architecture course, however, he recognized that he was “easily the most incompetent” student in the class. In the meantime, he won a student literary competition with an essay about the killings in Orangeburg. Predictably, he changed his academic focus to journalism. He wrote for the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, all fours years of college, eventually becoming the first black student to be coeditor-in-chief.
Robinson began his journalism career at the San Francisco Chronicle where he covered the trial of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. While living in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, he met his future wife, Avis, originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, who was in San Francisco completing postgraduate work.
In 1980 Robinson moved to Arlington, Virginia, to begin work at the Washington Post as a reporter covering city hall. He was named assistant city editor in 1981 and city editor in 1984. From 1988 to 1992, he was the Washington Post’s South American correspondent, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was named the London bureau chief from 1992 to 1994 before returning to Washington to become the newspaper’s foreign editor. He was promoted to assistant managing editor in 1999 and managed the “Style” section of the newspaper. He became a regular columnist in 2005, eventually writing a twice-a-week column that reflects on the relationships between politics and culture. He also hosts a weekly online chat session.
During his tenure in Buenos Aires, Robinson spent time in Brazil—time that eventually led to the material for his first book, Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race, published in 1999. The New York Times described the book as a model for discussions of race. Simultaneously a memoir and a manifesto, Coal to Cream reflects on Brazilians’ fascination with the broad spectrum of skin color in the context of Robinson’s own experience in a world of two distinct races, both in the United States and elsewhere. In 2004 Robinson penned Last Dance in Havana: The Final Days of Fidel Castro and the Start of the New Cuban Revolution, in which the author anticipates a post-Castro Cuba and notes the embedded role that music and dance play in Cuban culture and politics.
Throughout the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries and, later, the presidential campaign, Robinson focused many of his newspaper columns on the rise of Barack Obama. Drawing on historical context and personal reflection, Robinson’s coverage of the Obama campaign provided a fresh perspective on race and politics while steadfastly avoiding the politics of identity. The columns earned Robinson a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
Several of the columns cited for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize may have laid the foundation for Robinson’s 2010 book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. In Disintegration, Robinson frames his discussion of contemporary black America by first identifying four discrete groups of black Americans: the Transcendent, the Mainstream, the Emergent, and the Abandoned. Robinson argues that the different interests and claims of each group must be acknowledged in order to respond with any success to the rapidly deteriorating plight of the Abandoned. The New York Times commented on the book’s ability to “tell us something familiar . . . in such a creative and clear-eyed way and with such force that we begin to see things differently.”
Robinson is a regular guest on television shows that focus on political commentary, including The Rachel Maddow Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Morning Joe, and Meet the Press. He was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2013. Eugene Robinson and his wife Avis are the parents of two sons: Aaron and Lowell. They live in Arlington, Virginia.
Arsenault, Raymond. “The Great Unravelling.” New York Times. December 29, 2010.
Bass, Jack. “Documenting the Orangeburg Massacre.” Nieman Reports. The Nieman Foundation, February, 2003.
Robinson, Eugene. Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
———. Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. New York: Anchor Books, 2011.
———. Last Dance in Havana. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Walton, Anthony. “Another Country.” New York Times, September 12, 1999.