Thursday, April 8, 2010

Remembering Paul Robeson

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It's Paul Robeson's birthday on April 9. Who is Paul Robeson, you ask? I had forgotten, too. Then I happened to see a Paul Robeson song album when I was looking for something else on the internet. It touched me, to be reminded of a great American, a Renaissance man and reformer, whom I hadn't thought about in years.

It's a blot on our democracy that this man was hounded into oblivian because of his beliefs. American history has its dark side, times when its democratic ideals and republican values were undermined by the heat of the moment and the negative spirit of the times. Robeson never gave up, but he was caught in this web of hatred and ignorance.

Today there are several biographies of Paul Robeson and they should be required reading in all our schools. I have added to my own reading list studies by historian Martin Duberman and American Studies scholar Jeffery Stewart, along with a biography by his only child, Paul Robeson, Jr. The Robeson foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898, is also striving to safeguard and preserve his memory.

Paul Robeson was an extraordinary person: a concert singer, scholar, actor of film and stage, professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator and lawyer, and social justice advocate. Robeson, the youngest of five children and the grandson of slaves, became one of Rutger University's most accomplished alumni. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he was valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919, that eventful post-World War I year of race riots, terrorism and lynching.

He was the first major star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals, and the first black actor of the 20th century to portray Shakespeare's Othello on Broardway. He was known for his role in Show Boat, and for thus paving the way for great talents such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

In speaking out against racism and fascism in the 1930s, Robeson became disillusioned with the "empty rhetoric" of America and developed a sympathy for the Soviet revolution in support of workers. Biographers note that he championed the cause of the common person wherever he traveled, and was beloved around the world for it.

A forerunner of the Civil Rights movement, and a trade union and peace activist, Robeson became a target of the McCarthy "communist hunters" in the 1950s. "Every effort was made to silence and discredit him." According to some historians, persecution by the U.S. govenrment and media virtually erased Robeson from mainstream culture and subsequent interpretations of U.S. history, including civil rights history.

What a shame. He died on January 23, 1976, at his sister's home in Philadelphia. Though I was an adult, I don't recall hearing about his death or any mention of it at the time. The silence is all the more shattering in recalling his greatness and pioneering efforts on behalf of peace and justice.

We need a Paul Robeson Day in America. Why not April 9? We remember Martin Luther KIng, Jr., Washington and Lincoln. We should likewise remember Paul Robeson, and pay homage to his heroism and commitment to social justice. It is time to honor this great American.

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