Discovering Paul Robeson

Article excerpt

When I mentioned to my grandmother that I was planning to see the Paul Robeson exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., she was very excited.

"Your great-uncle introduced me to a record when we were kids called, `Ballad for the Americans.' It was long, at least ten minutes, but I remember it was all about freedom and equality. I used to be crazy about that album," she said.

I had only known Paul Robeson as the original singer of Jerome Kern's "Old Man River." I never knew that any of his songs had a political agenda.

My mother's comments added to my curiosity about Robeson.

"I think Paul Robeson was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, but I'm not sure why."

The more people I told about the exhibit, the more confused, intrigued, and excited I became. I was given nuggets of information about Robeson, some fact, some fantasy. I was determined to discover the truth. After viewing the National Portrait Gallery exhibit I found a speaker with the oratorical skills of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and an actor with the talent of Sidney Poitier and the looks of Denzel Washington. I found an athlete who could give Michael Jordan a run for his money and a crusader with the strength of conviction of Malcolm X. I found a thinker with the intellectual prowess of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a man with the resolute determination of Rosa Parks.

I was so moved that I decided to read one of the many biographies on Robeson. I selected The Young Paul Robeson: `On My Journey Now,' written by Lloyd L. Brown, because I was curious to see how one of Robeson's best friends would chronicle such an outstanding life. It was a good selection for someone like me who knew very little about Robeson's life. It also was a great companion to the exhibit, the pictures and photos of which gave fascinating accounts of a truly fascinating life.

Both Brown's book and the exhibit devote a lot of time to explaining how Robeson's experience on the field and in school primed him for the rest of his life. In the exhibit, two entire walls are devoted to the display of photographs and artifacts from Robeson's scholastic and athletic achievements. The son of a brilliant runaway slave, Robeson was taught early in life by his father "that the heights of knowledge must be scaled by the freedom seeker" and that "Latin, Greek, philosophy, history, literature -- all the treasures of learning -- must be the Negro's heritage as well."

Inspired by his father's example, Paul Robeson excelled in both scholastic subjects and athletics. When he graduated from the "colored" grammar school in 1911, "the local newspaper praised his commencement recitation as `a rendition whose excellence has seldom been surpassed by a public school pupil.'"

Robeson earned 15 varsity letters in four different sports while attending Rutgers University. He also won national recognition in football. …