A Model for Tomorrow: Using Paul Robeson to Teach Human and Gender Rights. (Activity)

Article excerpt

The following unit is designed to help students practice reading, writing and listening skills while learning about an important person in American history and his ideas about some important problems (racial discrimination and gender inequality) that created a great deal of conflict in America between 1900 and 1970.

At the end of this unit student will be able to:

(1) Identify Paul Robeson

(2) Discuss racial discrimination in America

(3) Discuss gender inequality in America

(4) Explain the interconnectedness of racial and gender inequality in American history

Background:

In reviewing the life, times and experiences of Paul Robeson, one cannot help but stand in awe of such a magnanimous personality. His talent, fortitude and perseverance are characteristic of many things lived by, believed in and at times died for: his family, his generation and moreover, his African American community. This article highlights three aspects that helped shape Paul Robeson's world view: the condition of African Americans during the his lifetime; the actual experience of his life; and his attempts to force the issue of equality from simply a matter of color discrimination to global equality and that of gender equity.

Paul Robeson enters the mortal realm at a peculiar time for America in general and African Americans in particular. The America that contributed to the personality of Paul Robeson reaches back to the mid-nineteenth century. Robeson's parents, William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill were products of this era. During the nineteenth century Robeson's parents were literally between slavery and freedom. His father was born into slavery on the Robeson plantation in Cross Roads Township in North Carolina, and his mother was born free in Pennsylvania to the Bustill's, a notable Philadelphia family. Both his parents provided their children with a panoramic vision of the collective African American experience.

For most African American's of the nineteenth century the American south in rural to semi-rural areas were places they lived prior to and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Historian Deborah Newman-Ham states in The African American Mosaic that when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed less than 8 percent of the African American population lived in the Northeast or Midwest. Even by 1900, approximately 90 percent of all African Americans still resided in the South. However, migration from the South has long been a significant feature of black history. An early exodus from the South occurred between 1879 and 1881, when about 60,000 African Americans moved into Kansas and others settled in the Oklahoma Indian Territories in search of social and economic freedom. Towards this end the flow of information amongst the domestic African American population was spreading as opportunities for land, dignity and a prosperous future lay ahead in uncharted territories such as the Midwest and the urban Northwest and Northeast.

Newman-Ham continues to note that in the early decades of the twentieth century, movement of blacks to the North increased tremendously. The reasons for this Great Migration, as it came to be called, are complex. Thousands of African Americans left the South to escape sharecropping, worsening economic conditions, and the lynch mob. They sought higher wages, better homes, and political rights. In the meantime, mainstream American society was bustling with a number of issues from Asian and Southeastern Europe immigration, to that of the domestic insurgence of the African Americans--the urban landscape was changing in demographic arenas.

Concurrently, historian Rayford Logan noted that from 1877 to about 1920 (from the presidential administrations of Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson), the federal government promoted racism and racist ideology to permeate the African American community. It is during these bipolar times of African American's propulsion from the South and exclusion within the North that the segregated urban enclaves would become a Canaan land for African American southerners, West Indians, Irish, Italian, Jews, Germans, Polish and Asian peoples. …