SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Reflecting on Robeson's Artistic and Sociopolitical Legacy

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SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Reflecting on Robeson's Artistic and Sociopolitical Legacy

If Paul Robeson were living, he would have been 100 years old on April 9. The fact that his centennial birthday is being celebrated around the world, offers us a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the man's life, legacy, and significance.

Many of Paul Robeson's positions on issues maintain a currency in contemporary political analysis. Whether he was addressing Vietnam, African independence, the rights of workers, or the development of democracy, statements that he made in the early to middle twentieth century often represent current progressive thinking.

When Robeson described himself as one of "Africa's children in America," he shaped the discussion that would later take "Africa's children" from Negro to Black to African American. When he gleefully reveled in his Blackness ("Sometimes I think I am the only Negro living who would not prefer to be White."), he portended the Afrocentricity of Stokely Carmichael, Maulana Karenga, Molefe Asante, and others. When he spoke of peace, his words foreshadowed those of generations of peace activists who used arguments similar to those he offered to oppose U.S. involvement or intervention in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and other countries.

Robeson's influence was diminished when his right to travel was curtailed. He was effectively muzzled by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His treatment raises questions about the perversion of the First Amendment in the name of Cold War solidarity. As historical revisionism focuses on the horrible toll that HUAC took on the lives of hundreds of American artists and the devastating impact it had on our democracy, it is important to focus on the artistic and sociopolitical legacy Paul Robeson left.

Deconstructing Paul Robeson's enigmatic life seems as unachievable as grasping hold of an evasive apparition. The most definitive biography of Robeson's life is not without controversy. The most comprehensive compilations of Robeson's speeches and writings reveal a man who cannot be reduced to a bumper sticker. Indeed, the opening words of the Paul Robeson Speaks collection recall Mrs. Ogden Reid, publisher of the New York Herald-Tribune, Describing Robeson as having "distinguished himself in four separate fields: scholar, athlete, singer, and actor."

For all the goodwill that accompanies her statement, Mrs. Ogden incompletely describes Robeson. To be sure, he achieved distinction as "scholar, athlete, singer, and actor." He was also a Rutgers University-educated lawyer and activist whose voice on issues of racial and economic justice emerged early in his career. He realized his acting and singing made him something of a racial ambassador, noting that through his work, "the talents of the Negro are being brought to the fore and at last the shackles of intellectual slavery are being severed. …