Paul Robeson: The Quintessential Public Intellectual

Article excerpt

The following is a lecture presented at the Lafayette College (Easton, PA) 'Paul Robeson Conference', April 7, 2005, as a part of a three-day conference on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties.

In The Last Intellectuals, published in 1987, historian Russell Jacoby lamented the decline of the tradition of public intellectual expression and its replacement by a narrow and highly specialized academic culture. Jacoby argued persuasively that too many contemporary intellectuals, including many identifying themselves as progressive or Marxist, are comfortably ensconced in universities, where they typically dedicate themselves to narrow academic debates replete with esoteric jargon and minuscule professional audiences. He maintained that this process, which has intensified in the past 21 years, inhibits broader public discourse and redirects intellectual and political energy into increasingly remote forums.

Jacoby also identified many of the robust early and mid 20th century public intellectuals who wrote and spoke to large audiences of politically engaged and intellectually curious citizens. His list included people of different and opposing political ideologies, including H. L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Paul Goodman, William F. Buckley, Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan, and many others. He also recognized some academics like Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Noam Chomsky, again among others. The Last Intellectuals makes an outstanding contribution to modern intellectual history, encouraging readers to reconsider the American public intellectuals whose cumulative efforts promoted the vigorous and contentious debate that any democratic society requires.

This tradition should also include the vast and still marginalized tradition of African American public intellectualism. Often ignored or slighted in traditional texts, African American intellectuals have regularly brought issues of race and racism to major public attention, all too often to a society reluctant to confront the oppressive and disgraceful treatment of millions of people of African descent.

Such figures as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more confronted America with its abysmal record of racism, combining powerful intellectual stature with vigorous and relentless progressive political activism. In recent years, notable academics like Cornel West, Henry Gates, Michael Dyson, Manning Marable, Patricia Williams, bell hooks, Angela Davis, and many others have continued this tradition of socially conscious intellectual expression in settings far beyond their university homes. Hundreds of Black poets, dramatists, novelists, visual artists, filmmakers and other creative figures augment this extensive record, revealing a more comprehensive and impressive history of African American intellectual distinction.

Among the giants of this tradition-arguably the giant-was Paul Robeson, whose decades of accomplishments as an athlete, stage and screen actor, singer, orator, and radical civil rights and political activist made him one of the most accomplished human beings in history. After decades of government-instigated obscurity, Robeson's stellar reputation has slowly re-emerged, ending generations of official silence and hostility resulting from his outspoken political radicalism and his disgraceful removal from the historical record during the era of postwar McCarthyism and anticommunist hysteria. In 1998, national and international celebrations of the hundredth anniversary of his birth generated widespread publicity in popular and scholarly venues. Books and articles about Robeson and his times proliferated, offering large audiences the opportunity to learn about the man and his place in American cultural and political history. Thousands of Americans, including college and university students, discovered for the first time the magnificent breadth and depth of Robeson's life and work. …