Why Paul Robeson matters

To those who are familiar with the life and works of Paul Robeson, it will come as little surprise that a mention of his name elicits blank stares and baffled half-nods.

I was just such a blank-faced audience member when I attended a Saul Williams reading and first heard of him. Since Williams is a personal hero of mine, and the reaction of those who knew of Robeson was so warm, I took it upon myself to learn something about him, and what I found was amazing.

For a time in his life, Robeson was one of the world’s most respected performers, black or white. He spoke and sang with a deep baritone that resonated with the aspirations of an entire people. His most famous theatrical role was his brilliant, though controversial, portrayal of the title character in Shakespeare’s "Othello," but his life also encompassed literature, athletics and music. However, his importance to us and our nation today lies in his position as a vocal, uncompromising activist for true equality.

Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., in April 1898. His father, the Rev. William D. Robeson, was an escaped slave and was the pastor of a local church. His father’s influence on him was immense, despite the great disparity in their ages (Rev. Robeson was in his 50s when Paul was born). Of his father, Robeson wrote, "Just as in youth he had refused to remain a slave, so in all his years of manhood, he disdained to be an Uncle Tom. From him we learned, and never doubted it, that the Negro was in every way the equal of a white man."

At Somerville High School in Somerville, N.J., Robeson learned Latin and Greek, excelled in athletics and began his love affair with the stage. Most importantly, he competed for, and won, an academic scholarship to Rutgers University.

At Rutgers, Robeson continued his brilliance in the classroom, on the stage and on the field. He’d learned at an early age that to survive in white society, he had to excel in every arena. Years later, describing the character Othello, Robeson spoke as well to his own condition, "The fact that he is an alien among white people makes his mind work more quickly."

But Rutgers did not exist in a vacuum, and in one disgusting episode a football team from Virginia’s Washington and Lee University refused to play against an athlete of "inferior racial stock." Sadly, the Rutgers Athletic Department bowed to the demands.

Robeson made his life a repudiation of such bestial ignorance. When his acting career took him to Europe, he found that outside of the United States, a Black man was more likely to be judged on his own merits than on his hue. He became a self-named "citizen of the world," bringing African-American culture to a global audience. In the process, he sang and spoke in 25 languages.

He reminded the nation that a human is a human, worthy of respect and possessed of dignity, regardless of position, wealth, or complexion, "It is therefore the task of this new spirit to make national unity a reality, at whatever sacrifice, and to provide full opportunities for the development of everyone, both as a living personality and as a member of a community upon which social responsibilities devolve… [We must] aim toward Solon’s definition of the ideal government – where an injury to the meanest citizen is an insult to the whole constitution; and until black and white shall clasp friendly hands in the consciousness of the fact that we are brethren and that God is the father of us all."

So, why have so few of us heard of Paul Robeson? His proud refusal to bow and scrape was the tinder ignited by one unforgivable crime: in the ’40s he traveled through the Soviet Union and found the Russian people to be open, intelligent and engaging.

His observations led him to question the nascent Cold War. He asked his fellow Black Americans, why do you fight to preserve a system that keeps you down? He refused to perform in racially segregated theaters, and recognized that the U.S. educational system was breeding workers, not thinkers. "Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools – intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it – this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life."

Often when Robeson performed, he would read the Langston Hughes poem, "Freedom Train," and these few lines from that poem’s end serve as a graceful epitaph for the life of one of this country’s greatest men:

Then maybe from their graves…
Black men and white will say, We want it so!
Black men and white will say, Ain’t it fine?
At home they got a Freedom train,
A Freedom train,
That’s yours and mine!

Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]