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Reflecting on Robeson’s artistic and sociopolitical legacy – Paul Robeson – Column

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

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 the 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

Robeson’s work might be more easily categorized if racial barriers
had not defined his opportunities for achievement in so many areas. He
achieved as an athlete despite the negative racial attitudes of his
colleagues. And he excelled as a scholar despite the fact that he had
only limited affiliation to academic institutions after his
under-graduate and legal studies at Rutgers.

In some ways, Robeson’s life was scholarship in action. He
fashioned a self-directed curriculum that included the mastery of more
than a dozen languages; the investigation of political and economic
relations on the African continent; and queries about the status of
workers in the United States, in Europe, and in the Soviet Union. He
did not practice law because he found that racial barriers would
prevent it. Race specifically shaped Robeson’s career as a singer,
which thrived partly because he claimed his heritage, presenting the
earliest concert programs comprised wholly of spirituals — called
“Negro music” — in the 1920s.

As an actor, Robeson hoped to influence the manner in which popular
culture presented images of African American people. Because he was
treated as an actor, not as a multifaceted actor-scholar-activist, his
influence in the movie business was minimized and his intentions to
present the African content in a more balanced way went unrealized.

Robeson’s range of professional experiences — as actor, singer,
scholar, athlete — uniquely shaped his activist vision. Much of the
work that he did in the activist realm revolved around his attempt to
connect aspects of the world-wide oppression that was an inevitable
result of capitalism and imperialism. From his perspective, working
class people in London had much in common with disenfranchised Negroes
in the United States, who had much in common with the colonized on the
African continent. His awareness of these connections was neither
popular nor well accepted. Still, the fallacy of American racial
attitudes was well illustrated by Robeson’s commentary, by the artist’s
use of his music, theater, and public appearances to heighten political

The richness of Robeson’s cultural message softened the sting of
his harshest criticism of our nation’s racial reality. The fact that
Robeson used the cultural context to explore political commentary may
explain why his detractors did not focus on the content of his message
until the Cold War era. Robeson’s message was consistent. Despite his
material success during the 1930-46 period, he recognized the
influences of his early life in shaping his views.

Although there will never be another Paul Robeson, his audacity and
principle not only leave a legacy but also an image of African American
manhood that is the antithesis of current images. It is for this
reason, if for no other, that his legacy must be both embraced and

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