[News] La Peña Celebrates Words and Life of Paul Robeson, Wed nite 2/27

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Feb 26 17:31:26 EST 2008

La Peña Celebrates Words and Life of Paul Robeson


By Deb Schneider, Special to the Planet 2008-02-26

Paul Robeson leads Moore Shipyard Workers in 
singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in Oakland in September 1942.
Paul Robeson was something of a Renaissance man. 
A singer, actor, lawyer, writer, civil rights 
advocate, all-American athlete and political 
activist, Robeson was a powerful and eloquent 
spokesman for racial justice well before Martin 
Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X, yet these 
successors have eclipsed him in the annals of history.

Robeson put his fame on the line for the 
revolutionary causes he believed in­the 
elimination of international fascism and the 
eradication of racism at home in the United 
States. With immense talent and determination, he 
developed his skills and earned his fame and 
influence in the institutions of white America, 
fighting racism all along the way. He proved that 
a black man could meet any challenge, could pass 
any test, and then, at the peak of his powers, he 
set out to tear down once and for all the 
oppressive system he had conquered. With 
conservative America and the federal government 
discrediting his name and his work every step of 
the way, Robeson entertained, educated, and 
inspired people to think differently about 
cultural differences in the United States.

Twenty-six of Robeson’s inspiring speeches have 
been collected on a CD, Paul Robeson: Words Like 
Freedom, the release of which will be celebrated 
at 6 p.m. Wednesday at La Peña Cultural Center. 
The CD was produced by the Freedom Archives, a 
San Francisco-based organization specializing in 
the preservation of audio and video recordings 
documenting social justice movements from the 1960s to the present.

Born in 1898 to an escaped slave, who later 
became a minister, and a mother who came from one 
of the oldest African families in the United 
States, Robeson committed himself to agitating a 
white supremacist system from early in life. He 
was one of only two black students at his high 
school. At 17, he earned an academic scholarship 
to Rutgers after graduating from high school with 
honors at a time when lynchings were still 
common. While his brothers chose all-black 
colleges, Robeson was the only black student in 
his class, suffering beatings while trying out 
for the Rutgers football team, beatings he 
endured in order to prove his mettle before going 
on to lead the team as a two-time All-American.

As Robeson continued to excel in academics (he 
attended law school first at NYU then later at 
Columbia) and theater performance (he was offered 
lead acting roles starting in the 1920s, while 
performing regularly at the Cotton Club), he also 
became intimately familiar with the effects of 
racism, social injustice and oppression. His own 
experience and family history inspired him to take political action.

Throughout Words like Freedom, Robeson’s deep, 
almost throbbing voice commands attention. Its 
unwavering firmness reflects his grounded stance 
for justice for African peoples, here and abroad, 
and his belief that oppressed people should 
unite. In “Harlem,” a speech given in 1949, 
Robeson asserts that oppression must be named for 
what it is, in the name of American 
responsibility and history. “To fulfill our 
responsibilities as Americans, we must unite, 
especially we Negro people. We must know our 
strengths. We happen to be the decisive force. 
That’s why they terrorize us, that’s why they 
fear us! And we must have the courage to shout at 
the top of our voices, above the injustices and 
we must lay the blame where it belongs and where 
it has belonged for over 300 years of slavery and 
continuous misery­right here on our own doorstep.”

As the CD progresses, we hear Robeson’s speeches 
increase in defiance and power under the 
restrictions imposed upon him by the U.S. 
government. His passport was revoked in 1950, and 
a few years later he would be forced to appear 
before the House Un-American Activities 
Committee. But this harassment only increased his 
political activity. “Freedom for the People of 
Africa” reads almost as a resumé of his 
activities in support of the liberation of 
African peoples and leads to an address entitled 
“To My Friends in the Bay Area,” where he 
declares, with the kind of hope not always 
associated with radical activists, “we shall overcome.”

The 12-minute testimony Robeson gave before the 
House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 is 
the most dynamic track in the collection. He 
solidly declares, “My name is Paul Robeson and 
anything I have to say, I have said in public all 
over the world, and that is why I am here today. 
The other reason why I am here is that when I am 
abroad, I speak out against injustices against 
the Negro in this land...I am being tried for 
fighting for the rights of my people.”

In a brilliant performance, Robeson, much to the 
audible frustration of the committee, employs his 
formidable rhetorical and locutionary skills to 
dramatically call attention to the absurdity of 
the allegations against him. When asked to speak 
to his relationship with anti-fascist movements 
and the Communist Party, he launches into a 
forceful diatribe about his deep roots in the 
United States, tracing his family’s lineage to 
the slaves of George Washington. At one point 
Robeson is questioned about his sympathy toward 
the Soviet Union, with the committee suggesting 
that he move there if that nation is truly free 
from racial prejudice, and Robeson responds by 
summoning that history: “Because my father was a 
slave, and my people died to build this country, 
I’m going to stay here and have a part of it just 
like you. And no fascist-minded people are going 
to drive me from it. Is that clear?”

“You are here because you are promoting the 
Communist cause!” a committee member says.

“I am here because I am opposing the neo-fascist 
cause,” Robeson responds, “which I see arising in 
these committees. Jefferson could be sitting 
here!” he says, pounding his spot at the table 
for emphasis. “And Frederick Douglass could be 
sitting here! Eugene Debs could be sitting here!”

A committee member goes on to say that Robeson 
could not possibly claim to be a victim of racial 
prejudice, as he graduated from Rutgers, from the 
University of Pennsylvania, and was a football star.

“Just a moment,” Robeson interrupts. “This is 
something I challenge very deeply: that the 
success of a few Negroes can make up for $700 a 
year for thousands of Negro families in the 
South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins 
who are sharecroppers. I do not see success in terms of myself.”

Robeson knowingly and willingly paid a price for 
his activism. His music and films were pulled 
from distribution, contributing greatly to his 
eclipse today. Words Like Freedom is an attempt 
to bring the power of Robeson’s life’s work back 
into the public consciousness in the hope that it 
can serve as an inspiration for modern-day resistance movements.



CD release party, 7 p.m. Wednesday at La Peña 
Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave.

Deb Schneider is a volunteer and board member at 
Freedom Archives, a San Francisco-based 
organization that seeks to help people reconnect 
with the foundations of social justice work by 
documenting radical activism and social movements 
that have been minimized and misconstrued by 
mainstream history. For more information, see www.freedomarchives.org.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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