[News] La Peña Celebrates Words and Life of Paul Robeson, Wed nite 2/27
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 Robesons 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, Robesons 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.
Thats why they terrorize us, thats 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 Robesons 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 familys 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,
Im 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 Robesons lifes work back
into the public consciousness in the hope that it
can serve as an inspiration for modern-day resistance movements.
WORDS LIKE FREEDOM
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.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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