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Happy 123rd Birthday, Paul Robeson! Homage to a Beleaguered Leader

(9 April 1898 - 23 January 1976)

Humanist, Pan-Africanist, Socialist, Quaker Descendant,

Celebrated Singer, Actor, Scholar, Recording Artist, and Athlete


Paul Robeson lived during the same period as my father, Dr. Harold D. Weaver, Sr., a period of history when African-descendant folks suffered in the USA as we imagine hell to be. Besides my family, I have no greater respect for any American who ever lived than Paul Robeson. Robeson was descended from generations of Quakers. This included Cyrus Bustill, who famously baked bread for George Washington’s troops, and celebrated educators Grace and Sarah Mapps Douglass, who were both relegated to the back bench of their Quaker meeting despite their many contributions and commitment to Quakerism. Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson was the son of previously enslaved Rev. William Drew Robeson, the minister of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. The crucial advice of his father--to attain the highest possible, to pursue only worthwhile goals, and to remain loyal to his convictions--would influence Robeson in achieving near perfection in almost all he set out to do. Unfortunately, his Quaker mother, Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, a school teacher, died in a house fire before young Paul entered primary school. Sadly, he had no memory of her; we can only imagine the impact of her genes on this incredible achiever. Robeson had a legendary academic and non-academic career at Rutgers University, graduating in 1919 as a 2-year, Phi-Beta-Kappa member; class valedictorian; four-letter athlete; 2-year All-American football star; and winner of every University oratorical contest for which he was eligible. Though he was a member of the Glee Club, his African heritage prevented his participation in concerts off the Rutgers campus. His collegiate achievements served as a preamble to the world renowned artist of screen, stage, and recordings that he was to become. He starred in 12 films, performed in concert halls across the globe, and touched the hearts of people around the world with his recordings. Especially notable was his singing of “Ol’ Man River,” which lyrics he changed significantly as his politics changed. Scholar-activist C.L.R. James, poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, and anti-colonial political leader Julius Nyerere were among those respected international figures who praised the commitment of this prolific artist-activist to freedom around the world. A revolutionary humanist and influential Pan-Africanist, Robeson was committed to Black liberation and dignity worldwide. At great personal cost, he connected the liberation struggle of Africans, African Americans, and the people of the Caribbean in condemning Western Imperialism. And he was a confidant of the USSR political leader, Nikita Khrushchev. The USA government, economic institutions, cultural czars, and the media united to take away his livelihood, to seize his USA passport for eight years, to institute an industry boycott of his records, and to bar him from concert halls. Is that not totalitarianism, exemplifying the unity and collaboration of the political, economic, and cultural? Robeson was never even allowed to appear on USA TV—a total white-out. When I arrived at Rutgers in 1970 to head a new program in Afro-American and African Studies, later becoming founding Chair of the Africana Studies Department, not a single student in our introductory course had ever heard of Paul Robeson. Over the next 3 1/2 years, I worked to return Robeson to his rightful place in Rutgers, USA, and world history. A selected list of achievements follows: First in May of 1971, the Emmy-award-winning, 3-part series, New Jersey Speaks: A Tribute to Paul Robeson, broke the national television silence and white-out of Robeson. Featured in the program were Pete Seeger, Ossie Davis, Paul Robeson Jr., and myself. In the spring of 1972, I created the educational short film, “Paul Robeson: Identity, Political Economy, and Communications;” taught the first ever course in the world on Robeson; and initiated the action to have Robeson receive an honorary doctorate from Rutgers. This would be realized in May 1973, with Paul, Jr., accepting the degree on behalf of his ill father. A month earlier, I organized the first ever USA Robeson film retrospective and the “Paul Robeson Symposium'' for his 75th birthday, with a keynote address by C.L.R. James, the great activist-author. Further film screening-discussions followed as well as the presentation of my educational film on Robeson to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s annual meeting in NYC during October 1973. By the time of my resignation from Rutgers in February 1974, my writing on Robeson had been published in several magazines: The Black Scholar, Black World, and the Negro History Bulletin. My mission, for decades to follow, was to publish on Robeson, to screen his films, and to lecture on him around the world in order to continue a commitment to the much needed restoration of his name to world history. To read a bit more about Robeson, please see our article from which we took some of the above information: “Paul Robeson: Beleaguered Leader,” The Black Scholar 5, no. 4 (1973/1974): 24–32. For further information on our work on Robeson and our ministry, the BlackQuaker Project, please visit our website. To view our 1972 short film, “Paul Robeson: Identity, Political Economy, and Communications,” click here. View our new video retrospective on my research on and advocacy for Robeson below. We invite you to share with us at your questions, thoughts, and insights on Robeson and his legacy. How important do you feel Paul Robeson’s life and achievements were to the human race?



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