Lately Paul Robeson is on my mind. Unless they’ve chosen or been assigned to study him most people don’t know more than a few details about him.
If they know about him, they think he was a singer, or an athlete, or an actor, or an activist, or that he somehow spoke as many as 20 languages. The average American doesn’t know that each of these described him and helped to define him, and his legacy, and his meaning to his people. It’s a great and terrible thing: the great is that he was all of these, and more. The terrible: too few people know this.
Why the hubbub? April 9th marks his 115th birthday. He was unique; as a black American he was extraordinary.
Unfortunately, today he is barely remembered or even seen as a role model.
His college days hinted at his extraordinary range of interests and high standard of excellence:
According to a faculty blog of Marquette University, “few college students have ever excelled at the level at which Robeson performed at Rutgers. He graduated first in his class; was elected Phi Beta Kappa as a junior; and won the college’s oratory contest each year that he was enrolled. He also won twelve varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball, and track.” Too boot, he was an All-American football player.
Here Robeson briefly describes his comprehension of William Shakespeare the his play, Othello, and its title character.
He left his mark on the National Football League, the Harlem Renaissance, the Red Scare, Shakespeare and human rights activism. How have we forgotten him or his feats? Granted, he died in 1976, nearly 40-years-ago. The year when “The Bionic Woman” premiered on ABC, and Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded Apple. Time passes. Memories fade.
While college educations and professions are available to young people, most of them seem to aspire to be pro athletes, or rap, rock or Reality TV stars. Young people are rarely exposed to the exploits of people, like Robeson, who aspired and excelled across diverse and divergent fields.
If you want to understand him beyond the superficial, then read; there are books about him: Here I Stand, in which he reflects on how the House of Representatives mistreated him for standing with his convictions, or the Undiscovered Paul Robeson. There are two volumes: An Artist’s Journey, and Quest for Freedom.
Robeson may have been more impressive and more extraordinary in his time, than Pres. Barack Obama is in ours, given the racial and economic obstacles of 40-years-ago.