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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

Paul Robeson Jr., journalist, translator, lecturer, personal aide to Paul Robeson for more than 20 years, owner and archivist of The Robeson Collection, will deliver a keynote speech at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Introducing Robeson Jr. will be Arthur J. Rothkopf ’55, Lafayette president. The moderator will be June Schlueter, Lafayette provost.

Growing up with a famous father might overwhelm, intimidate, or even cripple some people, but Paul Robeson Jr. savors his special birthright.

“It was an extraordinary experience. He was an extraordinary person,” Robeson Jr. says of Paul Robeson, the athlete, actor, concert artist, scholar, activist, and world citizen. “I didn’t understand it fully until he was gone. But I absorbed from him an appreciation of what it meant to be a human being.”

The keeper of his father’s archive, which he terms a labor of love, Robeson Jr. is looking forward to serving as a keynote speaker for Lafayette’s April conference “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual.”

The conference is “cutting edge,” says Robeson Jr., 77, because his father’s intellectual side is his least well-known dimension, a facet poorly researched by scholars, who have more often emphasized the political controversy of his life.

“A very rich set of documents shows that Paul Robeson was one of the foremost cultural thinkers of the 20th century. He redefined the place of Southern slave culture in the context of the world,” says Robeson Jr., author of The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, 1898-1939 (2002) and Paul Robeson Jr. Speaks to America (1993).

At the conference Robeson Jr. aims to put his father’s writings of 60-70 years ago into a modern context, illustrating how contemporary his ideas were. “They were 21st-century pieces,” he says.

Although Robeson was accused of being a communist and had his career shattered during the McCarthy era, Robeson Jr. contends that his father’s true threat to the American government were his cultural ideas, his explorations of slave culture and its value system. Robeson’s studies presented “an alternative value system of an unassimilated, automatically dissident culture” that alarmed the Anglo-Saxon powers, says Robeson Jr.

“He wasn’t the communist in the family, I was,” he says. “He never joined any party. He, being a great artist, didn’t do that. He thought it would destroy his effectiveness. I, being a generation younger and not an artist, felt that the way to be effective was through an organization.”

Robeson Jr. says he has been politically independent for 40 years. He contends that “grievous distortions” destroyed the communist movement, which, in any case, had become infiltrated by U.S. agents and ceased to have a useful function to African Americans and labor.

“I regret not a moment of that, even the difficult times, although no one likes being a target,” he says.

Robeson Jr. served as his father’s aide for more than 20 years. He had had to overcome “a determined hazing” by Robeson to become that assistant, go-between, and sometimes bodyguard.

“I spent the ’50s, when he was blacklisted, as one of his three or four closest advisers. It was like being a co-freedom fighter,” he says. “It wasn’t painful. I learned to be a better human being, how to be a fighter. It was dangerous work – a person could get killed. You had to overcome fear and anger.”

Robeson Jr. says he succeeded in being helpful to Robeson by serving as a trustworthy intermediary. Among other things, he arranged secret recording sessions, hiring musicians off-the-books when Robeson couldn’t rent a studio.

Despite the hard times, Robeson Jr. wouldn’t trade his life for any other, even if as a child, he wondered sometimes why his father was “far away talking with prime ministers.”

“He was so ‘with you’ when he was around. Paul Robeson was a unique personality whose impact was indelible. He could walk in and sit down and say not a word, but you’d know someone was there. Call it charisma, a personal aura, an immense force,” Robeson Jr. says. “He was a huge man like a mountain, but then you would see him go eyeball-to-eyeball with a little kid. He was a mixture of great sensitivity and impatience with nonsense. He could not bear deception.”

Robeson describes his father as a playful person who would make up games and had a great sense of humor that was not indicated by his dignified public demeanor.

“He was not a lecturer. He taught by example. He once told me that the secret to teaching was never to teach unless asked, and always to teach too little.”

Because Robeson traveled the world with his wife, the scientist Eslanda Cardozo Goode, Robeson Jr. lived with his grandparents for his first six years, and then traveled, too. He had visited so many countries by age 12, he says, he was done with wandering for the next two decades.

Being a black child was “nowhere as burdensome” in white Europe as in the United States, “although my people are here,” says Robeson Jr., a Manhattan resident. “No people are as obsessed with color as Anglo Saxons.”

In contrast, he felt accepted in the school he attended for a few years in the Soviet Union, where some of his teachers – he calls them “living history” – had participated in the Russian Revolution and were still, in the 1930s, trying to create an egalitarian society.

“When I was there, I witnessed the last years of the true revolutionary society, the roots of modern Russia,” recalls Robeson Jr., who is fluent in Russian and German. “Later Stalin wiped out the real revolutionaries.”

A writer with an engineering education, Robeson Jr. says he won’t go near a stage as an entertainer or seek to live a public life as his father did.

“You pay a terrible price,” he says. “What do you do when you’re finished, when the voice isn’t there anymore? Your life is over. No thanks!”

Depictions of his father’s last 10 years, when he lived far out of public view with his sister in Philadelphia, as a “life that was over” are inaccurate, says Robeson Jr.

Robeson “thumbed his nose at his enemies to the end,” says his son.

“He didn’t take good care of himself physically. He had heart problems and arteriosclerosis,” he says. “He didn’t want to be in the public eye as a sick old man. He wasn’t in the nostalgia business. It was time to leave the stage.”

“He knew what he had done,” Robeson Jr. says, adding that at the end of his life full of accomplishment and struggle, the Civil Rights Movement was “marching along paths he had helped cut through virgin forest.”

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