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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 Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American studies at University of California, Los Angeles, will speak on “Paul Robeson: The Quintessential Public Intellectual” at 9 a.m., Thursday, April 7, in Oechsle Hall 224 (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be John T. McCartney, the conference director and professor and head of government and law at Lafayette.

“Paul Robeson is, in my view, the quintessential genius of American cultural life, indeed the creative genius of the 20th century – no rivals,” says Paul Von Blum matter-of-factly, with no emotional emphasis, no scholarly airs.

He is by now used to receiving a “That’s some statement!” response.

“I was once being interviewed by The New York Times,” he recalls. “The reporter put down his glasses and asked, ‘Do you really want to make that statement in The New York Times?’ And I thought about it for just a couple of seconds and said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’

“Robeson’s influence is felt on everybody. For multifaceted accomplishments in a life, I’d put him in a class with Leonardo and Thomas Jefferson,” Von Blum concludes.

Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, will present his research at Lafayette’s April conference on Paul Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

Von Blum is author of six books, including Other Visions, Other Voices: Women Political Artists (1995), Foundations of Freedom (1991), Stillborn Education (1986), and the recently published Resistance, Dignity, and Pride: African American Art in Los Angeles, the first effort specifically directed to the critical analysis and discovery of black Los Angeles artists.

Von Blum has taught at the University of California since 1968, first at Berkeley, and for the past 25 years at UCLA. While he teaches across the humanities and social sciences, the premier focus of his research is the connection of the arts to politics and society. He has received Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Awards at both Berkeley and UCLA.

Von Blum’s study of Robeson led to his creation of an interdisciplinary course entitled Paul Robeson: An American Life, which examines the scope of Robeson’s life; his accomplishments as scholar, athlete, attorney, stage and film actor, singer, and civil-rights and political activist; the psychology and sociology of human creativity, and the character of American society.

At Lafayette Von Blum will analyze Robeson as a major public intellectual who expressed deeply felt views on civil rights, colonialism, war and peace, the rights and dignity of labor, interracial respect and cooperation, and the ethical superiority of socialism.

“He was a public intellectual,” says Von Blum. “Much intellectual debate is confined to academic circles, which means the public is neither interested nor has access to it. But he was out there in the fray.”

As for what created such a Renaissance man, Von Blum cites the influence of Robeson’s father, and escaped slave who earned a college degree and became a minister.

In the Robeson autobiography Here I Stand there is this insight, says Von Blum:

Reverend Robeson flatly rejected [Booker T.] Washington’s concept that Negro education be limited to manual training; he firmly believed that the heights of knowledge must be scaled by the freedom-seeker. Latin, Greek, philosophy, history, literature—all the treasures of learning must be the Negro’s heritage as well.

“This is, I think, the foundation of Paul Robeson’s profound and lifelong commitment to intellectual development,” Von Blum says. “It is also the foundation of his commitment to combining intellectual accomplishment with political conviction and activism.

“He was obviously born with talent, but there was an overwhelming influence from his father of the need to strive for excellence to overcome any barrier,” Von Blum continues. “If his father was the foundation, the seminal event in his life was the Spanish Civil War, where Robeson took a stand for the republic against the fascists. This was the catalyst that made his intellectual development more systematic. This really strengthened his growing political consciousness and propelled him into the arena of intellectual public debate.”

Robeson’s acting career, which began in 1921, made him a public figure, showing his intellectual depth as well as acting talent. In preparation for roles, he looked deeply into the character and utilized his remarkable affinity with languages. He would rehearse lines in different languages to view the character from a broader perspective and make it more universal.

“He was very proficient with languages,” says Von Blum. “No one knows how many he knew – 15, 18, 20. He learned them with ease.”

As a singer, Robeson used his linguistic talents, and the platform, to even greater effect.

“He knew that to understand a people you need to understand their language,” says Von Blum. “When he sang their folk songs it gave him a rich understanding, and he could communicate it.”

“As an activist, he was much more effective as a concert singer than a film actor. Sometimes he wound up in films really reinforcing stereotypes. But on stage [as a singer] he was in control and used it as a forum. He used concerts to offer observations about other cultures; he interspersed comments about songs and talked to the audience,” says Von Blum.

Robeson looked deeply into everything he did, every topic he examined, according to Von Blum.

“For instance, in colonialism, he saw linkages; he understood what was going on in civil rights and colonialism and had a sense of unity with all oppressed people.”

“In any area of human endeavor, one has to look for historic roots,” Von Blum adds.

“In so many of these areas Robeson represents the zenith of these roots. Athletes, actors, singers, political activists – they all would acknowledge his influence.”

Alluding to his Lafayette presentation, Von Blum says, “We can take all aspects of Robeson’s accomplishments and show that they add up to a remarkable reputation as a public intellectual.”

His presentation will also examine why Robeson’s depth of political scholarship appealed to a wide range of audiences and will compare him to contemporary intellectuals whose “breadth is miniscule in comparison,” according to Von Blum.

While Von Blum credits Robeson as the “inspirational force that propelled me into activism,” and a “role model to do as many things as well as you can do,” his support for Robeson is not unqualified. Von Blum is critical of Robeson’s celebrated support of the Soviet Union.

“He spoke his mind, but I think he was wrong, and I have been very critical of Robeson [for not speaking out against the Soviet Union]. He was privately concerned about Stalin but he made the calculation that he didn’t want to exacerbate tensions of the Cold War. I think he was blind and should have spoken out,” adds Von Blum.

“The Lafayette conference is very important because it really addresses a dimension that has never been addressed, that of Robeson as an intellectual leader,” states Von Blum. “There has been plenty of discussion about his work as a performer, but this conference brings it all together.

“I think the conference will bring a fusion of the breadth and depth of his intellectual talent. The breadth speaks for itself, but he also had tremendous depth.”

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