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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.

Author Randall Robinson, founder and former president of TransAfrica, will deliver a keynote speech at 7 p.m. Friday, April 8, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Lafayette alumnus Riley K. Temple ’71, a partner in the telecommunications law firm of Halprin and Temple, Washington, D.C., and secretary of the College’s Board of Trustees.

The more attention paid to Paul Robeson’s life, the closer the United States will edge toward “intellectual public honesty” about its history, says author and human-rights activist Randall Robinson.

“It’s high time we atone and talk about all the good Paul Robeson did,” says Robinson. “In what he fought for, he was ahead of his time. Lafayette College has taken a measure of that in its commitment to remember and discuss Robeson’s life.”

The founder and former president of the nonprofit organization TransAfrica, Robinson will deliver a keynote address at Lafayette’s conference on Robeson, discussing the relevance of Robeson’s life for contemporary Americans and the maintenance of a viable democracy.

“What Paul Robeson stood for and what he endured has a lot to say to us today about current policies, dilemmas, and missteps which could have been avoided by encouraging dissent,” says Robinson, who emigrated from the United States to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts three and a half years ago. He is author of Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land (2004), The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe To Each Other (2002), The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000), and Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America (1998).

“Democracy is rooted in a culture of enlightened citizenry,” he says. “That means the participatory aspect goes way beyond the ritual of voting. It means keeping oneself informed and debating how policies are made and implemented. If we had stayed on that track, we wouldn’t be in the quagmire of Iraq.”

Robeson sang and spoke for peace and equality in many different languages, but his outspoken dissent against bigotry and Cold War hostilities between the United States and Russia led to his persecution and the demise of his career in the 1950s.

It was in this suppressed atmosphere that Robinson first learned of Paul Robeson from his father, a public-school history teacher in Richmond, Va., who spoke about the controversial stage star and activist only at home, never in public.

“I can recall clearly how he respected Paul Robeson and how little he could talk about it publicly and hold onto his job,” says Robinson. “Such was the isolation Paul Robeson was forced to live in.”

Not even in the black community was Robeson a figure of discussion, he says. “There was a good deal of voluntary suppression that went on then. We got to know less than we should have about him.”

Even so, Robinson believes the United States is no better off today than in Robeson’s era in terms of nourishing its democracy. That’s because its news sources, public schools, and colleges have failed in their informative role, he believes.

“They never show the American public views from the other side. The world is ripe with countless cultures and varied views,” he says. “By doing that, we don’t weaken ourselves, we strengthen ourselves. We’re unaware of how narrow our exposure is.”

Robinson points out that there are now fewer newspapers than in the 1950s, and the existing ones are in the hands of a smaller number of people, who control much of the information that “Americans get about anything.”

“The question is, how well is our democracy?” he says. “We need to look in the mirror and get an accurate image, to be self-critical.”

Robinson considers his own organization, TransAfrica, which educates the public, particularly African Americans, about the economic, political, and moral ramifications of U.S. foreign policy, as a sort of descendent of Robeson’s Council on African Affairs.

That council, founded by Robeson with W.E.B. DuBois and Alphaeus Hunton, worked to promote support by Americans to the struggles for freedom in Africa.

In his books, Robinson takes on such issues as the lasting harm inflicted by slavery and discrimination, reparations for the least successful descendents of slaves, and his own expatriation to St. Kitts.

“I enjoy writing, but I can’t evaluate their reception,” he says of his books. “Although I can understand the purchase numbers, which are encouraging.”

However, he isn’t sure his own publications have had the impact on anyone that E.R. Braithwaite’s A Kind of Homecoming had on him when he was 23.

“He felt what I felt when I stood in the Door of No Return and looked westward across the Atlantic,” says Robinson of the author who also wrote To Sir, With Love. “He understood how people felt when they were captured and sent off to slavery. I began to think about the world and my role in it. I would hope my books cause people to think.”

One topic likely to do that is Robinson’s call for reparations: what the United States owes to the descendents of slaves for their ancestors’ suffering and immense, unpaid contributions to its economy. The most disadvantaged or “bottom-stuck” blacks should be compensated through education and economic development, he believes.

“If you put a dollar number on this thing, you’d be talking in the trillions, but I did not in the book [The Reckoning] put a number on it,” Robinson says. “It has to cause America to think that the consequences of what you do to a people for 346 years follows them. Intergenerationally, when one group benefits and the other suffers, it creates a gap.

“You have to acknowledge that a great wrong has been done, with the complicity of the government, and you’re obligated morally to look at what can be done. These wrongs are still very visible.”

In fact, history offers African Americans many good reasons to leave the United States, believes Robinson, who has also made his move to the “very small, very safe, exquisitely beautiful” and warm island of St. Kitts a topic of his writings.

“I couldn’t love a country that didn’t love me,” he says of his departure. “Without leaving, I imagine a large percentage of African Americans have already left, too. There remain two Americas, not all that different from Paul Robeson’s time.

“One has to have one’s history respected, one’s thousand-year story, one’s evolution as a people and as a society. American has never accorded that to anyone except those from Europe,” he says. “I have never accepted that.”

Still, Robinson’s books explore the issues of America, and he acknowledges that for better or worse, part of his mind is often in the place where he spent his first 60 years: “You don’t leave that behind. It’s always with you.”

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