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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.

Floyd W. Hayes III, senior lecturer in political science and coordinator of undergraduate programs in Africana studies at The Johns Hopkins University, will speak on “The Cultural Politics of Robeson and Richard Wright: Theorizing the African Diaspora” at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, April 9, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Sharon Gavin-Levy, professor of English at Northampton Community College.

It was in hushed tones that Floyd W. Hayes III first heard whispered the name Paul Robeson.

As teenager in his parents’ Los Angeles home, Hayes didn’t fully know who Robeson was or the significance of speaking his name when he heard his parents talking quietly.

“Robeson had been shut down by then,” says Hayes, senior lecturer in political science and coordinator of undergraduate programs in Africana studies at The Johns Hopkins University. “While Robeson was a hero among black people, black people were fearful. There was this issue of his connection to the U.S. Communist Party. He was just very radical, and there was a lot of fear in discussing him.”

In college, Hayes learned about the ways in which Robeson challenged American racist views and embraced radical causes, about Robeson’s impact on American ideals at the time. He began to understand why Robeson was such an important person, why the American government tried to silence Robeson – why Robeson’s name had been spoken in whispers.

That’s why Hayes feels it is more important than ever that people young and old talk about Robeson and looks forward to participating in Lafayette’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

“What better place than a college to raise these issues? I think the conference is an occasion where we can once again demonstrate the importance of Robeson and other figures who challenged the Western, American racists and the exploitation of capitalist ideals,” Hayes says. “It is an occasion in which we make visible once again this important figure. My thinking is that if we don’t continually cherish and research our history and our present, that Americans will silence that.”

Hayes, who holds a doctorate in government and politics from the University of Maryland; a master’s in African area studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a bachelor’s in French and political science from North Carolina Central University, will speak on the different ways that Robeson and his contemporary Richard Wright viewed the relationship between black American and Africa.

“In the post-World War II period, racism and white supremacy were supreme in America, and black people, particularly black intellectuals, in many ways were called upon to defend black existence,” Hayes explains. “Segregation was dominant in America, and many black intellectuals found themselves in the quest to defend black existence – not achievements or advancements, but simple existence.”

In their defense of black humanity, Robeson and Wright attempted to create a worldwide forum to highlight black America’s intellectual engagements by forming relationships and alliances with other nations, Hayes says.

“I’m interested in the similarities and differences in Robeson and Wright’s efforts to theorize the relationship between Africa and black America,” Hayes says.

“The question I have is, how did Robeson and Wright view this relationship between Africa and black America as part of the Diaspora? In a way, black America constituted part of the Diaspora, just as the West Indies and Latin America were part of the dispersion of Africa.”

Hayes has found that Robeson, whom people might imagine would have difficulty relating to African people, identified with the continent and thought of himself as African. But Wright, who was of a poor, almost peasant background and had not gone to school or college, was appalled by African traditions and could not identify at all with the deep-rooted religious and spiritual dimensions of African tribal customs.

Both men were global intellectuals, world travelers who shared Marxist political philosophies. But whereas Wright believed the slave trade had eliminated all connection between Africa and black America and that he was truly Westernized, Robeson sought to maintain a cultural connectedness with all people, no matter their ethnicity or class.

“If I may be so bold, I think right from the outset of Robeson’s life, with his dad and going back in his family, there was an appreciation for common people,” Hayes explains. “Both Wright and Robeson were sympathetic to Marxism, but Wright embraced it more than Robeson, and I think Robeson’s interest in the common man and his embrace of common culture separated him from Wright.

“As an artist, singer, and actor, I think Robeson was more interested in culture and, therefore, more ready to embrace African culture, or at least to say he was African. On the other hand, Wright’s intellectual leanings and his background pushed him in a direction that did not appreciate culture in that sense.”

Despite their differences, Robeson and Wright seemed to value each other’s opinions, Hayes says.

“One of the things I find quite interesting is that you have in this early period black intellectuals who were radical intellectuals with differing perspectives about the world, but they seemed to get along,” Hayes says. “I think that the intellectuals of this earlier period were seasoned, global thinkers, who traveled and had a global perspective of the world.”

Hayes explains that he believes much of the reason why Robeson and Wright and others like them got along was because they shared an overriding common goal – defending their very existence.

Today’s students must be made aware of this simple fact about Robeson’s life, Hayes says.

“America today is a land in which history is becoming less and less important,” Hayes explains. “Young people I teach at Johns Hopkins look at the 1960s as I might look at ancient Egypt. There is a real need to resurrect figures like Paul Robeson and, indeed, Richard Wright, to continue to keep that part of the discussion.”

Paul Robeson is just one of the figures to which Hayes has devoted much of his life’s work.

He is the editor of A Turbulent Voyage: Readings in African American Studies, now in its third edition.

He is preparing the fourth edition of A Turbulent Voyage and a book on Wright’s social and political thought entitled Domination and Ressentiment: The Desperate Vision of Richard Wright.

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