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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.

Kofi Asare Opoku, professor of religious studies at Lafayette, will speak on “The Influence of Africa on Paul Robeson’s Life and Work” at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 9, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Javad Tavakoli, associate professor and head of chemical engineering at Lafayette.

Kofi Opoku has delivered dozens upon dozens of lectures on African culture and world religions across the globe in the last 40 years.

But the Ghana native has never been asked to speak publicly about Paul Robeson, a man who embraced spirituality and African culture.

So Opoku considered it a privilege and honor to be asked to speak on the influence of Africa on Robeson’s life and work at Lafayette’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

“Particularly because of what Paul Robeson means to me based on his known interest in African culture, I think it’s an honor to be part of this event,” Opoku says. “It’s an event I hope will not only provide information about Paul Robeson, but will also do honor to his name.”

Opoku, the co-chair of Lafayette’s Africana studies program, has extensive knowledge of the affect of Africa and its culture on other areas.

He holds degrees from the Yale University Divinity School and the University of Ghana, and for 20 years has taught courses on Africa’s religions, traditions, and cultures. Throughout the 1980s he was heavily involved with Ghana’s Institute of African Studies.

He has published several books focused on African culture, including West African Traditional Religion (1978), Healing for God’s World: Remedies From Three Continents, with Kim Yong-Bock and Antoinette C. Wire (1991); Hearing and Keeping: Akan Proverbs (1997); and Speak to the Winds: Proverbs from Africa (1975).

Opoku has also authored numerous articles and papers on African culture, spirituality, and religions and how they have impacted Western ideas.

Opoku says his own interest in and breadth of experience studying and teaching African culture has led him to view Robeson as a scholar of African culture.

“Africa is not just a geographical location, Africa is an idea, an inspiration,” Opoku says. “From my understanding of the life and work of Paul Robeson, he understood it that way – he got a lot of inspiration from Africa and from being an African, and this enabled him to take a stand and to do the type of things he did.”

Opoku explains that his presentation, centering on the African proverb “The offspring of an elephant will never be a dwarf,” will highlight how Robeson not only found inspiration in Africa, but how his spiritual connection to the continent gave him the grounding and confidence he needed to succeed in his pioneering accomplishments.

“Essentially, before anyone can make an impact on another, that person must be grounded on something,” Opoku says. “Robeson knew without any doubt that he had come form a great rock. He knew that Africa was a rock, a foundation on which he stood, and he kept referring to himself as an African.”

For an African American to refer to himself as an African at that time in history was a powerful statement, Opoku observes.

“People at that time, during Diaspora, looked at themselves as victims of history. They tended to look at themselves not as having an African history, but a Western history,” Opoku says. “When that happened, people were cutting themselves off form a large chunk of history, but that never happened with Robeson. He forcefully identified himself with the idea of Africa, and that emboldened him to take the position that he did.”

This involved learning several African languages and, in 1937, founding the Council for African Affairs, which he chaired.

Not only did his identification with Africa bolster Robeson in his endeavors, it gave him the confidence to achieve more than any of his contemporaries, Opoku says.

“He certainly he did not fit into the image that the authorities had, so they did anything to crush him,” Opoku explains. “He had this courage and the ability to stand and face the authorities in America, which were all arranged against him, powers that were determined to crush him. But they couldn’t crush him because the more they tried, the more his reputation flourished to the extent that here we are, so many years after his death, trying to draw attention to who he was.”

Opoku says he hopes his presentation sheds light on an aspect of Robeson’s life that is not widely discussed.

“The public will get a fresh opportunity to see this man in his full dimensions,” Opoku adds. “We have a proverb in my language: ‘When a frog dies, you see it’s length.’ When a frog is living, it is very compacted, but when it dies, it stretches. The meaning of the proverb is when a person dies, you can actually appreciate the full dimension of the work of that person.”

Just as Opoku hopes others learn from his lecture, he anticipates gaining insight himself into Robeson.

“Growing up [in Africa], I knew his songs and knew of him as an actor, but there wasn’t much depth to it,” Opoku says. “As I grew up and began to read more and understand more, I came to appreciate the enormity of his stature and the enormity of his contributions to America and the world. He was acclaimed worldwide not only for his singing ability, but for his stature – what he stood for, his commitment to many freedoms, which was an idea which all people would want.”

Opoku says he also wants to gather enough context about Robeson’s life from the conference to put together a children’s book in his native language.

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