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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.

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

Sharon Gavin-Levy lecturers extensively on the Harlem Renaissance and post-Renaissance writers. In becoming an English professor and specialist in African American literature, she studied Richard Wright during her own undergraduate and graduate career. But study of Paul Robeson was lacking.

“Clearly Richard Wright is a major figure in American literature, period. And especially in the African American literary tradition,” says Gavin-Levy. “Unfortunately, as I was educated, Paul Robeson had essentially been written out of the history of this country, a function of his life experiences,” she recalls.

Post-doctoral studies brought Robeson and his accomplishments into focus for Gavin-Levy, as have his similarities with Wright and the influence of each on American culture.

“In African American literature you clearly talk about Richard Wright and the Renaissance and post-Renaissance writers,” Gavin-Levy says. “I don’t believe you teach literature without talking about the cultural framework in which the literature was produced – what was going on in society, what was the experience of African Americans at any given time – because that really informs and influences what they write about and do.

“Both Robeson and Wright wrote about the African American experience and what kind of political ideology it would take to have full civil rights in this country. Both men believed in communist ideology as a way of African American, workers, and poor people having full opportunity in this country,” she says.

“Robeson was a brilliant man,” she says. “He was a real Renaissance man and well ahead of his time, in that he understood the connection that all people have with one another – the connection of all people, no matter where they’re from in the world, no matter what language they speak.

“His writing was clearly very intellectual, very profound, in-depth, and he was a critical thinker,” she continues, citing her favorite Robeson statement:

Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction, in certain countries, of the greatest of man’s literary heritage, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The struggle invades the formerly cloistered halls of our universities and other seats of learning. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.

“I see this as Paul Robeson’s challenge to himself and to all of us: that when we look at the world in which we live, when we look at the issues facing society, we have to understand that we are not on the sidelines, we are taking a position. That there are, in fact, no impartial observers. If you chose to do nothing, you’re still making a choice,” she says.

“This statement does an excellent job of conveying the kind of man he was, the kind of thinker he was, the kind of activist he was, and the kind of contributions he made to all of us, to the world.”

Particularly significant to Gavin-Levy is the fact that Robeson backed his words with action.

“Something I really appreciate about him is that in the ’40s he was one of the most celebrated people in the world – clearly the most celebrated African American – and also probably one of the wealthiest African Americans in the world, in terms of the amount of money he made and could have made,” she says.

“But the fact is that he took his gifts everywhere. He would perform anywhere, in a little church, for workers in a union hall. That was the kind of man he was. He didn’t just connect with the wealthy and the people who could afford his gift, so I appreciate that in him as a person.”

Gavin-Levy sees the Lafayette conference as a significant event in multiple respects.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for Lafayette, a wonderful opportunity for the entire Lehigh Valley to have an international conference such as this right here,” she says.

“It’s also important because of what it says about Paul Robeson. Unfortunately, because of his political ideology, all the other things he accomplished and contributed to the creative arts, to academia, to intellectual life, were taken away from him and eliminated in this country. Programs such as this serve to show people the significance of his contributions.”

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