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Poet, playwright, and essayist Amiri Baraka spoke on “The Significance of Paul Robeson’s Theater Productions” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Rexford A. Ahene, professor of economics and business and co-chair of Africana studies at Lafayette.

Amiri Baraka showed that age has not tempered his revolutionary spirit or dulled his energy for the causes for which he has spent his adult life fighting. He discussed the development of Paul Robeson’s acting career and described the “system” against which Robeson fought to break out of stereotypical black roles.

Robeson was shaped by the explosive events of the time, Baraka said, citing World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Harlem Renassaince.

But Baraka also said Robeson understood the realities off the business. In discussing his early career, Robeson said “the content was of no importance, what mattered was the opportunity which came so seldom.”

But later Robeson realized he couldn’t “view it as an individual interest but had to represent people,” said Baraka, who said Robeson realized theater was a way to reach people after his successful performance in Voodoo in England.

An alliance with Eugene O’Neill brought Robeson fame and recognition that “made Robeson the Muhammad Ali of his day – the most recognizable black man in the world,” said Baraka.

“A great man comes from the context he is in,” said Bakara. In addition to political ideals and causes for which he is noted, Robeson was also a product of the “gifts of black culture, labor, song, story and spirit.”

His career enabled him to have unprecedented power—he was the first black actor to have say over “final cut” editing, Baraka said.

Though he wielded power by virtue of his ability to make money for the studios, he was frequently cast in demeaning roles. Despite this he “resisted Hollywood’s attempt to cast him as a ‘useful Negro,’” said Baraka.

Baraka referenced Jackie Robinson becoming the first blacks in Major League Baseball, because “Robinson fit the role of a black man that was acceptable [to whites].”

Robeson’s film roles were used by the movie moguls to profit and to subjugate blacks, Baraka said. It was theater [where Robeson could control the outcome] that contained the highlights of his career.

Baraka still sees Hollywood as a capitalistic vehicle for domination, pointing to the 2002 Academy Awards when Denzel Washingto and Halle Berry won.

“They brought out Whoopi Goldberg to make the presentations; it was all a recruiting campaign to get blacks to accept the war [in Iraq.],” Baraka stated.

“[Robeson’s] career was savaged by the same forces that profited from slavery,” Baraka said.

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