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Paul Robeson Jr., journalist, translator, lecturer, personal aide to Paul Robeson for more than 20 years, and owner and archivist of The Robeson Collection, delivered a keynote speech entitled “Bearer of a Culture” (see conference schedule). The moderator was June Schlueter, Lafayette provost.

Paul Robeson, Jr. gave an historical overview and shared perspectives and personal insighst into the many facets of his father, Paul Robeson, whom he called a “bard of liberty and herald of freedom who foreshadowed the civil rights movement.”

His father had six guiding principals, Robeson Jr. said:

  • Strive for excellence; aim for perfection without trying to “beat” others.
  • Success without trying to advance the interests of the people as a whole, without helping those who have fallen behind, is worthless.
  • The human race is one family with diverse but equal members having different cultures, and a deeper understanding of one’s own culture will inevitably lead to a better understanding of other cultures.
  • Personal growth is the mother of greatness, but its price is pain and perseverance.
  • Temper strength and power with gentleness and compassion; balance courage with wisdom.
  • Don’t go along to get along. Be willing to sacrifice to do what you know is right.

He discussed at length his father’s demise, tracing the beginnings of it to Robeson’s changing the lyrics of Ol’ Man River from a “submissive lament into a song of defiance” that became a rallying song for Spaniards fighting Fascists, blacks in South Africa, and Chinese and Russians. He discussed Robeson’s writings and speeches, citing “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery” (1937), and “I am looking for freedom—full freedom. I’m not talking just about civil rights but about liberation, the complete liberation of the Negro people in our time” (1949).

Robeson Jr. said his father’s foundation was his awareness of and development of his own identity.

He discussed Robeson’s study of culture, where he found links between African and Chinese languages. Robeson noted the difference in Western and Chinese cultures with regard to societal goals: materialism versus growth of the “inner life,” and in the pursuit of knowledge and emotions.

Robeson Jr. made many references to Robeson as a highly spiritual man.His father wrote, he said, that it was in signing spirituals that he “felt and knew that God exists, and that God is love.”

“Religious beliefs nourished him throughout his life and were a source of strength in the trying times, something that always kept him emotionally whole,” Robeson, Jr. said.

“The talents of an artist, small or great, are God-given. They’ve got nothing to do with him as relative person. They’re just a scared trust. Having been given, I must give.”

Robeson Jr. said it was not political naivete that drew Robeson to the Soviet Union, but that fact that “they were consistently the most reliable allies of people of color all over the world in the struggle against white racism and colonialism.”

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