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Paul Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American studies at University of California, Los Angeles, spoke on “Paul Robeson: The Quintessential Public Intellectual” (see conference schedule). The moderator was conference director John T. McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette.

Paul Von Blum warned that public intellectuals are becoming rare.

“Too many intellectuals write for miniscule audiences,” Von Blum said. “Public intellectual expression has been replaced by a narrow and highly specialized academic culture which inhibits broader public discourse.”

But Paul Robeson stood at the pinnacle of public intellectualism, said Von Blum, a man who was “out there in the fray” and continued the tradition of black public intellectualism of Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Philip Randolph, Manning Marable, and Martin Luther King.

Von Blum presented a detailed look at the foundation of Robeson’s intellectualism and reviewed its breadth and depth: the influence of his father who instilled in him a commitment of lifelong learning (and a rejection of Booker T. Washington’s vision for blacks to limit themselves to manual training); the experience of being a collegiate scholar and athlete (who understood the proper balance between the two), a lawyer, and an extraordinarily talented theater and film actor and singer.

“Robeson would decry the intellectual specialization of today,” Von Blum says, citing his “super vision of the broad.”

“Underlying his talent was tremendous effort, a profound quest to excel through careful and systematic study, and a strong desire to achieve massive distinction in several fields.”

“He had a fearless capacity to take a stand in his vision of universal brotherhood,” Von Blum stated.

Enhancing his abilities as a public intellectual was his “powerful oratory that was developed in the bosom of the black church to reach his audience,” said Von Blum. “His political oratory was part-and-parcel of his intellectual identity.”

This talent made him a supremely effective civil rights and union activist, who worked for racial equity in the American labor movement to unite blacks and white workers, Von Blum said.

Von Blum gave an overview of Robeson’s many public acts of intellectualism: his constant identification of being an African American, leading a delegation to the commissioner of Major League Baseball lobby for breaking the color barrier, his labor activism, and his linkage of the struggle of African Americans to colonialism.

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