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Author Randall Robinson, founder and former president of TransAfrica, delivered a keynote speech (see conference schedule). The moderator was Gerald Gill ’70, associate professor of history at Tufts, a founder of and later coordinator for Lafayette’s Association of Black Collegians.

Today’s political environment is “as good a time as any” to talk about Paul Robeson, Randall Robinson said. That’s because Americans today seem less informed about issues than at any other time during his life.

“Since the 1970s, the gap between the rich and others is greater in America than in any other industrialized nation. How far have we come as a society?” he said. “Few remember what American was like in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Racial and political oppression were a much less subtle business then. But this America is very much the child of that America. They’re different, but no so much so.”

Robeson “frightened American politically as no one could do today. But then the past is never over,” Robinson said.

When he was a child, Robinson said, his father, “a rock of a man,” told him all the time that he liked “that Paul Robeson.” But he said it in hushed tones and never in public for fear of losing his job as a public school teacher—”those were different times.”

America didn’t detest Robeson because he was an entertainer, an actor with a wonderful voice, but because he committed the sin of intellectual courage, said Robinson. “He was honest and decent and prepared to stand alone in defense of our indestructible truths.”

“In our society, the only definition of success is how much money you have. How brutally we treat those who stand against the flow. Truman took Robeson’s passport and destroyed his career. People ran from him as if he were radioactive,” Robinson continued. “If we care about Robeson, we talk about freedom, about the future of the world.”

Robinson took questions from the audience covering a range of issues, some that he has written about, including his call for reparations for the most “bottom-stuck” of descendents of slaves; his own emigration from to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and the life-altering influence of E.R. Braithwaite’s book A Kind of Homecoming on him.

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