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Kofi Asare Opoku, professor of religious studies at Lafayette, spoke on “The Influence of Africa on Paul Robeson’s Life and Work” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Javad Tavakoli, associate professor and head of chemical engineering at Lafayette.

If Paul Robeson, born Saturday, April 9, 1898, had entered the world in Ghana his name would have been Kwame Heanankannuro.

Kofi Opoku told his audience the name means “one who has the antidote for snake bite.”

“Saturday-borns have the ability to avert crises,” said Opoku, a native of Ghana. He used proverbs throughout his lecture to describe the influence of Africa on Robeson’s life and work.

“Before a blind person can throw a stone at you, he or she is standing on a stone,” Opoku told his audience, promising to explain the proverb later, after offering a history of Robeson’s life, starting with the strong values instilled in him by his father.

Opoku said Robeson came to understand his African heritage not in Africa but in England, at the London School of Oriental Languages, where he studied Swahili, Yoruba, and other African languages at a time when most Americans, including blacks, believed native Africans communicated through signs and grunts.

“Robeson’s consuming interest in Africa led him to make his first trip to the Soviet Union,” Opoku said, explaining that Robeson viewed the USSR as having taken “a giant leap from tribal society to a modern industrial society.”

“Robeson was convinced that Africa must be liberated from colonial subjugation,” Opoku said. “Nothing became more important to him than the liberation of Africa.”

Opoku said Robeson became a co-founder of the Council of African Affairs, formed to provide accurate information to Americans about Africa.

“Africans were not people to Americans,” Opoku said, explaining that the council helped link the American struggle for civil rights to the fledgling anti-apartheid movement. But its influence was to be short-lived.

“By 1948, it was branded by U.S. authorities as a subversive organization,” Opoku said.

Opoku said that while Robeson’s efforts “did not go unnoticed in Africa,” they also did not go unnoticed in the United States, and may have been at least partly responsible for the revocation of his passport.

“Robeson paid a price for his commitment to African liberation,” he said.

Opoku said that Robeson, who once said, ‘Among white men I am always lonely,’” found a spiritual home in Africa, pointing out that the continent is much more than a geographic location.

“Before a blind person can throw a stone, he must first be standing on a stone,” Opoku repeated. “Before a person can make an impact, that person must be grounded. For Paul Robeson, that grounding was Africa.”

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