Arts Listings

La Peña Celebrates Words and Life of Paul Robeson

By Deb Schneider, Special to the Planet
Tuesday February 26, 2008
Paul Robeson leads Moore Shipyard Workers in singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in Oakland in September 1942.
Paul Robeson leads Moore Shipyard Workers in singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in Oakland in September 1942.

Paul Robeson was something of a Renaissance man. A singer, actor, lawyer, writer, civil rights advocate, all-American athlete and political activist, Robeson was a powerful and eloquent spokesman for racial justice well before Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X, yet these successors have eclipsed him in the annals of history. 

Robeson put his fame on the line for the revolutionary causes he believed in—the elimination of international fascism and the eradication of racism at home in the United States. With immense talent and determination, he developed his skills and earned his fame and influence in the institutions of white America, fighting racism all along the way. He proved that a black man could meet any challenge, could pass any test, and then, at the peak of his powers, he set out to tear down once and for all the oppressive system he had conquered. With conservative America and the federal government discrediting his name and his work every step of the way, Robeson entertained, educated, and inspired people to think differently about cultural differences in the United States. 

Twenty-six of Robeson’s inspiring speeches have been collected on a CD, Paul Robeson: Words Like Freedom, the release of which will be celebrated at 6 p.m. Wednesday at La Peña Cultural Center. The CD was produced by the Freedom Archives, a San Francisco-based organization specializing in the preservation of audio and video recordings documenting social justice movements from the 1960s to the present.  

Born in 1898 to an escaped slave, who later became a minister, and a mother who came from one of the oldest African families in the United States, Robeson committed himself to agitating a white supremacist system from early in life. He was one of only two black students at his high school. At 17, he earned an academic scholarship to Rutgers after graduating from high school with honors at a time when lynchings were still common. While his brothers chose all-black colleges, Robeson was the only black student in his class, suffering beatings while trying out for the Rutgers football team, beatings he endured in order to prove his mettle before going on to lead the team as a two-time All-American. 

As Robeson continued to excel in academics (he attended law school first at NYU then later at Columbia) and theater performance (he was offered lead acting roles starting in the 1920s, while performing regularly at the Cotton Club), he also became intimately familiar with the effects of racism, social injustice and oppression. His own experience and family history inspired him to take political action.  

Throughout Words like Freedom, Robeson’s deep, almost throbbing voice commands attention. Its unwavering firmness reflects his grounded stance for justice for African peoples, here and abroad, and his belief that oppressed people should unite. In “Harlem,” a speech given in 1949, Robeson asserts that oppression must be named for what it is, in the name of American responsibility and history. “To fulfill our responsibilities as Americans, we must unite, especially we Negro people. We must know our strengths. We happen to be the decisive force. That’s why they terrorize us, that’s why they fear us! And we must have the courage to shout at the top of our voices, above the injustices and we must lay the blame where it belongs and where it has belonged for over 300 years of slavery and continuous misery—right here on our own doorstep.”  

As the CD progresses, we hear Robeson’s speeches increase in defiance and power under the restrictions imposed upon him by the U.S. government. His passport was revoked in 1950, and a few years later he would be forced to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But this harassment only increased his political activity. “Freedom for the People of Africa” reads almost as a resumé of his activities in support of the liberation of African peoples and leads to an address entitled “To My Friends in the Bay Area,” where he declares, with the kind of hope not always associated with radical activists, “we shall overcome.” 

The 12-minute testimony Robeson gave before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 is the most dynamic track in the collection. He solidly declares, “My name is Paul Robeson and anything I have to say, I have said in public all over the world, and that is why I am here today. The other reason why I am here is that when I am abroad, I speak out against injustices against the Negro in this land...I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people.”  

In a brilliant performance, Robeson, much to the audible frustration of the committee, employs his formidable rhetorical and locutionary skills to dramatically call attention to the absurdity of the allegations against him. When asked to speak to his relationship with anti-fascist movements and the Communist Party, he launches into a forceful diatribe about his deep roots in the United States, tracing his family’s lineage to the slaves of George Washington. At one point Robeson is questioned about his sympathy toward the Soviet Union, with the committee suggesting that he move there if that nation is truly free from racial prejudice, and Robeson responds by summoning that history: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, I’m going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people are going to drive me from it. Is that clear?” 

“You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause!” a committee member says. 

“I am here because I am opposing the neo-fascist cause,” Robeson responds, “which I see arising in these committees. Jefferson could be sitting here!” he says, pounding his spot at the table for emphasis. “And Frederick Douglass could be sitting here! Eugene Debs could be sitting here!” 

A committee member goes on to say that Robeson could not possibly claim to be a victim of racial prejudice, as he graduated from Rutgers, from the University of Pennsylvania, and was a football star.  

“Just a moment,” Robeson interrupts. “This is something I challenge very deeply: that the success of a few Negroes can make up for $700 a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers. I do not see success in terms of myself.” 

Robeson knowingly and willingly paid a price for his activism. His music and films were pulled from distribution, contributing greatly to his eclipse today. Words Like Freedom is an attempt to bring the power of Robeson’s life’s work back into the public consciousness in the hope that it can serve as an inspiration for modern-day resistance movements. 




CD release party, 7 p.m. Wednesday at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave. 


Deb Schneider is a volunteer and board member at Freedom Archives, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to help people reconnect with the foundations of social justice work by documenting radical activism and social movements that have been minimized and misconstrued by mainstream history. For more information, see