Harry Belafonte contributes to 'America Converges Here' initiative with lecture on Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson — artist, human-rights activist and Class of 1919 Rutgers alumnus — was celebrated and honored by close friend and mentee Harry Belafonte and granddaughter Susan Robeson as part of the Annual Paul Robeson Lecture Series on Wednesday night at the College Avenue Student Center.
I Am Robeson Week, hosted by the Paul Robeson Cultural Center (PRCC) and the Africana Studies Department and partnered with the “America Converges Here” initiative, is a week-long celebration featuring panel discussions, lectures and films celebrating the accomplishments of the Rutgers scholar and the lives of those he met and inspired, according to the PRCC website.
Dr. Edward Ramsamy, a distinguished professor and chair of the Africana Studies Department, said he and fellow faculty members created the lecture series in 2015 as a way to observe and commemorate Paul Robeson's contributions to Rutgers and American history.
“Two years ago we were thinking of different ways in which we could commemorate his legacy and out of the discussions came, why not hold a distinguished lecture where we invite individuals who either knew him, who worked with him and or whose work exemplifies the issues that Paul Robeson was interested and fought for,” Ramsamy said.
Ramsamy said that despite doubts of successfully bringing both Susan Robeson and Harry Belafonte together for the event — neither of whom had previously been featured on the same panel — the PRCC and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Felicia McGinty were instrumental in turning it into reality.
Ramsamy said that because Paul Robeson was a pioneer for so many social activist campaigns, events like this highlight the intersectionality of international struggles.
“Paul Robeson was a citizen of the world, what he did was to connect struggles in America with struggles from all over the world … How does the black struggle connect with other struggles around the world? That’s what we need to talk about, the interconnectedness of those struggles,” Ramsamy said.
Susan Robeson, director of “Don’t Believe the Hype,” activist and last surviving granddaughter of Paul Robeson retold stories from a time in her grandfather’s life when he was closely monitored by the United States government and censored from popular culture.
In the height of the McCarthy era, an executive order issued by the secretary of state prevented Paul Robeson from leaving the United States. The order also blacklisted Robeson from performing shows and selling records across the country, Susan Robeson said.
“If a promoter scheduled a concert the FBI would force that promoter to cancel. And this happened systematically concert by concert all across the country. No recording studio would rent to him for any amount of money. If a Robeson record was played on the radio, the DJ was fired,” Susan Robeson said.
Paul Robeson’s vocal criticism and denouncement of the United States government while abroad during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s lead to the United States government’s attempt to systematically remove her grandfather’s contributions, Susan Robeson said. All of it was an attempt to silence his voice.
“Books that mentioned his name were moved from public libraries and that’s when (the) Rutgers Athletics Department removed Robeson from the wall of photos of alumni who had been named to the All-American football team,” Susan Robeson said.
Despite their efforts, Paul Robeson continued to fight for various social movements. As the co-chair of the Council on African Affairs, partnered with W.E.B. Du Bois, he supported liberation movements in countries impacted by European colonization, Susan Robeson said.
He also embraced the labor movement and was the leader of the World Peace Movement to ban the atom bomb and prevent a nuclear arms race during the cold war.
Susan Robeson said her grandfather’s goal was to globalize the campaign for human rights, often repeating his mantra “I am looking for freedom, full freedom not some inferior brand.”
Harry Belafonte, the second keynote speaker of the night and long-time activist, dedicated his life to continue Robeson’s legacy and the pursuit of full freedom.
As a high school dropout turned Navy man, he returned from the World War II looking for recognition but was faced with no voting rights, unemployment and a sense of rebellion, Belafonte said.
“We were not invited to the table of celebration … This created in us a sense of second-class existence that we felt was unacceptable. I like many others was seeking to find what we would do in the age of this injustice. Fortunately for us, there was a man named Robeson,” he said.
Belafonte said Paul Robeson not only articulated what he and the other veterans felt but gave them opportunities to fix the injustices they faced. From there Belafonte became a disciple to Paul Robeson’s teachings and used his own artistry to fight for freedom.
“As all of us as young black Americans had made a wise choice going into the arts, as it was a place with special offers. Artists were, in fact, the gatekeepers of truth. We were civilization’s moral compass, we were civilization’s radical voice. When Robeson spoke and told us about the power of art and what it could do, that convinced me to spend my life to do this. Not only does art show life as it is but shows life as it should be,” Belafonte said.
Belafonte said that while the way this nation treated Paul Robeson was a travesty and injustice, Rutgers, an institution that nurtured his intellect, has done his name a great service by commemorating and honoring his teachings and legacy.
Paul Robeson’s fraternity, the Delta Iota chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha — the first black intercollegiate greek organization — upholds his legacy by co-sponsoring panel discussions and lectures like this, said Rahim Mahmoud, the vice-president of the fraternity.
“Every program that we do, we uphold his light, the guidance that he shows us and the guidance he left behind. Just last semester we did a program about the life and legacy of brother Paul Robeson where we had the keynote speaker, which was the Honorable Louis Farrakhan come and speak about brother Paul Robeson,” the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior said.
Mahmoud said that he appreciates Harry Belafonte coming to speak at this event, because of the loyalty and friendship Belafonte showed Paul Robeson during a time when no one else would.
Mahmoud said that because of Paul Robeson’s legacy, there is a certain amount of pressure for his organization to be the model for other fraternities.
“We definitely know that we are the example and people look at what we do. People judge us as the whole because we are the first,” he said. “We see ourselves as like a parent organization, not to be disrespectful to any other organizations, but we hold ourselves very high, and we set the pace for everyone else. It is a heavy burden and responsibility.”
At the end of the event, students and other audience members were able to ask questions to the panelists. The main theme of questions relayed focused on advice for young adults to get involved in social activism and how to make a change on a micro level.
Susan Robeson, while referencing her grandfather and other activists, said that it is young people that enact change in the world.
“In every culture, everywhere, young people change the world. We don’t have the answers, you can find the answers. It’s for us to support that and listen,” Susan Robeson said.
Saige Francis is a School of Arts and Sciences Sophomore. She is the copy editor of The Daily Targum.