Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Paul Robeson: An Extraordinary Man Part 1

Paul Robeson was a phenomenal man. His accomplishments seem to defy human possibility in any era, but particularly during a time when the USA was a rabidly racist country.  He was an outstanding scholar, athlete, actor, singer, freedom fighter and international people’s champion.

Robeson was a citizen of the world who not only fought for the rights of Blacks in America, but for the working-class throughout the globe including the Soviet Union and China.  He also forged close alliances with various trade unions, Welsh and Canadian miners and other groups.  The fact that he spoke more than 20 languages, including Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Yiddish, German and several African languages, made him more effective.  Robeson was also very well-versed in world culture.

He was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898. His father was an escaped slave who graduated from college and became a minister, and his mother was a Quaker school teacher who died when he was young.

Robeson was a bright student who entered Rutgers University in 1915.  He was an outstanding athlete, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and in 1919 the class valedictorian.

In 1921 Robeson married Eslanda Goode. That same year he played for the Akron Pros, an integrated NFL team coached by Fritz Pollard, the NFL’s first Black coach. He ended his career in 1922 and a few months later graduated from Columbia University Law School. Sadly, his law career was derailed by racism.

In 1924 he appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillin,” a controversial play that paired his character with a white wife who kisses his hand.  The KKK threatened to kill him because of this.  In 1925 Robeson performed in “Showboat” in London.  “Ole Man River” would become his signature song.

In 1930 Robeson performed Shakespeare’s Othello on the London stage and received 20 curtain calls on opening night. He was invited to perform at Buckingham Place.

In addition to being a Broadway star, Robeson was an international celebrity who enjoyed an illustrious film and stage career that spanned decades.  His performances also include: “Shuffle Along,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Song of Freedom,” Oscar Michaeaux’s “Body and Soul,” and “King Solomon’s Mines.”

In 1937 he founded the Council on African Affairs, an organization that supported anti-colonial movements.  During the Spanish Civil War that same year, he brought about a cease-fire for several hours when both sides stopped to listen to him sing from the front lines in Madrid.

Robeson led a Black delegation before the Baseball Commission in 1943 to petition for the removal of racial barriers in pro baseball. This led to the hiring of Jackie Robinson.

In 1946 he and Albert Einstein co-chaired the 100 Day Crusade to End Lynching, and in 1951 Robeson presented a petition to the UN charging the US with Black genocide.

“The Prince of Tides” and Hurt Feelings

I was gathering up some books to donate to Goodwill the other day and I came across “Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy.  It was made into a film back in the 1990s and I was so taken with the love affair between a white football coach (Tom) and his sister’s Jewish NY psychiatrist (Susan), that I bought the book.  I based my purchase on the movie’s assorted images of them laughing, exchanging smiles and connecting en route to falling in love.  There’s one scene where Susan’s sitting on Tom’s lap cradled in his arms next to a lit fireplace.  It’s a tender, romantic image.

I excitedly purchased the book about a week after seeing this film starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte.  I couldn’t wait to revisit their romance.  What I didn’t anticipate was I’d be subjected to a lot of racism before our reunion would take place.

The novel chronicles Tom’s youth in the South.  There’s a scene in the book where he and his two siblings, Savannah and Luke, are conversing about a Black boy (Benji) scheduled to integrate their high school.  Tom refers to Benji as a “n***er.”  His sister takes issue with this slur.  Tom says what’s wrong with calling Benji “n***er” and he and Savannah verbally spar. Tom tells Luke that their sister started the fight because all he did was call a Benji “n***er.”

When Benji shows up at school white boys continuously call him “n***er” and taunt him with racist threats.  He plays football for the school and when he’s on the field white crowds chant, “n***er, n***er, n***er.” Voices also threaten to kill the “n***er” and others chimed in with “n***er,” “n***er” fucking “ni***er.”

It was jarring to hear whites spew racist venom but it was particularly crushing to hear Tom refer to Blacks as “n***ers” because I looked forward to being reunited with him and Susan. Too many unendurable slurs stood between them and me.  I never did finish the book.  It was too bruising.  If I had subjected myself to all of the racism leading up to the love story, I would have been too injured to appreciate spending time with Tom and Susan.  Besides, I no longer liked Tom.

Variations of this experience have played-out throughout my life.  What must it feel like to be part of a group that is largely shielded from being the target of jolting racist venom?