By John Wessel-McCoy
On Friday, February 25, Union Ph.D. candidate and Poverty Scholar, Derrick McQueen will perform Paul Robeson through His Words and Music in Union’s James Chapel. In anticipation of this exciting one-night-only opportunity, we’d like to say a few words about Paul Robeson.
Sometimes leaders are born ahead of their time. They blaze trails for the movement ahead. Often history excludes them, their contribution overshadowed by movement leaders standing on their shoulders. Sometimes they push so far ahead, they end up the target of the powers that be and have to be deliberately eliminated from the public sphere. To borrow from the title of a Freedomway’s biography, Paul Robeson (b. April 9, 1898 – d. January 23, 1976) was just such a forerunner – a forerunner of the civil rights movement and forerunner of the movement to end poverty. The life of Paul Robeson is a testament to what we at the Poverty Initiative mean when we say leaders must be clear, competent, committed, and connected.
Robeson once said, “The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” Robeson is someone who cannot be simply pigeon-holed as a “black leader” of a “black movement”, although there is no question of his profound love for and commitment to people of African descent in their fight for liberation. His talent and genius, whether as artist, activist, or athlete, plowed through one racial barrier after another. In the final analysis, Robeson was a leader of humanity and a fighter against all unjust structures that resulted in the enslavement of people.
He was a brother to the English working class, Black people living in Jim Crow America, the labor movement world-wide – the poor and working class, no matter what color, no matter what land. Robeson was known for singing across borders. He was a figure on an international stage. He was radical in the true sense of that word – someone who grasps the root of the problem – and he had to pay for that radicalism, a notable victim of the McCarthy Black List.
He famously sang the “Ballad of Joe Hill”, a song remembering the martyred Swedish immigrant song-writer, poet, and worker organizer from a generation before. This song contains the line, “wherever people fight and organize, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.” The same could be said for Paul Robeson.
For more information on the upcoming performance of Paul Robeson through His Words and Music, check out Union Theological Seminary’s website feature.