Please join The Saturday Free School and friends on April 28 at the Mother Bethel AME Church for a deep study and discussion of the philosophical, political, and artistic achievements of three great thinkers: the intrepid Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, the inimitable Paul Robeson, and the eternal Dr. King.
I first read about Paul Robeson in an essay about Shakespeare’s Othello. What I appreciated was his keen sense that Shakespeare was writing in a different time and place, at a time when many of the kingdoms of Africa were far more developed than those of Europe. It is this historical sensibility and political urgency that Robeson brings to the role. However, I remained woefully ignorant until now about his full significance: his exhaustive knowledge of the world’s languages, his legal background, the adventure of his personal and political life, and most importantly, his decisive hand in re-defining the social role of the black artist in modern society and the civilizational function and trajectory of art in human relations. As he remarked, “I have never separated my work as an artist from my work as a human being.”
I’m learning to sing two songs he covered: one is “Go Down, Moses” and the other, “The Song of the Plains,” also known as the “Red Army Song.” The latter speaks of the green fields that splay open into the horizon skimmed by the eye of the Red Army soldier who is the protagonist of this popular Russian folk song. “Go Down Moses,” on the other hand, is an African-American spiritual whose lyrics are timely even now, in the age of Zionist aggression and a particularly vicious backlash of white supremacy. In the novel, Dark Princess, by W.E.B Du Bois, Robeson’s contemporary and fellow comradein the fight for peace, Matthew Townes bursts into the song in the midst of a conversation with a group of Asians and Africans at a dinner party at the Dark Princess’s home. In performing it for the Princess’s guests, Matthew pierces through their skepticism about the advancements of black civilization in America, reinforcing in his sonic response, that this was the music of a civilization determined to win the struggle for freedom, dignity, and equality.
The authority of Robeson’s “Let my people go” derives from his valiant role in the world communist movement, a lifelong political committment that led to the seizure of his passport by the American government. The circumstances surrounding his medical treatment in British hospitals also remain murky and he was likely poisoned by reactionary forces when he was in the Soviet Union. Robeson was a tireless advocate for peace and socialism, a friend of humanity, a magus of the arts, a relentless soldier of the truth, and most importantly, a revolutionary Prometheus who forever embodies an irreversible love for his people.