Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
April 8, 1998. All rights reserved.
Paul Robeson: Up Close
April’s special Paul Robeson centennial events offer
a once-in-a-century opportunity to learn first-hand about Princeton’s
native son from archival materials and from those that knew him. Yet
when this commemorative moment has passed, video will remain a ready
resource, for children and adults, when and where ever it is wanted.
"Speak of Me as I Am," a new television documentary that examines
Paul Robeson’s remarkable life and achievements, airs on NJN public
television on Robeson’s 100th birthday, Thursday, April 9, at 9 p.m.
It marks the first time in NJN’s 27-year history, that it has partnered
with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
"Robeson was a remarkable individual, whose passion for the stage
and screen was matched by his dedication to human rights and social
justice," says NJN executive director Elizabeth Christopherson.
"It was important for NJN to tell his story and to introduce a
new generation of young people to a forgotten American hero. Working
with the BBC and expanding our reach to an international audience
makes this innovative co-production even more meaningful."
"Speak of Me as I Am" traces Robeson’s journey from his early
years as a boy growing up in Princeton to his college years at Rutgers
University where he graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 1919.
The documentary includes archival footage of Robeson in performance
and his rise to international stardom, as well as his fall from grace
with the American public when his forthright political views and his
outspoken defense of communism was criminalized by the House Committee
on Un-American Activities.
"Understanding Robeson’s political beliefs are central to examining
who he was both as a man and an artist," explains BBC producer
Rachel Hermer. "Politics and social justice were always at the
forefront — from the songs he sang, to his refusing to perform
in segregated theaters, and choosing roles, although not always successfully,
in which blacks were portrayed with humanity and dignity."
The producers and camera crews spent time in Princeton and New Brunswick,
as well as in London, Moscow, Chicago, and Washington, to paint a
vivid picture of Robeson the artist and the man. Expert accounts are
given on camera by Lloyd L. Brown, author of "The Young Paul Robeson,"
and Martin Duberman, author of the biography "Paul Robeson."
Also featured are interviews with Robeson’s close friend Helen Rosen,
folk singer Pete Seeger, and writer Studs Terkel.
In Britain, the country where many of Robeson’s political views were
formed and matured, interviews with activists and fans reveal the
great warmth and regard in which he is still held. And in Russia,
interviews with Robeson’s interpreter, as well as the producer of
a 1958 Russian documentary, reveal the Robeson who the Soviet Union
came to know well and continues to adore. Among the unexpected gems
of the program is rare footage from Russia featuring Robeson improvising
political statements for the camera and his meeting with Kruschev
at the premier’s holiday home.
The NJN producer of "Speak of Me as I Am" is Jill Hargrave
of Lambertville who was reintroduced to Robeson only recently. Hargrave
accompanied a friend to a play that happened to be on Robeson’s life.
She says Robeson’s strong determination and sense of justice, which
caused him to be blacklisted and to have his passport revoked by the
U.S. government, inspired her to want to produce a television documentary
on his life.
Approaching NJN with her idea, Hargrave discovered the station was
already in the process of creating a program on Robeson, so she joined
that effort. She started her career in broadcasting as a member of
the WCBS "Eye On New York" team, and has produced shows that
include "The Lost Kingdom," a chronicle a New Jersey team
of archaeologists excavating in the Golan Heights.
"I had always known of Robeson as a singer and actor and had no
idea there were so many aspects to this exceptional man," says
— Nicole Plett
of Paul Robeson, NJN Television, Thursday, April 9, at 9 p.m.
Funding for the documentary was provided by Allen and Joan Bildner
and the Bildner Family Foundation and the Prudential Foundation.
Robeson , Robeson’s granddaughter, speaking at the Witherspoon
Presbyterian Church, 124 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-6748, Wednesday,
April 8, at 7:30 p.m. Music by the WSPC Chancel Choir. Free.
Princeton , 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-6748. Thursday, April
9, Free. 4 p.m.
colleague and biographer Lloyd L. Brown, at 7 p.m. on WGBO 88.3
Celebration of Paul Robeson’s 100th birthday continues.
Lloyd Brown, the author of "The Young Paul Robeson," called
to thank U.S. 1 for the story we printed last week and to add (with
a smile and a reference to April Fool’s Day, the date our story was
printed) that he is an astute 85 years old, not 75, as we stated.
Brown has just learned that the City of Toronto has named Thursday,
April 9, as Paul Robeson Day. The Canada connection: In the early
1950s, when he was denied a passport, Robeson gave annual concerts
at Peace Arch Park, on the border between Washington state and British
Columbia, sponsored by the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. On these
occasions Brown served as the page-turner for Robeson’s accompanist.
Nicole Plett contributed 3,400 words to the Robeson litany last week
and Ron Czajkowski, vice president of the New Jersey Hospital
called to add some information. Czajkowski has a particular interest
because both he and Robeson graduated from Somerville
High School. Czajkowski believes the Robeson family might have left
Princeton because of its segregated high school; Paul’s older brother
Bill had to travel 11 miles to Trenton High and in 1899 was the first
member of his community to finish high school, graduating with high
In contrast to Princeton, says Czajkowski, Somerville’s high school
was integrated even then. He asked if we knew the story of how, during
Paul’s junior year, the Somerville school choir was invited to perform
in Washington, D.C. When the hotel would not allow Paul to stay there
with the group, the choir decided to turn around and come home.
In spite of all today’s words about Paul Robeson, they are not
to counteract the deliberate eradication of his life story and the
sheer volume of the tale. Beginning with Robeson’s post-World War
II campaign against race violence and in favor of workers’ rights,
he was attacked, black-listed, and silenced. This was a man who
his very presence in the United States to the House Committee in 1956
with the words, "Because my father was a slave, and my people
died to build this country, I am going to stay here and have a part
of it just like you."
The new 330-page anthology, "Paul Robeson: Artist and
published by Rutgers University Press, that accompanies the Robeson
centennial exhibition at Rutgers’ Zimmerli Museum, promises new
One chapter is devoted to his athletic accomplishments, including
his four-sport college career. Few All-Americans have managed to shed
their athletic reputations and move on to so many accomplishments
outside the sports world. One who comes close to matching Robeson’s
transformation also has a Princeton connection: Bill Bradley.
Robeson’s granddaughter, Susan Robeson, shares her recollections at
Witherspoon Presbyterian Church on Wednesday, April 8, at 7:30 p.m.,
and the Arts Council of Princeton hosts Robeson’s centennial community
birthday party on the actual day, Thursday, April 9, at 4 p.m. Words,
songs, images, and more words — the celebration continues.
Corrections or additions?
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